Programming - Is It Mission Impossible?
November 15, 2011
Even So-Called Formatic Perfectionists Can Misinterpret The Numbers
Just five or six years ago, when you wanted to hear Brian McKnight, Sade, Jill Scott, Eric Benet, Music $oulchild, Anthony Hamilton or Charlie Wilson, you knew you had to ring Urban AC's doorbell because it was the format-exclusive home to a dedicated handful of artists. That has changed. Today's Urban AC programmers clearly opt for familiarity over the idea of "owning" artists. The audience doesn't care about formats, only about hearing a jam they really like, right now.
Urban AC stations do need format-exclusive artists, which brings about the question: Why does another format have to play our artists' music first? We should have acts that we own and play early -- even before the research kicks in. Urban Adult-formatted stations have to look at artists that fit. Will they stand out in a bad way? And are they multi-format hit artists?
It's important to know what the mission and goal of your station really is. And it may be that the GM and the programmer have different views on exactly what the mission and goals really are. Depending on who you ask, the answers can vary from the GM who says, "Just get me some numbers, stay within budget, and you'll never hear from me," to "I know we're a young-end station, but the sales department needs more adults. Can we do this and still keep our young-end audience happy?" Programming sometimes is a lot like "Mission: Impossible" because often the amount of time it can take to make the adjustments necessary to capture some "side cume" may be considered unrealistic by most managers who do not come from (nor fully understand or appreciate) programming.
As an experienced programmer, you always have to look beyond the music for new ways to create great radio. Find ways to update and fine-tune your station's sound. Work on your marketing, production skills and knowledge with constructive discontent and programming moxie.
Even So-Called Formatic Perfectionists Can Miss The Mark
It's no secret that even the most respected, veteran format specialists can miss the mark. They can fail to accurately interpret the numbers and what they really mean. This is dangerous because these numbers can make a difference in our careers and lives. The numbers we're referring to, obviously, are Arbitron numbers, There is always a story behind the numbers. It's a story that begins with an analysis. What's the best time to do an analysis? It's been my experience that the best time to do an analysis is after you've had a good book or series of books. Why? Because it's hard to find something that isn't there. You have to market to develop new listeners, and usually, unless your station does something to reverse it, cume is often either flat or going down.
If you had a good Fall book, you could easily say that yours has become a favorite station for your core audience, but that's somewhat illusory. Favorite station is a value judgment, not any measure of listening. Those meter wearers or diary-keepers who credited your station may or may not be partisans. Another common usage term is "loyal audience." That doesn't mean anything, either. There's no definition for loyalty. It's whatever you want it to be.
With no real consensus of what constitutes a so-called "heavy listener," it is probably best defined as anyone listening to a single station for more than 100 quarter-hours in a given week. Imagine someone who spends 25 hours a week with your station. Approximately 39% of your quarter-hours will come from heavy listeners. If they credit our station, we're glad, but it can't help but make us wonder what some of these people do with their busy lives in these fast times. Regardless, these heavy listeners dramatically affect our station's ratings. When stations are up in the Summer and down in the Fall, you should immediately look for these heavy listeners.
Sometimes, a really strong, well-executed contest or promotion can cause these ratings swings.
The average diary-keeper or meter wearer tunes in to a strong station three to four days a week. Now this is a station with consistently strong ratings and it could still mean you're not credited three to six days in a given week.
Stations get nearly 60% of their total week's cume on either Thursday (if yours is a diary market) or Monday (if you're measured electronically). Friday is about 55%. The quarter-hour is at about the same percentage level. In examining successful Urban stations across America, however, we've also seen Mondays, Tuesday and Fridays as the day in which the highest listening occurred.
Speaking of buying, there are some GMs who overreact and buy into the misguided precept that it's time to fire their PD and/or change formats behind one or two down books. We personally knew of an owner/GM who was preparing for a major format change after his station's rank dropped from third to sixth in adults 25-54. What he hadn't noticed was that his average quarter-hour rating of 2.5 was the same in both books while two other stations in non-competitive formats had enjoyed unusual upward spikes.
To help everyone avoid similar unnecessary pain owing to ratings misunderstandings, we thought we'd share a couple thoughts. Sample size and the size of the audience are key determinants of the theoretical error and range around an estimate in which weighting and sampling vagaries must be considered.
