Not So Fast, My Friend!
January 22, 2015
If radio swamis quoted here during the last two weeks are correct, in 11 months we'll reflect upon 2015 as a successful "Year of The Female," while noting the year-long, steady drift toward a more mainstream, traditional sounding music mix.
Musical edges will have smoothed, building inside out, core-friendly growth that ultimately fostered greater loyalty and more comfortable sounding radio stations for 25-44 users.
But as ESPN "College Game Day" analyst Lee Corso likes to say, "Not so fast, my friend!"
It's still only January -- a tad early for 2015 retrospectives -- and other programmers tell me something else is happening, a shift they're quietly making and reluctantly, mostly anonymously talking about. Because many are in competitive situations or don't want to get beat up by labels -- or both -- I'll respect anonymity, head-to-head battles and the wrath of regionals here. So at the risk of seeming cryptic, I have opted not to ID stations or programmers here, unless given permission.
Clocks are being tweaked, and in some cases rebuilt, to reflect a more familiar, recurrent sound. "We've split up two power slots and replaced one with a recurrent," explained one PD, saying overall research scores on new music dictated this when they began falling several months ago.
Another programmer is calling for one more gold title per hour instead of a medium rotation current, "In an effort to sound a bit more familiar overall."
Yet another MD told me their station would eliminate its overnight category completely. "We were adding music to fill those slots," they said. "And then those songs never got enough spins to give us reliable feedback or exposure." That means the list will be tightened, but at least what is added will be played.
So what exactly is going on here?
"Musically we've been on a down cycle for over a year at least," says one major-market PD. "'Bro-Country' helped launch the recent three-year highs in our format. But that music was new and fresh then. Not anymore. It spawned way too many copycats and now we're in danger of becoming 'cliché'."
Other PDs in markets of all sizes have shared similar observations with me and I have to say, let's give this format and its programmers credit for having a strong sense of self-awareness. As I've written before, the "copycat," or knock-off-of-a-knock-off syndrome happens often, somewhere in the middle of a particularly strong music cycle and it's usually a mojo-killer, dooming a seemingly good thing. Case in point for Country: The back edge of the early '90s explosion. If I'm being completely honest, too many acts donning hats, starched shirts and pleated wranglers popped up, making the format a watered-down, caricature of itself after a while.
It feels like this time, programmers are trying to get ahead of that unfortunate phenomenon and as a result, some changes in clock architecture are afoot. But could it also have something to do with a six-month downward trend in the overall ratings performance for Country -- in PPM-measured markets anyway?
I realize we don't have a real sense of how serious this trend is, if actually serious or even a trend at all. Two of those six months are December and the Holiday period, which are considered mulligans by many PDs I know. They just shove those in a drawer anyway -- especially this year when a lot of all-Christmas stations are showing all-time high results.
But it started back in August, when we showed signs of leakage among 18-34s, the source of such incredible, exciting growth in the past five years. August through November overall AQH shares in that demo went like this: 10.1- 9.8- 9.5- 9.2. Again, I did not include December and the Holiday surveys because of seasonal programming.
But to my earlier point about programmers and the format's brain trust staying ahead of things, one PD told me, "The six-month trend is just in ratings. Ratings usually trail reality by another six to nine months."
As it relates to 18-34s, have we put too many eggs in that basket, aggressively adding new music by new artists and spinning the living hell out of them?
"Absolutely," says KRTY/San Jose GM/MD Nate Deaton. "No matter how you slice it, this format's bread-and-butter are always going to be 35-49. There's a certain aspect of what we did to chase the 18-34s that's not necessarily very appealing to a 35-54 listener."
WPOR/Portland, ME PD/afternoon personality Matty Jeff sums up the suspicions of many Country PDs when it comes to younger, newly found 18-34 listeners: "They're finicky. They'll follow trends and fads. What's the next big thing for them? I think it's been a concern since we saw this pop in the 18-34s that as quickly as they come in, they can go out. It's something to keep an eye on, and the music is showing some burn, too. Like everything else, it's cyclical."
Max Media/Norfolk, VA Dir./Programming John Shomby, whose oversight includes Country WGH, isn't hitting the panic button yet but says, "I think there is some room for concern. It appears while Country is dropping, Sports Radio, for example, is rising. Our cluster shows that exactly. Our sports station has shown phenomenal increases over the past six months while things have leveled off and dropped a bit for Country. It's gotten our attention here."
In hindsight, another PD believes, "Too many Country stations got myopic and started squeezing their playlists too tight."
Speaking of hindsight, I want to crank up the way-back machine to CRS 2013. The format was perhaps at the apex of the 18-34 explosion then. A panel discussing this audience and how to program to them accordingly was presented. Among the panelists: Then-Lincoln Financial VP/Programming John Dimick, who played the role of skeptic, warning fellow panelists and audience members not to get carried away. Dimick basically echoed what Matty Jeff told us earlier here, "As quickly as they come, they can go."
Dimick remembers it well. "Yeah, I got a fair amount of flack a couple years ago. I was the grumpy guy in the room saying, 'What the hell are you guys doing? Don't be a Top 40. Be a great Country station.'"
He's not reveling in "I told you so's" right now though, but rather, offers perspective on a couple of levels. First, he cautions, "Using Nielsen for research is a very, very dangerous thing to do. That's not what they're designed for." The real conversation, says Dimick, "Is the acknowledgement of when Nielsen begins to expand their panels."
Be careful what you ask for, he advises. "That [expanded panel] doesn't really generate better ratings. It just generates less flux in them. So, when they start increasing sample sizes, it's largely Hispanic and some African-American. Those ethnicities cannot be huge consumers of Country. So, while you're thinking there's a downturn, it may just be an increase in the measurements of other formats and everybody else."
That said, Dimick reiterated the essence of what he originally said at CRS in 2013: "If you paid a lot of attention to 18-34s, forgot about 25-54s and more specifically the 35-54s, then you probably have some problems. If you spend more time paying attention to your target and enjoying the benefit of the outliers as you get them, good for you."
It's important to revisit who we are, at all times, adds Dimick. "We always gravitate toward, 'Hey! Country is going to be the new Top 40!' But no, Country is Country and Top 40 is Top 40. When one format starts acting like another, they tend to get themselves in trouble from a perceptual and an audience standpoint."
KFRG/Riverside PD and longtime programmer Lee Douglas isn't taking the recent dip too seriously. "There are some things about our format -- Christmas is a grand example -- that is seasonal. And I sit here in Los Angeles/Riverside and I think three years ago, we had three or maybe four stations doing all-Christmas; now we have one. Those look like an incredible success the first week of December and go up in Cume and back down again. The same mood prevails through a lot of January, and then we have our best books in the Spring and Summer these days. A lot of those have been spectacular. Your average decent Country station -- 'decent' being the qualifying word -- has tried to play it as safe with one hand as you can, while being aggressive with the other. We just put our head down and let Country do what Country has always done, and that's grow really, really powerful loyalty among those people who love the music."
Alrighty then: As always, I'd like to know what YOU think?
Should we be concerned about some ratings shrinkage? Have we placed too many eggs in the younger listener basket? And circling back to where we started, is now the time to tighten up, become more recurrent-focused and make our stations more musically familiar?
Thanks in advance for your feedback!
Comment below, or hit me back direct here.