July 31, 2012
Push The Adrenaline Button
Your station is in a relationship with your audience. Now you've got to keep or improve this relationship and prevent cracks from appearing. Sometimes this improvement means changes. These changes are necessary because just when you least expect it, "shift happens."
There are usually some tell-tale signs that a change is needed. The first indication is obviously the ratings. Whether your station is measured by the meter or the diary, if the ratings are down, something needs to change. As a programmer, you may sense that your afternoon show doesn't deliver content that taps into emotions. Your GM is asking you if you think a syndicated show might do better. You say you're still convinced a live, local show is best. Either way, it's time to ponder the meaning of "ahhh" ... maybe cultivate a whole new state of mind and push the adrenaline button.
All formats have survived a wave of new technology, a new rating measurement system, a sick economy and owners who simply want to cut costs. Urban's storied past is as vivid as it is memorable. We want to examine some of the lessons of the past and how the results can be applied to the future. One of those lessons and secrets is an illusion created by the proper application of flow and consistency.
Experts agree the trick to longer listening spans is flow. Great content, consistency and flow can make a big difference, even with a little budget. Combined, they can help build cume. The best way to capture new cume is to make your station as mass-appeal as possible by playing the very best feel-good music and have your personalities constantly delivering the most compelling content between the jams.
Radio, regardless of format, is arguably not the first choice among some younger demos for getting new music and lifestyle information. So the question becomes: Are we in danger of losing the ears (the meter wearers and diary keepers) of Generation Y or Jones? And, if so, how do we get them back?
One of the answers is that we have to stay attentive. There have always been shifts and fragmentations of disposable time in the Urban format, whether it was Internet, Pandora, iHeart, iPods, satellite radio, eBooks or Netflix. In today's world, if your morning show isn't growing, it's time to consider other options because, well, shift happens.
A lot of live, local morning choices have been eliminated. We can blame a combination of PPM and economics for that. PPM ratings in many markets are responsible for Urban stations switching away from their heritage morning team. Typically, owners and managers simply looked at listeners who they were convinced could be replaced by a syndicated show, without actually researching who was listening or why and overlooked the remaining audience for whom old habits were hard to break. Often the result was that they simply switched to their P2 station.
The risk is that by moving to syndicated shows, we often reduce the number of true personalities in a given market who are able to get out there and promote their show and the station.
With PPM and afternoons becoming the new mornings, here was another chance for managers to cut their costs - or so they thought. The problem was that once the decisions were made, they had to live with it. When it didn't work, both the shift and the station suffered. .
Today you have to take into account the amount of listening lost to satellite radio, Pandora, iHeart, Spotify, pure-plays, other entertainment options, along with listeners' busy schedules. Also, the cost of reaching 20% less of the audience in drive time is a problem for the sales team. What had been a heavily marketable commodity for listeners and advertisers, one that set the tone for usage throughout the day is now gone. So is a large chunk of the revenue it produced.
Now is the time to follow up on your hunches or the results of your latest perceptual studies. If you think your late-night jock might do better in middays and the research seems to support that theory, now is the time to make that move. It's all part of effective daypart indexing. This is a comparative technique developed by Arbitron to assist programmers in determining what dayparts are helping the station and which ones are not.
Your station's total share of audience is actually made up of multiple shares for each day-part. In other words, an average of morning drive, mid-days, afternoon drive, evenings, overnights and weekends. By creating an index that compares each day-part to the overall average, you can see which time periods are under or over-performing and then make necessary adjustments.
Another factor to consider in shift indexing is daypart relativity for each format. In other words, every format has its uniquenesses and anticipated performance curves. For example, middays on some mainstream Urban stations are often lower than other dayparts. The reason is that those indexes often favor stations (such as Urban Adult) that target at-work listeners Monday through Friday. This disparity is inherent to the format itself and should not be cause for concern.
Keep in mind shift indexing is a great equalizer of information and a good way to look at your at your station, to see what's pushing you forward and what may be holding you back. It also provides a standard point of comparison that brings each daypart's contribution into sharp focus.
Leveraging Listener Benefits
With the diary and especially now with PPM, building great ratings depends on being able to consistently promote ahead to improve flow, extend TSL and even build quarter-hours. Your talent should never go into a stopset without teasing ahead. Giving listeners something to anticipate creates aggressive momentum and flow.
You increase TSL by constantly selling listener benefits. Having your air personalities do this makes their show and the station more interesting and helps to create longer listening spans. One method I really like is one in which you have live liners that sell one of the station's unique qualities several times an hour. This aids listeners to better use the station and gives them more reason to listen later in the hour and into the next daypart.
