Blurry Transitions And Calculated Risks
August 28, 2012
The New Niche Programming
Either the velocity of change has accelerated exponentially or the most fortunate generation in history have been enveloped in the very change they started. Today's Urban radio is a huge part of this change. In our continuing efforts to bring depth to this column and better serve our readers, we occasionally try to accomplish this by offering provocative new ideas and innovation.
These are tough times. Whether you're in the radio or music business, we're all concerned about the future. Economically speaking, Urban formats are low-cost, high-yield formats that in some markets can save some underperforming stations from extinction. Usually it requires a combination of blurry transitions and calculated risks. They're all part of the new niche programming that has allowed some Urban stations to become the ratings leaders in several markets.
Success always comes with risks ... risks that include accurately interpreting research, understanding Mscores, lower salaries, active listeners, astounding revenues, power ratios and Arbitron's PPM.
Naturally, these blurry transitions come with a series of new questions. Questions such as how is Urban radio going to continue to build awareness, grow its listener base and maintain its core audience? We begin the answers with the fact that it's going to require a new kind of thinking and a new kind of action.
For every action there's usually a reaction. Every time nature is repressed, it's bound to reassert itself. The question is when and in what form? In order to fully understand and take advantage of it, we've got to be a little more open-minded and ready to broaden our horizons. That is why we say that saving the station's life and improving its health is at odds with its desire. Its desire, obviously, is to get healthy and then stay healthy. In order to do that, you have to factor in what I call the "cluster mentality." The cluster mentality challenge is that you have many different objectives all needing attention, yet there is limited time and resources.
Whether historical or projected, pre-tax or after-tax, cash flow is the formula on which performance, profit and prices are based. It's considered by investors and operators alike as the end game in any business equation and the basis upon which most station's management abilities are judged.
Programming a radio station today is a lot like practicing medicine or fixing a leaky barge. It's tough turning it around when it's full of disease and leaks. At the same time, you've got to handle the pressure from management to perform error-free. It takes a special breed of character to submit oneself to this constant pressure.
Probably the worst kind of patient is one who requires a change of format. In other words, you have diagnosed that the format is wrong or leaning incorrectly. Now you have to convince the patient to take certain steps to improve their health. Often during the first, crucial months you have to fight for consistency. You know that if a station has gospel in the morning, slow jams at night, remotes and mixes on the weekends and religious services on Sundays, you've got a problem. You have to establish some consistency. If you keep offering this and that, you can kiss those precious, early-won quarter-hours goodbye, And with Arbitron's PPM in the market, you're really in trouble.
Then there's the tough task of putting the best players in place. While you're overhauling the staff, you may find yourself forced to replace most of them and even voicetrack others just to save some money. Unfortunately, unless you're extremely lucky, you're going to get stuck with players who weren't smart enough to keep their ears to the ground and get something going before you arrived.
Of course, management wants to challenge us to train current staffers to their standards. In other words, give people already on board a chance to play on the new team. You know in your heart it's not going to work. On the other hand, you can spend weeks bringing in strong players, only to find that one leftover dude with a bad attitude can ruin everything with a single weekend of poison phone gossip.
Things tend to run in cycles and frankly, I don't think anything ever totally disappears. You get new hybrid strains through an endless process of cross-pollination that goes on whether the more fanatically ardent followers of any given genre or trend like it or not (and most generally they don't).
We live in a time of blurry transitions and since we're all so enslaved by the moment, often we can't see the very gradual but ineluctable fertilizations going on right under our noses. Fertilizations between waxing and waning forms that will eventuate in the buds of new musical forms which we'll probably reject or even refuse to recognize because they don't sound like the old forms.
But new forms combine with old forms to become part of the process of broadening our horizons and our future. Reining ratings, coupled with ever higher risks, are somber symbols of an ongoing debacle that is giving Urban radio new concerns and could lead to unwanted bragging rights. Everyone is coming at us now. Even though the adult version of the format didn't always work when so-called Urban Adult stations tried it earlier, they were not discouraged. They merely looked for someone to blame, usually the PD. As we continue to wind down 2012, we thought this would be an excellent time to re-focus your programming strategies.
Radio programming, much like medicine, often finds its practitioners torn between two choices. Like great physicians, programmers are often frustrated because they must choose between doing what they know is necessary to save the station's life and doing what they feel they can get the patient to co-operate and do. Much of the time the real remedy is often in conflict with what the owners and managers want.
There is a similarity between radio programmers and health professionals. Health professionals often debate their roles. Some feel that they must always do what's best for the patient. But exactly what is their duty? One professional might say, "We're supposed to be saving lives." Another says, "We have a duty to relieve suffering."
