The Casual Listener
July 24, 2012
They're Affected By Changes In Lifestyle, Audience Makeup And Mobility
We're living in some interesting, challenging and scary times. There is no question that today's radio programmers are required to possess a wider array of skills than ever before. "Delegation" has become their new favorite word as they put in more hours and wear more hats. Times are also tough for traditional, live, local air personalities, as satellite, online, pre-recorded voicetracking and syndication continue to take huge chunks of their audiences and jobs. Talented veterans fight to hang on while aspirants struggle with fewer openings and lower pay.
Unfortunately, radio, like many businesses today, has been forced to either eliminate or greatly reduce the tools, perks and gigs. Those of us lucky enough to be still standing have to find new ways to be creative and develop great radio content for our audience and clients. Fortunately, radio's reach is as high as ever. But our Time Spent Listening (TSL) has dropped. This is due to increased competition from other technologies. We live in a smartphone-driven media environment of infinite choices ... one filled with busy listeners who have been forced to develop a gradually increasing preference for time-shifted media. Online listening in cars is here.
Recent studies have shown that much of this audience, especially under PPM, is made up of what we like to call the casual listeners. Our job is to hook them and make them stick around for at least three or four songs. That translates into new cume. Not only can Urban radio grab some listeners from other radio sources, it can also pull listeners from the pool of people who previously weren't listening much -- the casual listeners.
As we mentioned earlier, we've got new competitors. Pandora, Spotify, iHeart and others want to be classified as radio. Radio is now readily available on multiple digital platforms. Even heavy radio users (who research has shown are heavier than mass music consumers) have traditionally spent time with their personal music collections, potentially at the expense of our P1 and P2 stations.
The other problem is that we are still adjusting to and learning more about PPM. For instance, with Arbitron's diary listeners tended to write down their listening times sequentially and probably never entered three or four-minute listening spans. With PPM those three or four-minute intervals will count toward quarter-hour credit if they come inside a 15-minute block. So all the games and gimmicks that worked in the diary world, where you draw things out, do huge teases and keep listeners hanging on forever, as well as drilling home call-letter recognition and recall habits, are pretty much gone with electronic measurement.
In PPM everything you do needs to be at the top of your "A game." PPM is unforgiving and we know listeners are punching out if you're not holding their attention -- only now it happens in seconds, not minutes. Cume represents the market's awareness of the station's presence.
Under the diary, your audience typically wrote down three or four stations. With PPM they're listening to far more stations. Also, your station may likely get more credit for your P3 and P4 listening, whereas you may not have before with the diary. The credit you get is more cume, although there will be very few quarter-hours from your P3s, P4s and even P5s. With the diary, recall means everything. Recall is still important with PPM, but for a different reason. You want your listeners to remember who and where you are so they can find you and listen while wearing a meter, as opposed to trying to recall which station they listened to. This is why the casual listener is so important.
The secret to capturing more "casuals" is to set more listening appointments. Many more shorter-duration listening occasions are now being counted by the meter. This may be the reason some Urban and Urban AC stations are doing better. More than ever it's important to convert the proverbial "casual listener" to at least a P3 or P4. That means you have to devise programming strategies that give listeners a reason to tune in more frequently.
Daily ratings are more important than weekly ratings. This is because the week is made up of seven individual days. Urban stations should focus on winning individual days. Check on your direct-format competitors and you'll usually see that both they and you perform better on some days than others. This is another potential area for growth with casual listeners.
Next, you have to understand the value of different listeners and then shape your programming strategies to reflect the value of different listeners. If 60% of your average quarter-hours (AQH) comes from P1s, 20% from P2s and 10% each from P3s and P4s, naturally your programming strategy should place a higher value on P1s. Remember it takes three P2s to equal the value of one P1 and it takes six P3s or P4s to equal the value of one P1. Remember, too, the incremental value of your P2s, P3s and P4s in many cases, are that they could become your future P1s.
How To Win The Secret Growing-Shedding-Graying Theory
As our audience continues to gray, Urban adult stations' upper demo growth is no longer a given. Now it's a question of following this demographic conveyor belt where the audience just keeps getting older and looking ahead to the next few years. As the audience becomes more 25-49, some hit rap songs are just going to become more attractive.
In the early days it was teens and young adults who seemed to be the target of Urban formats. Then research came in and forced stations to split their audience, and you heard slogans such as "The kids have their station and now you have yours." Or "all hits and no rap." These slogans eventually went away, but not the notion that if you want an adult audience you have to play just oldies and ballads and avoid rap. Urban became a mass-appeal format, and now it's almost in a dead tie as far as some stations' 18-24 audience overlapping into 25-44. So the success of the right demographics is going to help, especially if it includes more casual listeners.
Some of the artists might be short-term novelties, but the major artists will definitely endure. It just gets down to that intangible quality of the music. There was a rare time in history when the music that came out between 1990 and 2000 was just so strong, so lasting, so musical and non-fashion-driven that it stuck around in some form. The artists and their songs had character that caused them to last.
A good Urban AC station should be like your favorite pair of jeans. Now that doesn't mean that you don't wear a new shirt with those jeans every once in a while. Today's Urban AC station needs to live up to expectations of familiarity, but it should not be so safe that it becomes predictable and boring. Many stations have become narrower due to the lack of superstars in the format. That's where the art of programming meets the science of programming.
