Urban Radio's Summertime Surge
August 14, 2012
Not Everyone's Happy About It
It's summertime, the listening is easy and audiences all across America have suddenly found the dark spot on the dial may just be the bright spot. Urban and Urban AC stations are doing very well in some of the largest markets in the country. In New York, YMF Media's Urban AC WBLS, under PD Skip Dillard, placed third overall. In Chicago, Clear Channel's Urban AC WVAZ, programmed by Derrick Brown, continued its winning ways and extended its lead. Radio One's strongest market, Houston, saw Top 40/Urban KBXX under PD Terri Thomas land at #1, while sister station, Urban AC KMJQ with PD Jeff Harrison, was #2.
Los Angeles, which doesn't have a true Urban station yet, saw the climb of Emmis Top 40/Rhythmic KPWR, led by VP/Programming Jimmy Steal, rise to fourth overall. It's very much that same story in San Francisco, another major city with no true Urban station, where Clear Channel's Rhythmic/Top 40 KMEL moved up to first place. In Atlanta, for the first time in history, the first four stations are either Urban or Urban AC. Led by CBS' Urban WVEE with PD Reggie Rouse, followed by Radio One's WHTA and PD "Hurricane" Dave Smith, Cox's WALR led by VP/Urban Programming Tony Kidd, and Radio One's Urban AC WAMJ, also headed by OM "Hurricane" Dave Smith, all locked in the four top spots.
In Baltimore, Radio One's second strongest market, Urban AC WWIN takes the top spot with sister station Urban WERQ landing in third place behind Country WPOC. Both stations are programmed by OM Al Payne. In Miami, Cox's Urban AC WHQT with PD Phil Michaels leads the market. Urban WEDR with programming headed by Derrick Baker is in third. There are similar Urban and Urban AC success stories throughout the country.
Remember, it wasn't that long ago that Urban was one format. You could be hearing a more Urban sounding song, followed by a really adult-leaning Urban song. It was all one genre. Then, it splintered off into Urban and Urban AC ... not too unlike Active Rock and Alternative. Now we've come to expect that in most markets with a sizeable black population, both formats will be available. There will always be fringe flavor jams that cross over. And there will be mass-appeal Urban formats that always do especially well during the summer months.
Another, less-talked about reason for this late summer crossover climb has to do with the fact that when some songs make it to Top 40 and crossover, it's often because Urban producers are paying more attention to other formats' artists and music. In addition, when pop stations don't have many cool, u-tempo jams of their own, they are forced to turn to Urban. They've finally learned the fallacy of niche radio.
There is a blind spot that exists with certain types of artists. And some of these pop guys just can't hear Urban hits. They can't even clap on the beat. Their air personalities can't suddenly don a "hipness cap" and come across like they're really into Urban artists and their music. So they're a little unhappy about it. They're resisting playing too many Urban artists. All this is good for us. Other smart pop programmers have been around long enough to see that all music is cyclical. What's amazing is how long it is taking for so many Top 40 stations to recognize that many Urban artists are some of the hottest ones going. When they look at ticket and CD sales, they see facts that are just are too strong to ignore. If you're a programmer, you have to catch the updated versions of artists in each genre.
What's the reason for this sudden summer emergence of Urban and Urban AC stations across the nation? There are several. For one thing, it's late summer and hip-hop is now mainstream. It's the new music white kids use to piss off their parents. Add to that the fact that there is a wide range of listeners, including the growing Hispanic population, who not only identify with both black and Chicano rappers, but nearly all of the artists Urban and Urban AC stations play. Listeners, on the other hand, still have the final say on which frequency they're going to frequent and if their favorite pop stations don't meet their expectations (which it would be hard to do by only play the "everything" that can be created within the format walls), they're going to find another place to dwell. Recent studies have shown that females are now re-setting their pre-sets and Urban stations have become strong P2s in many markets.
In spite of its growth there is a fear among some programmers that terrestrial radio is becoming an old medium. Most agencies' focus over the last two decades still leans toward 25-49-year-old listeners and there has come a concurrent decline in younger age listening. This is because of a change in how radio is perceived by younger listeners. We should remember the rule: Eighty percent of your station's listening still comes from 22 percent of the audience. The problem is that 20 percent is shrinking, particularly among young listeners.
While radio may still be the top source for new music choice, now there's lots of competition. With the explosion of media choices, it has become relatively easy for listeners to literally build their own radio stations on their personal listening devices. This fundamental change in technology will continue to take its toll on terrestrial radio's natural ability to build cume by luring new listeners.
The Latin Lean
There is some hope, however, that agencies are beginning to see the need to expand and diversify their reach of advertising into younger demos. This has already led some radio clusters to consider a younger, Latin-leaning option among their choices of music radio offerings. These younger Latin-leaning music-based formats will have to be less rigid and more adventurous to be successful, as today's young people have so many choices with which to spend their entertainment time. In short, youth-based radio will have to change to become really compelling again.
