August 2, 2011
Balancing With Genre-Based Sound
Increasingly, today's generation of Urban listeners are more tech-savvy and always hungry for new music. Add to this the mass proliferation of file-sharing and there is less musical compartmentalizing than in the past. We used to live in "musical tents." That all changed with the advent of the digital age. Listeners now have access to it all.
Programmers need to realize that they must keep surprising their audiences. The format is wide and each decade or so it will begin to lean in another direction - game on! We're now faced with the additional challenge of balancing with genre-based sound. Today's Urban formats are wide and each market is becoming unique in terms of how a station has to niche itself in order to maximize its position and force a few more fickle fingers to its frequency. It's difficult to place a standard formatic description on each station, given the market-to-market differences. It's really become a kind of balancing act with genre-based sound.
Many Urban and Urban AC programmers are really locked into whatever the new trend appears to be. Stations have to become active in the lifestyles of their audience and in the attitudes with which they communicate their position. This year, more than ever, our stations have to fit the sound and the listeners' expectations of what each station is all about. In order to score, they must have the right balance.
In the ongoing battle for market share, today's radio listeners are constantly being bombarded with all kinds of clever contenders whose only hope is to pull up the perfect playlist before you do. Some broadcasters are convinced that outside of morning drive, "more music-less talk" is still the only way to increase market share, especially in a PPM-driven world. In spite of what some see as the need for speed between songs, personalities who have something to say and who can consistently connect with the audience can crank up their cume. And as you know, with the PPM replacing the diary, cume is king.
Midday Recycling Lands Listeners
There are those who feel the only way to recycle audience is with the right music blend. While a balanced music blend is certainly important, what goes on between the songs is equally important.
One of the focuses for Urban stations, where what goes between the jams is often being over-researched, is the daypart between drive times -- middays. Stations hurt themselves in 2011 if all they do is adjust their playlists and simply air the researched soft songs for the listen-at-work crowd. With format-similar stations doing so much niche programming, today's audience has many options. Boring stations won't be remembered.
At-work listening continues to be a problem. The best way to improve at-work listening is for Urban stations to constantly market and reinforce their images. It also helps in the Arbitron game if the audience becomes emotionally attached to the station. Winning by emotion doesn't hurt. And emotion is best created not just by music, but also by talk.
Talk is not a tune-out. If it were, the News/Talk and Sports stations would be out of business, yet some of them are living large. In fact, in Washington D.C. the #1 station is News/Talk WTOP.
But talk can be a tune-out on a music station, right? Sometimes. It all depends on what is being said. Talented talkers are the cement that holds the musical bricks in place. They help to recycle audience throughout the day. When you string eight to 10 songs together in a row with little or no talk (cement), you're taking a big chance. First, you don't want to go two or more songs without some kind of ID. Everybody wearing a meter or keeping a diary is not necessarily looking at your RDS. Second, even if you've figured out a format that fits, one that offers "more music and better variety," you still need some talented talkers to force those funk-seekers with fickle fingers to freeze on your frequency.
Part of the answer lies in seeking and training new talent. Just as a major league sports team has to try to put together the best players, so do we in Urban radio. That role is the responsibility of the program director. He/she has to find, hire, motivate, train, counsel, protect and dismiss the people who talk on the air.
Let's look a hiring. According to a recent national study of programmers, consultants and GMs, they all agreed there is an ever-increasing demand for qualified air talent, particularly morning talent. The demand continues to exceed the supply. The sad thing is, believe it or not, they're out there -- extremely talented personalities just waiting to be discovered and trained.
While it's true that today's programmers have to spend a good deal of their time listening, trying to find the "true players." They must also listen to music, airchecks and the GM, although not necessarily in that order.
Occasionally, the GM wants to join in the listening process. I've often said a GM with a music log or an aircheck can be dangerous, particularly if he/she doesn't come from the programming side. It's not that GMs don't mean well. They do. The problem is most simply don't fully understand the product well enough to improve on it. And they tend to work down to a price rather than up to a standard.
Finding and maintaining strong talent directly affects the station's bottom line. The more audience you build in the morning, for instance, that can be passed on to middays, afternoons and evenings -- the better you look. The crucial question of where to find strong air talent continues without regard to format or geographical boundaries.
There are no easy answers. We still hear touching tales of PDs, consultants and GMs pouring through reams of resumes and tons of audio, trying to find someone with some semblance of real talent to help them compete. Those who have a strong live, local morning show are tying their talent up with contracts, hoping to keep them from being stolen. Others recognize they have to find, build or import a show that has some "morning magic." They're constantly in the search mode. Some small-market stations whose talent had bugged out for bigger bucks were really desperate, but it's still more of a raw talent recognition problem than one of money.
Un-Handicap The Hired
Let's face it: The vast majority of air talent who come into radio lately are often people who are simply into the music, not high-powered personalities. The ability to be funny and do phone bits was not what lured them to the profession. The legendary super-jocks who inspired many of us were not clever comedians, singers or actors with a battalion of writers and producers. So it's entirely logical that a format that always stresses music as the message would experience such growing pains.
Given the current state of air talent affairs, the PD's role as a coach and talent scout has become even more crucial. It's a top priority because winning is so essential. Finding talent is one thing; making them work consistently is another. You need to do both. To really score big time, you also need to do one more thing -- put the spotlight on the talent.
Once you've found a future star, you've got to let him or her perform. You can't just put talent on their shift and then not let them do what you brought them there to do. If they replaced someone with mediocre or limited ability who only talked four times an hour, then have them only read some tired liners that hadn't been changed in six months, let them stretch out. When you change jocks, change tactics. Change strategies. Freshen those liners. You've got to let the stars shine. There's nothing worse than a potential superstar jock, doing two or thee hours of show prep only to be told to "shut up and segue those jams."
Another thing that is not the programmer's fault is management's inability to understand how crucial talent is to winning. For example, many GMs are convinced that a syndicated morning show is the answer. But if one is not available, they are often unwilling to financially support a local morning show. A few who have been around for a while still think it's a one-man band. They (the owners) don't want to pay a producer, a co-host, do perception studies, subscribe to any comedy services or even run any syndicated short-form program aids.
Others take the approach of "shape up or ship out." The tactful and most effective approach is probably better than any attempt at intimidation. While management has to be firm in settling and enforcing the rules, the requirements of discipline should never blind them to the human values and the talent involved.
What about counseling and protecting the air staff? These are two areas which many young programmers may not be aware of, but which can be key to a top-performing, smooth-running air staff.
While providing this type of service to the staff is not a requirement for the job, it should be, because when handled properly it can aid in building loyalty and morale. Often, in much the same role, the PD has to act as a buffer between his air staff and the sales department. A client has a complaint; the manager's wife heard something she didn't like. In order to keep the peace and the faith, the PD has to shield these oftentimes temperamental people from harassment by outsiders.
Yes, it's a tough job, even for a true player. The pot keeps boiling while the PD/MD sits on the lid. The trick is to "ice the competition," whose only weapon is music. Game on!