Diagonally Parked In A Parallel Universe
March 27, 2012
The Dawn Of A New Era
The glory days when great 12+ ratings meant everything are likely gone forever. As advertisers become smarter, researchers become sharper and programmers become more savvy, the demographic pie is being carved into smaller slices. Today smart managers and programmers are focusing on smaller slices of the pie, increasing their share in narrow age groups often spanning fewer than 10 years. In some cases, this practice gives Urban radio dominance over an increasingly splintered target. The best way to take advantage of this splintered target and still protect your position or attack a competitor is to utilize the difference among various age groups to re-focus programming and marketing. This can give you a competitive edge. It's like the dawn of a new era.
Some very successful Urban and Urban AC programmers have experienced ratings swings lately. Naturally, nerves were frayed and questions arose as to the reasons for format bounces. Many programmers we've spoken with feel their ratings dips had a lot to do with the tightening of marketing and research purse strings, as well as attacks from other format-similar stations. Still others feel that in 2012 we are finding ourselves "diagonally parked in a parallel universe." What that means is that radio's business strategy is at an evolutionary crossroads. It's time to examine and resolve the long-standing tension between the inherent goal of our stations and the fleeting nature of our competitive advantage.
I've often said that programming is like maintaining a smooth running, high-performance car. It requires constant care and maintenance from trained professionals to keep it operating in top form. These formats are unique and must be nurtured by people who fully understand them -- specialists with solid programming, marketing and branding strategies. Then their owners and managers must hire the best programmers and talent to create the best possible on-air product.
The format is merely the structure in which we present what's happening. For the most part, the structure remains viable. The contents are what need to change. The format is not at fault for its troubles. Those who have forgotten how to do it, have been lured away, convinced to change it or never learned how to do it in the first place, are who's at fault.
Urban and Urban AC are formats -- an arrangement of elements, a presentation philosophy -- not a music style. Time after time, so-called radio experts who confuse music with programming philosophy, say today's Urban formats are not as competitive as they used to be. While there may be exceptions, overall that is simply not true. Our formats' prerequisites have changed to include relevancy and topicality. All of the various niche formats that offer a specialized blend of music -- even when they attempt to incorporate Urban elements and play our jams -- are still not Urban stations. That's why it's so important for today's Urban stations to offer that unique product (one with plenty of hipness) that's lifestyle-driven beyond the music. It's important to be as compelling as possible, so when the audience does spend time with you they feel like they're spending time with a product that's designed for them. And it can't be that unless you really know who they are.
Let's look at the straight-ahead Urban formats first. When done properly they offer variety, tempo and hipness, recognize trends, sample them early, stick with them as long as they're viable, then move on. Unfortunately, we've tried to redefine it when it needs no redefinition. We simply need to refocus on what's really important. What happened to the personality? Outside of their morning shows, many Urban stations seem to be satisfied with generic-sounding, nameless, faceless entities sprouting one-liners and promos. Many of these personalities are voicetracked or syndicated. Where's the involvement with the community and listeners?
Now let's check in with the Urban Adult-formatted stations. The aging baby boom Generation X and Generation Jones will be even more important going forward. They will have a special effect on this format. There are 50%more potential listeners aged 30-45 than 15-30 or 45-60. This translates into an extra 15 million people in prime Urban AC demographics and provides room for the format to experiment and fragment.
It looks as though both formats' ongoing economic woes may very well continue and cause them to suffer because of that trend. Already off-air PDs, MDs and production directors are becoming rare ... and there's little doubt staff consolidations will continue. As a result, more and more programmers find themselves forced into moments of choice daily. To give you some insight into how the smartest and most successful programmers cope with the added responsibilities of regular air shifts, we thought we'd take a look at what works and what doesn't ... and why.
More than ever, programmers have to orient themselves in the competitive environment. This means expanding beyond the music and talent to focus specifically on two other things: demography and position. What is the demographic make-up of your market? How are different age groups distributed? What about ethnicity, education and families with and without children? Not every market is the same. Even though there's an overall aging of the population because of the baby boom, some cities are growing very fast in families with small children while others are sudden being occupied to a disproportionate extent by those with middle incomes and few children.
Inevitably, radio style and presentation need adjust to suit the marketplace. You can do this by studying census data, getting material from your local municipality and conducting specific research designed to identify potential listeners.
The second part of knowing where we are has to do with position. Is our station's position very clear in our listeners' minds? Does our staff have the same image of the station as our listeners? Position is more important than ever because these next few years will be powered by stations trying to chip away at each other with the occasional wild lunge into a new, hybrid format. Some of these hybrid format absurdities will achieve little more than fleeting amusement. We have to keep in mind that America is still like a patchwork of many sub-societies (based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, education, cultural taste and language.) Today's Urban radio seeks something with its own valid purpose -- something more meaningful than simply a jukebox that occasionally makes us laugh, pays bills and gives away concert tickets. We do have options. Unfortunately, many of them have been reduced or eliminated simply because of cost.
Reducing options works well when the variations among stations are relatively small. But for highly differentiated ones, you simply can't get away with offering a limited selection. Today's radio listeners crave variety. So we have to offer a wide enough variety within our format boundaries to help our audiences navigate the complexities, so they will have a positive choosing experience.
Through study and practice, experts in any field learn to simplify, categorize and prioritize information and recognize patterns. For example, when a chess player thinking eight moves ahead is presented with as many possible choices as there are stars in the galaxy, he or she can't possibly consider very option. The critical difference between the novice and the master is the ability to quickly eliminate the vast majority of moves and concentrate only on the most promising ones.
In our business it's important not to confuse excellence with perfection and always strive for interdependence among equals. Unfortunately, despite the cutbacks and downsizing, talent is still as critically dependent on management as management is on talent. When both underestimate the importance of this mutuality, they can become diagonally parked in a parallel universe. That's because many mangers undervalue and have little understanding of what programmers and talent actually know and do. Today's top decision-makers need to recognize the measurable value that motivated, engaged talent can bring to companies. And they need to be reminded that profitability can be dramatically increased when stations improve the life of their bottom-tier workers.