Urban Radio's Happy Ending May Need A New Beginning
July 26, 2011
It's Time To Invest In Our Future
There's nothing like the exhilaration of feeling you've been lapped by technology, coupled with the unsettling realization that it's perpetually breathing down your neck. Radio's information age is a sleek stallion, and if you're not actively jockeying for position, you might as well strap on a feedbag and head out to pasture. It's really time to quit "horsing around." The game is changing and it's time to invest in our future. In other words, Urban radio's happy ending may just need a new beginning.
Most of us can easily recall the time when there was only one Urban format and teens and younger adults were almost considered a "given." Their combined listenership would be counted on to boost our stations' 12 + numbers. Younger demos were often taken for granted by most stations and until the formats split, they were seldom targeted.
Today it's a different story. Modern technology has given younger listeners so many other choices that often radio is barely a blip on their radar screen and the image is fading fast.
What hasn't changed, and probably never will, is the fact that sales and revenue are what drives our business. But sales will suffer if the programming isn't viable. If radio isn't a part of our younger listeners' lives at the ages of 14-19, what makes us think it will become significant when they reach the critical advertiser ages of 25-34? It's the old story of the growing-shedding theory. We have to grow more than we shed and growth always starts with younger listeners.
We have to appeal to the Generation Jones -- the Millennials. They're the generation born after1988. And if radio doesn't target them with programming geared to their tastes, why should they listen, given the other choices they now have?
In an effort to learn firsthand why this generation isn't listening as much, numerous research studies have been conducted. And what they have shown is that when 14-24 year-olds were surveyed they felt that radio does not care about them. Some criticize it as being for their parents and older siblings because it does not cater to their broad musical tastes and unique generational interests.
Millennials are highly active in their use of new media. They are drawn heavily to the customization of iPods and MP3 players, the wide choices available via Internet streaming and downloading, the popularity of video games and the allure of personalized entertainment.
For many younger listeners, iPods have become highly valued assets in their daily lives. Over three-fourths of those interviewed said they are listening less to radio at home than previously. They now listen more in their cars. Some days they don't listen at all and mostly because of iPods. Most have more than 500 of their favorite songs downloaded. And they maintain multiple playlists which they update regularly.
For many Millennials, radio's primary purpose is to expose them to new jams. Then they use their iPods to store and listen to their favorite new songs whenever they want. Radio still plays an important role in their lives. Many cite it as simply convenient. And about half said that live local personalities can still make a positive difference in their perception of radio and is the one attribute they seem to value the most. What was also revealing in this study was the fact that these same millennials cited their favorite station's websites as a primary source to local relevance.
Arbitron's PPM & HD Radio
One thing that can bring a happy ending to any station or format is great ratings. For a growing number of markets, great ratings are now affected by the PPM - a small pager-sized device that tracks radio listening. As a sidebar issue, we thought we would take this opportunity to respond to a couple of recent tweets we received which involve PPM. The first one asked, "What if a company or a station decides to cease encoding for the PPM or decides not to encode its stations at all?" And the answer is: Stations have three choices. They can subscribe and encode and that way they can get the data. They can encode but not subscribe, and the third option is not to encode and not appear in the ratings.
The other inquiry had to do with HD radio measurement. The PPM measures both analog and digital radio signals, both in and out of home, so it will definitely pick up a station's HD signal(s). The other part of the question had to do with familiarity and usage.
So far, HD radio was largely unfamiliar to these young Millennial listeners -- and even those who had heard of it could not accurately describe what it was. However, when posed with the concept of HD as a means to provide more choices, nearly all supported the concept, mostly because they hope for more new music exposure, more choices and more adventuresome formats.
What this all means is that terrestrial radio is delicately balanced on a beam and could fall either way. If we take advantage of what our young listeners want and need, then we can fall squarely into their busy media lives. If we do not acknowledge and respond to their needs, our future influence will be minimal and this demo could easily live a different media life. Those who choose to seize the day and serve the next generation of listeners will be richly rewarded.
In order to better serve these young listeners we have to look at things like music scheduling, dayparting and music testing. It's obvious there have been changes and improvements here as well. These changes have been out-distanced with the increased complexity triggered by expanding media choices. Coupled with this are advances in research theory and technology.
Is Research Becoming Radio's Cop-Out?
Part of that technology includes advances in research, which directly affect both industries. There are those in the record industry who still feel that when radio says they have to wait until they receive the results of their callout research before they can add or spike a record, that it's merely an excuse or cop-out. But is it a cop-out when a PD or MD doesn't want to add a record and delays the decision until the research comes back? Sometimes it is, but more often than not, it is not a cop-out.
