Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts
March 6, 2012
Part I: Filling The Hole Still Means Finding The Hits
Hit, stiff, smash, automatic ... although music is a subjective topic, the whole is still greater than the sum of its parts. One of the questions being asked about those parts by today's Urban programmers is, "Have we become so research-driven that we have somehow lost the ability to predict and separate the hits from the stiffs?" Many stations we've spoken with claim they simply adjust their clocks and don't play as many medium-level currents during the first quarter.
If you shed the concept of full predictability, there are still plenty of things to do provided you remain conscious of their limits. Knowing you can't predict does not mean that you cannot benefit from unpredictability. The bottom line is that now more than ever, we have to be prepared. Narrow-minded prediction has an analgesic or therapeutic effect. We should all be aware of the numbing effect of magic numbers, where the holes are and how best to fill them quickly.
Filling the hole means finding the hits -- first. A programmer can love a song the MD hates or vice-versa. But what really matters is what the listeners think. The biggest problem facing Urban radio and perhaps all of music radio today is how do we really find out what the listener thinks? That's more important than ever because we are no longer just competing with the station(s) across town. The job of designing music rotation clock and interpreting research has changed dramatically. Increased competition and Urban's emergence as a competitive, currents-based format greatly complicate the picture. Not only are there more competitors, but attacks are coming from different angles, not just head on.
Urban AC stations got used to the days of high gold and power recurrent percentages, when programmers could surround currents with well-researched, slow-rotation gold to soften the "you play the same songs all the time" effect of high-rotation currents. Now even Urban AC stations are more current-driven, but the currents tend to burn much faster, so you have to watch rotations carefully.
Fortunately, today stations are better able to monitor and measure burn with better research. Clock building for today's Urban AC stations have shifted. It's become more a process of era control than tempo categorization, though you still must deal with tempo considerations within the era. The trick is to look at all the jams and see how many you need in a category to provide the right rotation. The first part is science; the second part is the art of building clocks.
Narrow format-position stations such as Urban and Urban Adult are risking a lot when they challenge their core audience by becoming less familiar. Urban AC stations need to have less-intense rotations and a broader gold and recurrent library. It's tough to choose between upper and lower demos when the station's sales goal is to serve both ends. A heritage Urban AC station with a consistent music image and strong community ties stands the best chance for continued dominance if it adheres to the basics and offers a broad-based, mass appeal mainstream sound. Once you commit too strongly to either side of the fence you may have narrowed your potential audience too much to dominate.
Syndicated and voicetracked shows often have problems connecting to audiences on a local level. When listeners really feel you're a part of their lives, they'll sit through a song or two they don't like (as long as they think they'll love the next one). The Urban Adult stations that offer enough varied elements and fresh new music to attract the largest mass of listeners on a consistent basis will remain the market leaders.
For the straightahead Urban stations, the challenge is to evolve to a grown-up Urban station. Urban stations have to do this to survive because they can't sell 12-24s or 6-24s (in PPM-measured markets) anymore. All those young listeners you had with those huge shares are 25-49 today. Again, it's the "growing-shedding theory." The key to making this work is to hand-schedule each hour's music log to perfection. It's worth the two-and-a-half hours a day it takes. Some hours will require a 60%-70% adjustment from the way the computer originally kicks out the music.
Finding the right music to fill the majority of your programming each day consistently is a really daunting task. First of all, you want to make sure that every jam you play is one your audience really wants to hear. To survive in today's extremely competitive environment, you need to have the best systems, highly trained and motivated people and the most updated technologies coupled with extremely effective business and marketing strategies - because, in many markets, that's what you're competing against.
In other words, to win in the ratings battles today we need every possible weapon at our disposal. So with that thought in mind, we want to examine what this means in terms of effective music scheduling. Filling the "hit hole" is more important than ever. Don't be afraid to use your research to help you program. In some situations when something is new, foreign or unfamiliar, it's tempting to simply put it on the back burner or ignore it completely.
There have been a lot of discussions recently about the role research plays in the hit music rotation process. What you want to do is use research to scientifically validate what your audience does and does and not want to hear. There are two distinct problems. First is how little time many Urban stations give songs to develop as they continually adjust their music rotations. The second issue is really a question: How many spins does it take for a song to really become familiar enough to put into callout or to consider moving up in rotation?
