Some Risks Are Worth Taking
September 4, 2012
Trust Your Own Instincts
A lot of things in our business are cyclical. They go beyond the music to include the competitive environment in which we live and work. Despite its cyclical nature, the keys to success for Urban programmers today are a combination of risk and balance. The balance may vary by market and station and depends on the marketplace. When the music is really mainstream and mass appeal and the station is focused, it can win big, whether it's measured by the meter or the diary. This is the era of the calculated risk-takers -- those who trust their own instincts, as opposed to the conservative programmers.
Conservative programmers, especially those who program Urban AC stations, live and die by research. Calculated risk-takers calculate the pros and cons of each move and know the trade-off involved. They also know that there is a reward for those who can venture off the beaten path and win.
One of the ratings secrets that I've discovered and continue to use is that fact that those listeners who participate in Arbitron surveys, whether the measurement is by meter or diary, are interested in radio. They aren't radio buffs or experts ... and they may know more or less than we think they know. At the same time, however, research indicates the audience who wears meters or keeps diaries are somewhat more interested in radio than people who don't.
Think about it. If you don't have a dog, how interested are you in answering a survey on dogs? If you don't care about radio, if it's not at least marginally important to your life, are you at all likely to spend time keeping a diary or wearing a meter to keep track of your listening?
So how do we take advantage of this? If you have a "frequent listening club" and know how to use it, you already ahead of the game. If your station conducts regular station events and "presses the flesh" at every opportunity, then you're reaching out to diary-keepers and meter-wearers. If you treat callers or active listeners like the VIPs they are, you're catering to the people who are most likely to be surveyed.
The people who participate in Arbitron surveys are opinion-givers. Recent studies have shown that survey participants share at least one characteristic: They enjoy giving their opinions and having their voices heard. These listeners don't necessarily share a desire for contests or prizes; they share a desire to offer their opinions about something that interests them ... radio.
Now it's time to take a look at space. Not just any space, but the space on the dial that you want listeners to fill with your frequency. One of the ways to achieve that, especially in the PPM world, is to find a way to access the accidental listeners.
Exactly who are accidental listeners and why are they important? Accidental listeners are listeners who could be hanging around a store, a barber shop or a beauty shop while wearing a meter. They can generate cume and even some quarter-hours just by being there. Whereas listeners rarely would remember or write down accidental listening under Arbitron's diary methodology, with the meter all they have to do is be exposed to an encoded signal.
Because Arbitron's meter is passive, it naturally detects accidental listening. That's one of the reasons cume is larger in PPM than it was with diaries. However, even if a listener likes what they hear, there's no guarantee they'll return. So the challenge becomes getting this accidental listener to come back later. To do this we have to figure out what stations they're listening to and how to get them to come back to our station.
Forget keeping them. They're going to leave when we play a song they don't like or they've heard too much. Or, they're going to leave when we have a commercial stopset. How are we going to get them to return? That's where a strong website, coupled with outside promotion and marketing, can help.
A noteworthy societal shift has occurred recently that affects us all. Wireless Internet and cell phone phenomena have caused our listeners to ask, "What happened to my space?" The intimacy once shared through computer screens and cell phones is at a new height. Our audience is using their new feature-filled cell phones as a means of "cellular defense." They're using them to protect themselves from even the most casual interactions. So the question becomes: In such a polarized world, do we really need less interaction? Or, do we just need to find a new a way to capture the hearts, minds and ears of our audience?
As we fade into fall, we now have to prepare for the upcoming holiday season and winter of 2012. It could be a winter of discontent ... one that is going to be very different and a little scary because of the job losses, the economy, new competition and for radio decision-makers, declining persons-using-radio (PUR) levels. Listeners in all formats are being driven away by too much repetition and huge commercial loads. They've started listening to other forms or devices.
For many of us, it's a new game. There's a reason for the new game. With the new competition, every station is looking for a way to grab and keep more listeners. With the advent of other media choices and all the online radio stations that allow you to hear exactly what you want, the real problem is that to be successful,l Urban radio has got to find a way to attract young, middle-aged and even some older listeners. Eventually research will drive its discovery. What do Urban and Urban AC stations need to do? The smart ones will learn some new influence tricks and reduce the number and type of commercials. Design the presentation and arrange the music and other elements so that your heavy users will love your station and not be tempted to stay with any other format.
How Much Research?
Before we dump all our stock in research and buy bonds in gut feels, we need to consider how we use reach in accessing accidental listeners. A few years back, we were warned not to factor our emotions in the creative process. Today, programmers know more about their computers than they do their audiences. Concern of research and numbers has suppressed everything else. When the bankers took over radio, they assimilated it to their world of numbers. While they like research because it attached numbers to everything, they are now reluctant to pay for it in a weak economy.
The fact is that most Urban programmers are going to have to get used to functioning without it altogether, or less of it. Our take is that while we believe strongly in research, it can't create programming. It can only tell us what a group of people think about something previously created. We have to go beyond research when creating new shows, promotions and productions, as well as introducing new songs.
It still takes a balance of research and gut to create a successful station. Like balancing your personal and business lives, your diet and your financial portfolio, you must balance science and emotion in your programming. In other words, look at what the numbers are really saying before reacting with your creative gut.
Format Wake-Up Call
Many stations need a format wake-up call. Important decisions need to be made regarding whether to follow the growing audience into their 40s or deal with a new generation of 18-34s. These decisions have long and short-term effects and must be made in each market individually. We also must make sure the format doesn't get caught up in temporary transitions or fads.
