AFN surveying music tastes for planned overhaul
January 7, 2009
STUTTGART, Germany — It wasn’t long ago when tuning to American Forces Network radio in one part of Europe would offer up an entirely different listening experience than in another.
Until 2005, local disc jockeys controlled programming at AFN’s stations scattered around the continent. That could mean hours of head-banging metal, golden oldies or hip-hop, depending on the whims of the hosts.
"At one time we had every station in Europe doing its own music. That sounds interesting, but the level of expertise and knowledge of DJs varied widely," said George Smith, AFN-Europe’s operations manager. "What happened was people ended up played the things they were interested in, but it might not appeal to a wider audience. That’s why we standardized it."
Earlier this week, AFN launched a listener and viewer survey, which is aimed at giving programmers a better understanding of customer tastes and preferences. And that could very well mean a more diverse selection of music, with local stations gearing styles to the demographics of their audience.
"Now we’re looking at loosening the reins a bit. We’re going to give the audience the same researched, thought-out family friendly music at each location, but give (programmers) a bigger group of music to choose from," Smith said.
Currently, music on AFN centers on three variations pegged to the tastes of age groups broken down as old, medium and young. Smith said the team is looking at adding as many as 15 music variations, though the decision to expand the formatting largely depends on the type of feedback received in the survey.
It makes sense, Smith said, that an audience in Vilseck, home to younger infantrymen, will have different preferences than, say, military personnel stationed at NATO headquarters in Belgium. "We’ve heard from some people that the music tends to be at times too slow or not young enough," he said. "We want to see if our music could be geared more towards younger listeners."
For listeners like Aaron Grimes, a civilian worker in Stuttgart, skewing younger is what he’s looking for.
"I’m 30, but I still like to keep up on the newest music. I think they play way too much from the 80s and 90s," Grimes said.
When it comes to radio, everyone has their own tastes, making it a challenge to please everyone.
For Tom Robbins, another Stuttgart civilian, the last thing he wants to hear more of is younger music.
"I personally like sports, but I could do without that sports morning show on Saturday. It’s pathetic," said Robbins, who would favor instead a return of college football to the airwaves. "I also enjoy NPR to a certain degree. The interviews are very good."
It’s been several years since AFN conducted its last survey, which can be found at www.afneurope.net.
Station crews also will be making visits at various posts in the coming weeks to promote the survey, which will run through mid-February. AFN is hoping to get 1,200 responses.
Music isn’t the only thing being asked about. Programmers want to know what viewers think of locally generated news content on AFN television.
Do viewers prefer long form news broadcasts or should the staff focus more on short two minute updates presented throughout the course of the day?
In all, there are nine AFN radio stations in Europe — five north of the Alps and four south — with a total staff of roughly 200. Its annual operating budget of about $8 million has held steady for the past several years, with some slight increases mainly for inflation, according to AFN’s budget office.
Surveys aren’t the only tool used to tweak programming — listener e-mails, feedback from individual stations and industry trend reports also are taken into account, Smith said.
But, "We really need to just go and check with our audience to see what they think," Smith said.