Slow Down To Go Fast
November 27, 2012
How To Make The Right Moves In A Time-Starved World
Are you running as fast as you can and still struggling to keep up? These days we're all running faster than ever, yet it still seems like we're not moving fast enough. To understand this incessant need for speed, just look at how our world has changed over the past few years. Not long ago smart phones and fax machines represented the ultimate in communications technologies. Now we can connect with anyone, anywhere using smart phones, PDAs, iPads, Skype, Facebook or Twitter.
Programmers are dealing with a new set of challenges that the ever-changing media landscape presents on a daily basis. Our brains tell us that if we pause even for a moment, we'll fall even further behind. So we lace up our track shoes and go at it with even more determination. But instead of running 90 miles an hour in all directions, we need to pause, think, focus and then run in the right direction, instead of diving in and having to do it all over tomorrow or next week. Rapid changes create plenty of opportunities, but only for those that are prepared to take advantage of them.
Here's another challenge: If you can capture the madness of an era when investors, entranced by new technology, coupled with a novel set of economic assumptions and an all-powerful Federal Reserve, lost their heads, blew an exuberant bubble and then suffered a painful bust, you have the ingredients for tremendous success or absolute failure. It's the old story of the risks, the rewards and the need for speed. This template can be easily adapted to the financial trends that have defined this decade.
This year saw rising sub-prime delinquency rates and the ensuing failures of sub-prime lenders, some of whom are in the radio business. In this age of promiscuous credit, the overriding sentiment was trust, but don't verify. Now, that entire premise has been turned around. Everything has to be verified and experts have been called in to examine formats and predict their success or failure. Unfortunately for many of us, decisions are often made quickly and frequently by those who are light years away from the shallowest Urban programming experience.
Growing Content Can Yield Limitless Upside
As we begin to wind down 2012, it's time for a look at some of the things that can make a difference this year and beyond. Those of you who have been reading these editorials regularly know that I am a big proponent of keeping up with the changes, and this is a pivotal time to stop, do some maintenance, and take a look at some things that may have snuck up on you.
During the fall and winter months, I always like to reflect on the state of our industry and anticipate what I believe to be the biggest challenges facing us in the months and year ahead. We are in the midst of a dramatic change. Audiences are in motion. Audio entertainment alternatives are competing for our listeners' attention and growing acceptance for these alternatives continue to take their toll.
So how do we prepare to combat these forces? By creating original and unique content. That means going beyond the music. No, it doesn't mean taking the music for granted. It simply means that if you can put some compelling things between the right songs, you can really score.
Compelling content has become almost a cliché lately. It usually means doing something unique and different. It means creating stuff that no one else has. It means viewing radio as a source for different compelling programming. You want to avoid having your new listeners tune to your station and think there's nothing new, that they've heard it all before. Let's face it: Outside of the syndicated shows you're carrying, you're probably going to repeat your power and sub-power songs every two or three hours outside of morning drive. Now, if your air personalities say the exact same things and read the same tired liners between songs, your audience will get bored and tune out, meaning you could instantly go from a P1 to a P3.
Recent focus group studies show the Urban audience is still impatient and that when content on their favorite Urban or Urban AC station is presented in a bland or boring way, they can't even remember where they've heard it. It doesn't stick. It doesn't get remembered or written down in a diary or picked up by a meter carrier.
Today's Urban audiences want it real. They do not want to hear, "And now another 30 minutes of continuous jams from your #1 for hip-hop and R&B." They want to be made to feel they're in the room with a personality who really knows how to "rock the mic." To win the ratings race takes personalities as compelling as the music they play.
Unfortunately, because of the growing trend toward syndicated and voicetracked shows, not many stations can offer live, local "true players" who are really on top of their game. And syndication and voicetracking are some of the reasons players with potential never get a chance to shine. Where are they going to go to develop? Who is going to take time to guide and teach them? The people most qualified to do this can't slow down. They are so over-burdened that they simply don't have the time. But somebody has got to slow down and find the time to teach young broadcasters and air talent how to effectively connect to their audience.
Audience Connection & Show Prep
You can hear it when a jock isn't connected to the topic or subject, when it sounds fake or manufactured. In all my air check sessions, the first question is usually: "Is this something that really matters or is of interest to the audience? Would you talk about this off the air with your friends? Or is this simply something manufactured to fill a break?"
I have worked with air talent in all size markets. The goal is the same: to grow and keep an audience. There are three show prep rules I use and recommend
- Prepare each break no matter how small. Even if you only have 12 seconds of intro time, plan it and use it to create forward motion.
- Make it matter. Talk about something that is going to interest the audience that is there to hear the music. What do they want to hear? They want to know about the artist(s) whose intro you're talking over. Are they on tour? Are they back in the studio, guesting on another's artist's song? Did they get married, divorced, beat down, hooked-up or locked up?