Urban AC-formatted stations have always been slow to add new music, but now they need to move faster to keep up with the speed of how new music is exposed to the audience from other sources. Today's Urban AC stations need to sniff out some new artists for the format. The goal is not to become too hip for the room, but we still need to find our next generation of adult radio stars.
If the most-popular songs include some hip-hop titles, don't fool yourself. The people who want to hear it will go to where it is being offered. And you could instantly go from a P1 to a P2 or P3. In today's highly fragmented markets, establishing a strong identity is not only desirable, it's matter of survival. So many signals float through the airwaves with imperceptible differences in style and substance that being without a trademark is to be the perennial also-ran.
We've all seen instances where new program directors come to town and decide to program what worked for them in their last market or what they like instead of listening to their audience. You have to be responsive to what the research bears out and if the findings show that ballads and recurrents and some rap songs are what's happening, that could be the difference between winning and being a half-step behind. On the other hand, if your research shows that freshness, uptempo tracks and certain selected rap songs are what your audience is feeling, that's the way to go if you want to be in the mix.
One of the little-known secrets I want to share with you is that it's possible to play some rap songs without losing your image as a hit-oriented, Adult Urban station. Sales managers and GMs all say they want a station with strong 25-54 adults, and they want it done without sacrificing the younger demos they take for granted. But it's the young end of the demographic scale that can make a difference because if they're not happy with your station, as they get older, they are likely to go where they hear most of what they like and your station will suffer.
Don't forget about the attitude of the local air personalities (the few who are left). After all, they're the ones who have to get the musical message across to the audience. If they don't feel comfortable with what they're being asked to play, it will come across on the air, or even worse, they may challenge the computer, the playlist and the program director's judgment.
The good ones will understand that radio is a business and that no station can be truly successful by acting like someone's personal jukebox. For mutual respect to grow there has to be give-and-take on both sides.
Focus On Purpose & Don't Shrink Rap
So why do so many managers and owners look at air talent in the same general category as robots, and then become alarmed when they act like robots? Either they're insecure, insensitive or both. They should realize that their programming staff is only reacting in kind to the signals sent out by management.
So before you decide to completely "shrink rap" in an effort to score big with adults, remember the bottom line is that the younger end of that demo can be a real franchise especially if you can't have it all. Keep in mind that Arbitron is often at least a month or two behind what's actually happening ... and usually Arbitron and the agencies are still going to sort and decide the numbers break out.
Madison Avenue has always spent less on Urban radio proportionate to listenership, than it spends on general market radio. And while many buys that Urban stations will qualify for this season will still target 25-54 adults, the bulk of the mainstream heritage Urbans are going to target those adults who are 25-39 as the target slice of that statistical pie. As Urban baby boomers grow older, that pie could expand. Performing well at both ends of that demographic equation is not only a fairly healthy generational spread, it's an attainable goal.
When Urban radio focuses on purpose as well as music, it gains an often-overlooked advantage. Purpose is most effective when it centers around what happens between and around the records. Providing great, well-planned entertainment with air personalities who do daily show prep in this era of syndicated shows and voicetracking, is a real plus. The key is to be a mass-appeal Urban station within the format context.
Now, let's look at hip-hop affects the casual listener. Hip-hop music is the music of today for a lot of people over 25. That's very important for the young end of the audience that has grown up with you. People grew up with certain music, and when Urban AC stations are not targeting the music they grew up with there's a problem. A few years ago there were no specialized Urban Adult stations, so they're used to hearing all the hits, all the time. Unlike Top 40, Rhythmic, Hot AC and other musically-similar formats, the Urban audience is more active and more impatient. They want the best music of today being offered, and if that music now includes some rap artists, don't "shrink them." There are songs now as then that take you back to a point in time that you can reference yourself. While power golds and recurrents do have some value, so does new music. A full-service, mass-appeal station in 2012 must continue to provide new music the right way and not restrict the music because of preconceived notions about the songs or the artists.
Finally, if you're meeting or exceeding the expectations of your audience you can survive a formatic attack, a down book or trend or even the loss of a key player. Research can help you to determine what the audience thinks of your station, even what they expect of a station that wants their Arbitron vote. As it relates to the inclusion of rap on even the well-researched Urban adult station, there is even a way to mix rap and some smooth ballad artists and have the best of both worlds. But I'm not going to give that secret away here, at least not yet.
When adults tell you in focus groups or auditorium tests that they don't like rap, they are really saying they don't like some rap. They are saying they don't like talk. But what they're really saying is that they don't like the kind of talk they hear on most stations. They may not like some rap for the same reasons. But if your current playlist includes some hip-hop that works, it can give you both freshness and energy. Those are two ingredients that can keep you in the game.
Remember, the goal is to convert even a few casual listeners into fans. These fans are often simply music freaks who could become more involved with your station and listen more often and longer. They often have a higher-than-average passion for music. They could be made to feel a much higher emotional connection. And if that goes down and they also happen to get a meter or a diary, your score just went up. Your life just got better. And so did the future. Your future. My future. Our future together.