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Don Burns “Research”

I have always been a numbers person. I can remember phone numbers and addresses from my childhood. I remember all the dates of important events in my family’s history. And, numbers were the way that I got into a major market back in 1984. The Program Director at a Country station in Dallas/Ft. Worth was looking for someone for their music research department, and maybe do an overnight shift on their Classic Country station on the weekend. I made about 50 calls a week to play 5-8 seconds of a song down the phoneline and get someone’s opinion on that song. My favorite night was Wednesday night, when we stayed up late to tabulate all the numbers, before we turned it in to the Music Director.  Fun times!

So, I knew I wanted to write this article about research. It’s the one thing that I think has been missing the most in Christian radio over the years. I sought the opinions of people I believe know an awful lot about research in Christian radio. Paul Goldsmith of Vidare Creative (full disclosure, one of my bosses), Ken Farley who used to own and run Hit Music Research, and Chuck Finney of Finney Media. Compiling all conversations, we came up with three questions. Why is research so important to Christian radio? What questions should I ask before I hire a research company? On a tight budget, how can I afford to do research? Here are the experts answers:

Why is research so important?

Paul Goldsmith – What’s stopping you from growing your listenership and donors 20% every year? If you don’t know the answer, try research. Bill Gates knows a thing or two about growth, and he said, “I believe in innovation and that the way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.”

Ken Farley – I highly recommend Christian radio utilizing research tools they may have at their disposal because without it you’re flying blind to a certain degree. Of course, there’s something that can be said for years of experience and making “gut calls” on songs you believe are hits, but you’re still rolling the dice on knowing which songs truly make the strongest connection with your audience and how they really feel about them. The result of that is more ministry opportunities to make an impact in their lives, reach more people, and build up a loyal audience that’s willing and interested in supporting your mission and vision financially and in other ways. 

Chuck Finney – If you want to grow listenership, get focused on your listener. The positive impact on your listenership is big if you will ask . . . and act . . . on what they say. If you want to impact more people with the message of Jesus, you need to understand your listener to communicate clearly!

What question(s) should I ask when considering hiring a research company?

Ken Farley – Does their software work seamlessly with all types of devices and platforms? What type of methodology do they use to rate songs? How often do you get to send out surveys? Besides rating the songs, what type of perceptual questions can you ask in regards to the individual songs themselves and other things outside of that? What types of reports can you generate and what parameters and flexibility do you have with the filter settings? Do they allow you the option of setting up and sending out the surveys yourself or handle all of that in-house? Some programmers prefer being more hands on while others enjoy not having to be involved in that process.

Chuck Finney – Within my budget, what research can I do to grow my audience?

Paul Goldsmith – How long does your process take and what does “done” look like? Will you provide analysis and actionable insights? What does that look like?

How do I afford research on a tight budget?

Chuck Finney – There are almost certainly steps you can take to better understand your listener . . . and grow your audience . . . on a smaller budget. It’s also possible to set aside a category for research over a couple of years—or raise money from a donor with research as a special project.

Paul Goldsmith – Your competition spends a lot of money on research. They will gladly buy your station and do it for you.

Ken Farley – One reason why you might have a tight budget is because you don’t do any research. From my perspective, you can’t afford not to do research. If you’re not directly responsible for setting and approving budgets, put together your list of reasons why and how you believe the station would benefit from doing research. Then ask for a three to six month test run to show them how effective it is. If resources aren’t approved for music testing, try to think of creative, out-of-the-box ways that you can generate the funds necessary to add research to your toolbox. It’s a great way to connect with your audience and get a pretty reliable picture of how well your station is serving them and what changes you can make to widen the net of impact, listenership and support you have in your community!

I also had the opportunity to ask Chuck if he had any other recommendations when it came to research. 

“Before I got into asking the listener, I thought I knew. Boy, was I wrong! Listeners surprised me . . . and continue to surprise me. The only way to really know isn’t to guess. You must ask . . . and listen . . . and act.

One more thing . . . for music stations. Other than keeping the transmitter on the air, nothing grows audience quite like doing . . . and following . . . music research. In many of the questions, I’ve referenced acting on findings. Too many studies end up in a drawer…those that keep the research top of mind are the wise ones.”

My final thought, I LOVE the start of that final paragraph – “other than keeping the transmitter on the air, nothing grows the audience quite like doing…and following…music research.” They’re not just numbers, it’s not just math, it’s finding out what your audience wants to hear, and giving it to them. One of the sayings I heard a lot while I was growing up was, “you find the money and time for the things that are important to you”. Our listeners, and their opinions, are important!


Don Burns is a radio veteran of over 40 years, with most of those years spent in Christian radio. He started in Christian radio at KLTY in Dallas and was the Music Director and an on-air personality there for 5 years. He also helped start the Morningstar Radio Network (now The Salem Music Network) and 94FM The Fish in Nashville. He’s worked at some pretty successful non-profit stations like JoyFM in St. Louis, Shine.FM in Chicago, WPER in Fredericksburg/Richmond, and KCBI in Dallas/Ft. Worth. He’s one of those “Helper” personalities who loves to be a part of other’s success stories. Away from fundraising, he is all about family (Gramps to 5 grandsons) and loves to travel – especially if it’s by a cruise boat!  Contact Don at donaldaburns@gmail.com

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