In the case of the cancer patient, like the PD or consultant of an ailing radio station, these notions of duty often clash. Because the patient may also be suffering from deep bone pain that a relentless assault medicine cannot alleviate, one team member may advocate letting the patient die to relieve the suffering. The family, however, wants to keep her alive. We're reminded of the family-owned radio properties who have neglected their stations for so long that they might be better off switching formats or selling to an owner who would be willing to invest the time and resources necessary to restore their health.
In looking for answers we often find bigger questions. For example, as a programmer or consultant you have to be careful not to suggest that only experts who have "been there" can deal with delicate ethical dilemmas. At the edges lie the complex issues that need genuinely insightful examination.
Answers have to be real. In many markets, attempting to create a saleable audience base quickly and without spending a considerable amount of money and time is all but impossible. Understand that programming today, especially in start-up or turnaround situations, is kind of like being given a wide-open road. You're probably going to have to drive all over it for a bit until you find the exact lane that you need to be in. And you don't want to pigeonhole your station to such an extent that you are not allowing logical cume to sample the station and become a part of its success.
Most managers don't realistically look at Urban radio's demographic future. Is the station willing to give up lower demographics in order to join the crowded 25-plus arena? What are the risks? One risk in becoming an older-demo station is if you blow off all your 18-34s, you could end up without a base at all and not be efficient in anything.
To score, you still have to deliver to your core audience's expectations. You can't suddenly change the direction and sound of the station and expect instant new listener support. Many stations didn't support this change with the proper marketing. Not only does marketing have to be in-pocket; the product itself must be jammin'.
Listeners expect an Urban station to jam, but a lot of Urban adult stations don't. Conservative consultants and researchers are keeping their Urban AC stations too soft and too safe. Objective decisions about subjective subjects such as music are very dangerous in the wrong hands. They also make for boring radio.
The answer, of course, is to broaden your horizons. It seems all too often Urban programmers find reasons not to do anything rather than to do something creative beyond trying to assemble the perfect playlist. Speaking of playlists, many of them are safe, but bland, because nobody wants to take what they perceive as chances, such as laying a hot new track on a bored audience, playing some uptempo jams or just letting one of the few live, local air personalities still left standing, stretch out and become entertainers, who can keep listeners loyal even when they tire of the tunes.
We're all responsible for putting music in the box it's in today. We seem to want more of the same, rather than seeking out a different sound that might turn out to be the trend of the future. Future format trends should come from one of us this time.
As a consultant, I understand the pressures that go with the gig. I also know that as programmers, we have to push the envelope, now more than ever before, or the envelope will soon be sealed and with it our fate and our future. Researchers and consultants have bred a type of radio that is too safe, too cookie-cutter, too boring, too "me, too." Tomorrow's Urban radio decision-makers must find moments they can turn into magic. There aren't a lot of them. When we do find one, doesn't it make sense to ride it until the tank runs dry?
Even though it costs more, we must fill the tank with some high-octane fuel or once again we will find ourselves out of the race. Instead of becoming a station that is unique and focused, we will wind up continuing to be one that is divided and confused. An Urban station that has an overabundance of ballads, recurrents and gold runs the risk of losing its audience to an upbeat Top 40, Rhythmic Top 40 or mainstream Urban station. Any new hybrid operation needs to plan its moves carefully. You need current music to support the presentation.
An 18-34-targeted mainstream Urban station can easily score some saleable adult numbers. The trick is to evolve the station throughout the day. You must have the basics in place. Those basics must include a strong morning show - not just a jock trying to play 10 songs in a row during morning drive. Keep mornings mass-appeal, middays more adult-oriented, but with plenty of current-tempoed hit songs. This is especially true for those markets measured by the meter starts running. By afternoon, you should begin filtering in some young-demo-appeal hits ... even some teen songs and rap hits. And by 6p, you should be really jammin'. Weekends should be up-tempo and youth-oriented, as well.
Blurry transitions and calculated risks mean the future for Urban AC radio is not to suddenly go 25-plus and in the process, simply hand over the 12-24s or the 18-34 audience to your competition. Niche programming to younger demos is the way of the future for those Urban AC stations that want to raise their ratings. But like everything else worthwhile, these things need management backing and financial support. Today's programmers have to weigh the costs of adapting to change with the risk of failing to adapt. Saving the station's life will continue to be at odds with management's desire because even though the fragments of broken resolutions can be cemented together, the cracks will still show.