Another secret that can result in longer listening spans is effective use of new media. If you're an air personality, it's no longer enough to roll in five minutes before your shift, host your four hours and roll out. These days, it's not just what happens on the mic that can make a difference -- although that has to be there, too. It's also how your talent interacts with listeners on social networking sites, particularly Facebook and Twitter. This can go a long way toward making their shows popular and should be a necessary and required part of the gig. Studies show these sites are not just vehicles to promote a show, but also a tool to solicit feedback, test potential on-air topics and engage your station's fans on a whole new level.
New media has helped to create fresh opportunities for talent. Not only has it given many personalities a platform to share thoughts and feelings beyond what they do between songs, but it's also given them an opportunity to grow their personal brand. Many jocks have more to say than what the ramp of a song allows -- and blogging, Facebook, Twitter, etc. have opened these doors for sharing and engagement. Depending on how you use them, social media can incite tremendous passion for your brand.
Marketing to potential listeners by using social media is also an important key to maintaining and growing audience. Invest in your product to reach potential new audience and then once you have them, use the above tactics and secrets to increase listening spans.
Urban radio's greatest strengths still lie with a combination of the popularity of the artists whose music we play, and the on-air performer's execution. In a world where success is often fleeting, the toughest job is maintaining format structure and balance so we can create longer listening spans. We still have to hustle to develop them and then we have to make them flow -- not so they will fit in, but so they will stand out. Because when they stand out, we stand out.
Remember, today's listeners are neither patient nor forgiving. An over-communicated world has trained them to be immune to mundane and traditional approaches that might have worked back in the day. New methods of thinking and creating need to be addressed, embraced and executed to keep listeners tuning in. Today's young listeners in particular don't want to be told what to do -- and definitely do not want to be forced to jump through hoops to get what they want. The right imaging will allow your listeners to draw their own conclusions and discover the part of the message that connects with them on an emotional level.
Listeners' time is valuable and if they feel it's being wasted they won't hang around. That means your promos need to paint a picture while delivering a clear and concise message. Clichés should be avoided at all costs. Don't be predictable. Take the listeners by surprise. Sell the sizzle and create a larger-than-life image. Filling your promos with sponsors, rules and unnecessary information only angers them, dilutes the message and bores them. This could cause you to go from a P1 to a P2 or P3 instantly.
Your promos should be written with a campaign mindset. Create episodes with a common theme. This slows burn, stimulates interest and creates surprise. This mindset should be used for your evergreen promotions or those with a long shelf life. If you have four days to promote an event, it's better to do it with one brilliant promo instead of five "quickie ones."
Make Your Station A "Giver"
In order for you to receive, you have to examine the competition and then become a "giver." The competition has changed. With the proliferation of format-similar stations, radio is coming closer to the iPod shuffle. It's like a parade of artists, often more incompatible than most of us have ever heard on a well-programmed station. Recently we heard an "Urban-leaning" Top 40 station where the same 30 songs were formatted so tightly they could barely breathe. Soon enough the purpose became more obvious. "We're your #1 hit music station" came the booming recorded voice with just a hint of smugness. This station was P2 when the Urban station was P1. Both stations were attempting to give their audience more.
From an advertising and revenue perspective, inside those "givers" there are two groups -- a smaller "core" that accounts for the vast majority of Urban spending and a larger collection of listeners referred to as "low-funding fans." They represent future revenue growth potential for the format.
Frustrated Urban program directors visibly wince when they realize they're sharing audience with some of these Top 40 "train wrecks," offering artists whose songs weren't necessarily Urban or even Top 40 hits of the day. And then there are the rightfully incensed air personalities, many of whom are losing their gigs to syndication and voicetracking.
With all this syndication and voicetracking, some listeners are probably thinking what difference does it really make whether stations have live, local jocks anymore, anyway? In this age of pre-recorded shifts, with the possible exception of morning shows (many of which are syndicated on Urban and Urban AC stations) what are today's air personalities really giving the listener? If you call to make a request, no one will answer because no one is in the studio. The switchboard is on automation. No one is in the studio because corporate mentality believes that personalities can be more productive if they aren't tied to the microphone for four hours. But checking off a to-do list instead of serving an audience is a dangerous swap.
I'm not suggesting that this is the fault of the air personalities or even the program directors. Most of them have little or no choice. They hate that their jobs have come to this. They've been stripped of their personalities, relegating them to recording on-air breaks in 45 minutes to then be cut and pasted in between songs. Making these moves can also be damaging for the record industry, because it means less fresh music on the radio. It means multiple airings of new music in prime dayparts and no front-announcing or back-announcing of artists and titles. And most people only use RDS in their cars. Even then, they like us to tell them the artist and title of all new music. And they need to hear things that give them the feeling there is a live, local personality entertaining them.