- Make it interesting. Find a brief, interesting way to phrase what you're going to say and deliver in a way that makes it stand out.
Then "polish it" by making sure that that your show prep is never boring. Part of being a strong air personality is consistently finding a way to make what you say interesting and connected.
Not everybody can do it, but for those who can, using real-life experiences as show prep is the most effective and compelling way to keep your station sounding exciting and interesting. When topics come from life, they tend to be more believable. Show prep happens 24 hours a day -- not just an hour before your show starts.
There are a great many items can be great sources of show prep material. The trick is to condense it and then put your own spin on it. Why? Because everybody has access to the same online information sources, newspapers, magazines and late-night television. While you might locate a quirky story nobody else has heard, what frequently happens is that every jock in town picks the same item from the same source ... and if you're not first, you are no longer unique.
If the audience has already read the story online, seen it on television, or heard about it on the way to work, it's important to ask what you're doing that makes the story unique. And if the answer is nothing, if you have nothing real to add, your listeners are likely to say, "Oh, I've heard that before" and instantly tune out. And even if you are first, the fact that it's already been covered the day before or the week or month before, you have become the station and the air personality who covers yesterday's news. The trick is to strike a balance, put your own spin on it and make it funny or interesting.
One of the best who ever did it was Tom Joyner. When I was programming in Chicago and he was doing mornings, I remember Joyner coming into the studio with three newspapers and a highlighter. People would wait to hear how Joyner was going to handle a story. He was always hip, always funny and had a style that would allow him to get away with things others might get nailed for. Joyner was like the hip, funny guy in the barber shop that everybody would go to listen to, even if you didn't need a haircut.
Creating great content is a risky, difficult business, which is why so few do it at all and even fewer do it well. But if you want to stand out, if you want your station to stand out, you have to do it. Remember, a handful of hits and cutting-edge content make all the risks worthwhile.
Sing-along Becomes Think-A-Long
Remember that so-called "sing-along" theory we shared with you earlier? Well, it works. When you can get your adult listeners to sing along with the songs you're playing, or more importantly, "think along," you're well on your way to capturing some cume. Cume has always been important for Urban formats ... and with Arbitron's PPM, it's going to be even more important. So what's the most effective way to build cume?
Well, before we get to what you should do, let's talk about what you should not do. You should not just place your one-liners and promos in the studio and leave them for weeks. Here's why: While continuous repetition of a message may eventually sink in, it's not nearly as effective as you might think with the baby boomers -- Generation Xers and Generation Joneses. They bore easily and begin to regard these liners and promos as clutter.
The latest generational label is, of course, Generation Jones and many of our listeners are part of it. Too young to be boomers, too old to be Generation Yers, this smack-dab-in-the-middle group has its own quirks, cultures and cash. They could easily wind up with a diary or a meter.
It is somewhat ironic that our industry and the companies and agencies that serve it have allowed themselves to slip back to performance standards they once proudly raised as a type of creative growth flag that may have all but disappeared. Although we are affected somewhat less, Urban-formatted stations are nevertheless caught up in this problem as well. As an industry, we need to reinvent ourselves in the same way we so passionately ask our clients and those who judge us to. We need to become less purely creative-driven and more idea-driven. Naturally, we want the ideas themselves to be creative. What is the goal of all this reinvention and creativity, you ask? Larger cumes.
More Left Brain/Right Brain Theories
In order to better understand how to process the need for speed and what causes our cume to collapse or not to grow, we need to know a little about how the brain processes information. Research in neurology and consumer behavior has extended to these generational groups; they have similarities and differences. Once again we get into left brain/right brain theories and concepts. The left hemisphere of the brain is more specialized for processing verbal information and doing sequential analysis and consciously taking in what's happening. The left brain is the center for writing, speech and calculation. The right brain's major function is the processing of pictorial data, non-verbal information and musical impressions. The right brain seems to operate intuitively, almost automatically, without the individual listener even thinking about many of its functions, such as breathing, etc.
Remember, when the right brain dominates, a much greater number of exposures to a message (promo or one-liner) are necessary to be effective. When you shoot directly at the left brain, you have a much better chance of being effective quickly, and it has proven to be a more certain and speedier way to stand out from the crowd.
Radio listening for adults is essentially a low-involvement activity, especially for passive listeners. Most adults tend to be passives rather than actives; although there are exceptions, our studies have shown that high recall of content and message requires higher involvement, which activates the left brain and makes the listeners come out of the passive, low-involvement state of mind.
