Stunting (broadcasting)

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In radio broadcasting, stunting occurs when a station abruptly airs content that is seemingly uncharacteristic compared to what they normally play. The tactic is commonly used when a station is about to undergo a major change (such as a change in format, branding, frequency, ownership or management, or even the acquisition of a high-profile program or personality), or simply as a prank on listeners and rival broadcasters (e.g. a temporary April Fools' Day stunt that does not involve an on-air change); either way, stunting is intended as a way to generate a greater amount of media publicity and audience attention to the station, by virtue of its shock value, than a straightforward format change could provide. Depending on the station's situation and its management's preference, stunt formats can last anywhere from a few minutes to several weeks before the permanent change is launched.

Types of radio stunting and noted examples[edit]

Continuous loop[edit]

A station may stunt by repeating the same song or songs over and over on a continuous loop.

  • In October 2014, RADIO ONE pulled the plug on the all-News format at KROI (NEWS92)/HOUSTON after three years, launching a stunt with an all-BEYONCÉ format as "B92". [2]

Sound effects[edit]

In a prelude to a format flip, a series of audio clips and sound effects centered around a certain theme may be played. Known as a sound collage, the theme under which these bits of audio fall may or may not have something to do with the previous and/or new format.

  • A common stunting collage consists of construction site noises (sawing, hammering, etc.), signaling the building of a new station; two examples are this are WZNN/Green Bay, WI (which transitioned to alternative rock in March 2007)[3] and KROI/Houston (which transitioned from gospel music to all-news radio in November 2011).[4]
  • The collage may include sounds of a test pattern tone, an explosion (to "blow up" the previous format), or the sound of a flat-lining and/or beating heart rate monitor (signifying the death of one format and the birth of another). A classic example of this occurred when KLSX/Los Angeles transitioned from hot talk to CHR in February 2009. The "explosion" was provided by The Tom Leykis Show upon its conclusion and cancellation (fittingly, the show's slogan was "Blow me up, Tom!"), followed by the sound of a flatlining and beating monitor, with a 3-minute montage of Top 40 acts and LA-centric soundbites leading up into the launch of the new Top 40 format (as KAMP-FM).[5]
  • Often the collage will give a hint at the new format, as happened when WCFL/Chicago aired 2 hours of ocean wave sounds in its switch to the equally-soothing beautiful music in March 1975, and when WCBS-FM/New York played a half-hour of audio clips and songs with the word "Jack" excised as a lead-up to its new Jack FM format in June 2005.

Sneak preview[edit]

When changing formats, a station may be upfront about the nature of the new format by using a limited playlist of songs or highlights of the new format, an approach intended to preview what to expect after the format change takes place.

  • WJJZ/Philadelphia, PA, in a transition from smooth jazz, played the same 15 Hot AC songs over and over again, prior to permanently establishing a new Hot AC format as WNUW ("Now 97.5").
  • After acquiring rights to The Rush Limbaugh Show from a rival station in April 2008, talk station WRNO-FM/New Orleans stunted under the brand "Rush Radio", airing exclusively repeats of the show for a full week before returning to a schedule which integrated a single daily broadcast of Limbaugh's show into the station's normal program lineup. WRNO's Greensboro, NC sister station, WPTI, repeated this stunt the first week of January 2010. (Both stations would permanently adopt the "Rush Radio" branding.)
  • The aforementioned WWIQ/Camden, NJ used a similar stunt in 2012, except with The Sean Hannity Show as the show of choice under the "Hannity @ 106.9" branding.
  • Clear Channel introduced Progressive Talk on WXKS 1430 and WKOX 1200 in Boston with a loop featuring Neil Young's "Rockin in a Free World" and an audiobook snippet from Al Franken's "Lies" book ("Chapter 37. What is a Liar?") Franken's show was to be carried on the stations.
  • When WXKS (AM), formerly WKOX, went to conservative talk in 2010, it took a similar approach to the above "Rush Radio" stations in March 2010, previewing its own "Rush Radio" format with a collage of the shows they would present (including Limbaugh) along with patriotic speeches from American history. KPMZ/Dallas took a similar route that same month, exclusively airing speeches by President Ronald Reagan before installing a simulcast of sister talk station WBAP. This was also done on WJKR (now WTOH) when flipping from adult hits to conservative talk as "98.9 The Answer".

