The Light At the End Of The Tunnel
August 9, 2011
Did We See It In Time?
This time we want to examine the light at the end of the tunnel. What does it mean? Is it daylight or another high-speed train on the same track? If you're a "conductor" or programmer, you have to know and you have to be right. Fortunately, there are ways to know exactly what that light is, what it means and what you have to do to prepare.
First of all, if it's another train on the same track, you have to prepare to switch off. That means changing or adjusting the format. This often involves reconnecting with the audience.
A New Game
Today's business environment calls for new rules because it's a new game, with new players. We've got to be willing to give up old habits and practices to learn new ones. How do we reconnect with our audience and develop a new generation from the maze of control freaks, dictator broadcasters, consultants and independent thinkers looking to build a reputation at our expense?
Shifting demographic targets have challenged many of today's Urban or Urban AC stations. Too few stations are growing or looking for ways to build their brands locally by reaching out and touching new listeners. There are obvious reasons for this. A lot of it has to do with the tools which have been provided.
Many of the most basic tools that fueled over a decade of extraordinary winning -- consistent music research and regular meaningful, powerful marketing -- have been systematically cut. The direct correlation between these cuts and some ratings shortfalls is our "elephant in the room" ... and decision-makers don't want to see the elephant cling to any possible lame excuse.
But the truth is that self-imposed, budgetary moves continue to affect our stations. They have clouded our vision and limited our ability to see all the way down the tracks. This brings about another question. Have the format's leaders worked hard enough to help the genre evolve? I personally don't think any format can stay vibrant and viable unless its programmers are not only willing to change and innovate, but also are eager to do so. I hear major-market Urban and Urban AC stations that sound exactly the way they did five years ago, with the same production elements between songs. First off, we have to look at the songs themselves and the people who make the decisions about these songs.
The first step is to seek out and promote those decision-makers who really listen to music, understand how to apply research results and keep their word. I mean, you've got PDs and MDs who don't even have a research system in place telling label executives, "Your record didn't make it in our callout research."
The biggest blame for weak or marginal records being played in our formats is that programmers have either forgotten how to listen to music or how to effectively utilize their callout research. As a result, they wind up adding and playing marginal records. Then there are the group conference calls. The problem eventually exacerbates when an influential station or group of stations adds a record and the PDs of 20 other stations who watch their playlists add the record, too.
Today, more than ever, we need to begin to understand and take more control over the values and knowledge that will eventually shape our lives. How do you reconnect with your audience, and how do you go about really understanding the game? It helps to look at the facts and the math.
There are approximately 12,000 radio stations in this country, a part of a $17 billion-a-year industry, and nearly half of them play the same four formats: contemporary music, Oldies, Country or News. Urban falls into the broad category of contemporary music. These stations have been using essentially the same template since the '90s.
Then, because of deregulation, companies that owned a few stations were bought by companies that owned a few more, which in turn changed the stations to suit their needs, until only a few formats managed by multibillion dollar conglomerates came to dominate the radio airwaves, which are supposed to be used in the "public interest." But, in many cases, public interest has given way to "vested interest." Radio has become a delivery system for music and advertisements so that investors and labels can maintain pace and make a speedy profit.
We must realize that we are all working against two enemies --time and corporate America. Corporate America may eventually be the demise of our industry, especially if it keeps co-opting the subculture. In some cases, it's using the language and ideas and concepts of the rebellion and struggle to sell its ideas.
Because of its quest at any cost for profit and sustaining its ideals and morality, one of my fears is that we may be looking at a homogenized society where eventually everything that is unique will be bought and controlled by corporations. We could soon be staring down at a world where some wild animals (including a few of the two-legged kind) may no longer be an endangered species but rather a quaint memory, where our energy system could collapse and take part of our society with it. Where our reckless consumption leaves us with an environment that's flooded and poisoned -- and an Urban radio community that has been systematically deprived of what we continue to promise them.
We have to always keep our eyes on the real goals. We can get better jobs, keep the ones we have and enjoy being a part of one of the most exciting industries in the world. We can do all this better if we understand the methods of survival and growth. We owe the reasons for the increasing importance of all these issues to two words. Greed and success. Because before we had greed and success, there was no reason to change.
Training and understanding the game is still what it's all about. Programmers and music directors are not born; they're trained -- some of them not very well. And if they're not trained, they're vulnerable. So are their stations. So are their jobs and ours. We're all at risk.
The very word risk implies some danger. But how much? Well, if you're a circus trapeze star and haven't tested the safety net, it could mean a nasty bruise. If you're an investor calculating how much you will make if you're lucky and not what you might lose if you're wrong, you might as well kiss your bread goodbye.
So how do you avoid the pitfalls, switch tracks and reconnect with your audience? Well, programmers have to take some risks and chances. Programming, when it is done right, is a science. Not an exact science, but a science nonetheless.
Let's face it: To be a programmer, you have to be a little crazy. You have to be an explorer, and you must have a taste for adventure. One has to take reality with curiosity and courage to be able to understand it and change it. Programmers are a lot like architects. We live on the frontier, and every so often we have to cross it to see what is on the other side. The good ones understand ratings, especially PPM, and use techniques to generate an emotion and do so with its own specific language made up of words, proportions, math and creativity.
Like in all arts, there are going to be difficult moments. Creating means grasping in the dark, abandoning points of reference, facing the unknown, tenaciously and stubbornly. Without stubbornness you remain outside of things. To be truly creative, the architect has to accept all the contradictions of his profession: discipline and freedom, memory and invention, nature and technology, taking risks in the name of progress and growth.
The Music Has To Be Right
The music still has to be right. Music is a lot like fashion, and the trends always begin with the younger end of the demographic scale. Teens and young adults are an active part of that group. They are the trendsetters. Music trends that are created at Urban radio go all the way up the demographic scale. The Urban audience is big, and they like the fact that they can still relate to some of the same music and artists they liked when they were growing up.
This is why research is so important today. Urban radio still has the ability to somewhat control its own destiny. It's a destiny that starts with the managers and owners. They need to begin budgeting for the battle before they start calling for the cume. That means that they have to give their programming people time and a realistic budget. The only thing you can do on a shoestring is trip -- and not the way you want to. We need to adapt a policy of "no hits barred." If we're going to reconnect with our audience, we have to let our imaginations and creative juices flow freely.
We have to constantly look for jams that fit the sound of the station, become more attuned to the market and occasionally not be afraid to play songs that don't fit. We must become "calculated risk-takers." We have to always remember the "growing-shedding theory" and give the younger audience something in our music mix to call their own. We have to attract new listeners by re-evaluating all older library vocals and removing or resting many of them. We have to continually find new ways to deliver the station's on-air product and constantly refresh its musical presentation and imaging, all while ensuring that our air-personalities remain relevant.
There's a talent tie-in that can't be overlooked as we attempt to keep our train on track. Talent remains an essential ingredient for the format's success. They have to sell the music and the vibe of the station and localize content. So what do you do if you have syndicated talent that you don't control? The answer to that is you have to do the best you can to localize them. Make their dry-voice liners that you drop over song intros work for your station. Change them often and give a lot of thought to what you would like them to say to give the station a local flavor. And we have to constantly remind our air talent there is still no substitute for being informed and prepared.
Finally, not only do we have to reconnect with our audience, we have to reconnect with our true selves. We have to make certain that our stations don't lose what makes them special. We have to make sure that we see light not only at the end of the tunnel, but all the way through. Then we've got to remember that even if you've got what it takes, you've still got to find someone to take what you've got.