Getting To The Point
July 10, 2012
Dispelling Myths About People, Audience And Time
The mining camps of the early West in the second half of the 1800s were precursors of the brutally demanding Industrial Age, inflicting huge new demands and stresses on everyone. Programmers are facing similar circumstances today. They're constantly searching for new ways to lighten their loads without compromising their performances. There are no simple answers to what has become a complex problem of getting to the point. The point being how to be creative, be open to new ideas and challenge each other in the process to not just accept good, but to strive for greatness and do it within an ever-diminishing budget. Yes, it's tough, but it can be done.
First, we need to dispel a few myths. We've tried to redefine our formats when they need no redefinition. We simply need to refocus on them. Market realities have changed our world. They now include unpredictability, constant overwhelming advances in technology, information overload coupled with multiplying competition that demands research and risk reduction. Next, we have to stop confusing the definition of the music with the definition of the format.
It kind of reminds me of something that took place in my neighborhood growing up. Enrollment in public elementary schools had dipped dramatically because of demographic shifts. So the politicians closed one school after another because there weren't enough kids to put in them. Then we got this new batch of kids, but the schools were gone and we wound up overcrowding the ones that were left. The same is true with Urban formats. Station management insists on changing them every time they're confronted with a ratings dip.
Formats are merely the structure in which we present what's happening today. The format or structure is an arrangement of elements, a presentation philosophy, not a music style. It remains viable. The contents are what need to change. The format is not at fault for its trouble. Those who have forgotten (or never knew) how to do it or have been lured away or convinced to change it, are at fault.
All of these things raise constant questions about how satisfied is our audience with what they're getting on the radio? What audience group is most at risk from new technology and what must radio do to compete effectively? Press that same audience group who complain about repetition and they'll tell you they really enjoy hearing their favorite songs over and over.
Better Research Means Fewer Risks
The basic premise of research is that it allows you to take fewer risks and make informed decisions. One of the problems with research is that it has to be properly interpreted. And there's a human element in research that often gets overlooked. For instance, it turns out that listeners only complain about the songs they dislike. What they are really saying is they don't want to hear somebody else's favorite songs, only their own. Listeners quickly tire of hearing a bunch of mediocre tertiary songs.
What we've got to do is find and play an optimum number of jams the majority of our audience like. While that number may vary somewhat by format, it is generally tighter than most programmers would suspect. While there are exceptions, for the most part, stations with tight playlists beat stations with longer lists. Playing songs beyond the optimum number means your station is playing songs that fewer listeners like.
Urban and especially Urban AC stations, have to get back to playing the cream of the crop from these trends as they come and go, rather than dipping deeper into trends as we've done in the past. Any musical genre can bring forth artists and music that can evolve into mainstream mass-appeal hit jams. The pendulum keeps swinging from trend to trend, but when Urban programmers swing back and forth with it, the format's very essence is muddied and the audience becomes confused and leaves.
Mass-appeal tastes don't remain static; tastes and styles evolve gradually. The audience may follow a trend for a while, but a properly done, a mass-appeal format always brings them back. Urban programmers must respond rather than react.
Between PPM and a growing number of options, our stations can't expect to hold on to their audience unless they offers the very best all the time. Recent studies have shown that in today's attention-deficient-driven environment, listeners pay attention to the radio for about three to four minutes. That means something new and interesting has to be happening at least every three to four minutes to hold a listener's attention. And those minutes are only if the content is good ... really good.
Someone once said that there really aren't any new ideas, just some old ones that have been re-done. That's probably truer in 2012 than ever before. Now that we have better research, better equipment and creative minds, we have the ability to make tired stations sound fresh and new. We just have to locate those creative minds and pump them up with intense dedication, then give them time to come up with something special.
It still comes down to determining who your target is, assessing their needs and delivering whatever they ask for. The brightest minds in the business are audience-driven, which for some means research-driven. But woven through all of this is a fear: Don't be too different; you might not be accepted. But you don't want to be the same as everybody else. In other words, you want to stand out, but not too far. This is all part of what we mean by getting to the point. Today, it's a point that is helped by research.
Old format lanes are not valid today. We need to rethink the songs we play, where we play them and the libraries we create. Should we schedule songs differently than we did for yesterday's audience? Where does research fit into all this and should it be interpreted differently? And how does all this affect music sales, artist development and the charting processes? Research, especially callout research, can be praised or hated by the label executives depending on how well their records are testing.
Is your station headed for double-digit dominance in its core demographics for the summer ratings? How about a strong young adult showing? One of the things that might help make those dreams a reality are a broadened music policy, a clean uncluttered sound and some new music that's fully identified.
Finally, don't let all this thinking about getting to the point and dispelling myths squeeze the tunnel of information tighter until there is nothing left to see or hear. Don't mistake data for wisdom. Our audience doesn't sit still and wait to be measured at certain intervals. Urban radio can and must be constantly responsive to its ever-changing audience. Just remember, when the hammer falls on you, you have no choice but to find another nail.