Tuning Up Avoids Tuning Out
May 17, 2011
Listeners Are Always Seeking New Heights - Always Want What They Can't Have Easily
Today's listeners tune into radio for much the same reasons they always did except, as we've discovered with PPM, not for as long as they once did. While we may not be able to increase the amount of time listeners spend cuming our stations, what we can do is make certain that ours is the station they start with, come back to and often stay with by tuning it up. Since the summer season can mean additional listening from those who are out of school or on vacation, we want to look at tuning up the blazing, hip-hop stations first.
I have always held that there are both similarities and differences between what might be considered a "club mentality" and a "radio mentality." Not every song that's a hit in the clubs translates to radio. And some songs that don't make it in the clubs initially could turn out to be huge hits on the radio.
But where a strong club connection can really pay off is in the testing stage. If your mixers find a song that the clubs are really reacting to and you can be the first to put that record on the radio, that's a nice score for the Urban audience, who is always looking for the next new thing. The young 18-34 crowd does not want a steady diet of over-played, callout-proven songs. Many want the latest songs and they will gravitate to a station that develops the reputation for being out in front with the new jams.
In addition to being able to tune to their favorite station to hear the latest tracks, today's listeners can text or e-mail their favorite station, compose playlists, chat with each other and air talent, enter contests and buy music. Technology has allowed them to become truly involved in programming. If they want to interact with the station using another device, now they can.
For decades, terrestrial broadcasters had an exclusive franchise on in-car listening, reaching a captive audience of hundreds of millions stuck in their rides with few, if any entertainment options beyond AM, FM or satellite. Now we have been forced to share the dashboard with many new options. Advanced technology, more content and features such as time-shifting, along with other Internet-enabled mobile devices will ultimately make Internet listening truly competitive. Even having instant traffic reports may become a thing of the past now that there are navigation devices, weather, sports updates and new -- all of which you can get in your car without traditional radio.
Your website gives your brand the potential to reach every person on the planet with an Internet connection. You're not just limited to your market or your cume. The key is to keep enough interesting things on your page to link listeners back to your website. Then you can reel them in. You've got to do some web research, too. It's important to find out what's not working and delete it. You should use clicks as a virtual report card. Every month you should run an analysis of your home page to see what elements people are actually clicking on. Those that work you should highlight, those that aren't working get deleted. Eliminate boring content used as filler.
Not long ago observers brushed off radio's online initiative as lacking direction. But Internet-related revenue has become a top priority with stations that have discovered that online can not only strengthen the over-the-air brand, but also create a much needed infusion of revenue in a sluggish advertising market.
Street Savvy & Relevance Rules
Another concept that works well for some straightahead Urban stations is to be able "to make the streets come out of the speakers." The strategy involves knowing the audience, having a "no-fear attitude," living the lifestyle and a willingness to embrace change. It requires a strong support staff and the right relationships with management. This concept is part of the "growing-shedding theory." Rather than just age with the audience, smart stations adapt as new generations of young listeners discover the station, bringing different tastes, lifestyles and expectations with them.
Why does our audience listen to or just kind of tolerate some stations and love others? There may be many reasons. But at the top of the list is one word -- relevance. Relevance defines the strength of the emotional connection between the listener and the station, which creates passion and loyalty. Every facet of the station contributes to that bond, especially programming. Building it is guesswork without insight into the listeners' real lives; beyond demographic, psychographic and life-stage, beyond music preference and consumer habits. What does your audience really care about?
Since the arrival of Arbitron's PPM electronic audience measurement methodology and the ongoing erosion of listener attention spans brought on by competing entertainment platforms, Urban stations have been compelled to probe more deeply and remain closely attuned to what listeners care about most.
