Re-Focusing The Format
October 16, 2012
As we prepare for the move from fall to winter, one of the seasonal changes some programmers make is to slow down how fast they pull songs out of power, permitting them to bang the re-currents a little longer and tolerate the burn factor a little more. These eclectic experimenters feel the need to re-focus the format. The idea is to have the proper perspective, be passionate about new music and create that feeling of fun coming out of the speakers. For Urban AC stations there is always pressure from label executives to break new records and artists. Urban Adult stations can do that, but slowly. What they can do more than anything is support artists that have already broken and really have no other place to go.
We've been saying for some time now that all Urban programmers need to narrow their focus. This is particularly true for Urban AC programmers as we ease into winter. For those in small and medium markets, there are some dangers and risks connected with simply adopting major-market cookie-cutter programming ideas and expecting huge shares.
Certain aspects of cookie-cutter programming may work if they're just good radio basics, but it's still localization that can make a difference, especially with all the syndicated programming now being offered. Your station needs to reflect the mood and attitude of the market. Successful programmers listen to their stations and then do their own one-on-one focus groups, often in lieu of a research budget.
Unfortunately, Urban radio often ends up like dogs chasing their tales with so many small-market PDs simply imitating major-market stations instead of paying attention to local needs. Audience's tastes change overnight and we need to focus on those changes. Too much of anything is no good for you or your audience. We need to find the best available music and content for the market and present them in ways that appeal to the masses. You can't blindly follow the niche your research department defines.
Something else has surfaced as we attempt to re-focus the format -- the overwhelming importance of creating some sort of strong emotional bond with the listener. I'm convinced that Urban formats could have some of the greatest potential to lock up their relationships with their core audience because Urban listeners are so loyal.
The left flank attack with strong live, local air personalities must ensure that the station is perceived not only as the one for music and entertainment, but also as the one that's always on top of what's going on in the local market, as well as the national music and artist arenas. The station should always have a cause it's pursuing. The higher-profile station needs to remember that Urban listeners not only want to have fun, but always wants to help someone who deserves help. This notion goes a long way in either holding your mountaintop position or digging away at the other guy's perch.
Urban radio needs to come to terms with the fact that a mass-appeal Urban or Urban AC station is a niche format -- and there is no new "quick fix" that GMs are always looking for. Some of these "fad formats" will prove to be a disappointment. They can be easily blocked in the long run by a focused mainstream or adult-leaning Urban station. Sure, there will always be a few fringe flavor records and artists that cross over. But mass-appeal Urban stations can cross many barriers.
The trend for the future, particularly for pure Urban stations, is to elevate the demographics. Everybody wants and needs adults and will do almost anything to get them. The greater the competition, the more stratification and narrowcasting. The more narrowcasting, the greater the risks. After all, if you use a "small-bore rifle technique" instead of a "shotgun," your aim better be true or you could miss everything.
The questions keep getting more involved and complex. If music is the key, regardless of market chemistry, the question becomes, "What music?" How often should it be repeated? How much of it should be new music? What about presentation? How do contests and promotions fit in? How do we attract and hold younger listeners without offending older listeners? How do we attract older listeners without turning off the younger listeners? What gets through to a male that won't turn off a female listener? How valid are requests? And why is it so important to lure those so-called "money demo" listeners? Most of these questions we've already answered. Some have no answer that we can provide because every market, every situation is different.
Today's programmers need help from their owners and managers who must control costs but still find a way to compete without over-spending for research, promotions or even a strong, live, local morning show. Sometimes Urban programmers are faced with situations where they have to attract new cume without letting the new cume know the station is trying to attract them. In other words, the station wants its present audience to tell a new audience it is there.
With the bulk of the population growing older, even mainstream Urban stations will have to concentrate increasingly on adults. Remember, teens and even sub-teens are now being measured by Arbitron's PPM.
Finally, this is a decade of challenging economic times and more bottom line-oriented stations. We're living in fast times which allow only brief bursts of communication in 140 character bites ... times which can be ideally suited to Urban and Urban AC's fast-paced, short-attention span environment and its legions of similarly multi-tasking listeners.
So what are we really saying? Know the market. Know their expectations. Meet those expectations and don't try to be something you're not. Refocus the format: If yours is an Urban AC station, don't try to go after adults with just a steady diet of ballads and oldies. Play the jams adults like that also have teen appeal. Find the adult party songs and play them with the understanding that the formats can overlap on both sides.
Re-focusing the format can do many things for programmers, including building your confidence. Confidence like making a motel reservation before a blind date.