You see, we have raised a whole new generation of radio decision-makers who seemingly have forgotten how to listen -- who depend entirely on research. The other problem is the amount of time it can take to gather and process the results of this research. It can take days or even weeks to get the results. And since so much of today's research is centered on music, often the demands are huge.
Music, which is the product for most Urban stations, is basically a non-intellectual function. The average listener can tell you if they like or dislike a song, but they often have no idea why. And these same people, given time, may come to really dig a song they rejected when they first heard it. That's one of the problems with even the best callout methodology.
It's measuring what one time listening produces, based on a seven to nine-second hook. And to date, none of the research companies doing hooks have any African-American researchers participating in the process. They're not even training any. That brings about some key questions. Suppose they miss the hook? That's possible because some of these researchers (aliens from another format) can't even clap on the beat. That too is part of the game -- a dangerous music game in which we're getting played. Therefore it behooves us to pay attention to the processes involved and the reliability of the research.
In another research area, there has been considerable progress made in left-brain, right-brain phenomena, which has been widely discussed in recent years. The left brain is primarily concerned with matters emotional, which is where music falls. Music is handled differently by males and females, but in all cases, it is an emotional process even though strangely enough, it is handled the same way as mathematics.
We continuously run up against the dark, mysterious right-brain area of likes and dislikes. In order to shed some light on this, let's rationalize and evoke some comment from the experts. One such writer, a brilliant researcher named Normal Dolph, teaches a course on the subject of hit songs and how to write them. He is a Yale graduate who has worked for several labels. He has even written some hit songs using his scientific theories. Dolph feels (and we agree) that the big misunderstanding among writers is that record companies make records for totally different reasons than radio plays them. It used to be that the motive of the record company to sell a lot of CDs and the motive of radio, to draw a lot of new listeners was one and the same. So how do labels reach the radio decision-makers and convince them that their music is worth a second listen, regardless of what callout research may say? By learning more about radio's callout research process themselves.
Dolph now theorizes that radio no longer feels any kind of grand loyalty to the performance of the artists of a record company. And what radio wants to do now is minimize tune-outs any way we can. You can't blame us for that. Some sharp modern writers are aware of this and now write songs especially for radio. The first way this is accomplished is by being non-linear, with no particular story.
Many hit songs don't usually have plots. They have a premise that is stated early and then repeated over and over. The reason is that with radio listening, the song will usually already be playing when a listener first really hears it, so the middle has to make as much sense as the beginning. When this type of song makes it, it makes it big, regardless of category.
Another important ingredient of a hit is being "noise immune." This is a communication theory term for being readily perceivable in a noisy environment. That's why well-constructed hit songs usually have what's known as a redundancy factor. The goal of a hook in a single is to make certain that no matter how noisy the environment is, the receiver clearly understands the message. Finally, noise (or anything perceived as noise) is unwanted information.
One man's noise, though, is another man's information. If you're talking to an advertiser, the music is noise. He wants to make his commercial in such a way that they stand up against today's hit songs. You talk to the artists and they'll tell you the commercials are noise and they try to make a record that will stand up against McDonald's or Coca-Cola commercials.
It's a tough game out there and it's getting tougher all the time. Those among us who would survive and have a happy ending have to pay attention to some of the new beginnings. Things new research methods are turning up every day. Research and technology can't continue to be things we don't understand and simply complain about. The same systems that make us feel trapped are the same ones that can set us free and motivate us to make "second effort" common and even fun.
Today more than ever, there are a great many more trap doors to failure than there are shortcuts to success. Understanding this is the key to knowing what the new game is all about. It's also about time, empowerment, discovering the power of partnerships, and eliminating the misses from your hit list.
Finally, one of the main obstacles to growth in this tough economy continues to be capital. Fewer banks or investors want to loan money to companies involved in music or media. Even profitable companies are having a difficult time raising cash or keeping stock prices at acceptable levels. The effect that this will have is enormous. Even if the economy rebounds tomorrow, the long-term effects will be felt for years.
The big radio players such as Clear Channel, Cox, CBS, Radio One, Cumulus and Inner City can't be blamed for this embarrassing rite of passage. They're simply confronting the oddities of change, defined by countless standards, cost controls and a deceptive consumer market. Why is this important to us? It is important because the music and the artists, just like our radio stations, will keep moving, continue changing, and become more diverse. This diversity is part of that new beginning and why we continue to say the best way to have a happy ending is through a new beginning.
...A new beginning in which we schedule our lives to fit abstract time rather than natural time. We can no longer forfeit opportunities to understand how these new Millennials think, act and listen to radio. Because this time if we fall behind, we may never catch up.