Imbibing In Sustainability
May 10, 2011
The Ongoing Search For A Broader Audience
Ours is still an industry that thrives on and constantly demands new creative ideas and people. And yet, a very vital part of this creative group is becoming almost a dying breed -- our live, local air personalities. It takes a lot of creative skill and talent to be able to touch listeners between jams. For one thing, you have to be able to get inside their heads and know what they want. You also need to know how they feel and think. And it helps to know their lifestyles as well.
In the quest for a broader audience and in less enlightened and challenging times, air personalities were interchanged a lot like soldiers. Then, something changed. As a consultant, I once had a major-market station whose music was tight, but whose talent wasn't. All the morning show had was a running game. They were music-intensive. They had replaced a syndicated morning show which, after a year with lots of billboards, web-sites and even some television, hadn't moved the ratings needle.
So we set about imbibing in creative sustainability. We needed to fix the station by first finding them a strong local, morning air talent. One who was a "calculated risk-taker." The very conservative, sales-oriented GM and market manager saw this as dangerous.
I explained that if they wanted to make some noise they needed someone to stir things up. We did and we won.
Listeners see risk taking as a sign of strength. Making changes and taking chances shows listeners your station is confident and willing to change. It also shows boldness. The audience likes boldness. It helps raise the station's top-of-mind awareness. It triggers the left brain and it draws more listeners to the station.
In today's age of miracles, microchips and PPM, the numbers crunchers and bean counters have found that when the buyers and agencies see your shares slipping, they simply hit the delete key and eliminate your station, based on cost-per-point.
Although mornings are still the engine that drives the train, all dayparts are important, including weekends and overnights. These individual dayparts can determine whether the station, the manager, the PD or the format survives. And there are no easy answers. There are still touching tales of PDs, consultants, managers and owners pouring through reams of resumes and research studies looking to find daypart answers.
Thinly Sliced Pie
The way markets are being divided up these days; Urban stations often find themselves having to accept a smaller slice of a shrinking pie. Stations can no longer afford to "shoot in the dark" just to try to save money. We know some stations that recently began being measured by PPM that pulled the plug after just three four-week rating periods. They simply decided to phase out several shows and let go half of their staff, including the PD, who had been there for eight years.
At first the GM said he didn't want a lot of negative responses all at once. But he got them. So he moved up the MD to the PD slot, took over the programming and told his newly appointed PD he felt the solution to winning was to be very familiar and play the right music mix and oh yes, have the PD voicetrack the night show. The jury is still out on this one, but it's not looking good.
Urban ACs typically flex in middays, showing healthy in-office TSL. By nighttime however, the numbers generally start to fade. Why is that? And how do you fix it? A lot of adult-leaning Urban stations destroy themselves at night because they've allowed themselves to become a midday office station around the clock.
You fix the problem in some cases by using a different music mix at night and on weekends. An Urban AC station that becomes conscious that listeners are leaving in late afternoons and evenings to sample other stations needs to change its strategy and offer the audience something different from what they heard during the day. I have never bought into the notion that Urban is only a format of hit songs. Artist appeal is a major actor. The stronger the artists, the more dayparts in which you can expose their new music coupled with compelling content between songs are what allows you to imbibe in sustainability.
Listeners can usually tell when you just slap something together. But busy PDs watching three stations and doing an airshift may not have time for much more. Some GMs, who claim they want adults 25-54, panic when their digits drop and want to make immediate changes. If you put 10 Urban AC programmers in a room, you'll hear 10 different approaches to the format. And they could all be right about what worked for them. But each market, each station is different. Eventually you have to choose.
Researchers often claim that a station has to choose not only what to do in different dayparts, but also whether they're going to be an Urban or an Urban AC station. Essentially they argue you have to be one or other. You can't straddle the format fence. Their position is young listeners are going to tune away from an Urban AC station because the format is just too soft, too predictable. And they claim their studies show a loss of audience for a pure Urban station that plays too many ballads.
What's interesting, when you really think about it, is that we have to recognize that nobody suddenly wakes up on their 25th birthday with a burning desire to want to hear nothing but ballads and oldies. Urban programmers have to understand that new prospects in their target demos bring their once-edgy music tastes with them. The "growing-shedding" theory prevails. You still have to grow more than you shed ... just to maintain.