Not everybody understands that what separates and distinguishes a station. Shedding some light in the dark is being in a position to provide some musical identity. Some music fits very well and reinforces the station's core identity. Other music expands the variety of music. Unfortunately, music test mean scores often do a poor job of telling which songs play well with the other songs.
Urban programmers have to know more than the mean score. Power songs are not just songs with a high test score. They should be the songs that influence and reward the people who believe in who you are. They should say "thank you" for sitting through a six-minute stopset. They should say "yes," you are rollin' with the right station. They should buffer weaker, non-centered and unfamiliar songs.
Another very effective "trick" is to closely monitor format penetration. If your station is really on target, its format fans should choose your station more often than those listeners who are not pure core Urban format fans. It is a very compelling analysis when those listeners are your own.
Your station should be a club that listeners want to join. It will be if its music is on target, and if its jocks and imaging are hip. Listeners will want to join your "club" if between the hit jams, the jocks can consistently make the audience laugh, chuckle or think. The really great jocks can do all three over an intro and across the quarter-hours.
Urban stations are going to have to take a serious look at their vulnerabilities, particularly on Sunday morning, when many still run paid religion and gospel. If you're in a market with a full-time FM Gospel station, that may not be the way to go. Saying "But we've always done it that way" is no longer valid. In fact, it's downright dangerous.
More Growing-Shedding Theory
Urban radio, unlike Rock or Hot AC, may have time on its side, but it's still affected by the "growing-shedding theory." And what that really means is that we have to grow more audience than we shed. We've no time to waste. The fact is that as our audience ages, it will also become more affluent and more mainstream. Those kids who go off to college may wind up in a town with no Urban station. They may be forced to listen to satellite radio or the Internet when they're in the dorm, or a Top 40 or Rhythmic station when they're in the car with their friends. When they return home, their matrix and listening habits will have changed.
Generally speaking, our continuing research shows that even those in their teens and early 20s seem to be more open to accepting other forms of music. For them, one answer might be to create a respectable mix of old and new -- and mix up the tempos. Another trick of the new influence game involves increasing Urban radio's TSL. There are some new influence tricks to this old game.
First, we have to determine who are the heavy listeners or users of the station. Most average quarter-hours (AQH) still come from the heavy users, not from our casual listeners. So to fight off other formats and improve our TSL, we must concentrate on the heavy users. We should design our presentation and arrange our music and other elements so that our heavy users, as well as the Urban "music freaks," will love the station.
Make certain the music is properly dayparted and balanced. Are the rotations set up properly? Does the format offer the variety, tempo and texture that research shows the audience prefers? The Time Spent Listening could suffer if we're sidetracked by industry trends, weak research, no research or a program or music director who pays no attention to the research. I've seen situations in which a lot of program and music directors who didn't grow up on research, even though their stations pay for it, ignore it or don't use it to its fullest.
Another often-overlooked "trick" that can make a difference is improving and limiting the stopsets. Everybody has commercials, yet some stations seem to keep their audiences right through the stopsets. What's the real trick here?
For one thing, listeners will find it a lot tougher, more irritating and frustrating to sit through stopsets that include a series of local commercials that sound bad because they were poorly produced and written. Fortunately, most agency-generated commercials are not the problem. If the production is sharp, well written and well produced, and about useful products and services, you have a chance to hold your audience through the stopset. And before they know it, they are back to music, the jocks and the fun.
An overwhelming majority of stations have a problem with length. Many salespeople who write their own copy tend to write lengthy copy that they believe will help their client. The reality is that if the audience tunes out because the commercial is both long and boring, nobody benefits. Many salespeople are not trained writers, and they tend to think that newspaper or print copy will work on radio -- and it simply will not. Bad copy or poorly written and produced commercials can ruin TSL even if the music and other elements are right.
Your TSL is the byproduct of keeping your valued guests happy. Understanding this is one of the new tricks of the game. Some of you may remember when Hot AC was born; tt was born out of a need. There was a need to keep their young adult listeners happy. There was a need for a format that Hot AC eventually became. Hot AC really took advantage of the hole when Top 40 over-rapped and over-danced. Now, in 2012, there are other formats that promise to save its audience from the blight of too many interruptions, too much repetition and too many alternatives. We can be one of those formats. We may not ever be their favorite or P1 station, but we can be P2.
What Urban radio needs to do is influence its audience with the right dayparted and researched music mix, as wellas something other, similar formats can't offer yet -- a strong personality approach, filled with local content that its audience can identify with.
Musically, Urban radio needs to create new stars for the format. An iPod can't create a new star, nor can Pandora, Spotify or iHeart. Although iHeart can come close, recent studies have shown that people still have to come to our stations to find out what to download or put on their iPods.
Calculated risk-takers know about all of these things we've mentioned. They see the big picture. They realize that being in radio is a lot like being handpicked by a jury of culture aficionados to have a fun career and leave behind the white noise of normal daily life.
As fortunate as we are, though, there are some basic things we still have to do that don't involve risk.. We have to learn to really listen to each other, feel each other and respect each other. We have to understand we can live together without living alike. We can talk without saying the same thing. We must continue to look for a place that's a world apart, a place where personal passions are played out day and night. Eventually, when we have learned to fill "my space" with "your space," we suddenly become the "shot-caller" in the new game. That is the reason why some risks are worth taking. Being willing to take those risks along with our background and circumstances influence who we are, but we are still responsible for who we become.