Retooling The Edge
October 9, 2012
Time-Shifting Has Moved To The Forefront
It's rare today that programmers can spend most of their careers at one station. In fact, usually a resume is filled with a stop here and a stop there. But there are exceptions -- those rare instances when someone can excel within their own company and eventually be rewarded for their years of service and hard work.
For many of us, 2012 has been a year of promise and frustration, challenge and mediocrity. For others, this could well have been the turning point in their career -- or the end of it. When we attempt to judge how good or bad a particular time or year is, it becomes very difficult because of developments that tend to be amorphous and difficult to define clearly. Maybe it's time to retool the edge.
Most of us remember a simpler time when there was one station, one programmer and one GM. Today it's hard to imagine a single PD or GM who's not responsible for an entire cluster of stations, while simultaneously either handling an air shift or managing a sales team. That thinking will not be abating any time soon and those who are surviving budget cuts are doing so because they've been able to handle heavier workloads. Companies are looking for and hiring those who have found ways to integrate programming and sales aspects so that it works for the client, the station and the listener.
Whether it's a help or a hindrance, we're all affected by technology. We're constantly hearing stories about the latest findings or smart phones that will forever alter the way we live. Such is the hyperbolic language that affects us when contemplating a new change or gadget. Writers too are time-shifters, responsible for re-tooling the edge. Time-shifters, even the ones who are multi-tasking on steroids, are affected by technology. Technology and research are what we use to re-tool.
Despite what you may have read, heard or assumed, technology is just as much a part of Urban radio as it is for other formats. There are some who say that Urban P1 listeners, for the most part, aren't technically savvy. This is simply not true. While we may not be leading, we're certainly not that far behind and in some cases, we are actually ahead of some other formats that I won't mention, but you can easily guess what they are.
Shared Benefits Of Group-Ownership
One of the benefits of group ownership and consolidation is that many formats are now housed in the same building or even on the same floor. So programming secrets, which might have gone unnoticed and unshared years ago, are now common knowledge within the building. As a result, whether they want to or not, station groups have been forced to share the knowledge and the secrets.
One of the secrets that has filtered down to Urban stations is how their sister stations are using their websites. And just like their non-Urban counterparts, Urban stations have been using their websites to build their databases; even podcasting is becoming less of an exception. So terms like "time-shifting" and "on-demand content" have slipped quietly into the lexicon of Urban programmers.
The next step for Urban stations is to use time-shifting as more of a research tool. The notion of using the Internet for song testing has been used for all music formats for some time now. I personally have mixed feelings about it. When it works, it's great. When it doesn't, it can be costly.
The big problem is that too many stations have been stripped of essential resources, working with skeleton staffs and fewer tools to effectively program. For those who have become victims in one of the recent financial implosions, it is difficult to continue to believe in a future for radio. Hopefully, forward-thinking owners will realize that these cutbacks have hurt their stations and start adding back some of the resources they cut.
Next, it's time to look at the one thing many non-Urban programmers and consultants don't fully understand and can't duplicate. It's the hipness factor. That's what a lot of listeners come to Urban stations to hear beyond the music. They know that nobody's hipper than our jocks. When they're on the air and given some creative freedom, that natural hipness makes a difference. If two stations are both playing the same jams, the hipness factor is what listeners come to our stations to hear. It's like the difference between a bank shot (anybody can make one) and a slam dunk - in which the brothers excel. I'm a huge fan of "hipness." It's something the competition wishes they had. That, as much as anything, is what separates Urban radio from other formats that play our music. In addition to increasing the hipness factor, we've also got to get our stations out in the forefront again and change them from what they're becoming -- an appliance -- to something people want to be part of again.
A lot of today's mature young adults want to be a part of a great, young- focused Urban AC station. It's great to turn on an Urban AC station that claims to play the best mix of yesterday, today and tomorrow -- even if it's really an Urban AC station with a 200-song playlist that's time-shifted into a Hot Urban AC station, which now has a 300-song playlist. The problem is that in about a year that station could sound old again and be in trouble. The secret is to use the results of your online research to develop a broader station than your competition and strive to maintain an adventurous and open-minded perspective when it comes to music. To do that you have to become more focused over time.
Urban AC programmers have to interpret their research carefully and avoid what they perceive as an active audience's demand for extreme music, which in turn, causes labels to flood the market with that product to meet that demand, much of which ends up polarizing the core audience and driving them away.