It always amazes me that Urban AC stations constantly attempt to reassemble their all-ages coalition in many markets. It's usually based on which format the PD came from and the fact that some former hip-hop programmers who suddenly find themselves in charge of Urban AC stations, want to walk that thin line. They allow younger-skewing artists coupled with the increased amount of tempo-driven product to tempt them. They want to take some chances. They become less hyper-focused on upper demos. They're looking for songs that perform well in all demos. One of two things usually happens. Either their nights on the Urban Adult station begin to improve or the station becomes more fragmented and the younger-leaning focus causes their adults to drift away.
Anecdotally, it's confounding for young PDs with a hip-hop background who have worked hard to develop their programming skills to try to make their Urban AC stations more adult-friendly only to suddenly find that just a relatively small number of crossover, dual-format songs can unite the demos.
That raises some extremely interesting questions. Can a straight-ahead Urban station playing hip-hop as well as R&B command any listening from a 45-year-old after the kids are dropped off at school? If these listeners exist but are just more diffuse, shouldn't that Urban station's 25-54 numbers still be all right in the aggregate?
Here's another question: With some adult listeners having waited longer to have kids, is it possible that the adults who think young are not just 25-39, but spread throughout the 25-54 cell? Maybe the best way to reach them with a straight-ahead Urban station is to test not just 25-39, but also cast an even wider net among females 25+ who screen in with a reasonably contemporary music montage. Today's Urban AC programmers have to be able to answer the question: Where are adults going to go for new music? If almost all of the other adult stations are gold-based, having fresh-sounding current music on the air is an advantage.
Adult Moments Of Choice
It has always been my contention that the first five weeks you play a song, your station may incur a slight risk every time you play it. The next five weeks you break even because most stations that do research let it determine the rotations and longevity of the jams. They're all looking to get a feel for the record's strength in the first five weeks.
Taking it a little further, in 10 weeks the record should be in the A-stack. Sometimes if the song hasn't aired enough the station will factor that in and keep it for 11 or 12 weeks.
Here's a secret: You have to figure out how many times a song would have to play to attain a frequency of three with at least 50% of the station's 25-54 audience. Most times, a song would have to stay in heavy rotation for at least a month before reaching that frequency. That is usually too much.
The best strategy is to play it enough in a two-week span to get a three with 50%. We call that "net reach." You have to pretty much eliminate the songs in light rotation. People aren't going to hear them enough to become familiar with them. If they're only airing about once or twice a day, it could take a good two months for the song to become familiar.
So how do you determine what songs should be added, then allowed to become familiar? The main criteria for adding a song should be if it fits the station. There are jams with lots of chart action and are successful elsewhere that just don't fit some stations and some markets. There is a theory that you really can't test new music. If you could, labels would never release stiffs. They would test everything and only release what their research said was going to be a hit and save themselves a lot of time, money and effort.
The reality is that the only way you're going to find out if a song is going to work is by playing it and letting the audience decide. You make hits by finding good songs and then playing them a lot. Repetition makes them familiar and familiarity breeds either discontent or likeability.
Some programmers will say that repetition does have an effect on familiarity, but once a song reaches a certain appeal level, playing it more will not make somebody like it more. After four or five weeks of exposure on the air, you can usually start to get a good gut feel on most records. For a lot of stations, even those with high TSLs, you have to play a song at least 15-20 times a week for three to four weeks before you can even begin to get a measure of familiarity. It's a waste of time to start testing music until it's been significantly exposed. With most stations having at least one or more dayparts syndicated, it's become more of a challenge to get the kind of consistent exposure that will drive up the initial passion scores on a new record.
New music research is more complicated than any other type of research. We're not saying don't do it, just understand it for what it's likely to be -- one of a variety of indicators. Finally, if a song tests well, does that mean that it's right for your station anyway? Probably, but here is where your gut and experience come in.
In the ongoing search for a broader audience, what determines a hit is not easily predicted. It's complicated and multi-layered. You have to feel the flow, and then be willing to take a chance and choose your moment. While dealing with dayparts is certainly one of the keys to developing a broader audience, the other key has to do with innovation. Rating success is directly related to the effort expended to align innovation with strategy and to manage the entire process with discipline and transparency.