The Importance Of Touching The Right Spot
April 10, 2012
While the learning process often begins at a college or university, particularly one that has its own radio facility, radio programming isn't something you learn in school, from a textbook. Most real programming comes about the same way our parents learned about sex: from slightly older peers who won't admit to only knowing just a little more than their students. In either case, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
The secrets of radio programming have become lore and passed on from one generation to the next. So in keeping with those thoughts, we've uncovered some common problems that somehow seem to get lost in the transfer process.
One thing we've noticed recently is the need for our stations to find new ways to touch the right spots and smooth out the ride that radio can take us on. There is a change in the thinking of today's generation of listeners, whether it's generations of character, harmony, sophistication or style that is evolving. This is where the rubber meets the road ... where variety meets spontaneity.
For some reason many Urban stations feel a need to keep reminding us of the fact that they claim they're offering variety, but with the same old lines -- "Today's R&B and classic soul" and "Number One for Hip-Hop and R&B." Somehow, it just doesn't have the same meaning it used to. It's kind of like the problem with being famous: If you stop being famous for a while, it's as if you never were. It's all part of the perception and the system.
Trapped by the system, programmers, consultants and air personalities put down their companies. Promotion people wring their hands in frustration. "How come we can't get these radio decision-makers to really listen to music instead of waiting for some research guru to tell them what to play?" "How can so-and-so call themselves a music director, when they can't hear that hit?" For the radio guys, there's the fear that if they do step out on their own and take a chance and the Arbitron digits drop, the station will drop them. Unfortunately, for most of us who have been in the business for a while, it's all part of the game.
Smoothness & Consistency Builds Cume
Whether it's through a period of unemployment or just a reaction to the stress that's part of our daily lives, what we need to do is smooth out the ride; in other words, have a nice run on a well-paved road before our luck, sales or ratings run out. We're all trying to lead some kind of normal life. But we're not in a normal business and life keeps taking its toll on us. We're often left with scars or "stretch marks." Then we search for some miracle fabric with which to treat or hide them.
A close examination of the trends in the last few years shows that what may have been silk blends are really polyester. Yes, it's true; the fabric of American life shows a surprising resilience born of traditional values and while this fabric, regardless of its content, may cover blemishes. it can't erase them or let us forget the reason they appeared in the first place.
What can we do to eliminate scars and stretch marks? The truth is sometimes we can't get rid of them. Many times, we can't even reduce or mask them. Much like women who have to endure real stretch marks as a consequence of giving birth, we may have to learn to live with and endure them for a while.
There is something programmers can do to help -- and that is to provide musical consistency. While we're not trying to discount the value of variety in a station's mix, there has to be a synthesis of the different styles so that it sounds like it all belongs to one radio station. This means both from shift-to-shift, as well as song-to-song.
So now the question is which song? How do you find it? Naturally, part of the answer is research. It's important to remember that neither callout nor auditorium testing done under the most optimum conditions is completely accurate.
This doesn't mean that you shouldn't attempt to do some testing. It simply means that you should understand that music testing is going to be distorted. It is going to be distorted by the artificiality of playing the hooks. Many consultants and testers can't find Urban song hooks with a road map. Most can't even clap on the beat. What we mean here is that playing a seven- to 12-second segment of a song with minimal airplay and then attempting to get the respondents to project and articulate their response to a song as a whole, resulting in some intellectualizing of an emotional response, is not only an inexact science, it's a pure guessing game. And yet, companies devote hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each year and base their programming decisions on the results of these tests.
Testing The Tests
There are three basic type of research that most stations do on a regular basis: Auditorium Music Test (AMTs), Focus Groups and Callouts.
Auditorium Music tests are conducted with a carefully screened group of target listeners who evaluate portions of songs called hooks. Each song is scored according to its familiarity, appeal and passion.
Callout research is an evaluation process wherein target listeners evaluate 30 or more songs weekly, again indicating familiarity, appeal, fatigue and passion.
Focus Groups are smaller, carefully selected groups of target listeners who discuss and identify key issues and set priorities for quantitative research and are designed to enhance the overall value of perceptual research.