Freshness Still Counts
Another key ingredient in any Urban format is freshness. Even for adults, with fall and winter, as the temperature drops, the tempo should rise. Summer vacations are over. These fall and winter seasons are party times for a lot of fickle folks who, if you don't give them something they can feel, will find a fresh new frequency in a flash.
Giving your audience constant freshness by staying on top of the music, trends and feelings for the younger end of your target audience can really charge up your station's sound and image and has been known to let you score. Remember, if your teens and 18-24s go up, so do your overall numbers. Give them a reason to go up.
Many markets have fragmented young listenership. The teens and 18-24s who still think and dance like teens still want to hear their music. There is a growing Hispanic core that loves Urban music, especially rap and even some Old School jams. Even though for the teens and many of the 18-24s, listening is often scattered, it can really help to swell your totals -- especially with Arbitron weighting and sample balancing processes. Teen and young-demo awareness is often the catalyst that leads to a stronger overall showing. The 18-34 females will follow the teens and eventually the entire 25-49 cell develops.
Research shows that males like hip-hop and less repetition, while female acceptance of love songs is overwhelming. Both like energy. Power ballads mixed with uptempo jams or club tracks can provide the balance needed to lock up teens and 18-24s. The key is to give your audience the fresh new songs that are mass appeal but have a hip image. A lot of reactionary records fall into this category.
Teens and 18-24s are critical to any Urban station's ratings, especially in the winter when many adult-targeted stations tend to slow down the number of new songs and increase the long-term re-currents, stay-currents and library gold tracks. You have to take yourself out of the big picture. Music is much like fashion and other trends in that it always begins with the young people. They're the trendsetters. Music trends are created with them and that's another reason why teens are important.
Teens who can't or don't drive often are more like their parents, while older teens and 18-24s begin to make their own decisions and invariably choose things their parents don't like. Urban music and radio fall right into this category for a lot of rebellious, sub-Urban non-blacks looking for a hip alternative. That hipness has to come from the personality, not just the music.
Now what about the sales managers and GMs who tell us they only want 25-49 numbers to fill in the 18-34 cells? They wrongly try to separate the teens from the adults, which is an inter-connected process. When building familiarity with a new song, callouts and requests kick in first with teens, build to women 18-34, and then spread to men. Few straight, Urban male listeners over 15 comment about music at all on these callout tests. Tomorrow's teen artists will appeal to tomorrow's 18+ audience.
Even some rap has done well with adults, proving the familiarity precept and the strength of a hit record actually transcends demographics. Rap and Urban music is no longer just a success story. It's the story of the music industry, which it currently dominates. It's possible to keep your adults and add some teens. And teens can actually generate some adult numbers. Also, don't forget that there are a lot of mainstream Urban stations that have attempted to go adult and ended up dying in the process.
On the other hand, it's not uncommon for a mainstream Urban station to be #1 12+, second or third in the 18-34s, and fourth or fifth overall in the 25-54 standings. This means an advertiser can buy one station and reach nearly everyone, with some bonus audience on both sides. Markets and stations are changing. Competition, like the wind, is coming from every direction, every format.
Finally, don't forget the "music freaks." They're selfish listeners who are disenfranchised. They're waiting for a station to give them what they want. They still want to hear some hip personalities make them laugh, chuckle or think. These are listeners who can be yours for a song, the right song, played at the right time by the right personality. The key is to give it to them consistently and don't forget to "hand-off" between shifts. How often have you heard personalities act as though where their shift is done, the show is over? The curtain is closing. Instead of handing off, they just close the curtain and leave. Instead of promoting what the next personality is going to play and give away (all they have to do is look on the music log) they just up and go. Granted, this is harder to do with voicetracking and syndication, but it can be done.
Speaking of doing, whether you understand or agree with them or not, go easy on the lame Top 40 stations with their weird personalities and wacky, scattered playlists and learn from them. They may have done us a huge favor. Many of them are doing just what Urban radio fails to do. Also, they have created a void that will allow us to return an element of fun, hipness and personality to an industry that is turning largely robotic.
A lot of careers will be on the line this year as we find our industries involved in some tough ratings battles. Effective shift-changing can help us win some of these wars. There will be scars and wounds. If we're in a funk, it's a funk of our own making. Finally, shifts are often more lyrical than they are literal, distilling a complexity mired in turmoil. And as we all know, shift happens.