Both Hands Tied
November 20, 2012
Facing More Uphill Battles
With the demands of Wall Street and the struggling economy, Urban radio has joined the other formats in looking for ways to cut costs. Unfortunately, all formats have reached the same conclusion. Even though they know the risks, they're simply not putting nearly enough resources back into the product. This is killing our formats, especially those that compete with general-market stations that play much of our music.
This has become a serious ratings issue. It's getting increasingly difficult for Arbitron's methodology to accurately obtain a consistently good sample every month. Urban stations have made some progress in understanding and dealing with the sampling issue. But we're facing some tough uphill battles and often our hands are tied. Meaning that any solution that we come up with that costs money is instantly voted down.
Another problem has to do with national charts. Our research methodology is falling short in identifying the hit songs early enough in the cycle. A lot of programmers are dropping songs way too early when a given track has three or four weekly callout reports showing no growth. Then there are the national charts problems.
Since these national charts are based primarily on spins labels are pushing songs up the charts as they work programmers for more spins. As a result, programmers see the songs going up the charts and project these songs into better rotations because their callout is so slow in capturing new hits. Thus, many of the jams in the top 20 may not really be the hits.
Even though some progress that has been made, Urban-formatted stations continue to find some format prejudices still exist. These format prejudices take many forms. One of these forms is a type of exclusionism called personality prejudices.
Personality prejudices are still common among formats. Most Urban air talent would prefer to work at a station and with music they're comfortable with and like. The same is true for those whose favorite music is Country, Top 40 or Rock. Suppose a job opening came up in another format ... should you take it? In these tough times, if they ask you to speak Spanish and you were a Spanish-language minor in college, give it a shot. That is obviously stretching it a bit, but the point is that today you've got to be willing to cross format boundaries if you want to work.
The problem is that despite your willingness, you are going to be up against someone just as good, who's familiar with the format, and who is also connected with people they know at those other formats. But it's all timing and your timing might be right. What have you got to lose? Well, the job for one thing, and not necessarily because of prejudice. It could be because you're not familiar enough with the music, format requirements and decision-makers to be considered the best possible candidate.
Urban Dictates - The Re-Segregation Of The Media
Format prejudices exist outside of PDs, MDs and air personalities. We know there is format prejudice in the advertising community. It's one that's been around for a while. It's called "Urban dictates" and it's a stigma that has been associated with Urban radio and its listeners for years. I call it the "plexi-glass ceiling." That means the only thing that gets broken is your back or your head as you keep banging against it. As unbelievable as it may sound, there are still a few advertisers and agencies issuing "no Urban dictates." They have done like the Romney campaign -- found clever ways to disguise it until they get caught or exposed.
It's kind of like while corporate America may be more willing to embrace some exceptional Urban stations, based simply on ratings, we still don't have the opportunity to get the same rewards for being as average as the rest of the market. Perhaps most distressing is the stark contract between where we are now and where many believed we would be based on their projections of our progress.
There are still some markets that have major advertisers who claim they're not interested in attracting Urban radio's listeners. There were a lot of agency buys that didn't come to Urban radio, so there was a lot of direct selling to businesses. In spite of the fact that Urban radio always worked, pulling a lot of business for its advertisers, we found there are still some clubs that won't advertise even when the act is an Urban or crossover one. The promoters who used concerts to promote stations and their clients claimed there were problems and that advertising on Urban stations brought them a crowd they didn't want.
In some areas where promoters used concerts to illustrate the Urban demographics to advertisers, the message didn't get through. There was the initial belief from agencies and major sponsors that the Urban audience was comprised of high-school drop-outs whose pants and IQs were both low, and who were often on relief. They showed our female listeners to be women at the bottom in America. They were depicted as single mothers on public assistance, sometimes called "drawer people," the subjects of case files that stay in the welfare manager's drawer, year after year.
In one market, some really sharp sales managers did some surveys. They found that 53% of the audience owned their homes and that some of the top money-earners in the market were avid listeners. While this helped, it didn't solve the problem.
Black Middle Class & Attitude Adjustment
One of the hardest things stations have to do is to deal with the morale of the sales people who have to go out there every day and get beat up. They face strong opposition from their clients and advertising agencies. They began to emphasize to the merchants and agencies that that nobody liked Urban music but the people. They used a fresh approach. They said, "We don't care if the advertiser doesn't listen to us. We can bring people into their place of business."
To prove Urban's knack for attracting business, stations would routinely have photographs taken of the station's most successful retail promotions. Those diversified photos would eventually find their way into staff scrapbooks for future ammunition.
There definitely was and is a need for an attitude adjustment. One Southeastern sales manager said, "I used to really get upset when we would have events and get put down. We once had this pro-celebrity golf tournament and we always had big celebrities from sports and entertainment. A lot of agency people would bring their clients, who didn't like our music. But they would come and drink our liquor, eat our food, bad-mouth us and then not even consider us for a buy."
The attitude adjustment should now include a wake-up call to recognize the black middle class. It's a black middle class that still listens to Urban and Urban AC radio. Just who makes up this black middle class? It's a growing group of African-Americans who have made above-average incomes and gained social status. The black middle class was defined by income and status alone, but the black professional class is defined by its members' influence over the twin engines of the American economy -- business and politics.
Business and politics still determine some time buys. We first started really noticing it back in the 1990s. The 1990s were halcyon days when people were enormously optimistic about the progress that was going to be made. The 1990s marked the emergence of the first generation of the black professional class able to really benefit from changes in public policy, legislative and judicial mandates against discrimination, increased political activism and increased educational opportunities that began in the 1980s. Now, in spite of how far we've come, with the pending re-election of the first African-American president, there are still some who are trying to turn the clock back on civil rights and on the progress that has been made to the betterment of our industries.
So in 2012, the very notion that Urban radio only appeals to the lowest common denominator is not only ridiculous, it's been proven wrong. Our stations are mass appeal, as is our music and our humor. It would be impossible for Urban stations to rank at or near the top of the ratings in markets such as Memphis, Birmingham, Chicago, Baltimore, Atlanta and New Orleans if the only listeners they had were ghetto blacks. For whatever reasons, some people still have the perception that is the only audience Urban radio attracts.
Although Urban radio currently enjoys fewer problems and better acceptance, traces of the prejudice stigma still exist. Everybody respects money, but there are some who still harbor some prejudices and would rather lose money than admit they are wrong. We can solve the format prejudice problem by being realistic about the future. In schools across the country, tomorrow's work force is being shaped. It's being shaped by tools that teach young people to use their imaginations. That encourages them to create, to perform and to dream. Education is still the great equalizer, because students who appreciate the conceptual as well as the analytical are the ones who'll create tomorrow's innovations in our industries.
As African-Americans in media, we have never demanded equality of results, only equality of opportunity. We have to leverage who we are. The values that built our industry need to be sustained. We must continue to give guidance to our young broadcasters, who are clearly not getting it today. We have to sustain our family values and have some sense of spiritual value. When we incubate those kinds of ideals into where we're trying to go, we can't get discouraged and we must have faith. The other thing that will help is to stop being depressed. Depression is merely anger without enthusiasm.