Today's Urban Demo Dilemma
November 8, 2011
Competition Forces The Re-Definition Of Product
Urban stations, particularly Urban Adult-formatted ones, have become part of a complicated format lately. Strategies for future success vary widely. What's the feasibility of evolving the average age of Urban AC stations' audience from the current 39-54 year-olds to those listeners somewhere in their mid-30s? From an image standpoint, intense media exposure has sensitized the audience to the messages we're sending. Consumers don't know what to believe anymore, so they don't believe much of anything. To make an impact on today's audience, we have to hit the listeners at an emotional level and send specific messages promoting the benefits of our stations.
As programmers, we struggle not to disenfranchise the upper demos as we attempt to attract younger listeners. There's a certain liability in not being too concerned with 18-34s. Some sharp Urban AC programmers think the format should stay right where it is and instead focus on those listeners who already love the music -- then simply find sharper sales people to sell it. Another winning Urban AC program strategist says that change must come between the records, with imaging and a fresher, contemporary sound that includes more new music.
There is an Urban demo dilemma and regardless of which path you choose to follow, there's nothing you can do to prevent some sampling of a new competitor, which is all the more reason to build a wall of customer service around your most preferred listeners -- the P1s. A contemporary format targeting adults can still take an aggressive current music stance. The ability to air new music and lead the way has always been an advantage of the format. It helps reduce boredom and create excitement. Urban AC programmers simply need to exercise greater discipline when competing with other adult formats that tend to be more scrutinizing of their product.
Too many stations simply lock into their callout research, Mscores, positioning slogans and rigid rotation systems and then "paint by the numbers." That strategy just furthers the generation gap. This has made it increasingly difficult for an adult-targeting station to attract the wide demographic range it once could.
What caused the gap? Blame it on synthesizers, drum machines, autotune and samplers. They have been used to create new musical genres that have attracted a large segment of the 12-24 year-olds, but they also repelled large segments of the 25-49 cell.
Urban AC stations today need to forge more than just a musical identity. They need to provide a lifestyle. The young end of the adult audience may feel bored with your station. We need to provide them with events to go to, not just a station to listen to passively. We need to create a connection to the street -- in some cases, creating the street. We have to provide an escapism that remains relatable to the listeners.
The capacity of the human mind to live in a constant state of forgetfulness is where we have to start. As long as Arbitron's "un-aided recall" system was in place and before it was replaced by the PPM, people had to remember what they listened to and where they had a good time, so they could return and tell their friends about it. The PPM changed all that. Now it's reality versus recall. And the challenge is to create great radio and play the right jams every minute of the day.
Another part of that challenge is understanding the difficulty Arbitron has -- and may continue to have with both the meter and the diary -- in obtaining usable diaries and meter wearers from 18-34 year-olds. Radio's niche is now being threatened by other, music-providing devices, which have been trying to co-opt artists and tracks formerly uniquely positioned as Urban or Urban Adult songs. Add Top 40, Hot AC and Rhythmic Top 40 to the mix and you have a volatile brew. There is a huge amount of sharing going on.
Although today's Urban radio audience has traditionally been a rather fixed
commodity and always brought in a uniquely wide age demographic, that target audience is changing as the median age of the baby boomer population of the new "Generation Y" rises.
The overall popularity and acceptance of recently-spawned format genres, specifically Urban AC, has occurred because of the need to continue to target the aging, so-called baby boomer generations. When we take a look at this group of listeners, we begin to understand how they impact the format and cause increasing fragmentation within the format.
Adult Music Freaks
Every survey will show that when asked, adults almost always indicate they want a better variety of the jams they like. The problem is what do most adult listeners really like? And what don't they like? Keep in mind that these are the "adult music freaks" and their answers may vary from market to market, from daypart to daypart, but they're all easily found using basic research. One of the problems a lot of mainstream Urban stations are having is going overboard with some songs, getting too hung up on requests and playing certain songs too frequently or at the wrong times.
When an Urban station caters to fragmented segments of the audience, they have to use caution. The key is to pick and play all three categories of hits in the proper rotation. The three categories are: "them that is," "them that was" and "them that will be." It's fairly easy to pick "them that was" -- those are the oldies that really made it in a particular market. It's not so hard to pick "them that that are" -- those are the current hits. The real challenge is finding "them that will be" -- those are the future hits you must play to maintain a fresh presence for your station.
The key is always "balanced rotations." I have said that for many years and in many editorials. Urban stations, particularly Urban AC stations, don't rotate their songs fast enough. And a long and winding road of analysis has taken me to an amazing conclusion. Much of the format is so focused on its core that it has lost a sense of balance in its audience composition -- a balance that is critical to success.
