Wrapping Up -- Winding Down
December 6, 2011
We've Got To Keep Believing
As we wind down 2011, we want to take a brief look back at the current state of our industries. First, the good news bad/news syndrome. The good news is that there are still a scant few number of job openings. The bad news is that given the many talented programmers and air-talent "between assignments," or looking to make changes, competition for these slots is extremely fierce. Invariably, economic circumstances force companies to terminate some really talented people. The changing nature of our business has caused many good people to become victims who deserve an opportunity to be considered for a gig. Their dismissal often has nothing to do with ratings, performance, abilities or capabilities. Those of us fortunate enough to still be employed have been forced to do more and live with less.
Too often as programmers we are forced to squelch our talent, trash their opportunities and fail to count our blessings. We feel held back by layoffs, needless firings, suffer from self-doubt and imagined difficulties. Few people have it easy and almost none of us feel that we have gotten all we have paid for, regardless of the price or even how payment was made.
If we want to have success in the radio and music industries, we're going to have to be willing to push forward and not let other people's delusions, faith or inability to perform hold us back or put us down and make us feel bad about the career decision we've made. Even family and those who claim to love us may not fully understand what drives us.
What else have we learned this year? Well, some of the lessons we already knew, we just reapplied them. For example, we re-discovered that we need to focus on the product, embrace the technology and continue to grow. What we see is not always what they hear. Sonic tricks of the trade can defy reality and flaunt the truth. Smart radio programmers have played into these clever deceptions over the years with engaging works that insist we look at the familiar with a new point of view.
Despite economic conditions that have led radio companies to announce layoffs and restructuring, one particular programming segment seems to be enjoying growth. Daypart syndication is expanding, along with voicetracking. There no doubt financial pressures have caused the elimination of an increasing number of local dayparts. The latest example of the recession's deep impact is the recent wave of layoffs that Clear Channel, Cox and Cumulus enacted. It impacted all formats, including Urban.
Less rigid than syndication, but not as localized as point-to-point voicetracking, is what Clear Channel has developed. It's called Premium Choice, a new option for the company's programmers to consider when replacing talent.
This was also the year in which everyone realized the value of a strong morning show, whether live and local or syndicated. It was a year that saw syndicated morning shows proliferating in markets of all sizes.
So, did the format come to a crossroads in 2011? Maybe. And is the honeymoon over? In some markets the answer is yes. Let's go back and look at what has happened with Urban radio. In some cities there were two or three different versions of Urban and Urban Adult formats. Eventually it was whittled down and the strongest player or players survived. The others changed. And it's important that they keep trying because if they discover something newer, faster or more compelling, we all benefit.
Does what happened this year mean the continuation of the trend where stations eliminate staff and just voicetrack? Yes ... and for a number of very important business reasons. Cutbacks have forced group-owned stations to extend shifts, import more syndicated and voicetracked programming and, in Clear Channel's case, utilize the company's new Premium Choice initiatives. This affects the music industry as well. Label promotion executives are alarmed because centralized music programming will reduce their ability to expose new artists. One highly respected SVP/Urban Promotion said, "We know of stations where the music director was fired and we lost the connections we had at those stations. This defies everything radio was set out to be, because this will destroy opportunities for local content."
The New Wake-Up Call
One of the ongoing axioms of our industry is "as mornings go, so goes the station." it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you've got to have a "killer" morning show to be competitive. And not all morning shows work in all markets. There's really no question about the power of a strong morning show on Urban radio. But what changed this year was the implementing of more syndicated Urban morning shows and the recognition that morning humor really comes from character. Nationally syndicated morning shows from Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Rickey Smiley and Russ Paar have proven this.
While most other formats have developed either a local or syndicated morning show, the blueprint or personality archetype for Urban radio is still developing. In other words, we have not yet come up with a complete system for developing strong local morning shows for the future. Isn't that scary?
There was a time in Urban radio, just like general-market radio, when we obsessed on morning show benchmarks. We were totally into games and bits. Games and bits may be icing on the cake, but they're not what makes great morning shows work. Everything that's funny about successful Urban morning shows comes from the characters of the individuals and the way they mesh, or even clash. Humor comes from truth reflecting on life and the way these morning shows relate to the audience they were designed to reach. The harder your morning show has to try for laughs, the fewer laughs it deserves. Character doesn't come in a can. It comes from truth.
Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's funnier. Truth avoids the perils of patterns. Although we kind of always knew it, in 2011 we rediscovered that noisy neighbors, a series of canned jokes, stale contests and forced phone topics just wouldn't get it. And the other thing that emerged is that humor often comes from editing. In this less-is-more age, the new "Generation Jones" audience wants their humor condensed and packaged. This means editing -- a role that the morning show producer must play ... a role that really came into its own this year. Editing means making choices and that requires that there be a lot of stuff to choose from. The morning show producer role is becoming more and more important, even with local morning shows.
We're talking about someone who can juggle the phones, run a tight board, lead the team, make snap decisions and get a celebrity or the mayor's office on the phone at a moment's notice. Today's morning show producer is someone with all those skills, connections, instinct and vision. Today's morning show also needs the freedom to try a lot of new things. Some will be great and the rest will never be heard again, but your morning show should take the creative initiative and want to try new stuff.
And not all morning shows work in all markets. You could import a morning show that got great numbers in a similar market and it could fail. Audiences are fickle and might not take to a new morning show right away (if they take to it at all). That's happening right now in all markets. What happens in mornings affects the state of the format.
For Urban and Urban AC stations in particular, what emerged in 2011 were statistics that showed, even in a recession, the tremendous buying power that still exists in the consumer market created by African-Americans. Projections for population growth by the end of this decade show increases to at least 35 million consumers. Spendable income should grow at the same pace, including music purchasers.
The size of the African-American population, coupled with the propensity of blacks to spend a disproportionate share of their disposable income on music, make marketing to African-Americans essential to the record industry.
While most general-market stations have found their formats fragmenting in recent years, Urban radio has its own set of problems, particularly Urban Adult radio. The decline of total audience in some markets is also affected by the increasing disaffection for our core audience of women 25-49 in middays. This trend is not related so much to the vagaries of research, but to improper programming. Stations are suffering from image problems. They were perceived as being too laid back, much like the Smooth Jazz-formatted stations that realized that if they were to remain true to their causes they would have to accept a much smaller slice of the ratings pie.
Now what we have to do going forward is combine all these elements and then leverage what the audience remembers best in order to get credit for measured audience from Arbitron. People recall "snapshots" which stand out in their recent memories. They don't remember every consistent moment no matter how consistent those moments were. In television, a show, game or movie is remembered for its highlights. Artists are remembered for their hits. A hit is remembered for its hook and a station is remembered for its "audio snapshots." So being consistently good is really a lot less important than being occasionally great.
Should The Meter Change How We Program?
One of big things that happened this year, and one which received constant coverage in All Access, was the continuing development of Arbitron's PPM. Arbitron first began working with and developing its electronic measurement system in 1992.
The question for us is should the PPM change or affect how we program? The answer is yes. New data gathering technology indicates that more people are listening, but it also revealed some unexpected and unpredictable habits. For example, the meter showed that morning drive isn't as important as it seemed, nor are Thursdays. More people are listening on the weekends than before. And some formats were faring better than others. Guess which formats didn't do well?
It probably comes as no surprise that Urban and Urban AC formats have suffered in many markets. Getting enough usable data from the sample pools is the problem. For the last several years the usable sample sizes in many markets have fallen below Arbitron's targets; the company is having difficulty getting young cellphone-using adults of any ethnicity to comply with the requirements of wearing its meter all day.
In theory, if the same people who used to get diaries now get meters, we should get similar results, only faster. But in reality the results with PPM are very different. First of all, they are derived in two different ways. As a result, cume has increased substantially; while time spent listening (TSL) has dropped to half of its previous levels. The ratings may look similar because there are twice the numbers of people with half the TSL.
Here's what we know for sure: With the diary, un-aided recall meant everything. While recall is still and always will be important, with PPM, it's important for a different reason. Urban stations still need to have their listeners remember who they listened to and where to find you on the dial, and then listen to your station, as opposed to trying to remember which station they listened to.
For agencies and advertisers, PPM is a mixed blessing. On one hand they've demanded to see more accurate audience estimates data, but now many assumptions about radio listening are being challenged. .
As we wrap up this year, we find in spite of all the things that happened for those of us who are still employed, we still have much to be thankful for, including a career that most can only dream about. We ask you not to stop believing, in yourselves or in the format. And yes, there are many among us for whom this was a tumultuous year. But you especially must keep your hopes and dreams alive. Ours is that kind of business. We wish for each of you a joyous holiday season, and, for those in radio, a nice run at a destination station, high cumes and more occasions of listening.