"The Leader's Advantage"
September 6, 2011
How Do You Prioritize?
It's clear that some of us learned some things and grew some this year. We had no choice. A few of us even got some real accomplishments under our belts. There are still big challenges ahead, though. Our ultimate vision of this brave new media world should be one in which we see opportunity to grow and improve ... not just carve up profits, yielding winners and losers. Some call this vision the "leader's advantage." If you're a programmer in today's competitive environment, you know that as a leader you have to develop a road map that will allow you to prioritize and multi-task efficiently and effectively. You may find yourself alone at first with only your past experiences to guide you.
While the past is behind us, hopefully it taught us something we can use to build a better station and a better tomorrow. But the past must not color our view of the future. Many industries took a beating last year. The radio and music industries had (and continue to have) issues of their own. Consolidation is real. Layoffs are real. Personnel moves are real. Missed sales targets are real. Lowered profits are real. And Arbitron's PPM is real.
But rather than look back on 2011 negatively, we should look ahead to 2012 positively. Many of the same issues remain in our path, but we've learned from our experiences of 2011 and we know that we will have to become better at our jobs, do more with less and think of ways to overcome challenges.
Certainly one of those challenges is the evolving PPM. Just making the transition from a recall form of measurement to a behavior-based form of measurement is a huge transition. Understanding PPM can bring about confidence -- a quality all leaders must have.
Where does the confidence to overcome challenges come from? It comes from a lot of places. Naturally, it comes from meeting with peers and sharing ideas from each other's individual experiences. It will come from the elite in the industry gathering to discuss the issues. It will come from these editorials, as well as conversations and exchanges. Lessons will be learned, solutions will be formulated, and goals laid out for a productive and successful 2012. Here are some thoughts on some of the things that as leaders we can do to improve the format and our future.
Talent Clutter & Horizontal Recycling
Two things that program leaders have to put on top of their to-do lists are dealing with talent clutter and horizontal recycling. We should start by removing the talent clutter. Clutter in any form is deadly, especially with PPM. And despite the strains on your time, you have to have regular airchecks with your air staff. How many of them still attempt to be funny or informative, but only end up being boring and silly? An air talent who adds clutter to the format is a liability that must be eliminated. Otherwise, the whole state of the station and the format are in jeopardy -- even if the music is on point.
Dealing with talent is always a major issue, and it takes a different approach for each personality. Talent usually wants everyone to like them. The key is to get their egos to work for them. Don't criticize them directly; find their strengths and focus on those. If you can show them where they're shooting themselves in the foot, they'll take out some of the trash for you.
As a consultant, one of my sore spots is how even seasoned personalities handle the phones. Many still put callers on live. That is a dangerous practice. Listener calls should always be recorded and edited. That way, poor or unwanted calls never get on the air and long callers get edited down. This is just one more effective way of removing talent clutter.
Personalities should be made aware that carefully screened and edited callers can help them and make them look good. They are essentially props. If Steve Harvey, Tom Joyner, Russ Parr, Doug Banks, Rickey Smiley, Michael Baisden or Frank Ski never took callers, the audience wouldn't notice. Callers are such a very small percentage of the audience that they are not a critical response factor, providing the other elements are in place.
Another thing that will help programmers -- and something new programmers need to recognize -- is the value of horizontal recycling. It works better when you use it to promote tomorrow at the same time, rather than trying to promote the rest of the show, even though both are important. Recent studies revealed that even the most loyal listeners (including those carrying a meter or a diary) are only listening to one of five hours of a show. Morning shows have a tendency to come on the air with guns blazing, doing the passionate, personal stuff they're excited about at six o'clock. But the power hour doesn't begin until seven. If you structure and schedule the content on the morning show with this in mind, that can make a huge difference. The power hour is seven to eight o'clock. That's when there is the highest number of sets in use. You have people in the cars going to or from work and school, along with those at home. These busy commuters need their favorite station to make the most of their time, editing and expurgating.
