April 3, 2012
What It Means & What It Does
For everything there is a season ... and the one that sees the first dustings of frost leave your windshield, spring flowers blooming and the air changing also marks the time to abandon all hope of hiding your ratings under something called "antigravity" while you wait for them to improve. It's too late. You've been exposed. And if your ratings were down, you know you're going to have to take some hits.
Hopefully, you'll avoid the axe and escape with only minor injuries and maybe a few surface scars. In response, you might want to slide the rug out from under your current creations and turn the drama of consciousness into a slapstick of self-reflection. When there's no other way to explain audience slippage, there's always antigravity.
Gravity keeps things literally down to earth. It binds the universe in an illusion of stasis, but antigravity pulls it apart, propelling its components to unknown destinations -- lost in the purposelessness of space. Antigravity is not some ambitiously dubious account of an imaginary place. It is influenced by the abundance of some weird form of energy whose force is repulsive. This force, which opposes gravity, may be causing the universe to fly apart at an ever accelerating rate, contrary to previous theories that it ought to be slowing down.
After giving some thought to that concept, I recently concluded that human existence, the universe and ratings are all absurd and that the only acceptable view of the cosmos is a comic one. I've even occasionally wondered if the legendary fifth force postulated by some physicists was absurdity, the diametric opposite of order. But just then, along came antigravity.
Before antigravity there were unpaid interns, who could be taught to schedule music and eventually take a veteran programmer's job. There were new versions of audio vault that eliminated the need for a board operator. Casinos did away with the need to pull the handle (unless, of course you wanted to) and devised innovations that would spin the wheels on slot machines, take your money and not even smile or say thank you.
And of course, there were report cards for radio that used to come out either twice a year in smaller markets or four times a year for the rest of us. Now with PPM, they emerge monthly. Is this what we thought we wanted when we asked for a new audience measurement system that would be better than the diary? This is the new Puritanism, a pinched-mouth specter of reform seeking to cure us of even our smallest pleasures and take away all our excuses, is now in place.
Unlike sports, where players, coaches, managers and owners immediately know the score, and even though results are produced faster with PPM, there is still a waiting period. But like sports, preparing for the next game begins immediately after the last game ends.
Let's face it: Winning the ratings game is more than just a four-week or 12-week contest between stations vying for the largest body count. It's usually a long-term strategic plan that is constantly in play. And that includes the time that the scorekeepers are not actually keeping a written (or encoded) score.
While format changes, the lifeblood of radio, have made headlines in other music formats, unfortunately such is simply not the case for most Urban formats. At a time when radio desperately needs to be reinvigorated, it has developed an ultra-conservative strategic thinking and planning mindset designed to minimize risk, costs and change.
Over a century ago, Louis Pasteur wrote, "Change only favors the prepared mind." He realized there were going to be unpredictable and unexpected opportunities. No one can anticipate these events, but those who are best prepared for them will be left standing.
Urban-formatted stations need to step up their game by doing the unexpected, capitalizing on new opportunities, trying something different. We need to capitalize on the opportunity to grab some fresh ideas and make gains at the expense of stations that are locked into strategies based on continued problems. Stations that have cut expenses to the bone will be particularly challenged to respond to a recovery.
Terrestrial radio faces many technological challenges which have nothing to do with the recession. The questions are: Is your station nimble enough to respond to changing opportunities? Are you flexible enough to switch your focus? Is there a place in your plan for strategic research? (Research that can provide an insight into the listener's mind. Research that can tell us how the tectonic plates of radio and pop cultures are shifting.)
One of the unfortunate format challenges that all programmers face today centers around the fact that although they don't control the syndicated shows and voicetracking that airs on their stations, they are still held responsible for their results. Despite the problems both syndication and voicetracking create caused by a lack of localism, there is a way to win with them or in spite of them.
Expose your audience to some fresh liners and local elements inside those outside shows to constantly give your station a local feel. Make certain that when you are live you are local and compelling. Get the audience to sample your station and then keep them locked so that they stay longer than they intended. These strategies can help ensure your station stays top of mind so when listeners leave they will return.
Finally, waiting on the results to plan for the next book puts our stations in a constant catch-up mode. When you're playing catch-up you can't be out in front with innovation and freshness that can make a difference.
Only by being innovative and different can we succeed. And strangely enough, by studying history, we can prevent ourselves from simply repeating its mistakes. Following only what's worked in the past is what keeps stale, outmoded elements in place, halting the creative development of our medium. Like antigravity, accumulating experience should in time enable us to prolong the interval of recurrence.