August 30, 2011
"High Stakes & Low Moments"
As we enter the Fall Arbitron ratings sweeps, whether measurement is by diary or meter, one of the key questions we're hearing over and over again speaks to the fact that in many markets Urban radio is in a confused state. Allegiances are being thrown about and listener apathy toward Urban radio is obvious. It's not that today's listeners don't care; it's that they are getting a lot of the same things from too many sources, including other format-similar stations. Urban radio is losing listeners, talented veteran programmers, creativity and its uniqueness.
Other formats are benefiting from Urban radio's staleness. We're going to see more and more Urban and Urban AC stations suffering. Eventually, some will bail out of the format. That's going to result in even fewer gigs in a shrinking job market that has already seen some of its most talented people without a job and in many cases, without much hope that things are going to improve any time soon. And the industry can only absorb so many consultants.
All this means a pile-up of problems and very few solutions. One of the encouraging signs is seeing an Urban station pull listeners away from Top 40 or Rhythmic station that still wants to play it too safe. This is happening in a few markets. The reason is freshness. Freshness can be both exciting and addictive.
On the other side, I've talked to programmers who want to blame the record labels. They're saying the labels should take some blame because of the sameness of the music they've been releasing. They're saying it isn't mass-appeal enough and it lacks a unique sound. What everybody seems to be looking for, including the listeners, is an exciting, different product which will draw some partisans and stimulate interest from both the regular listeners and the "music freaks."
If there's no compelling reason to stay locked into an Urban station, both groups will leave or reduce the number of quarter-hours they listen. It could result in fewer Urban and Urban AC stations in six months. Whether the formats have peaked or hit bottom in terms of overall shares, Wall-Street driven companies are considering other options. Unfortunately, the big winners may be other formats and the big losers the Urban audience.
Musically aware programmers and music directors are saying they need to deliver to audience expectations. They say Urban radio needs to hang onto current, hip, mass-appeal tracks until they can be replaced by new ones. While this may make the station sound a little more burned out than we may like from time-to-time, it's better than losing the mass-appeal balance.
Another of the biggest, ongoing problems both Urban formats have faced recently has been the luring away of both the young audience and the adults, despite the musical polarization between the two groups. We need more format-exclusive records and artists because the splinter formats have helped to ruin artist exclusivity for Urban radio. Many PDs working at mainstream Urban stations have overreacted to this micro-niche mentality, which has limited Urban's overall broad appeal. Also, by confining themselves to the 18-34 female/office stereotype targets, many Urban stations have restricted themselves and in the process, reduced the station's overall appeal. We need to get back to recognizing Urban radio's mass appeal. It can be a 12-34 or even a 12-49 format in some markets.
Mainstream Urban stations can succeed in developing and keeping a much larger audience. Teens and young adults of all races enjoy hit records. The real legitimate top-10 hits have always had mass appeal. The kids come for the hits, but they enjoy a variety like other demos. The fringe stuff should be there for added impact.
In many markets, a burgeoning Hispanic population has lots of influence over what's mainstream in that particular market. Recent studies have shown that for mainstream Urban to really work, it's a case of playing only the best of all genres with a heavier lean in those markets where it makes sense. It's as simple as playing the right songs and the right time, keeping the jocks sounding hip and on top of the market, and keeping their mindset focused toward communication with an adult audience. Teens and young adults aren't offended by this. If you start talking down to them or using too much slang, you could lose them.
Here are some other secrets to keep in mind. As you sort through various forms of active and passive music research, remember that listener requests are quick indicators, but can be loaded with repeat callers. Those "phone jammers" or music freaks will call again and again for a record they really like. Callout research can help to determine rotations and gauge familiarity of cuts, but it's not the bible. If you've got a decent callout system in place, the passives are fairly easy to read. The trick is to know when to pull back on the active songs before they become tune-outs.
Passive records need more exposure to stimulate audience response and retail sales. Including online requests can be a strong active barometer, but you should beware of the hype. Those passive jams that don't generate requests often wind up being strictly a judgment call. Sometimes we add records for balance or with the belief that they will project a good image for the station. Right now there's a glut of music for both Urban and Urban AC formats. The trick is to find the hits. And once we've found them, we need to hang onto them and play them as long as they work. As an industry we are often too quick to drop records not showing some immediate reaction. The audience doesn't listen to the radio the way we do, so we have to give the new records more time to kick in.
Variety, spice and texture continue to be key words in the Urban format vocabulary. That's because the target audience is a generation that has somewhat eclectic tastes at times. They're not anti-new music. They're really looking forward to having their favorite station play some fresh jams. Many of the younger listeners are part of a generation of experimenters -- musically, socially, politically and otherwise. One of the key problems is that many stations still try to be all things to all people. That's impossible. What you want to do is serve the musical tastes of a generation that happens to enjoy a lot of different styles and loves fresh new music.
As far as presentation is concerned, it's critical that the air-staff is hip, intelligent, mature and informative as well as entertaining. A large portion of the baby boomer generation is estranged from terrestrial radio right now. Great heritage stations are keeping some of them by default. But there really isn't one format that completely satisfies them. Added to this are the problems created by loose, raw, unprofessional radio that some programmers still confuse with "keeping it real."
And finally, Urban radio needs to do all the right things. Our "unsolved problems" often begin and end with the prejudices that helped create cookie-cutter radio. We can't rid the world or our industries of prejudices. But we can refuse to tolerate mediocrity.