Everyone makes bad decisions at some point in their life. In this week’s Programming to Win column, Richard Harker gives some advice on ways to minimize any programming decisions that may come back to haunt you down the road.

programing to win

By Richard Harker

Richard Harker

Richard Harker

We all want to make good programming and marketing decisions. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy.

There are a number of traps and biases that cause us to make bad decisions. The problem is that few of us are conscious of these traps as we make our decisions.

The only way to avoid making bad decisions is to first understand the most common traps and biases, and then watch out for them.

Here are the most common biases that can lead to bad programming decisions.

Status-Quo Bias

Most of us are leery of change. We are much more comfortable continuing to do the same thing.

Because we are more comfortable with the status quo we tend to ignore signs that things are changing.

Listener tastes are not carved in stone. They are more like icebergs floating through the ocean, constantly changing shape.

The continual evolution of listener expectations calls for continual innovation and an evolution of formats. Unfortunately programmers (particularly successful programmers) are more comfortable maintaining the status quo.

This means that a station that was once on-target and super-serving its audience one day can suddenly find itself well off the mark of giving listeners what they want.

Accept that change is inevitable. Look for opportunities to make changes–even if things are going great.

Confirmation Bias

We tend to look for information that confirms what we believe.

Think a song is a hit? You might overlook other songs that are doing better and focus on a small uptick in Call-Out for your pick.

You’ll take note of stations adding the song while ignoring the larger number of stations sitting on the sidelines.

Don’t trust your gut. Always challenge your hunches by looking for counter-evidence.

Bandwagon Effect

Radio is particularly vulnerable to this trap: “If it’s working there (in another market) it will work here.”

We’ve all seen it: A new format takes off in one market and suddenly dozens of stations are trying it. Time after time stations find that just because a format succeeds someplace else doesn’t mean that it will work here.

Every market is unique. It’s not that listeners are all that different in any market. It’s that the make-up of stations in every market is different.

As a result, the potential for any format (or tilt to a format) is a function of what every other station in the market is doing. For example, markets with strong Classic Rock stations tend to have weaker Classic Hit stations (and vice versa.)

Don’t fall victim to the bandwagon effect. Do research to see how listeners in your market feel about the idea. You may find that what’s working someplace else won’t work for you.

In-group Bias

We tend to think of people within our own group as smarter than people on the outside.

As a result we feel more comfortable doing what others in the group are doing. (Admittedly this also provides a higher degree of job security.)

In-group bias leads radio groups to implement the same strategy across the group.

The danger of this group-think is evident in the ratings.

Sure, every group has its winners, but other stations within the group doing the same thing often struggle.

It isn’t that the PDs in some markets are smarter than other PDs in the group. It’s back to the problem that we can’t assume that listeners in one market will respond to a format as well as listeners in another market.

In-group bias dooms radio groups to under-perform their more independent competitors who have the flexibility to adapt to market dynamics.

Gambler’s Fallacy

Gamblers tend to believe that they can predict events that are totally random. It leads them to confidently make bets that turn out to be bad money-losing bets.

Most month-to-month changes in station ratings are just random wobbles. Stations go up and go down for no reason other than the fact that ratings are only estimates subject to randomness.

Despite the fact that monthly changes in the numbers are mostly random and therefore meaningless, PDs will attribute changes in the ratings to specific things that the station or its competitors did.

Too often a PD will make significant changes to what his or her station is doing based on these random swings only to learn months later that the changes were misguided and detrimental.

Don’t bet that a good or bad month is any more meaningful than winning by calling “heads” in a coin toss that comes up heads. In a coin toss you can get five, six, even seven straight heads, and it doesn’t mean a thing.

Ratings are the same. You can have five, six, even seven months in a row trend in the same direction and yet see things reverse the next month.

If you think there’s something real behind a ratings trend don’t react unless you have independent research that supports your hunch.

Hindsight Bias

Have you noticed how many pundits are suddenly claiming that they knew months ago that Jeb Bush would be out and that Donald Trump would be the likely GOP Presidential candidate?

Some of them really believe they predicted it.

It’s called hindsight bias. We humans have a tendency to look at the past and feel that we knew at the time how things would turn out.

Many unpredictable events seem obvious after the fact.

Radio people use the “obviousness” of the past to take action in the belief that they can predict the future.

We’d all like to think we can spot the next trend better (and faster) than anybody else, but research has shown that no one can reliably predict the future. Don’t rush off and try something based on a hunch. Test your hunch no matter how confident you feel about it.

Bias Blind Spot

Here’s the most important trap that you don’t want to fall into: That these traps don’t apply to you.

As you’ve read this list of traps and biases you might have been telling yourself that they all apply to other people.

“They don’t apply to me.”

Don’t fool yourself. You are just as vulnerable to these traps as the people around you.

Thinking you needn’t worry about traps and biases only means that you are more likely to commit them and make bad decisions.

It is extremely difficult to avoid falling into at least some of these traps every time you make a decision.

Accept the likelihood that your decisions will be tainted by one or more of these biases. Then challenge yourself and others involved in the decision to go through a checklist of these traps and see if any of them apply.

Look at alternatives to your decision. Is there another option? What happens if you don’t act?

We all make mistakes. We all make imperfect decisions.

Recognize that mistakes are often because of these traps. To make better decisions ask yourself whether you’re falling into one or more of these traps.

Your success depends on it.

Richard Harker is President of Harker Research, a company providing a wide range of research services to radio stations in North America and Europe. Twenty-years of research experience combined with Richard’s 15 years as a programmer and general manager helps Harker Research provide practical actionable solutions to ratings problems. Visit www.harkerresearch.com or contact Richard at (919) 954-8300.