Urban Radio -- Poised For Change
October 18, 2011
Arbitron Awareness & Generational Differences
To compete effectively, Urban radio will have to continue to innovate and expand its products for both consumers and advertisers. New platforms, online mobile and HD, as well as new content traffic, on-demand video programming and data services are going to become even more important to our future bottom line. And we've got to get better at being listener-centric and reflecting that across all distribution platforms. In short, Urban radio is poised for change.
We've often said that the best, most-experienced programmers know that part of any successful programming strategy is assuming that some of your listeners are going to carry a meter or get a diary. To really program effectively today, we have to increase our "Arbitron awareness." This simply means that at least once an hour, we have to program to those members of the audience who are also meter wearers or diary keepers.
Who are these people? They're your everyday, living-for-the-weekend people. They span and overlap at least two generations. Primarily, they are what's known as "Generation Y." They are in a non-Arbitron defined age category between 15-28. They have influenced political power long enough to begin to stack the deck in their favor. They were and are brash and bold, connected and active. They have a multitude of resources available to them and they'll use them to find out everything about anything they want. They're smarter and faster than the generation they replaced, so don't sell them short. Remember, they can look up and compare anything on their computer or smartphones, so we can't condescend to them.
Generation Y'ers have always struck some as very self-centered and self-important because there are so many of them. They're always in the middle of the next fun moment at some ongoing party and even though they're able, they may choose not to deter their gratification to tackle the long-term problems. What some Y'ers did was expand the range of individual choices of how people live. The division today between conservatives and liberals is really a debate over the boomer's legacy.
Some of these listeners already take pride in what they have bequeathed. Y'ers women, for example, broke into many male-dominated fields on a broad scale and expanded options for those who follow.
Some of them are "music freaks." As we look back on their lives, we find most of them had a good time. They partied and protested, then grew up to dominate with their chutzpah and sheer numbers. Yet now, as the oldest members of boomer generation prepare to turn 55, there are glimmers of doubt with this "have it all" Generation Y or Jones about how they will be judged by those who come next; and, by extension, how those who get Arbitron meters or diaries will judge and credit their favorite station.
They're all part of our growing and shedding audience, and if your station is shedding more than it grows, you know you need a new formula.
There are still a few time-tested formulas that, when put in place, can actually help stations achieve their Arbitron goals. As we move through the year, we notice a unique market revolution that continues to take place in Urban radio today. We see it as a far-reaching, sociological change combined with the new economic realities brought on by consolidation.
Born into the more favorable, less-competitive environment of the late '00s, many stations achieved ratings success rapidly. Now with expanding group ownership, the level of competition has increased in nearly every size market. There is a new, grim Darwinian law at work that directly affects this "shedding and growing" generation.
Generational Contests & Promotions
This year, lots of programmers still tried to lure listeners by using novel cash contests in an attempt to temporarily buy an audience. But the effect is short-lived. Even worse, you may just turn your audience into addicts. Every time you run a contest they want more and more. I know an East Coast Top 40 station that gave away several iPad 2s and went down in the ratings. Then, to add injury to insult, the station had to run spots and promos for days.
People listen to the radio to be entertained and informed. Anything we can do beyond that has to work really well or listener expectations won't be fulfilled.
In a book called "Mind Your Xs And Ys," author Lisa Johnson talks about baby boomers and their expectations. Because of the current economy, many listeners in this generation are living under huge debt. Job availability for many of those between the ages of 18 and 29 is pretty limited, particularly for qualified minorities. So the whole prospect of getting older is a little unnerving if you're in the "Generation Y" demographic. We strongly recommend the book for serious programmers.
Out of the same "Generation Y" group study came some results that showed that this group tended to react negatively to the hype most stations offer as part of their programming and positioning. The problem is that this generation doesn't believe it. They feel, and we agree, that you can't be bigger, badder, more improved, constantly offering more music, more money and a better variety.
What's the answer? First of all, you can't get on the air and say. "You get it all here." We've got to be different. Our benefits have got to be self-evident. Above all, our marketing messages have got to be credible. We've got to be real. Honesty is super-important to this new generation. We've got to share our weaknesses as well as our strengths. This generation knows very well that nobody and no station is perfect. To them, self-re-evaluation reinforces credibility.
Arbitron still measures awareness more than actual listening. That means whatever you do, you've got to be one of those two or three stations people mention and remember. If you have two very good sounding radio stations, the one that is top-of-mind wins.
Another type of ratings maneuver that can cause your ratings to rise involves knowing where your station stands in the awareness category. This should become an important part of your next research project. Just make sure you include it when you do your next auditorium tests. If it turns out you have great awareness, you just want to maintain share. There are some very traditional strategies to be followed. If, for example, your station is #1 and you're taking up a defensive position, you should do like Coke did. Every time Pepsi came out with a new product line, they copied it (and then they got credit for it). Meanwhile, if you're the new kid in town, you've got to figure out ways to get your product to market faster and make a big noise about it. You want to produce a product that fits the niche your competitor is trying to fill. Then, you get credit for it because you're the leader.
As the leader, you have to maintain top-of-the-mind awareness. Certainly having your listeners become habitual and constantly thinking of your station when they turn on the radio will help you to score with the P1s (heavy users). However, we must do a better job of customer service to really put the game out of reach. With so many stations overlapping musically and changing formats and staffs all the time, it makes it very difficult for the audience to become brand loyal; therefore, consistency is key here.
There is a difference between consistency and predictability. What we want to ultimately become is "predictably unpredictable." This is so while listeners may not know exactly what to expect, they know it's going to be "off-the-chain." To be totally appealing we must be both fresh and familiar. It's not impossible, but it does require some research. A fresh, hip, familiar sounding Urban station can score big numbers. All it really means is that the overall sound of the radio station, from the way the news and traffic are delivered to the promos and the liners from the jocks, must be attractive to an audience that sees itself as the hippest and freshest listeners out there, whether or not they really are.
That's exciting ... and excitement does make a difference ... an Arbitron difference. We must always strive to super-serve and exceed listeners' expectations. This is another tactic that translates into a definite competitive advantage in the ratings race that leading stations use to lead.
What is comes down to is that Urban radio stations need to get back to being product driven and audience driven. We need to once again become the type of station where good creative people can make the difference. It's a given that the best way to ensure that your station gets the credit it deserves is to be top-of-mind.
Finally, winning the format franchise means good management of cume and core. At any given point on your radio station, you've got people coming in and leaving the "store." What you want to do is get people to come and stay. You want to convert cume into core. The best way to do this is to assess the appeal of a given song at a given time against its appeal to either the core or the cume. Then assign to it a category that makes it either a core or a cume song. Then you build your categories in sequence in such a way that it lets you manage the flow of core and cume. A song will pull in the cume listeners. They'll know that song and then a core selection will follow that, so that they're not alienated. Too many programmers and consultants are still categorizing songs by era and not really addressing the issue of cume and core stress.
If you're going to be truly poised for change, you have to do an effective job in all the areas discussed above -- and then do what you can to transcend what is ordinary.