April 24, 2012
Probably nothing confuses and affects all Urban formats today more than research. Many Urban programmers are redefining their research strategies and expenditures. New market competition, niche formatting, demographic changes and financial resources (or the lack thereof) are all significantly influencing the degree to which stations rely on research to develop their on-air product.
The questions then become, "Do some of these younger, ill-trained programmers and music directors really understand research, its purpose and the answers it can provide? And are most Urban programmers using it correctly? Or are they using it an excuse for not adding a song because they don't particularly like it personally, so they say it doesn't test well?"
Periodic assessment of listeners' tastes and opinions is vital to the success of any format, yet economies of scale and other priorities threaten to curtail the degree to which many stations can adequately measure how well they are meeting listener expectations.
Despite new methodologies, many researchers still believe the traditional auditorium test is the best way to discern listeners' perception of the songs the station plays. Why? Primarily because of the control auditorium settings afford the researchers. In any type of research you always want controls put into place; you want to be able to control the environment in which the music is being tested. Auditorium testing also allows the researcher to ask perceptual questions and conduct focus group studies. With a skilled moderator, at the end of the evening you can walk away with a music test done, about 50 perceptual questions answered and some focus group studies, all for the same price.
So what are the drawbacks to auditorium testing? Poor recruiting and screening. Plus you're at the whim of the participants and weather. You're always at the mercy of whoever will get in their car, or take public transportation and arrive at a music test center on time. The difficulty of getting a 30-year-old female to show up on a single night is tough. Single women, working moms, fear-of-large cities, all keep pushing cooperation rates down to the point where the rates start going up.
Still another factor -- and I've seen this first hand -- is winding up with a group of unemployed people who do research as a part-time job. These people are not representative of the station's actual audience. There's a direct correlation between cooperation rates and error. While telephone-assisted interactive testing dispenses with some of the recruitment challenges, it's still absurd to think that people are in a quiet room with no distractions, doing these tests.
Again, this is where a strong moderator can make the difference. If they suspect one of the participants is distracted or cheating, he will throw them out. You don't want anybody in the sample who is not doing it right.
Eventually, you know what demos tend to show at what rates. The key is to control the recruiting process so you over-recruit in a demo that may not show at as high a rate as another.
No matter what methodology used, fatigue remains a real concern when testing 300-400 titles. Hearing music in an auditorium setting does not replicate how people listen to music on the radio. But if the hook is right and the recruiting and screening are done properly, you can get good answers.
How frequently and with what accuracy a station tests its music depends on many factors. For instance, stations that play a large number of currents and recurrents and conduct ongoing call-out research may do well with just one auditorium music test per year.
If you've tested your library several times a year and not much has changed, you should be in pretty good shape. If there are changes in the market, however, like a new competitor or your songs being played by more stations, you might need an additional music test. Also, if your station is playing very few currents, like so many Urban ACs are doing, it might be good to do another test.
Most people in competitive markets usually test music twice a year, but there's always a false comfort in this. Usually what happens when you go six months or a year between the first two months after any test, there's a sense of freshness that people can sense. Then the next month or two, the music is still good, but the excitement is starting to drop off. Then the last few months are not good and the music gets very stale.
In looking at all the factors that can relate to building cume and P1 performance, the one that consistently ranks highest among P1 listeners is "who plays the best songs for my tastes?" Freshness is clearly an element in this. If you can stop your music from ever getting state, of course, it's going to have an impact on your P1 ratings. If your station is current-based, you should do weekly callout.
Callout is only effective in measuring a track that has established a reasonable pattern of familiarity. You have to analyze and interpret a song's "favoriteness" in relationship to its familiarity. Callout can be very accurate in showing a hit that's fast out of the chute or a new track from an established artist, but that doesn't apply to all songs. Some songs are first-listen hits. That still requires someone with an ear making music decisions. So here again, a programmer has to apply a dose of common sense and interpret the results honestly.
One thing that is especially disturbing to me is a programmer who institutes an arbitrary score threshold before a song receives any airplay or has only been given limited play in overnights. In other words, the song has received no significant daytime rotation.