In many of our blue-collar markets with significant Hispanic populations, Urban stations have to take advantage of their love for our music and artists and reach out to them. The idea is to market effectively so that they feel that it's their radio station too. Put some billboards up in those Arbitron zip codes where you know they live. Make sure you have contestants with Hispanic surnames. Take your van into those neighborhoods. Make part of your website bilingual. And even though the audience in 2012 is aware and perhaps sharper than they were a few years ago, there are less of them. And they're not listening as long.
Next, we take a non-seasonal look at the makeup of today's Urban radio audience. Accurately identifying audience lifestyles can make a big difference for those stations who really want to bring it. Identifying how to relate to target demographics, specific life groups and income levels has become even more vital to Urban radio's success in the changing environment of 2012. With all the new distractions and choices, this process continues to be even more complicated, but necessary.
Everyone in the business has a tendency to over-glamorize listeners by making them a little bit more music-savvy and event-savvy than they really are. In today's media-cluttered world, we're just the appliance next to the can-opener in the kitchen. We also often come to the erroneous perception that the audience is hanging on to every word we say, which is where we can get into trouble. Urban stations have to plan, schedule and become involved in everything. We must look to the future on a constant basis and plan things months in advance. If there isn't enough going on, you have to create events for your audience.
Because Urban and Urban AC stations can appeal to such a wide range of demographics, it is important to target life groups as well as demographics. This is essential because you can't own all the life groups within a specific demographic. We've all heard it said that 25-54 is not a demographic, but a "family reunion." Urban stations need to target the 18-34 side of the demo scale, while Urban AC stations focus on 25-49-year-olds. Although they obviously overlap in the middle, it's totally unrealistic to think a contemporary music format can be strong in every sub-cell within 18-54. Unless you're in a market that isn't very competitive, your station has to have a brand that transcends the limitations of the appeal of the music you're presenting. This is where Urban stations can see real success. And this only comes with time and consistency.
We can't really examine, analyze or even talk about reaching the Urban audience without first looking at the music that brings them to our side of the dial. And how do we arrive at the decisions we reach? Are today's Urban PDs creating a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy and, in the process, getting lower levels of song recognition? If a single is put into callout research after only a week's worth of spins, is that enough? How about after two weeks? Are 80 spins enough? How about 120? And then keep in mind that some Urban and Urban AC stations have syndicated morning and afternoon shows, and, as a result, a record in heavy rotation might only be getting 30 spins or less. So what's the answer?
It depends on the song, the genre and the amount of market exposure the track is getting.
But for some programmers, a week's worth of spins may be enough of a track record to begin their callout research. I spoke to one winning major-market programmer who said putting songs into callout early gives him a better sense of how popular a song is. This is something he wouldn't get if he were to wait until he hit a certain number, such as 100 spins. He wants as immediate a barometer as possible from the audience so he can get an early gauge on how the audience feels about the new music that's being played on the station.
We personally recommend that 90-120 spins should be a minimum for most Urban stations before putting a song into callout, especially if it's a new artist. Some artists or songs will work immediately. Remakes, for example, with their built-in recognition factor, can often go into callout early.
Here's another thought: If you're the only one on the song, in most cases you need a minimum of at least 100 daytime spins before it gets familiar enough to be tested. There are some songs that will just lie out there for weeks and weeks. Then there are some artists that will pop immediately. Sometimes if you have a record that just doesn't show a lot of development or movement, that's when you've got to say, "This record is a stiff," regardless of the demographics. Stiffs should never get out of the "C-stack."
There are also niches within the demographics. There are different segments of, let's say, an 18-34 audience. Even if you only target females 18-34, there are some very discernible differences. There are those who are still in college, those who are not; those who are married, and those who are still single. These are the major changes people make in their lives. Changes that affect the way they think and listen to radio.
We don't schedule our music by saying this segment is designed specifically for women who have two kids, but you have to be cognizant of those things. And you have to deal with having a variety of personalities on the air. For example, your midday personality may refer to her kids in one way while the afternoon guy discusses his in another way. At the same time, the night slammer doesn't have any kids so he's rapping about other things.
Finally, in the Urban audience analysis, both groups are important. You have to target and understand specific lifestyle groups to hit the demos you need. Perceptuals or lifestyle research is important. In many markets you have to look at exactly who makes your numbers happen. Then you should cater musically and promotionally to these listeners and potential listeners. If you have a significant or growing Hispanic population, use your research to include and identify the demos associated with this segment of the population and cater to their lifestyle or culture as well. Reach out to your audience. They will tell you what they want and what they don't want. Then the question becomes are we content with where we're are now, or are we prepared to make the changes necessary to convert occasional listeners into loyal listeners?
Urban radio's summertime surge is now an historic part of our world. If we're not satisfied or want a new world, each of us must start taking responsibility for helping to create it.