The Challenge Of Fresh Alternatives
October 30, 2012
Moments of Choice
Many Urban stations today are faced with a triple whammy of declining national ad dollars, a shrinking local ad revenue pie and heavy debt service. What happens as a result of this pressure is it forces programmers into moments of choice. For these format captains to maintain their careers they must adopt a mood of survival - survival of the fittest, smartest and most creative. Because of pressure from management, our formats have stretched the demographic boundaries on both sides so far that many are playing the ends against a middle that may soon collapse. They are facing the challenge of fresh alternatives and the need to reflect the growth in culture.
Let's examine the reasons we need these fresh alternatives. Sometimes established artists burn out quickly because they're made to look outdated by new artists and new styles. Today's programmers have to watch for anything that makes the station's core audience's music sound dated. Competitive situations and positioning naturally dictate a station's library size -- tested or not. Some Urban AC stations may have libraries as large as 500 titles. Others may have trimmed them at around 300. Most successful Urban ACs in crowded markets are getting away with tight libraries that are tested often. Keeping the station sounding fresh and providing fresh alternatives are very critical to a station's success.
Some major acts don't test well anymore. We've overexposed them to death and now they account for a huge percentage of station libraries. Urban AC doesn't have the same national power it had a few years back, when its ratings were much higher and its rotations tighter.
Competition is a big factor. The issue at hand for some Urban AC stations is aggressiveness.
It is not surprising that both Urban formats have been able to reassemble a wide demographic coalition in many markets, given the publicity for younger-skewing artists coupled with an increased amount of tempo-driven tracks. It's still impressive, though, considering how the format's previous coalition scattered in the late '00s and the early part of this decade when Urban AC stations become hyper-focused on upper demos.
Anecdotally, most programmers know adults personally who want to stay current and hip. Indeed, any attempt to talk to these Generation Yers and Jones among your friends or family about the music they like becomes almost a discussion that now includes their parents as well, who start reeling off a list of current songs and artists they like -- perhaps, if nothing else, to prove they still can connect.
What's happening here is that Urban and Urban AC stations found they could cast wider nets, targeting both men and women in many cases, giving them more out-of-target demo listeners to draw upon.
There are other factors at play. One is the fact that Urban and Urban AC's mother-daughter coalition wasn't just disrupted by the way the music has changed, but also by the constant turnover of artists and changing music styles. That would help to explain why some early and mid-'00s Urban titles didn't move into the Top 40 and Rhythmic world in any significant way.
Next, we have to include another of the things that can make a difference in programming the way today's audience listens. And we have to offer still another fresh alternative. It's what we call "the fun factor." While today's generation wants hit music, they also want fun on the radio and they want it fast. They're in a rush. Their parents were in a hurry.
What kind of fun? Topical fun. Fun with music and the artists. Where it's placed and how it's handled and even how topical the bits are, outside of morning drive, can add to the strength of the station or contribute to the weaknesses of the station once you stop the music
Researchers say many listeners now listen in noisy environments. They're listening in their cars with the windows open or in a noisy workplace environment. So maybe we shouldn't turn the energy down so far that we can't compete with workplace noise and traffic. These same researchers have also developed a new term for early academic stimulation: "hot housing." This is the increasingly popular notion of force-feeding young intellects. It may produce emotional root rot, but these speed-freaks know what they like. At the core of the debate is how the value of early childhood affects intellectual stimulation. Many parents are exerting the pressure on their offspring to learn. Unnatural levels of stress can lead to confusion and ultimately burn out.
What happens is these young listeners grow up and become easily dissatisfied with everything that affects them during their time of leisure. They tire of video games, television, the Internet, their own iPods and even some of their friends' company. They go back and forth between their two favorite stations searching for a song or two they like. If they're in the car where there are more options, push buttons that offer quick audio solutions to the problem, it's just a one-button motion to switch channels. So, when their favorite song ends, they want another favorite song fast or they'll switch again. If they can laugh or chuckle a little between challenges or get off on hearing their favorite station share some fun with them, that can be the difference. Translation: Feed 'em full doses of fun between the jams.
Remember how few meters determine our fate. How the meter holders are using radio shouldn't surprise any of us. We knew they come in for bite-size hits and it's up to us to keep them coming back for more. And yes, research is still important and we need to dive into PPM's minute-by-minute numbers, but you can quickly lose your edge if that's all you rely on. There are too many good programmers who have just completely lost their gut and wait for that callout report and Mscore to tell them what to do. Data has to be put in perspective, not followed blindly.
Personality and promotions are two more things that can be used to stimulate the audience beyond the hits. If your station has personality jocks, they should be encouraged to let that personality show. Obviously, there isn't a lot of time to be a personality on today's radio. But there is time to prepare short bits which, when planned and scheduled properly, can really contribute to the station's personality. If you're an air talent with a flair for humor, you must keep your material topical, fresh and short.
It's not enough for you to have just two great shows in a week, and the rest of the week you simply wing it and are boring. Unfortunately, this is the case with a lot of today's talent. Why, you ask? Because they were never properly trained. Many of their PDs were ill-trained themselves or were too busy watching two or more stations, doing an air shift and trying to watch their own backs.
Finally, the best way to meet the challenge of fresh alternatives is program the way your audience listens, take into account all the things we mentioned above and then add attitude and enthusiasm. Combined, they are the propelling forces necessary for climbing today's ladder of success. Take the book to the ladder. And then do it by the book, but be the author.