Hi there. If you and I haven’t met, I’m Mike. I program what you might call an experimental radio station in St. Louis, MO. Closest label we fall under is “Christian CHR,” but we don’t have a lot in common with most monitored stations who share that label. We’re either a relic, or perhaps a glimpse of the format’s future. In hopes it’s the latter, I thought I’d offer you an inside look at what God’s doing with BOOST 101.9.
Things we’ve been celebrating: 1. BOOST is #1 in St. Louis among Women 18-34 for Time Spent Listening. (The lowest we’ve been since last summer is 3rd place.) 2. Our jaws are dropping at how fast our new listeners are grabbing our app. Downloads have tripled since summer (averaging more than 3,000 new users/month). 3. Thanks to generous donors from JOY-FM (our parent station) and those who were part of BOOST’s very first pledge drive last spring, we’re fully funded. BOOST was blessed to hit our goal an hour early, and we’re excited to see what God has in mind for 2016. 4. Numbers aside, I’m most excited about the people God brought together here. It’s a small, diverse, tremendously gifted group. The vibe in the building generated by Sandi Brown keeps everyone on God’s page.
Honestly, I’m reluctant to share this with you. We’re in an ego-driven industry, and sometimes good news is shared for ego-stroking. If you sense it here, I apologize. I’m proud of our team and grateful for my role. I’m here to wave the flag and energize people about this format. Even with small teams and small signals, stations like BOOST can work. God is moving. Here are our “secret” ingredients.
- It starts with the type of listener we were created for. Before BOOST was even named, we got very specific about who we would be perfect for. BOOST filters our music, promotions, events, and content through a set of shared Millennial values. It’s a mindset which obviously gravitates towards young adults and teens, but anyone is welcome to the party. Part of this approach means we sound and appear like peers of a 22-year-old, not a 40-year-old. This connects to EVERYTHING: our production/imaging voices/music/fx, the events we’re aligned with, the topics our jocks choose, the slang they use/avoid, etc. (The irony of me being 38 as I type this isn’t lost on me.) (Side note: this format attracts the young minds our industry is starving for!)
- Values come before anything else. Our values/mindset and purpose are most evident in our music. We’re here for that person who isn’t at all attracted to CCM/Christian AC. This is a multi-cultural/pop-culture consuming person who chooses mainstream Top 40 and Hip Hop outlets for entertainment, and even inspiration. Unlike most of the Christian CHR format, BOOST 101.9 is not here to pave the way for the next generation of Christian AC listeners. We’re here for those Christians and future Christians who don’t gel with CCM as they perceive it. There’s a CCM/AC line our brand doesn’t cross. Nearly 70% of our cume comes to BOOST from our market’s mainstream CHR and Hip Hop stations. And our market’s leading Christian AC station (JOY-FM) has set their own ratings records since BOOST signed on. To put it another way, the BOOST style of Christian CHR doesn’t cross over very much with CCM/AC, and it could be argued our format expands the reach of Christian music. We’re not looking to be a CCM fan’s second-choice station when their first choice is in commercials or a pledge drive; we’re paving a whole other road.
- Yet we don’t aim to clone mainstream Top 40/Hip Hop/etc. There’s a big difference between being accessible for those who live those lifestyles and love the music, and outright imitating it. We don’t look at a secular playlist, see Adele, Drake, etc. and then scour the world for the Christian version of “Hello” and “Hotline Bling.”Accessible is the goal; copying is the enemy.
- Research: We use lots of it, but we don’t let it dictate our mission or water it down. Research used wrong has diluted Christian CHR almost to the point of extinction. This is a whole other conversation we don’t have time for here. Long story short: if, from your station board and GM on down, you’re on the same page about what your station is called to do, and you constantly keep getting research back that goes against your calling, something is very wrong. Either with the research, the understanding of the calling and/or audience, or the product itself. (Stations like this need decision makers who know this audience on a gut level and can implement things before research says to. By the time research verifies certain things, this young audience is moving onto the next set of things research needs to verify. “Skate to where the puck is going,” as Wayne Gretzky said. Research often only tells us where the puck has been.)