Temporary formats[edit]

Occasionally a station dropping an old format will stunt with a temporary transitional format, one intended to tease not so much the listener but competing stations who are not privy to the station's new plans. The fake format, more often than not, is only intended as a transition to a new format or existing format adjustment. A similar, but smaller, effect can be produced by registering numerous domain names suggesting various formats, in an effort to throw off "net gnomes" and generate buzz.

  • The "Wheel of Formats" (a play on the game show Wheel of Fortune) is one variation of this, in which several short-lived formats are aired for a short time (between an hour and a day), then replaced by another equally short-lived format, then another, etc. until finally the new permanent format is revealed. These formats can range from legitimate mainstream formats to novelties that would never be seriously considered as a full-time format.
  • On January 17, 1991, after 35 years as a full service top 40/adult contemporary station, WBZ-AM/Boston, MA began its transition to news-talk by running continuous Operation Desert Storm coverage. By the end of Operation Desert Storm on February 28 of that year, the transition to News-Talk as "NewsRadio 1030" had been complete.
  • In response to the above mentioned 2009 change of WOLF-FM/Syracuse, NY to country music, competitor WPHR-FM temporarily changed its usual urban adult contemporary format to country as "Young Country 106.9," with WSYR changing back at the end of the weekend. Usually, this type of stunt happens as part of a hedging effort—a station threatened by an upstart using a sister station to draw listeners away from the upstart (in this case, WPHR's sister station, WBBS, using WPHR to fend off WOLF).
  • In summer 2011, two stations who had recently been sold to the same new owner transitioned from alternative rock to all-news radio by using the same adult contemporary music transition branded as "FM New." The stations, WWWN/Chicago and WEMP/New York, interspersed the music with news, traffic, and weather updates from personalities who would serve under the new "FM News" formats.[6]
  • In July 2008, WRKA/Louisville, KY dropped their long-running oldies format with a long farewell montage. After some fake static (in which the conclusion of "Beginnings" by Chicago could faintly be heard), the station was "relaunched" as "News Talk 103.1 WRKA," with a fake newscast similar in tone to sister station WSB/Atlanta, GA. (WSB's imaging voice, Jeff Davis, even voiced the station ID and a promo for "Louisville's Morning News.") Three minutes later, the "newscast" slowly became interference-ridden while airing a "Breaking Fox News Alert" of power failures around Louisville before fading into fake static again, to be followed by the unveiling of a country music format as WQNU.[7]
  • In July 2009, WWQM-FM/Madison, WI stunted with various formats during a 3-1/2 day period (including smooth jazz and novelty songs), only to emerge post-stunting with an adjusted version of its previous country music format.
  • On October 2, 2009, WVMV/Detroit dropped their long-running smooth jazz format by playing a montage of jingles and airchecks from a prior format on the station, album-oriented rock WLLZ "Detroit's Wheels." However, the first song played ("Welcome To The Jungle" by Guns 'n Roses) abruptly cut out with Kayne West's 2009 MTV Video Music Awards outburst, segueing into "Sweet Dreams" by Beyoncé. The station immediately switched to a CHR format initially dubbed "98.7 Takeover" (eventually titled "98.7 AMP Radio").[8]
  • On separate occasions in 2009, WVHT/Hampton Roads, VA and CIGM.Sudbury, ON both stunted a Chinese pop music format branded as "Kung Pao".
  • In May 2009, WSKS/Utica, NY announced that, due to "financial constraints," its CHR format would be replaced by the beautiful music format similar to what was broadcast on sister station WUTQ. The "change" came complete with on-air kayfabe-style complaining from the station's staff. The "new format," however, lasted for only 2 hours before WSKS management came clean, restored the CHR format, and confirmed the stunt was a way to promote a new disc jockey lineup on the WSKS.[9]
  • During Memorial Day weekend 2010, WJZX-FM/Milwaukee, Wisconsin stunted with songs about adultery as "Tiger FM." The station was expected to change to a Top 40 format with the new call sign WNQW, but was beaten to the punch by a competitor. With that avenue blocked, WNQW reverted to temporary formats with all-patriotic music and all-Beatles music before settling on a permanent format in June 2010 (as classic country station WZBK-FM).[10]
  • As had occurred in the above all-Beatles stunt, a station may stunt temporarily with consecutive songs by the same artist, either as a tribute to the departing format or a clue to the new one. The former occurred when CHMT-FM/Timmins, ON played songs by Timmins native Shania Twain before changing from country to adult hits in March 2006; the latter occurred when WHLD/Niagara Falls, NY transitioned from brokered programming to adult standards by playing Frank Sinatra songs exclusively in August 2010.