They say after three weeks it's only achieved a reading of 38% and the cut-off line is 40%. So they drop it. Meanwhile, this same programmer is playing some mid-chart stiff that's been stalled at 43% for six or seven weeks or never tested.
At any given time in Urban formats, there are no more than three to five true new smashes. Keeping this thought in mind, some smart programmers use layers of recurrents and some power gold songs to maintain tempo and familiarity, forsaking freshness. For new jams, they focus on established artists and use songs they feel have the potential to become powers and that fit the sound of the station. This is not a bad idea providing you can maintain balance and freshness.
For Urban AC stations, here's another little-known secret: The hit-process life cycle shows that the older an adult listener gets, unfortunately, the less important music is in their lives. They still love music. They still listen to and enjoy it, but they become less inclined to get excited about a new jam, even from one of their favorite artists.
So, with all those things in mind, let's try to the answer to question of "How long should you leave a new current in rotation before giving up?" That's really a function of the number of cumulative spins, not just on your station, but also in the market and the format, for those jams with crossover potential. You also have to take into consideration your station's efficiency in converting cume to quarter-hours.
If you are the only station in your format when you do your music research, you may only want to test the P1s. Some may say that this strategy may inhibit growth, that you're preaching to the choir. The upside is that chances are you'll wind up super-serving your core. That usually more than compensates for any errors you might make trying to expand your cume.
Now let's look at Urban radio's expectations of development and growth. In the early days of "one-size-fits all" Urban formats, many stations -- which were beginning to program new music -- continued to also play songs from the past. They aired library gold, short and long-term recurrents. The thinking was that songs from the '80s and '90s era could provide appeal to adult listeners who hadn't fully accepted the new sounds, including hip-hop.
So the question became, which is better? Should a station try to keep its sound completely fresh by concentrating on only those researched current hits, or should it try to balance the list with some well-researched hits from the past? The answer depends on the format.
Playing the hits will always win to some extent, but the competitive landscape has been changed. It no longer has the advantage it once did. Now, more than ever, it is critical to make certain there is a "wow" factor on your station. It's that "occasional greatness" we've been talking about. One place that absolutely must have it is mornings.
Urban morning shows, syndicated or local, need to be better ... more entertaining with real humor. Listeners still want to wake up -- laugh, chuckle or think. They want to escape before they start their day, often unlike many of us, going to a job they hate.
Is Less Is Really More?
Despite the acceptance of the "less in more" concept, problems continue. Most spotloads on Urban stations are not going to decrease significantly right away. There are still markets and times when you can almost drive to work and never get out of a stopset. And we're not going to get the huge promotional budgets we used to get. The new "less is more" theory is that you're going to have to do more with less. I blame a lot of this on consolidation and group ownership. It's not that these companies couldn't do better radio with fewer stopsets. It's that their managers are beholden to Wall Street and the projections of cash flow have been inflated to a ridiculous extreme. This is not a healthy environment for creating great radio.
Mainstream Urban stations in the future are going to have to make their stations sound better and increase the likelihood that their listeners will give more horizontal or vertical listening occasions in an era of reduced spending on outside marketing and on-air contests and promotions.
Finally, as a general rule, the person with the best information wins, providing they can apply that information. Mainstream Urban radio is going to have to get some help from the record labels. New music and artists are necessary format ingredients, but only if they're allowed to become familiar or they're from a core artist for the format. That is not to say that our target audience doesn't want to hear some fresh new jams. They do. But it takes time for the audience to become familiar with a new song. The labels shouldn't try to run a song up and down the charts so quickly that the song doesn't have time to penetrate. Record companies need to make a long-term commitment to the songs and artists they release. This is why many artists have released remakes. There are almost too many nostalgia songs and covers. Hip-hop artists are going back to the '90s and '00s to find tracks they can rap over.
Despite the obstacles, mainstream Urban Contemporary formats are still ones for which there continues to be great expectations. It is still one of the highest performing of all music formats, based on an index that reflects the total audience share divided by the percent of stations.
When management takes on the task of trying to keep a station on top by tapping its programming resources and delivering the greatest amount of dollars to the bottom line, often they forget about many of the things we unveiled here. Winning is a matter of developing the winning edge; small differences in your performance can lead to large differences in your results.