By Sean Ross of @RossOnRadio

It is a seemingly inevitable moment in any call-to-win contest, especially for a prize of any significance.

You will hear the caller before the correct number caller. Sometimes it will be a quick groan of frustration when they’re informed. Sometimes the on-air personality feels the need to play with them, dragging out the suspense, even when the caller doesn’t think they’re the right number. If they can’t be sure of getting the winning caller to scream appropriately at the office, they can at least milk some extra agony from the loser before hand.

There are multiple variants on the “call before the winner” call.

  • There’s the “I’m sorry, we already got a winner, but don’t worry, because there’s more cash in four hours” call.
  • There’s the “I’m not giving away anything right now, but don’t worry, because there’s more cash in four hours” call.
  • There’s the “I’m sorry, you’re listening for a different Taylor Swift song, but don’t worry because something by Taylor is coming up again in 20 minutes” call.

Airing these calls comes out of an absolutely correct programmers’ instinct, or several. Generate the most possible excitement about your cash contest. Tell people what you’re going to do, then do it, then tell them that you did it. Set appointments. Don’t let a hundred dollars’ worth of excitement be over in just a few seconds, much less a larger amount.

Hearing a contest milked, well or badly, is also a function of jock nature: “We’re giving away money on my shift.” You can generally count on that kind of excitement for any prize greater than the $50-gift-certificate-from-a-jeweler-that-doesn’t-actually-buy-anything.

Jocks also seem to think it’s okay in particular to make fun of any listener stupid or greedy enough to call when nothing’s actually being given away. For the most part, however, the bulk of the losing callers are doing the thing a station told them to do—listen longer and call to win.

I always feel bad for the caller-before-the-correct caller. I particularly feel bad when there’s any level of sadism on the jock’s part. That might just be me. Listeners love prank phone calls. I don’t want to hear the person on the other end squirm, even when they’re an actor and it’s a set-up.

Beyond that, after enough “you didn’t win” phone calls, I also find myself wondering about the message being sent.  Do enough of those unintentionally brand a station as the place where people don’t win money? Isn’t radio station money supposed to be easier to win than, say, Powerball money? I hear an increasing number of stations during a big Powerball jackpot making fun of the unlikelihood of winning.

So what’s the right balance between milking excitement and sending the wrong message?

For starters, I’ve come to believe that if you’re taking caller number 109, there should always be a little something for caller 108. And maybe for caller 110. Station swag would do it, but imagine what message a modest, unexpected cash prize (before the big one) would send about your station. You’re not just giving away money, you’re giving away extra, unsolicited money. Think of Oprah Winfrey and the power of unexpected winning.

I’ve also come to think stations aren’t getting enough from the actual winner. In many cases, the jock briefly tries to negotiate a scream from the winner-who-can’t-scream-because-they’re-on-the-job. Maybe there’s a quick “so what are you going to do with the money?” or “who are you going to take with you to the concert?”  Then they’re gone until the winner promo, and you’re back to hearing the other callers.

One station that got me thinking about the power of having the winners hang around is CFXL (XL103) Calgary. Like a lot of other “Greatest Hits” (or Classic Rock) stations, their signature promotion has become the daily payroll game in which a winner continues to rack up cash until somebody else hears their name called and displaces them. The contest isn’t new, but XL gets more out of it than many stations I’ve heard.

Often, middayer Buzz Bishop and afternoon host Bob Steele effectively make the current winner into the hour’s co-host. You get to know them. They are often coached into doing talk-ups over intros that are sometimes better than our own first airchecks. They do shtick with the next winner after being “fired.” By the end of the hour, they are “people just like you” who won money.

The payroll game structure lends itself to a winner sticking around, of course. But who’s to say that anybody who just won cash wouldn’t be happy to visit with the host for a few more breaks? The callers aren’t necessarily people with inherently mesmerizing on-air personalities, but the same work that goes into extending a contest payoff with losing callers goes into making the winners sound great.