In the meantime, here is something to think about: If you have a great Summer book, make certain it really is great (statistically significant upward movement unrelated to seasonal patterns.) Even if it truly is a great book, take it in stride and remember the law of gravity. If you had a bad Summer book, ditto to the above on significance. And if it's truly bad, don't take it too hard. Some of the best programmers in the business, myself included, have "cume crashes," but would never have really been forced to learn without the help of a truly bad book.
All Spins Are Not Created Equal
Of course, not all spins are created equal. Those that come in the key dayparts between 6a and 7p Monday through Friday have more impact since the audience is so much larger. This is certainly not a new concept. It's merely another way of utilizing the principles of gross impressions and reach and frequency, which take into account the size of the audience exposed to a particular song or message. Some of you may remember when Arbitron and RCS Selector worked together to help stations better use Selector and their actual Arbitron PPM data numbers to come up with gross impressions, reach and frequency data on a song-by-song basis.
So, is there a magic number, and, if so, how do you know when you've reached it? Many factors affect the speed with which an audience becomes familiar with a song -- the strength and overall appeal of the song along with how it is moved through current rotation categories. This is critical in getting and holding the "music freaks." They're the people who still come to radio to find out what's new so they will know what to download onto their iPods.
First, a song has to be evaluated on its overall appeal, melody, lyrics, hooks and memorable-ness. A weak song will not win fans no matter how much airplay it gets. Secondly, tracks need to be properly managed for a station's format and the way its audience listens, which can vary from format to format. The number of spins and the length of time a song will stay in current and recurrent categories are important programming decisions. The strategy for managing current songs directly affects a station's ratings success.
Often programmers who don't trust their ears or understand how to apply research will use charts to help them make music decisions. They will evaluate whether or not a song is "safe" to add, based on the adds of other programmers in their format. The song's chart position is more important to them than listening with their own ears or using their own gut feelings. Charts only track the success of the record and may or may not involve sales. One of the problems is that there are very few brick-and-mortar stores selling music. And those that do often have a very small music department and sales people with limited knowledge of how the system works. In addition, most online retail outlets do not stock or sell singles in volume, another factor that must be taken into consideration when using charts to determine when and how much to spin new songs.
Charts also do not measure the potential appeal of the song for your listeners. Charts do not indicate how familiar a song is with the audience. There is a tendency in Urban radio to move a song up in spins at the same time it moves up the chart. This may be much faster or slower than the audience is able to absorb or become familiar with the song. The result is that often songs are being moved to slower rotation categories just when they have become established with the audience.
Age also plays into the decision in how quickly songs can be absorbed. Younger listeners tend to be more active about music. They latch onto songs very quickly and move on in relatively short cycles. Older listeners don't have the time or passion to keep up with new music. Typically their awareness of new music is minimal by age 40-45. The exceptions might be listeners with younger music fans in their homes, those audience members who would be considered "music active." Every demo absorbs and responds to music differently. Assuming a song has enough appeal, typically it takes about 12-16 weeks to establish a song for 18-29-year-olds, 16-24 weeks for those 30-39, and 20-36 weeks for those over 40.
There is no one formula for finding and spinning new music. Does that mean that it doesn't exist? No, it exists, but it has more to do with familiarity. Hitting the familiarity threshold depends on a number of different factors. It has to do with the station's cume, occasions of listening, TSL and the number of competitors sharing a song. We can calculate the exposure of a particular jam simply by entering its play history into the schedule builder in Arbitron's Maximiser program. The problem is that just tells you the exposure. It doesn't tell you whether or not it's enough exposure.
Then there's the pure music factor. Not all songs are the same. Different types of songs will hit a certain familiarity threshold at different points. Sometimes songs from core artists will become familiar faster than songs from new artists since the artist is already more familiar.
Most veteran programmers use an intuitive approach to determine when to throw a song into research or move it up. Often they choose a number somewhere between 60-80 spins, a rather obvious but arbitrary number.
