October 11, 2011
Cultivate The Core And Non-Core
At one time, Urban and Urban AC stations owned a nice chunk of the radio real estate and were keepers of an avid, loyal audience. Lately, in a few markets, that has changed. Skeptics say the format is in trouble and blame PPM, technology and outside factors. We believe Urban formats are at an important crossroads in today's new era of music consumption and entertainment options.
It's obvious that PPM methodology favors high cume, mass-appeal formats over niche formats that rely on small core audiences who listen for longer periods of time. The secret to winning for today's Urban radio is to continue to draw non-core fans to the format. To accomplish that, we need to ask the right questions and avoid violating listeners' values.
Today's busy programmers can never have too much information about their stations' listeners - what they like, what they don't like, what excites them, what annoys them and what makes them tune in or tune out. While expectations can vary across formats, a sense of the station's understanding of their listeners' expectations is key. Listeners bring expectations to each tune-in ... and these expectations vary from daypart to daypart.
Many programmers and consultants have found that by examining dayparts they get a better feel for the behavior of existing listeners who are already tuned in. With PPM, when a song begins you can check back to see if the audience continued listening or if they switched to another station. The object, of course, is to find a more effective way to stack our playlists.
Strictly from a musical standpoint, there are many ways to "stack" a playlist. Some stations use past seasonal history. Others use only active methodology. Still others factor in requests, retail and callout research. Our recommendation is to do all of the above and then look beyond the raw numbers so that you can predict burnout ahead of the research and the competition.
It's a tough task because, in most cases, you can't tell a thing until you put the record on the radio. Even the best research can be flawed. That's because many songs are active at the format much longer than they used to be. And, they are taking many more weeks to test -- begging the question, "Why?"
The primary reason songs are taking longer to test and spending so much time on the active playlist has to do with multiple distractions vying for listeners' eyes and ears. As programmers we're hearing songs sometimes three or four times a day because we're so close to the product, but the average listener is not hearing them nearly as much. So as a result, as a programmer you have to believe in the song and be more patient. Some projects really don't get their due because after five or six weeks, labels pull the plug because the song's not developing. It's not running up the charts. And while there are some songs by established artists that automatically perform and test well, when you have a new nameless, faceless artist who has to be exposed to the masses, it takes longer. At the end of the day, radio and the labels have to be patient and let the product develop -- especially if they're the only station in the market supporting the record. .
Once the music is right, you have to plug in some personality, take some chances and give the format some flavor. Programmers have to give their air talent some room to move around and be personalities. The key is to have them "keep one foot in place," meaning format basics, but the wiggle room is where you can give your audience something extra and special. Show prep and personality are like vitamins.
Emotional Connections Forged By Imaging
Today's listeners have an overwhelming number of choices for music and entertainment: mp3 players, Pandora, iHeart, iPods, Internet, smartphones, iPads, laptops, satellite radio and burnable CDs are just a few that top the list. With this in mind, imaging becomes more crucial than ever. Imaging creates interest and fuels the momentum of the programming. It is the only facet of programming that truly separates one station from its competitor. The station down the dial can play the same jams and acquire great imported and local talent. But it is the packaging of the product that plays a crucial element in determining the station's success.
Remember, today's listeners are neither patient nor forgiving. An over-communicated world has trained them to be immune to mundane and traditional approaches that might have worked back in the day. New methods of thinking and creating need to be addressed, embraced and executed to keep listeners tuning in. Today's young listeners in particular don't want to be told what to do -- and definitely do not want to be forced to jump through hoops to get what they want. The right imaging will allow your listeners to draw their own conclusions and discover the part of the message that connects with them on an emotional level.
Listeners' time is valuable and if they feel it's being wasted they won't hang around. That means your promos need to paint a picture while delivering a clear and concise message. Clichés should be avoided at all costs. Don't be predictable. Take the listeners by surprise. Sell the sizzle and create a larger-than-life image. Filling your promos with sponsors, rules and unnecessary information only angers them, dilutes the message and bores them. This could cause you to go from a P1 to a P2 or P3 instantly.
Your promos should be written with a campaign mindset. Create episodes with a common theme. This slows burn, stimulates interest and creates surprise. This mindset should be used for your evergreen promotions or those with a long shelf life. If you have four days to promote an event, it's better to do it with one brilliant promo instead of five "quickie ones."
Make Your Station A "Giver"
In order for you to receive, you have to examine the competition and then become a "giver." The competition has changed. With the proliferation of format-similar stations, radio is coming closer to the iPod shuffle of mp players. It's like a parade of artists, often more incompatible than most of us have ever heard on a well-programmed station. Recently we heard an "Urban-leaning" Top 40 station where the same 30 songs were formatted so tightly they could barely breathe. It was a kind of "Jack station" and soon enough the purpose became more obvious. "We're your #1 hit music station" came the booming recorded voice with just a hint of smugness. This station was P2 when the Urban station was P1. Both stations were attempting to give their audience more.
From an advertising and revenue perspective, inside those "givers" there are two groups -- a smaller "core" that accounts for the vast majority of Urban spending and a larger collection of listeners referred to as "low-funding fans." They represent future revenue growth potential for the format.