This whole concept of editing and eliminating the "talent clutter" is becoming a huge problem. It often involves a lack of training. It's a known fact that the demand for qualified air talent, particularly morning air talent, far exceeds the supply. Today's programmers and consultants have to spend more time listening to airchecks and less time in front of their computers. The reason is obvious. If we can't find talented on-air personalities, we have to train them and nobody wants to do that.
We want someone else to find them, just like we want someone else to find our hits. Research can't find them. It can help to sort out those music titles that are burned or don't achieve high passion scores, but it can't find them. And a consultant (these aliens from another format) whose forte is not Urban really can't find them. We all want to play it safe, but you can't put the station on automatic and expect ratings to rise. That's simply not going to happen. There are reasons why training and talent development continue to be major problems for Urban radio. The reasons go far beyond the basics or just getting the music right.
Some of today's leaders have problems training others because they weren't really trained themselves. Many came from stations where the PD was on the air, moved up, and never knew how to do talent development. If that's your situation, you can't ignore the problem and wait for it to bite you. Sit down with your air talent and really listen at least once a week. Listen critically for one hour a week. Transcribe the show in detail, catching the missed formatics, wrong sequences, lack of meaningful content, poor voice transitions, etc. It you note just one little thing that you can tell your air talent, they'll think you listen all the time.
Compelling Content And Emotion
Once you have reduced or eliminated the clutter, you have to replace it with compelling programming. Just what is compelling programming? Compelling programming is when the air personality tells the listeners something they don't know. You want your local air -personalities to embrace emotion. When done well, radio is a hot medium. Heat doesn't come from playing 10 songs in a row when the other stations play only seven. It comes from talented air personalities honestly expressing emotion or passion.
Your station scores when your local air talent speaks very frankly about the things that listeners don't know about, want to hear -- and it better be something they already care about. Then, if they speak on that subject with a touch of humor, and do that consistently, you've won the game.
The Fatigue Factor
After we've taken care of the air talent trash, we have to look at the overall sound of the station. Even if you get the perfect staff and playlist, if it sounds like it's being filtered through a wind tunnel, you've still got big problems. If your engineer can't tell that the sound of the station is flat, shallow and "muddy," compared to your competition, you've got a tough fight. It will be noticed right away by your listeners, who constantly make comparisons -- even subconscious, left-brain ones -- between you and your direct (or indirect) format competitors.
As the leader, you have to take care of it. You must convince your chief engineer, GM, owner, consultant or group PD that there is a need for some new audio processing equipment. This is an area that is all too often overlooked in Urban radio. And HD radio is here. So when you upgrade, you should upgrade with an eye toward the future.
Now let's check out the signal itself. Regardless of your power, you want to sound as clean and crisp as possible. One of the ways Urban stations often lose, especially with the blurring of formats and music lately, is when your competition plays the same song, often at the same time you are playing it, and it sounds better over there. All of a sudden, it doesn't matter who plays 10 songs in a row, because all that hum, hiss, cross-talk, vibration and distortion in your audio signal is going to take its toll. It's called audience fatigue. Let's face it: Tuners and other audio equipment in homes, cars and portable versions are now digital and getting better, cheaper and smaller all the time. This is making even the younger members of your audience somewhat purist, if only by comparison.
We're talking about the state of the station and the future here. We're talking about not being afraid to embrace the unknown. It's a good idea to take a real interest in the future. After all, that's where you will spend the rest of your life.
As the program leader, if you're skilled and persistent enough to be able to remove the clutter, improve your air talent and audio processing, get your station on top, naturally, you are then expected to keep it there. The problem however, is that chances are your GM or market manager may add even add more commercial units and promos, remotes and clutter and ask you to understand. They've got pressure, too. The problem is that these extra units and remotes directly affect the sound of the station and its ratings.
As the program director, you are one of the leaders. You have to take a stand and you have to take some risks. Remember those who fit in now won't stand out later. Those who simply follow the rules are never noticed because the system has broken their spirit. Leaders must not lose their spirit. There's always plenty of work for the undifferentiated masses, so you can have as much of that as you are willing to handle. You have to pick your time to fight these battles. You have one of the most challenging and yet rewarding positions at the station. Naturally, great power comes with great responsibility. Be bold, be innovative ... but lead.