Now, while some would argue that Urban's typically long TSL brings those numbers down, we believe it takes a lot longer than most of us admit for listeners to really hear a song. While most Urban stations are certainly not taking records off the air once they peak at #1 and the label releases a new single, the fact is that programmers probably are moving them to heavy recurrent or lower rotational categories and reducing the number of spins they get precisely at the time the audience is becoming the most comfortable with them.
Callout Mis-Use And What's Next
Urban radio has always had a problem with callout. The reason is that songs simply don't get enough spins from 6a to 7p before being put into callout. Since very few Urban stations really do effective local callout, this point isn't nearly as relevant as it is in other formats.
Too many programmers fail to fully understand the importance of building strong music rotations into their format clocks. At the same time, some thought has to be given to the balance of music types, eras, strengths, familiarity, restrictions and the placement of transition songs next to new music. There is an art to building a good format clock, and those programmers who do it well consistently outperform those who don't. With the current level of competition, programmers have to spend more time focusing on the format clock they have built and its execution by their air talent.
There are always going to be songs on the air and the top of the charts that don't exactly match up with callout results, whether national or local. And most of the time there's a strong correlation between what consistently tests well at most radio stations and what makes it onto the charts.
Just because a song tests or does not test in callout is not a reason in and of itself to play or not play that song. Callout should be just one of the tools you use. Properly done, callout tells you what the middle of your audience thinks -- neither the opinion leaders nor the super-actives. Sometimes songs belong on the air because they are "what's next."
"What's next" is where programmers, music directors and even weekend mixers are crucial. They're plugged in. They know what's going on, whereas the average person isn't aware of "what's next." Urban radio stations can't afford to be late with "what's next." Urban is still one of the edgiest formats. It's about finding a trend, making a trend and even being a trend. Sometimes when a song that stiffs in callout, it doesn't mean a thing. If it's "what's next," you have to step out and educate the audience, develop their taste for that music and make them aware of that artist and song.
Dayparting & Fragmentation
Finally, let's take a look at dayparting and fragmentation. There are those who say dayparting is both a blessing and a curse, which brings unique challenges and vulnerability as the station evolves. This time we want to focus on heritage Urban stations. Some of them have knee-jerked in response to fragmentation, lost their balance and, eventually, lost the game. At that point, it's really hard to get back to the center. Many Adult-leaning mainstream Urban stations are very driven 25-34. They need to win not only 18-34, but also 25-49. To do this you have to hyper-focus on the lifestyles of your life-groups, which means that you're going to be heavily dayparted. During middays you absolutely have to be a little more conservative sounding, so that you can capture some of that at-work listening.
Believe it or not, but Urban stations can be the "at work" station for a lot of Generation Yers. Look at it this way: There are more computers in the office now than radios. Back in the day, if you had one person who controlled the one radio in the office, that's what the office listened to. But now you have a better shot of keeping those listening your station after they get out of the car and in the office.
It's vital to keep the car audience locked in at work. But you don't want to go too soft. The risk there is that those music freaks who expect you to be blowing out the jams will be disappointed. Make no mistake about it; some of them will leave. Yet, you still have to image the station as a very hip, very "in" music source. Everyone wants to believe that they're different and eclectic and hip. Part of being mainstream is believing that you're not mainstream.
Musically, the trick is to play the most popular jams more often, where the biggest benefits live. Pound those great passion tracks where they will pay off. The mood of the station evolves throughout the day as a listener's mood and lifestyles evolve. We need vertical music, and we need it to be hip; music that's true to our format. One way to achieve this is to pull from other passion, cume-driven formats such as Top 40. When Top 40 is healthy and hot, vertical product is hip. It's not that often that you see music begin at Top 40 and spread to Urban and other formats, although the reverse is happening with some artists right now at Urban.
There's currently not a lot of vertical music that's true to our format that has high passion levels. And within all that passion and those daypart restrictions, there still has to be balance and variety. Variety is not so much about library depth as it is about sound codes, burnout, familiarity and passion. Changing from a "Mission: Impossible" to "Mission: Possible" can be done with what we like to call next generation rotation. Next-generation rotation combines all the above factors and skillfully packages them with speed and forward motion. It's much like a bicycle. If it's not moving forward with enough speed, it wobbles. And if it wobbles too much or too long, the rider is forced to get off. And not the way they want to.