Urban Radio's Need For Innovation
September 20, 2011
Radio Is Still An Art Form
From its inception, this column has taken on ambitious goals. Simply put, to use all our resources, background and experience to spread knowledge and inform our readers in the pursuit of finding solutions. It's also about holding the mirror and inviting our Urban radio community to give itself a penetrating look at an often-unflattering reflection. The obvious corollary and my belief is that a station's most valuable resource is still lodged in the heads of its employees and goes home with them at night. Because of those thoughts, I believe radio is still an art form and there is a need for constant innovation.
With nearly as many ways to program as there are markets, strategies and stations, today's Urban and Urban AC radio are becoming even more complicated formats. Future success strategies also vary widely. As we learn more and make adjustments, Urban programmers are finding new obstacles as well as solutions.
This year, 2011, has been kind of an extension of a technology boom that will continue through the remainder of the decade. It has shifted the boundaries and many of its effects are being felt for the first time. Our industry, whose immediacy has always been a promoted benefit, have been slow to adjust to recent shifts. The result is that some Urban stations are going to see their Arbitron digits drop.
Urban radio, like some other current music formats, has proven to be cyclical. Some feel that Urban may be in the declining phase of the cycle in certain markets, but given time, will bounce back. We'll have to wait and see but given the conditions we face in 2011, future Urban success will require renewed understanding of the audience and great skill in executing the format.
Increased competition and the rollout of Arbitron's PPM seemingly have affected how people listen, how their listening is measured and how we program. PPM seems to have sliced everyone's share of the pie into smaller pieces. We must realize that as new options are introduced to the audience, competition will quickly fragment the market. Recent advances in the Internet, iPods, Pandora, iHeart and other music systems will continue to expand the choices consumers have. The proliferation of mobile devices and Internet-connected media outlets will also expand audio's influence in the media landscape.
Performing To The Target Audience
More pressure to perform within the saleable 25-54 demographic is another condition we face today. Station owners know they can't survive financially without achieving success within these demos. Traditionally, pure Urban stations have targeted 12-34 demographics, while Urban ACs hone in on the 25-54s. But that is changing and both formats have to overlap to really score. Many straight-ahead Urban stations have been forced to shift from a 12-34 base to a 25-49 focus, emphasizing 18-34.
The bottom line, of course, is still profitability. The best way to reach profitability is to have consistently great ratings and then have a sales staff that can turn those ratings into dollars.
At the same time, research has shown there is a musical "generation gap" between the 12-24 and 25-34 age cells. This gap has made it increasingly difficult for a station to attract the wide demographic range it once could. A few years ago, when the only competition was the station across the dial, nine and 10-minute commercial stopsets were possible because everybody did them. But today's listener is impatient, has many other choices and isn't going to sit through long commercial sets. Their ability to hear hundreds of songs with the click of a mouse has expanded the musical horizon.
Today's multimedia exposure to music also means that our P1 audience will grow tired of music much faster. They might first hear about a new song from friends on a social website, listen to it on Pandora or Rhapsody, then see the video on YouTube before radio even adds it. That means real research today has to be more about measuring the trajectory of a song than determining the right moment to add it.
Another often-overlooked research fact is that within any group, active participants make up a very small proportion of the total potential audience. Then when you isolate those people into listeners carrying a meter or diary, it gets even narrower. For example, a single panelist turning off the radio, walking out of a room where an encoded station is playing, or even a bus driving by the car, could give the illusion of massive tune-out or tune-in.
Arbitron PPM panels are theoretically large enough to reliably estimate audience levels in broad demographics during entire dayparts, but as you examine the numbers, looking at narrower demos and smaller time increments, the question of reliability creeps in. Recent studies have shown that for many Urban stations, panel sizes are just too small to provide reliable estimates within brief time periods such as the length of a song or a stopset.
Now let's examine the evolvement of how the music we play is created. Musically, synthesizers, autotune, drum machines, samplers and other electronic devices are now available to the masses. They have been used to create new musical genres, particularly with hip-hop jams. These genres attracted a large segment of the younger 12-24 demos, but they also repelled an equally large segment of the 25-34 cells. The 25-34s were less receptive to some of the newer musical genres. The adults were more receptive to some acoustic-based songs from real singers they were familiar with. We must also consider that higher levels of ethnic composition in larger markets and more format-similar stations further fragment the audience.
As a result of these conditions, a growing number of Urban stations are going to face a "do or die" crossroads in the very near future. Some stations have already abandoned or modified their formats, while others may be forced to bail out soon. As principles of economics (supply and demand, survival of the fittest) force weaker competitors out of the format, the Urban market will reconsolidate and the life cycle will begin again.
As radio becomes more competitive, marketing will become more crucial as programmers will be forced to do it with less financial support. Intense media exposure has sensitized the audience to the messages we're constantly sending. Consumers don't know who or what to believe any more. This is especially true for the Generation Yers and Joneses. To make a real impact, successful marketers will have to hit the consumer at an emotional level and send specific messages promoting the benefits of their products.
Along these lines the format will have to adjust its presentation. For a station to click in consumer's heads, it must match their mood and identity. Stations create atmospheres. Today, more Urban atmospheres feel a little like video arcades or at night, almost a club environment. We're not saying this is wrong, but the format needs to back off the accelerator a little and try to create an atmosphere the 25+ audience can relate to and be more comfortable with.
While Urban radio as a whole hasn't yet seen its 25-34 cells exactly swelling, there has been some growth in a few markets. In fact, some broad-based Urban stations have leaned more 25+ than 25-54. But even the limited infusion of new talent has still afforded the format an opportunity it didn't have previously -- the ability to attack the format leader in the market by carving out a niche on the younger flank of the leader's core. Now, in some markets, there is no direct-format competitor, so who would the leader be in that case? The answer is the leader would then become the station with whom you share the most audience. In some cases, outlets targeting younger demos have met with impressive success in the early stages of building a youthful core.
I believe Urban radio is getting a helping hand in introducing the younger audience to the format. Today's 18-34-year-old grew up on contemporary music, so they relate more to a fresh style of both radio presentation and music. And if there's nothing else in the market that appeals to them, we now have the product to give us a chance at winning them as listeners. We may not become their favorite station, but we could easily become a P2 station for them, while the Top 40 station is P1. The current youth movement is lifestyle-driven and has more depth. The ability to attract younger demos coupled with the need for more innovation perfectly positions Urban as the music and format of the future.
Finally, none of us is asking for yet another contrarian voice in the current media landscape. A reasonable voice, however, deserves our attention. And there is a hunger and need for responsibility bent on providing a forum for solutions. That's what we hope to continue to provide.