Someone once asked, if you have limited budget and time, which form of research should you choose? I personally feel that it depends on the station. For example, if the station is an Urban Adult, gold-based station, an auditorium test would be the best choice. If your station is a mainstream, current-based station, callout research gets the nod. And if you have the budget, you should do both.
It's important that the questionnaires be carefully reviewed so as not to confuse the respondents. And it helps if the moderator looks like those he/she is moderating. My biggest gripe is that even when well-known, reputable research companies do a research project for an Urban station, invariably every respondent is African-American. In Los Angeles, for example, where only 8% of the audience is African-American and 40% is Hispanic, these so-called experts still use a sample base comprised of nothing but African-Americans. We cannot put absolute faith in a research process without understanding what the limitations are.
The worst thing you can do is base your music decisions on flawed research. This means that the participants have to be screened carefully to ensure that all meet the qualifications and lie within the station's cume. I like to use updated zip-code data to determine where the respondents should be drawn from. I also like to make certain that all the ethnic considerations are reflected. In other words, there should be balance. A lot of companies assume, for example, that an Urban station should only have African Americans in the sample. Then, despite any age skewing in the sample, it has to be demographically balanced. And finally, the sample has to be of sufficient size to give some stability to the results. I like a sample of at least 300 persons.
Many managers and owners feel that they can save some money by reducing the sample size. After all, if they are paying an average of $35-$45 per person, the fewer people they have to pay, the more they can save, right? Wrong. You need a minimum of over 150 completed calls per week and over 600 per month just to have a chance at some actionable results. The larger the sample, the more reliable.
Perhaps the most actionable information that this research can provide is burnout - the degree of negative rejection percent of each song along with a hate ratio to gauge the degree of negativity. And, making a determination to find out if the song(s) being tested are overexposed. Songs that are burned are ones that listeners once liked but are now tired of hearing. The questions I get asked most often is, "does burnout mean 'tune out'?" The answer is, "Not necessarily." It does or it could if a listener is listening in an active mode, which happens 10% to 20% of the time. But in a passive listening environment, which is how most listening is done, a song that is burnt only to the conscious mind probably won't cause immediate tune-out because of the security blanket of familiarity.
Our research should gauge the effects of burn-out by utilizing a percentage which reflects both the negatives and the burnouts (which we like to "call developed dislikes") This developed dislike reading is then measured in ratio form against the positive acceptance levels. By utilizing this tolerance ratio, a programmer can see at a glance, how many people definitely like a song, compared to those who might be tempted to tune it out (either because they didn't like it to begin with or they were simply tired of hearing it.) The tolerance ratio is a particularly useful reading on the decline phase of a song's life cycle.
Then, if the results show we have some titles that are tired, you should retire or "rest" them and go on to the next group of fresh songs in that category.
Another thing that can cause problems is the failure to fully understand how cume building really works. There's an old saying that you can't sell anybody anything until they come into the store. (This saying preceded the Internet, downloading and iPods, of course.) As it relates to radio, it means under PPM you can't generate cume ratings until your listeners get exposed to your encoded signal and are wearing their meters or write your call letters in a diary. Once they do this they become a potential part of your weekly cume. The biggest single problem many Urban radio stations have is failure to build and maintain cume. It doesn't matter if you have great average quarter-hours (AQH) or TSL if you've only got 10 listeners!
It would be impossible for us to attempt to sort out all the things you might need to know regarding cume, but we want to at least attempt to point you in the right direction. You should at least analyze your station's cume and compare it with both your competition and the previous sweeps or books. If you find that your competition, regardless of who they are (the station or stations that with whom you share the most audience, has doubled its cume while you remained the same, you're in trouble and you'd better do some strategic planning to figure out how you can take a piece of their cume and put it on your side. Urban stations should be cuming at least 10%-15% of the total audience in their market.
Finally, it's not just research, musical diversity and recognizing character differences that can help programmers to reach the right spot and translate directly into audience growth. It's the combination of all these things that can lead directly to swollen cumes and extended TSLs. Often winning is all of that combined with ability, motivation and attitude. Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines who well you do it.