Rating Real Spins
What is absolutely essential here is the ability to look at "real spins" to differentiate between times when a song would literally "see the light of day," as opposed to those spins that come in the middle of the night when few are awake or really listening. 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 available audience is so much larger at those times.
This is not a new concept. It's merely another way of utilizing the principles of gross impressions, reach and frequency, which take into account the size of the audience exposed to a particular song or message. Some of you may remember a while back at the Arbitron Consultant's Fly-In when Arbitron and RCS Selector teamed up to help stations better use Selector and their actual Arbitron PPM numbers to come up with more accurate gross impressions, reach and frequency data.
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." This directly affects your cume. And these are 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 ... especially in a PPM world.
Often programmers who don't trust their ears or understand how to apply research will use charts to help them make music decisions. Or, 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 song. One of the problems is that most retail stores do not stock or sell singles. Add to that the fact that many of today's young listeners have never been in a record store. Another factor that must be taken into consideration when using charts is 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 is often much faster than the audience is able to absorb or become familiar with the song. The result is that songs are being moved to slower recurrent categories just when they have peaked 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 and 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 10-12 weeks to establish a song for 18-29-year-olds, 12-18 weeks for those 30-39, and 20 or more 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. Primarily it's the station's cume, 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 admit for listeners to really hear a song. While many 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 active recurrent or lower rotational categories and reducing the number of spins they get precisely at the time the audience is becoming most comfortable with them.
Callout Misuse and Balance
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 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 call-out 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, call-ut tells you what the middle of your audience thinks -- not the opinion leaders or the super-actives. Sometimes songs belong on the air because they are "what's next."
That's 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 call-out 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, spin the jam and make them aware of that artist.
Research Risks & Burnout
One thing we've discovered that is key for Urban stations today is properly interpreted research. Research is a valuable tool that can help you interpret the past, but it cannot forecast trends or provide all the answers. If you use research, know its limitations so you can use it without becoming too reliant on it. Even the best research can be flawed. There are just too many pitfalls in the process including the methodology, the analysis and the interpretation. For example, and pay real close attention to this: A song's callout score can change from "power" to "drop" if the wrong hook is tested. And some of these aliens from other formats can't find the hook to Urban songs. They can't even clap on the beat.
The most effective research tools are Internet and traditional callout research, coupled with Mscores. But programmers tend to get carried away with research. You need to look at the minute-by-minute numbers and compare them to your competition and understand what a spike is. You also need to look at consistencies and not overreact. You still have to use your instincts and common sense. Good PDs see beyond the callout and Mscores. If a hot new jam from an established artist has a negative Mscore in its first week, don't freak out because it could turn into a positive one a few days or weeks later.
Bear in mind: Something that's unique with Urban formats is our audience's tolerance level for burnout. In other words, how long will they listen to a song they've heard too many times? Research studies say they will listen for two songs in the home, one in the car. That means if you schedule titles that are too burned-out, no matter how well-tested, you could go from a P1 to a P2 instantly in as little as two songs. The change comes even quicker in the car, where it's a one-button motion for those fickle fingers to find a new frequency. So, obviously, the way to win is to ensure that your station, especially if it's an Urban Adult station, plays enough new music to keep the format fresh.
Most stations have a policy that says they will play a new song in an extra or "power new" category for a few days before they officially add it. This allows them to make certain they're comfortable with it. Then, by the time they're ready to report it, they'll know if it's something they can live with for the next five or six weeks in order to give it a good shot on-air.
The question then becomes, for both formats, how much audience do some songs add and how much audience do other songs hurt? Theories abound that new music needs to be warmed up, but ho one know for sure how long that takes. Here's what we do know: The Urban audience doesn't grow in the first minute of the song, Growth takes place in the second and subsequent minutes of the song. Established artists perform better than new artists. This means listeners are more receptive to new music from artists they know than they are from newer or less established artists. Uptempo music performs better than slower music, even on Urban Adult stations. In a research-driven industry, it's very tempting to focus on things that are easy to measure instead of things that are important to measure.
(Next Week Part II)