Now that we understand a little more about how the brain functions in relationship to building cume, it's important to know a little more about cume itself. In order to build cume, we have to get some different people to sample our stations for least five minutes during a given daypart. Most real programmers know how to do that. We've been doing it for years. The problem now is how do we do it when we have to run as many as 18 commercial minutes an hour? Many of the commercials are low-tolerance pitch spots with a toll-free number that have little or no creative value. Some stations have, at times, even exceeded that number and still managed to consistently land at or near the top of the ratings. But with the PPM, that's really over.
This commercial-saturation issue is affecting all stations and ad agencies, along with consumer and listener resistance to the glut and the greed. As a result, marketing productivity has plummeted. Well-designed ad schedules on Urban stations have failed to produce results. Maybe they failed because they were the third or fourth ad in a seven-ad stop set. Bombarding listeners with more ads will only further alienate them and cause the cume to crumble.
The old demographics and psychographics of the '90s and 00's just don't work with today's generation. The traditional marketing model is not only obsolete; with this group; it may be completely out of touch.
One of the answers to today's "cume crisis" is to make Urban formats destination formats. As our listeners age, their preferences naturally lead them to stations that play music that reflects their unchanged musical tastes. With Urban Adult formats, nostalgia is a critical part of the format's success. This format, in a lot of ways, is just reflecting back to that nostalgia. Urban Adult's core is 25-49, leaning female. When looking at that key group, their preferences aren't going to change much over time. But these same adults still want to hear some fresh new jams.
How do we make our formats more destination-oriented? By doing better research, asking better questions and getting better answers. Before we can do any of this, we have to know our primary target. Most stations have some strategic plan. In other words, they know they want to be #1 with a certain group of people. For example, mainstream Urban stations (those that claim they are #1 for hip-hop and R&B and blazing) should target 14-28 or 15-24 year-olds. Those groups drive this format when the audience composition has changed.
A lot of Urban stations have been paying too much attention to the females in their audience. They have to expand their target audience to include the males who are available to listen and who may get a diary or carry a meter. Almost all of these males are into hip-hop. Rap records start with males and cross over to females. When you research these rap songs with strictly females, there will be flaws and gaps. Females respond much more favorably to R&B love songs and ballads and the males respond pretty much to hip-hop.
Additionally, as the recent election victory for Obama proved, we have to figure out whether there are a significant number of Hispanics in our market. In many markets, this is a growing audience segment that should not be ignored. It has been my experience that any market with even a small Hispanic population can benefit from the fact that young Hispanics gravitate to Urban and hip-hop music. These Hispanic listeners are an Arbitron-weighted group and they can help build your cume.
Cume, Depth And Packaging
Next we have to look at depth and what it means to the station's potential cume. Urban radio's depth is both its strength and its weakness. Listeners who grew out of old mainstream Urban formats (one size fits all) would likely appreciate a station with a large music library. However, two contrasting philosophies have developed on how to combine the old with the new.
Traditional mainstream Urbans are really narrowly artist-focused with song depth. The new precept for mainstream Urbans is that they should play their format's favorite songs, play a lot of them, and play a lot of them in a row. As the format evolved, what we found was that when mainstream Urbans had a new competitor or because of the competitive makeup of the market, they had to move their vision of what they were. If they didn't change, their cume suffered.
It's also been proven that offering "deep cuts" to listeners isn't necessarily a winning philosophy. Keep in mind that even in a PPM world, radio still works on recalled usage. Everybody has a different tolerance level, but the challenge is how to take that formula, shake it up, roll it out again and make it sound fresh. The secret is packaging. Packaging is another way to ensure freshness. The combination of the proper packaging and freshness builds cume.
In 2012, it is imperative to link the two and, in turn, bridge the divide between broadcasters and the advertising community. Usually the smaller, more independent marketing and communications companies develop the radical and transformative business solutions across a broad range of media for their clients.
What we need to do is to continue to use the above information to build new cume and strive to understand and adjust to the uniquenesses of our audience's generational identities. Then we would not only be able to build new cume, we would also begin to understand a few other things, such as why we are running so fast. How do we keep up (much less stay ahead) in such a hyper-paced world? Focus on winning. Get clear on where you are headed. Then get relentless about getting to it. Define it and surround yourself with visuals to remind your brain what it looks like. That will keep you focused on making the right decisions and prioritizing where you spend your precious time. Pause every day to remind yourself of where you are going and what is most critical to get you there.
In a world where change keeps happening faster and faster, we need to move fast in order to keep up. But moving fast works only when we do it with precision and purpose. And in order to move fast with precision and purpose, we first have to slow down. Take your new strategies for getting to your destination and implement them quickly, knowing in advance that they will not unfold exactly as planned. When reality or your GM intrudes on your plans and you start getting off-track, go back and repeat the "pause, think, focus" process. Slowing down to go fast may sound like an oxymoron, but it works. Just don't slow down when you have your competition or their brand on the run.