If you begin with the question, how effective are the rotations in reaching their audience, you have to analyze the percentage of each station's core and total audience that heard a song at least once during a week of heavy rotation. It would be reasonable to assume that programmers hope their core P1 audience hears their station's power rotation songs at least once a week. Of course, programmers hope that the rest of the audience will also be significantly exposed to power-rotation songs.
The reality is if the format was not rotating its songs effectively, both of these percentages would be very low. For example, you certainly wouldn't put a power-rotation song where only half of your core audience would hear it in a week and a mere 10% of your total audience was exposed to it. In a case like that, the station's core audience would barely be familiar with the song even after weeks of power rotation airplay.
There is also a polarization problem. One of the first things that went through my mind when I looked over a major-market station's playlist data recently was that the industry perception about slow rotations, especially for Urban AC stations, is clearly wrong. A large majority of stations in the format have a heavy rotation that is reaching their core audience very effectively -- in some cases, even better than their younger-targeted and rhythmic counterparts. But it didn't take long before I noticed that while the format does well with its core, it does significantly worse at reaching its cume audience.
The question then becomes how can a format have a rotation that is effective for its core, but ineffective for its cume? I mean, aren't we talking about the same things? This is where the concept of polarization comes in. If an Urban AC station had a large P1 audience, very little P2 or P3 audience and a large P4 audience, the P4 audience is made up of very casual listeners, which would drag down the effectiveness of the rotations.
Let's look at it a different way and see if Urban AC P1s are actually "super-listeners" while the remainder of the audience P2s are very casual listeners. In all formats, P1 listeners deliver most of the cume and average quarter-hour (AQH) for the format. I'm sure you've heard of equations such as "P1s make up 35% of your audience and that 35% accounts for 70% of your ratings." With very minor differences this equation is the same across most music formats.
But if Urban AC P1s were actually "super-listeners," they would contribute much more than 70% to the overall ratings. The reality is that Urban AC P1s deliver a percentage of AQH very similar to P1s in other formats.
The reason Urban AC stations don't spin their records fast enough may be because they perceive their core listeners as being different from other formats' core listeners in that they have a smaller-than-average core audience. But that audience is much more loyal and listens to the radio significantly longer than other formats' core listeners. This would explain why the format's rotations work well for its core audience, but not for its cume.
The answer ultimately comes down to whether it is healthy to have a smaller, yet more loyal core audience. I have noticed that a lack of balance in audience composition is very rare in successful stations. In fact, it almost goes without saying that having a larger core audience makes for a more successful station.
Growing a core audience is helped by balanced rotations because rotating your records faster actually increases your cume. Some program strategists say that there is often a side effect -- that it also lowers your TSL. Paradoxically, the solution for Urban stations with a small core audience is to rotate their records faster at the risk of alienating some of their older core, but replacing it with a healthier and more balanced new younger core. It's the "growing/shedding" theory. You have to grow more than you shed and you want to grow an audience that can stay with you.
When an Urban AC station becomes classic-driven, the obvious goal is to attempt to satisfy those older listeners who don't want to hear the same songs and artists their kids want to hear. The problem is no matter what your liners and advertising say, people only come to conclusions based on what they hear.
A lot of young, and first-time PDs, who move up from being MDs, look to make an immediate statement. They want to make an instant name for themselves, so they program a lot with ego and emotions. They fail to maintain balance in their music programming and, if they don't have the budget or the bodies to do some serious research and then interpret it properly, they get into trouble quickly. That's one reason why we've had so many changes in the format lately.
In their defense, most young programmers need more time than they are being given by the GMs. In a highly competitive, heavily-fragmented market, a year or two just seems too long to go without a definite uptrend for many GMs. So they panic, hire a new PD or allow themselves to be guided into a format change by a research firm or consultant, who stands to gain if they can scare the station into going down a path where they will need some research "refills" the research company or consultant can provide.
What many consultants and researchers often forget is the uniqueness about the Urban format. Urban adults are hip and they like tempo and freshness. They aren't just crazy about ballads and oldies, which unfortunately are some stations' main attraction. But for a lot of well-run mainstream Urban stations, careful dayparting can keep their lower end happy while they concentrate on the adults.
Another risk that doesn't need to be taken is the one where you try to be all things to all people. This happens when you're kind of classic, but you also play some new music. Then you become a lot of neither. There's a thin line between being the best of both and a poor average of the two. If your station is a poor average of the two, you're in trouble.
Our view is that properly informed programmers can still mitigate potential disruptions in their lives and careers with a few relatively simple actions ... and even thrive if deeper adaptations are pursued. Despite the economy, we still have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape our lives and fulfill our stations' economic priorities while we strive to create a format worth inheriting and a desire to keep radio's promise alive.