Focus groups can help to flush out relevance by affording insights into listeners' perceptions and attitudes, often uncovering information that can later be quantified through other forms of research. What we have to avoid -- and where many Urban and Urban AC stations have gotten off track -- is by continuing to focus research efforts on learning what the audience thinks of us and asking them to have passionate beliefs about something they longer feel passion for. Instead we need to dig into listener's lives -- doing what they do and talking about it -- finding out what is relevant to them. In an era of smaller research budgets and ever-mounting pressure to deliver bottom-line results, it takes vision, imagination and risk-taking to win big.
Radio is consumed by people and should sound like it's programmed by people, without predictability or rigidity, with all the colors of the palette as well as all the various shades of gray. The key to relevancy is discovering what people feel passionate about and what they connect to and then expanding those things.
The Velvet Rope Club Precept
Next, let's look at who today's younger club audience really is. Chances are they've got at least one iPod, but they still have to listen to the radio to find out what new songs to download or buy. Now let's really examine the clubbers. People always want what they can't have. If you put a velvet rope outside a club bathroom, it could suddenly become the most popular room in the club. There's a crude but effective economic club logic to a restrictive door policy. Yet for all those frozen out by the hippest clubs, the restrictions are nothing more than attitude, a snobbish arrogance that breeds resentment.
On the radio there are similar, but different dynamics at work. As a radio station, you want to be more accommodating. You want to attract listeners who the other "clubs" wouldn't let in. Many stations, like some upscale cubs, start with an "A crowd" (those P1s with money, style, celebrity status, the trendsetters) ... and then there's a B-plus crowd that follows them. Eventually, the A crowd moves on and the B-plus crowd takes over and now they're the ones sitting in the VIP rooms. It's possible to score with enough P2s and still win the ratings battle -- especially in a PPM world.
We're All Connected
The capacity of the human mind to live in a constant state of forgetfulness is where we have to start. As Arbitron's "un-aided recall" diary system gets replaced by the PPM, people no longer have to remember what they listened to, where they had a good time so they can return and tell their friends about it. The meter will do that for them. All they have to do is remember to wear it. In that sense we are all connected.
Now would be a good time to wake up to this connection. If you need further proof that we are all connected, look around at the Urban stations that have been consistent winners in any market. What do they all have in common? They've figured out a winning formula that keeps them on top of their game. They've accepted the challenge -- the connection challenge.
A huge part of that challenge is understanding the difficulty Arbitron has and may continue to have, even with the meter, in obtaining usable responses from 18-34 year-olds, especially young males. That challenge has led to wide ratings swings. In addition, Urban radio's niche is now being threatened by other music-similar formats, which have been trying to co-opt artists and tracks formerly uniquely positioned as Urban or Urban adult songs.
Add Top 40, Rhythmic and Hot AC to the mix and you have a volatile brew. There is a huge amount of sharing going on. Also Urban stations all seem to have a music scheduling problem. Minimum artist separation categories between artists have been modified to as little as 20 minutes in some cases. My take on this is if it's a big enough hit, the audience doesn't care. And music imaging promos, which showcase a station's overall range, become more important -- especially if it isn't possible to get that variety in every segue set.
Finally, when you're tuning up to avoid being tuned out, you have to keep in mind with PPM ratings measurement and the availability of Mscore data, now you can actually see the stickiness of individual jams as well as the effect of tighter-than-ever playlists.
Listening occasions have been reduced to 10-12 minutes, which makes song-to-song strengths even more important. Freshness is still key ... and programmers have to move toward becoming "calculated risk-takers." You're going to make some mistakes. You're going to miss the mark and occasionally hear something that is not hit-worthy. That's okay; research will counter-balance that. It's still important to stay in your lane with music you can own and focus on being a forward-momentum station.
Always play offense. Don't constantly "rear-view mirror" the competition. Ask the question: Are we creating compelling content for our listeners today? Creativity is the real "tune-up" ingredient for radio. Without creativity and a clear mission, there is no chance for unity of purpose. Without unity of purpose the station can't succeed. Remember, too, success determines longevity -- and profit is not a dirty word.