May 31, 2011
Is Covering Up The Best Way To Reduce Risk?
Is there such a thing as "safe sex" in Urban radio? Well, it depends on who you ask. The real question, though, is: "Is Urban radio playing it too safe ... and what is meant by playing it too safe?"
To answer the second question first, it's by being totally research-driven. And the problem is that you still have to know what to research. There just isn't enough time or resources to research everything that comes in. And what if the research is wrong? The research is based on hearing a hook, maybe for the first time. Some songs have to grow on you, but if they're eliminated by research, they'll never get that chance.
Many programmers and consultants today follow their research too closely, thereby creating a stale sounding station where everything done is based strictly on research. That's like placing two condoms on but still taking risks by petting and kissing.
Summer is often considered radio's "safe days." Even in PPM markets, it is a season when programmers are more likely to be receptive to new music and artists. If there is ever a time when the ratings risks seem to be lower, it would be in summer. It might also be that brief period between the end of the Ssummer book and the start of the Fall sweeps or the three-week period following the Fall book.
When you really think about it, it's no wonder PDs have grown more conservative in choosing their music. It's not that they don't want to enjoy making music decisions and occasionally taking chances based on what their gut tells them; it's because many of the few real programmers with an ear who are left are either overseeing three or four stations or they're also doing a full air-shift. They simply don't have time to listen to new music. They're so afraid of losing their gigs that they play it safe ... too safe. They don't make decisions, so they can't be accused of making mistakes.
A "condom cover-up" makes a lot of sense if you're going to be active, but there are ways to reduce risks besides short, researched lists. Urban radio that plays new music and new artists for its active listeners and "music freaks" has a definite edge in an era of niche programming.
Management's seeming desire to play it safe and sterile in order to attract the growing number of upper demos prevailed, with the results being shrunken playlists. There are far fewer newer cuts played on the air and a renewed emphasis on softer, safe, core artists, oldies and ballads. But, as is so often the case, the pendulum is now swinging back in favor of aggressive innovative programming and "calculated risk-takers." Urban playlists are still being carefully researched and controlled, but now they're accommodating fewer new artists. Labels are taking fewer chances with new, cutting edge artists. But if they discover one they really believe in, they still go all out.
Today, more than ever, winning means understanding demography and consumer behavior, while being able to apply the appropriate strategies related to both. Most Urban stations focus in on the so-called aging baby boomers whose needs are being met by a wide range of formats and other media choices. Now, with 50% more people in the 18-29 age group than in the 12-24 group, this means this is a need for a greater concentration on a large slice of the 18-29 pie and the summer "music freaks" This can provide a better, more saleable demographic than any other demo concentration.
Remember the term "Churban?" You don't hear it very often these days, if at all. It has been replaced; the new term for these stations is "Top 40/Rhythmic." Regardless of what they're called, by using clever marketing techniques, many of these Top 40/Rhythmic stations are playing hip-hop and new artists and pulling some of those coveted 18-29 "music freaks," who are highly experimental and curious, away from Urban radio.
What is also interesting is that we're now seeing a tremendous adult acceptance of some hip-hop artists. Look at the phenomenal growth, dual acceptance and mass appeal of artists such as Beyonce, Rihanna, Wiz Khalifa, Ceelo, Jennifer Lopez, Lil Wayne and Jamie Foxx. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending which side of the fence you're on, many of today's Top 40 programmers who didn't grow up with this music and these lifestyles simply follow the charts. Their research forces them to eventually play rap songs. Still, they don't fully understand it. They also don't understand that the burgeoning Hispanic populations really love hip-hop and that many of the new artists that are part of the Urban universe are their favorites, as well.
One might say these Rhythmic and Top 40 programmers have identity crises. They don't know that their audience has changed. Big numbers can be moved to our side of the board once we understand how to court the ethnic populations within the city and yet make our stations palatable enough to be acceptable to non-ethnics who live in the suburbs, but who love our music.
It can get pretty scary when, as a programmer or consultant, all you're listening for are the liners, jock breaks and spot clusters. The other thing Urban radio needs is more front-line marketing efforts with stronger websites, billboards, direct mail, television and bus sides. Now, more than ever, Urban radio needs to do the type of research that speaks directly to the listeners and the reacts to their responses both on and off the air.
Like sex, radio is a joy and there are always going to be some risks associated with even the safest sex. But you have to be sensible and reasonable and willing to take some chances. Safe sex -- sure, put on two condoms, bring along a spray and tell your lover she will have to submit to an examination by your doctor before you will even venture a kiss. See how many takers you get. And then, when you eliminate the ugly girls with little circles all over their bodies when men have been pushing them away with 10-foot poles, see what you have left.
One of the joys of our business used to be discovering new jams and artists. The new jams and artists are fewer in number now, but they're still out there. To find them, however, you've got to listen. You've got to take time to listen to the whole song and maybe more than once. And if you hear something you think sounds like a hit for your station, you can't be afraid to put it in a test rotation and air it. You just might be right. Find enough hits and be right enough times and you're on your way to radio's promised land. There somebody will show you the money. And you can show them the used condom.