- Constantly Fresh: Pay attention to the stations in your market who kill it with young listeners. Maybe even write down every song you hear in a quarter hour. Come back six months later. You won’t hear anything like that quarter hour again. The younger the listener, the stronger the urge is for them to fall in love with the new hot thing quickly. And then they quickly tire of it. “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift was the jam of many 18-year-olds a year ago; today it’s already Mom’s song on Mom’s stations. It’s a Recurrent at best on CHR and it’ll be totally gone from a majority of them a year from now. Important note: this is totally contrary to how Christian AC rotates music. This goes back toknowing and owning your station’s purpose. We scratch different itch on a different kind of person.
- Consistently Familiar: The quarter hours may change, but our need for familiarity never will. One thing consistent with (at a guess) 99% of winning radio stations: listeners come for what they know and love. They nope-out quickly when they hear stuff they don’t know or don’t love. BOOST 101.9 keeps our rotations high-ish and our library tight. If you’re worried about what that will do to your TSL and passionate P1, at the risk of seeming cocky, go back up and notice how the BOOST TSL has been doing. This approach rarely fails when you’re making the right music and content choices. (And we have plenty of songs older than “Bad Blood” in rotation.) Our format has the added challenge few others do: our artists and songs are not ubiquitous. CCM/AC and most mainstream formats have music their audiences are exposed to as they live life: the songs are sung in churches, turned into muzak at Chick Fil A, in the background at the gym, in stores, used in commercials, TV shows, movies, etc. It’s imperative for us to work hard on getting our music to that “known and loved” point quickly. The right tight rotations are part of the answer. (Ask me about our artist separation rules some day!)
- Our welcome mat is out. This goes along with the ubiquitous thing. So much of our music isn’t known outside of our BOOST bubble. So we go the extra mile to incorporate elements our audience might recognize from the world they existed in before giving ours a try. Show topics that are relevant and compelling. Clear imaging explaining what we’re about, and showing the listener how they fit into it. Production with ingredients from mainstream culture (music, fx, etc.). Careful use of crossover artists. Things St. Louis uniquely cares about. Anything we can think of to build a bridge between our audience and BOOST.
- The DJ’s. Of all our hidden weapons and secret ingredients, our personalities are THE key. More than our digital/social media efforts, our great (hopefully) imaging, promotions, and music, it’s our talent that endears BOOST to our audience. Our prime time shows connect with the boss (me) frequently on content and execution. Liners over intro’s are not our BFF. (Though keeping the music moving and using intro’s is.) We keep FILO at arm’s length (but not branding). Our two key dayparts (afternoons and nights) are built around DJ’s who had no prior full time on-air experience before joining BOOST. (Hi Neal and JBo!) Our on-air break mantra is simple: Get their attention, be interesting, get out.
- We market to the dry tinder. As much one-on-one face time as we can get at churches, schools, youth groups, etc. And as many places as we can possibly get our logo plastered on to. We take this seriously and devote serious effort to it.
- I can’t stress this final ingredient enough, even though it’s the most intangible. Two words: Legitimacy. As in “that’s legit.” Any kid with a run-of-the-mill smartphone can produce audio and video masterpieces while they’re riding shotgun. If our products (mine, yours) are anything less than top notch, we’re doing listeners a disservice and they’ll gravitate towards other options. Millennials can smell “legit” and the opposite from 10 miles away. Limited resources/staff sizes are no excuse, not when one kid on a phone can do so much. And not when your provider created the Milky Way.
I wish there was time to tell you more. I could make an equally long list of things we want to be better at. For now, these are some of the foundational pieces at BOOST 101.9. It’s become common for radio stations to keep their cards close to their chest. Research is proprietary. Talent is scarce. We fear that if we shed light on what works for us, we’ll devalue ourselves or pave the way for our competitors. (I fear I’m full of bunk and you’ll see right through it!)
But just maybe, when we open up about what’s working well and even where we struggle, we end up making our whole industry stronger. We’re no longer competing against other stations on the dial or industry peers/frenemies in other markets. The true competitors are the dozens of digital and lifestyle distractions our listeners face, and ultimately, the devil himself. It’s my hope and prayer that if you’re inspired by what God is doing at stations like BOOST, you’ll be moved to see more stations like it make big impacts.
I, Mike Couchman, solemnly swear that I am the Operations Manager/PD/and a bunch of other things at BOOST 101.9 in St. Louis. I do nights on our sister station, KLJY, plus freelance work with the SOS Radio Network based in Las Vegas, Solution FM/Bangor, Maine, and Smile-FM in Michigan. Prior to all this, I’m grateful to have been part of many mainstream Top 40, Country, and Christian stations in Denver, Detroit, and most of Michigan. Reach Mike