Ongoing Research Issues
In re-tooling the edge it's important to remember that three of the major problems and challenges of online research are the same for any research project. They are integrity, screening and recruiting panel participation. A growing problem for most programmers is the same problem that Arbitron faces in assembling its panel participants, especially with PPM, and that is the increasing number of people who have signed up for DNC (Do Not Call) lists. Traditionally, callout and other telephone research takes place between 5p and 9p local time Monday-Friday. There have been some research firms recently that have begun urging their research panelists to migrate to their 24-hour digital music testing platforms. This requires that research panelists give up their e-mail addresses in theory, so they can participate in a music survey when it is convenient for them.
Another question that has surfaced recently is how much listening does PPM miss or lose? Lost listening lowers Time Spent Listening (TSL) which, in turn, hurts ratings. Arbitron fully understands this because they have elaborate editing procedures to recapture as much lost listening as possible. They can't do anything about the situation when panelists leave their meters at home, except to remind them not to forget. They can and do credit stations, under some circumstances, when the meter can't figure out which station was on when it's playing just at the threshold of audibility. Despite the meter's sophistication, the accuracy of electronic measurement ultimately rests on the meter's ability to identify a station. The meter needs to hear a station clearly enough and long enough to decode the station's encoded signal. So the answer to the questions, "What is the error rate" or "How much listening does PPM lose" are not very much. Working through the numbers, Arbitron says that we should use a TSL conversion of 0.81. In other words, the average market measured by the meter should have 81% of the Time Spent Listening that it had when measured by the diary.
There's one more snag researchers have run into and that is a disappointing lack of participation by young males 18-24. This is symptomatic of the issue facing all research projects involving males. Men just don't participate in research like women do. The reason is that these busy young males, whether straight or gay, are never really comfortable participating, even if you bribe them with cash or a prize. They'll allow you to interrupt them temporarily and simply rush through the questionnaires and hook tapes so that they can get back to what they really want to do. Even the radio geeks who say they are happy to share their opinions about music and radio don't want to do this while they are sitting at the dinner table or enjoying their favorite video game or Tivo'ed television show.
Even though calls for purposes of research are permitted under the current legislation, many consumers feel getting a call at home, regardless of the purpose, is an intrusion. As a result, panel sizes have shrunk and completion rates have dropped significantly.
The Secret Of Pharmaceutical Positioning
The basic principle of research as it applies to radio is simple enough. Find out what most of the audience wants and give it to them. But recently research added another dimension, psychology, to the mix. And then along came positioning. Now the challenge is finding out what the audience thinks they want and give it to them. Instead of expressing the problem in terms of wants, the new focus is on needs. Embedded in the psyche of the listeners, these needs are difficult, if not impossible to probe, even with the most diligent research.
Some programmers and researchers are now saying, "If you can't find out what the audience wants, find out what it thinks it wants. Then find out what they think they're getting and give it to them. Then tell them you're giving it to them." Regardless of which precept you buy, the positioning era of radio has arrived because what's important now is in the mind of the consumer and potential consumer of radio. What most of us hope to achieve with research is to find a huge hole of opportunity in our market that we can fill -- a hole which is invisible to traditional research methods and our competition.
Finally, we have the problem of "cell phone-only households" that is also rapidly growing; these people simply can't be legally reached with traditional telephone callout methods. It is my feeling that nearly one-third of Urban listeners, particularly those 18-24 and male, fall into this category. Many of these people are also more likely to be heavy Internet users. That means online testing could be a natural alternative for that demographic cell, if you can find a reliable way to reach them and get them to participate.
In addition, consumers of all media are more conditioned to the on-demand world of 2012. They're constantly searching for new ways to get what they want, when and where they want it. That, too, is affected by time-shifting. Some people would call time-shifting and re-tooling the edge "piecemeal initiatives." But all of these efforts are designed to develop a winning characteristic coupled with the ability to control a broad collation of listeners. Urban stations are often lucky enough to be in a market where one key competitive player is missing and they are the only Urban or Urban AC game in town. They're not flanked by a direct or indirect format competitor.
Piecemeal initiatives tend to "squeeze the balloon," adding pressure to the system, rather than releasing the air. What we want to do before we release the air or pop the balloon is to avoid that one person with power and a bad idea, who then gets one additional person with power to agree that his bad idea is a good one.