Are Urban Stations Casting A Wider Net?
July 12, 2011
Should Urban ACs Re-focus Their Summer Programming Strategies?
Recent studies have shown that in the summer, Urban adults are being lured away from traditional Urban AC stations and back to stations that feature hip-hop and uptempo jams. The question becomes: Are these isolated instances, or is this a real trend for Urban Adult stations whose playlists have become too sterile and whose sound is too soft? We spoke to several programmers of both formats. One winning Urban programmer from the South reasons burnout is a major part of Urban AC's problem. He reasoned that this is especially true in some major markets.
We agree. We have found that Urban AC artists have been overplayed and are pretty crispy. As a result, these artists don't have the same impact as before. Some of the traditional Urban AC artists have lost some of their attractiveness. Based on the results of recent test scores, programmers can see that listeners are getting tired of some core artists and looking for other fresh choices.
Many Urban AC programmers are ex-Urban programmers who have just completed that evolutionary process. A return to that format could present perceptional problems. You have to do what your market dictates, but at the same time, you have to be careful not to confuse the station's image. It helps when research is properly done, interpreted and executed. However, it doesn't mean there won't be ratings decreases. These things can be cyclical. In the last few years, many Urban AC stations became safe, sterile and predicable. A lot of researched songs with tempo became mass appeal, and this breathed new life into Urban stations. We could be going through another one of those cycles.
While most sales managers agree the money demo is still 25-54, realistically, in some markets the demo may be younger. For example, a 25-34-year-old female's musical taste is inclined to be more youthful than many of us once thought. These females were exposed to many musical styles -- including rap while they were growing up -- and they're thinking younger. What has helped Urban adult formats is that some Urban ACs have become more personality-driven. Much of this is an offshoot of a time when Urban stations played all the hits and had live local personalities throughout the day and made the station more fun to listen to.
In some cases where there are at least two Urban AC stations, as one of them veers back to more traditional Urban songs, the market's remaining Urban AC may be tempted to pick up the pace and take a chance on some newer titles in an effort to pick up some audience. That's an advantage you can't afford to give them.
The 18-24 Demo Drive
It comes as no surprise that currently one of Arbitron's biggest PPM challenges is the 18-34 demos. Many Urban AC programmers are wondering how that affects the overall ratings picture, especially for stations catering to listeners over 25. Here's the answer: The goal is to balance the sample between age and sex. Historically, some cells and population groups have proven harder to reach than others. And Arbitron has long employed special measures to get those hard to contact people. They include differential premiums, weighting, split counties, follow-up phone calls and special cell phone-only measures.
The question remains, how will a higher 18-24 response rate affect a market's overall ratings picture? The truth is that in the major PPM markets there will be more meters and in-tab 18-24s, but that shouldn't affect the ratings in any market. That answer may surprise some because of long-held misconceptions about the effect and increase in participation in one cell has on other cells and on the entire ratings process.
But the marketplace perception is altogether different. The perception in stations targeting younger demos is that they're being cheated out of ratings points. The reality is there's no difference when more 18-24 diaries or meters are tallied. Listening is calculated on weighted estimates.
The final step of the ratings calculation process is to balance the sample. Some stations think the more diaries or meters they have in their target cell, the bigger their audience will be. But each diary or meter has its own value based on age, sex, ethnicity and geography. If you have too many in one cell and not enough in another, they are assigned differently. That's how the sample is balanced to match the population. If you make an audience projection, it must be done against the population.
It's also important to note that older people in a household will return diaries or wear a PPM at a slightly better rate because they're also affected by different survey treatment. This may explain why, in some metered markets, traditional Urban stations have done poorly compared to their Adult counterparts.
Remember who lives in those households with a lot of 18-24s ... people over 45.
Whether Arbitron wanted to or not, they're giving those people special treatment as well. We should expect the same commitment principle will work on them. This shouldn't result in gains for older-targeted stations. The impact will be that diaries and meters from those 45+ will receive less weight. Does that mean a household with 18-24s is no different than one without a resident of that age? Does an older demo with an 18-24 in the household react differently that an older demo with an 18-24 resident? The reality is, especially in the case of PPM, we don't really know. We do know returns improved with the new treatments and the cell-phone only procedures.
All this results in better representation. And better representation benefits everybody because it reduces the total amount of weighting necessary, which makes for greater stability in the long run.
Finally, it's true that the young end of the adult audience is being lured to mainstream Urban stations. Variety is the still the key to the Urban Adult format's appeal. That means different music styles such as fast, slow, old and new. If we go too far in one direction we could end up like Top 40 in the late '90s when it became too dance or disco-oriented or, in some markets, too rock-oriented.
If the summer audience becomes bored with some of the slow ballads and overplayed gold titles, that could force them to tune to other stations for a pick-up. Having your core audience leave your station in search of something you aren't giving them will instantly lower your time-spent-listening (TSL) and cause you to go from a P1 to a P2. We're not suggesting you drop those high-testing, slower songs since some listeners clearly still love them. However, it's your job as programmers to know the limit as to how many of these songs to play each hour without pushing away your core audience. Revisit your tempo sound codes and make the changes you need to freshen up your station.
The other ingredient that some adult Urban stations have lost is the "hipness factor." No matter how well-researched and targeted these stations become, if they're perceived as not being hip, that notion could end up negatively affecting their core. And once these listeners revert back to an Urban station, the very best an Urban Adult station can do is to share a portion of the audience it once owned.
Finally, regardless of whether it was deliberate or accidental, if a straight-ahead Urban station can take away a portion of an Urban AC station's audience, that's a problem. It means a smaller slice of the pie. For some Urban AC stations whose managers don't want to hear it, if you're in charge of programming, that could mean a trip to the unemployment line.