Novelty songs[edit]

A station may stunt by temporarily formating a series of novelty songs, a song style that usually wouldn't support itself as a stand-alone commercial radio format.

Overlap in music formats[edit]

A station may mix musical selections from both its old and new formats for a period of time. This smooth transition works best if the formats have little to no normal overlap in their playlists, such as a shift from country music to rhythmic contemporary or alternative rock; it may not be as effective or obvious if the transition is from, for example, modern rock to alternative rock. This type of stunting does not occur as often as other forms, as the approach does not increase the shock and anticipation value as much as with the other forms.

Christmas music[edit]

As far back as the early 2000s, stations have made an annual practice of airing nothing but Christmas music in the days and weeks before (and occasionally the week after) the holiday. Though going all-Christmas may be a temporary pause in a station's existing format (with the regular format resuming after the holiday mainly intact or with minor adjustments), it has also been used as a temporary transition to a new format. As a result, the holiday season has become a watch period of sorts in the radio industry, or at least those in the industry who anticipate a station or stations flipping formats after the holidays.

  • One example of a post-Holidays flip is WEXM/Indianapolis, IN, which previously aired the Top 40 format of WNOU before airing nearly 3 months of Christmas music before yielding to a relocation of sister station WIBC's news/talk format. (The WNOU call sign, Top 40 format, and intellectual property were sold and moved to another frequency in Indianapolis.) Another example is WMVX/Cleveland, OH, which ended a 1½-month all-Christmas music period on December 26, 2010, only to end their long-running Hot AC format with a deliberate wide selection of music (from country to classical to TV and movie themes), emerging with a new adult hits format as WHLK ("106.5 The Lake") on January 3, 2011.
  • Some stations have aired Christmas music as a novelty-style stunt at other times of the year, notably WCHH/Baltimore, MD (which used a Christmas stunt while transitioning to modern rock in May 2008) and CHAM/Hamilton, ON (which stunted with Christmas music in August 2008 before transitioning to a talk radio format).

On television[edit]

Radio-like stunts on television are not as commonplace as they are on radio, usually due to iron-clad programming commitments, a general lack of concrete formats in television (especially among local television stations, which still mostly use a homogenized and daypart-driven block programming strategy), and a lower level of shock value in a multichannel universe. (In contrast, because there are fewer radio stations available and most are local, a format change at a local radio station is likely to draw the attention of a significant number of listeners in the station's broadcast area.) Instead, a TV station or network may stunt in the form of a heavily-promoted event, as in the case of promoting new on-air branding, station affiliation change, or acquisition of programming or personnel; an increase in publicity (and with it, the station hopes, viewer anticipation) will increase as the changeover date nears. A prime example of this promo-type stunting involved British cable channel Bravo, which in January 1997 used a series of eerily-produced promos to herald a change in programming tone (including mutations of the network's old and new visual presentations).[12] Marathons, the sequential broadcast of several episodes of the same series, are quite common.

At least two networks have used stunting-type events prior to their formal launches. MLB Network, for example, aired a continuous loop of baseball highlights and promos as a "soft launch" in the weeks before its formal debut on January 1, 2009, while Canada's Sun News Network employed an on-screen countdown clock graphic in the hours before its April 18, 2011 launch.[13]

References[edit]