A Better Choosing Experience
November 13, 2012
Even Trickle Down is Going Up
When listeners are overwhelmed with options, programmers should give them what they really want -- new ways of enjoying their favorite station -- and lower the cognitive stress. Our audiences have grown accustomed to having a lot of choices and many people will express a strong desire for having more options, but that doesn't make it a good idea. There are neurological limits on humans' ability to process information and the task of having to constantly choose often results in suffering, not pleasure.
That is why, rather than helping consumers better satisfy their preferences, the explosion of choices has made it more difficult overall for listeners to identify what they want and how to get it. Thus, if the market for your station and format is saturated with choices, you can't gain a competitive edge by dumping more choices into the mix. But you can outthink and outperform your competition by turning the process of choosing into an experience that is more positive and less mind-numbing for your listeners. In other words, you can provide a better choosing experience.
To do this we have to reach beyond the music and re-discover what made Urban radio great: its ability to foster a deeply engaged relationship between the listeners and the content. We need to sort through the countless possibilities and focus on the few that will resonate with the audience.
If you're a programmer or air talent, I don't have to tell you that we're going through some tough times. All companies have had to undergo cost-cutting initiatives. They have had to make painful cuts to survive. That's the real reason for so much unemployment, voicetracking, syndication and shift-stretching.
Urban stations are bringing in about 25-30% less revenue than they were a year ago. Many stations' advertising budgets have been practically eliminated. Often the only station promotions allowed are those directly tied to and paid for by a client. Commercial load limits have drifted skyward as rates have plummeted. Concepts such as rate integrity and turning down business seem as quaintly obsolete as live, local morning shows.
Economists are predicting that the current recession is showing faint signs of improvement. Despite this optimism, owners and managers keep cutting, even when in their hearts they know there isn't much left to trim.
These cost-cutting measures aren't confined to just our industries. Take the airline industry, for example. If you've been on a flight lately, you've seen there isn't much left to trim there, either, which is why airlines are going to be cutting flights. For the fourth quarter of 2012, total available seat-miles -- which means one person flying one mile on one flight, is projected to fall to 12.4 billion, which is close to post-9/11 levels. Five years earlier in the fourth quarter of 2007, it was 14.2 billion.
Now let's take a look at Wall Street and its earnings season. Naturally, what happens on Wall Street will ripple through every business in the country. Cutting costs could actually lead to higher prices, which both radio and the airlines desperately need, but in the case of the airlines, it means a smaller base of seat-miles on which to make money. Competition will fall on some routes, along with overall supply drops, both of which give airlines the power to increase fares.
Of course, these really are minor forces compared to broader economic conditions. The ability of customers to pay is ultimately what drives the cost of a ticket, and absent an economic recovery, fares will stay low, as will airline earnings. Being in-the-air, like being on-the-air, is still all about numbers.
It's important to understand the numbers that can make a difference in our careers and lives. Obviously, there are Arbitron numbers and there is always a story behind the numbers. We want to use the numbers to answer the question, when is the best time to do an analysis?
If you had a good book or series of trends, you could easily say that yours has become a favorite station for your core audience. But that's somewhat illusory. Favorite station is a value judgment, not any measure of listening. Those diary-keepers or meter wearers who credited your station may or may not be partisans. Another common usage term is "loyal audience." That doesn't mean anything, either. There's no real definition for loyalty. It's whatever you want it to be.
For Urban formats to survive, we need to understand that it's a scratch-and-win, instant-gratification world that keeps moving faster and faster. Regardless of format, great radio stations are not made up of any one thing you do, but rather the combination of all the things you do, hopefully at the right time. One of the things that can make a big difference is to find a way to attract heavy users, the P1s.
What constitutes a so-called "heavy listener?" They're probably best defined as anyone listening to a single station for more than 100 quarter-hours in a given week. Imagine someone who spends 25 hours a week with your station. Approximately 39% of your quarter-hours will come from heavy listeners. If they credit our station, we're glad, but it can't help but make us wonder what some of these people do with their busy lives in these fast times.
Regardless, these heavy listeners dramatically affect your station's ratings. When stations are up in the Winter and down in the Spring, you should immediately look for these heavy listeners. Sometimes, a really strong, well-executed contest or promotion, either by your station or your competition, can cause these ratings swings.
In the meantime, here is something to think about: Whether it's flying through the air or being on-the-air, we're all in survival mode. Reducing operational expenses and performing financial triage is absolutely necessary for survival. So, if controlling expenses is the primary objective, how can this be reconciled with concurrent investments that may be required for transition to the new business model?
First, it must be recognized that the value of the radio station, like the value of the airline, must be redeemed. Rebuilding value, not just cutting costs, is critical. Much of the new investment can be funded though careful reallocation of current expenditures, providing increased value with little or no net cost increases. The overall value of the average station or cluster can be appreciably enhanced through systematic implementation of proven operating methods and new multi-platform revenue strategies.
Hopefully, you work for a company that understands the value of a better choosing experience and the strength of combining that experience with a good strategic plan. Then you need a good team to execute that plan. This combination can have a profound effect on a station, regardless of format. Then, everyone wins - the investors, the employees, the advertisers, the listeners and the community. And for you as a programmer, it opens up the borders of your mind.