James Cridland

Naming your own radio station: what’s yours?

“If you could own a radio station, what would you call it?”, posted a man called Nick in a radio discussion board on Facebook the other day.

Now, this Facebook group is mostly comprised of people complaining about how words are being pronounced in radio news bulletins, or photographs of car registration plates that vaguely look like call letters, so this was a welcome change of pace. I grabbed some popcorn and started reading.

Quite a few imaginary station names ended with “FM”. Some used a frequency, too. I’d suggest that neither of these are a particularly good idea.

Jacobs Media have recently done a study of public radio listeners in the US, and one of the findings lept out at me as being a good indicator of the changing world of radio consumption.

They asked respondents how they listened to their “home” public radio station. 69% of the time, listeners used a radio. 29% of the time, they were using some form of digital device (a “computer stream” being twice as popular, incidentally, as a mobile app).

Now, these are public radio listeners. The average age of the respondents was over 59. These are long-term, traditional, radio listeners — albeit ones who are internet savvy enough to complete a questionnaire on their favourite radio station’s website. But even these people are spending nearly a third of their time listening to the radio on something other than an AM/FM receiver.

So, I’d warn against using a frequency, or “FM”, in your station name if you can avoid it; since more and more listeners aren’t using either of those things to listen.

Back in the Facebook group, other people were coming up with interesting names. “The Pit”. “The Local”. “Vault”. “Planet Mate”.

In a book The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman, he discusses things he calls “affordances” — little clues to help us understand how something works. A really good example of an “affordance” is that metal strip on a office door: it’s put on the side of the door that you push, and it’s there precisely to let you know that you can push this door, and which side to push it.

“FM” or “105.9” is a little clue — an affordance — that this is a radio station. There’s a radio station in the UK called Jazz FM that hasn’t broadcast on FM since 2005; but people know, at least, that it’s a radio station (even if they’re confused as to why they can’t find it on their FM dial).

So, while I love the idea of calling a rock station “The Pit”: at least off-air, in its logo, it needs an affordance, too. I’d make the logo read “The Pit Radio”. Without it, after all, “The Pit” could be anything. The early days of digital radio in the UK were full of radio stations with random names — “The Groove” was one — that needed always clarifying with “we’re a radio station” afterwards, and that made no sense at all.

The world of smart speakers makes station names doubly important: since frequencies or wavebands are pointless on these devices.

It’s certainly the case that branding radio stations is more complicated now than it’s ever been. The word “Radio” might be the most important brand we have.