Frustrated Urban program directors visibly wince when they realize they're sharing audience with some of these Top 40 "train wrecks," offering artists whose songs weren't necessarily Urban or even Top 40 hits of the day. And then there are the rightfully incensed air personalities, many of whom are losing their gigs to syndication and voicetracking.
With all this syndication and voicetracking, some listeners are probably thinking what difference does it really make whether stations have live, local jocks anymore, anyway? In this age of pre-recorded shifts, with the possible exception of morning shows (many of which are syndicated on Urban and Urban AC stations) what are today's air personalities really giving the listener? If you call to make a request, no one will answer because no one is in the studio. The switchboard is on automation. No one is in the studio because corporate mentality believes that personalities can be more productive if they aren't tied to the microphone for four hours. But checking off a to-do list instead of serving an audience is a dangerous swap.
I'm not suggesting that this is the fault of the air personalities or even the program directors. Most of them have little or no choice. They hate that their jobs have come to this. They've been stripped of their personalities, relegating them to recording on-air breaks in 45 minutes to then be cut and pasted in between songs. But a paycheck is a paycheck.
Making these moves can also be damaging for the record industry, because it means less fresh music on the radio. It means multiple airings of new music in prime dayparts and no front-announcing or back-announcing of artists and titles. And most people only use RDS in their cars. Even then, they like us to tell them the artist and title of all new music.
Another key ingredient in any Urban format is freshness. Even for adults, with fall and winter, as the temperature drops, the tempo should rise. These seasons are still party times for a lot of fickle folks who, if you don't give them something they can feel, will find a fresh new frequency in a flash.
Giving your audience constant freshness by staying on top of the music, trends and feelings for the younger end of your target audience can really charge up your station's sound and image and has been known to let you score. Remember, if your teens and 18-24s go up, so do your overall numbers. Give them a reason to go up.
Many markets have fragmented young listenership. The teens and 18-24s who still think and dance like teens still want to hear their music. There is a growing Hispanic core that loves Urban music, especially rap and even some Old School jams. Even though for the teens and many of the 18-24s, listening is often scattered, it can really help to swell your totals -- especially with Arbitron weighting and sample balancing processes. Teen and young-demo awareness is often the catalyst that leads to a stronger overall showing. The 18-34 females will follow the teens and eventually the entire 25-49 cell develops.
Research shows that males like hip-hop and less repetition, while female acceptance of love songs is overwhelming. Both like energy. Power ballads mixed with uptempo jams or club tracks can provide the balance needed to lock up teens and 18-24s. The key is to give your audience the fresh new songs that are mass appeal but have a hip image. A lot of reactionary records fall into this category.
Teens and 18-24s are critical to any Urban station's ratings, especially in the winter when many adult-targeted stations tend to slow down the number of new songs and increase the long-term recurrents, stay-currents and library gold tracks. You have to take yourself out of the big picture. Music is much like fashion and other trends in that it always begins with the young people. They're the trendsetters. Music trends are created with them and that's another reason why teens are important.
Teens who can't or don't drive often are more like their parents, while older teens and 18-24s begin to make their own decisions and invariably choose things their parents don't like. Urban music and radio fall right into this category for a lot of rebellious, subUrban non-blacks looking for a hip alternative.
Now what about the sales managers and GMs who tell us they only want 25-49 numbers to fill in the 18-34 cells? They wrongly try to separate the teens from the adults, which is an inter-connected process. When building familiarity with a new song, callouts and requests kick in first with teens, build to women 18-34, and then spread to men. Few straight, Urban male listeners over 15 comment about music at all on these callout tests. Tomorrow's teen artists will appeal to tomorrow's 18+ audience.
Even some rap has done well with adults, proving the familiarity precept and the strength of a hit record actually transcends demographics. Rap and Urban music is no longer just a success story. It's the story of the music industry, which it currently dominates. It's possible to keep your adults and add some teens. And teens can actually generate some adult numbers. Also, don't forget that there are a lot of mainstream Urban stations that have attempted to go adult and ended up dying in the process.
On the other hand, it's not uncommon for a mainstream station to be #1 12+, second or third in the 18-34s, and fourth or fifth overall in the 25-54 standings. This means an advertiser can buy one station and reach nearly everyone, with some bonus audience on both sides.
Whether it's a top-10 market or a small station in a market with one yellow page, the waters are just as turbulent. Markets and stations are changing. Competition, like the wind, is coming from every direction, every format.
Finally, don't forget the "music freaks." They're listeners, too ... selfish listeners who are disenfranchised. They're waiting for a station to give them what they want. These are listeners who can be yours for a song - the right song, played at the right time. The only thing they really care about is music. They want to hear the hits, their music, and lots of it. And they really don't care who gives it to them.
Speaking of giving, whether you understand or agree with them or not, go easy on the Jacks and Bobs and lame Top 40 stations with their wacky, scattered playlists. They may have done us a huge favor. They have created a void that will allow us to return an element of fun, hipness and personality to an industry that is turning largely robotic.
Economists and major agencies are both forecasting a softer winter for Urban stations from an advertising perspective this year. That's always bad news for programmers. When money's tight, GMs' tempers are short and so are their budgets.
A lot of careers will be on the line this year as we find our industries involved in some tough ratings battles. Effective dayparting can help us win some of these wars. There will be scars and wounds. If we're in a funk, it's a funk of our own making. Just remember -- Lick the lollipop of mediocrity once and suck forever.