Winding Down & Wrapping Up
December 4, 2012
Backing Into The Future
As we wrap up and wind down 2012, in addition to the new media strategies, we also want to examine some of the issues that emerged for Urban and Urban AC stations this year. Statistics showed, even in a recession, there is a tremendous buying power that still exists in the consumer market created by African-Americans. Projections for population growth by the end of this decade show increases to at least 35 million consumers. Spendable income should grow at the same pace, including music purchasers. The size of the African-American population, coupled with the propensity of blacks to spend a disproportionate share of their disposable income on music and movies, make marketing to African-Americans essential to the music and entertainment industries.
While many general-market stations saw their formats floundering and their Time Spent Listening decline, it is clear that future generations may become even more distracted by new technologies and media possibilities. In 2012 Urban radio has its own set of problems --particularly Urban Adult stations.
The decline of total audience in some markets is also affected by the increasing disaffection for our core audience of women 25-49 in middays. This trend is not related so much to the vagaries of research as it is to improper programming. Many Urban AC stations suffer from image problems. They are perceived as being too laid back. Much like the former neo-soul and Smooth Jazz-formatted stations they finally realized that they were underperforming and if they were to remain true to their causes they would have to accept a much smaller slice of the ratings pie.
Many opted out of the format, which left a hole that could be filled by Urban ACs. Success depends on the ability of Urban Adult stations to transform from a gold-based format to one more comprised of music from the '90s to today. Also we have to keep in mind the hit-process life cycle that shows the older an adult gets, the less important music is in their lives. They still love music. They still listen to and enjoy it, but they've become less inclined to get excited about a new track ... even from one of their favorite artists. So now that we know this, we have to calculate or figure in the number of cumulative spins, not just on our station, but also in the market and the format for those jams with crossover potential. We also have to take into consideration our station's efficiency in converting cume to quarter-hours.
Additionally, what we also have to do going forward is leverage what our listeners remember best so that we can get credit for measured audience from Arbitron. For the most part, our audience still recalls "snapshots" that stand out in their recent memories. They don't remember every consistent moment no matter how consistent those moments were. In television, a show, game or movie is remembered for its highlights. Artists are remembered for their hits. A hit is remembered for its hook and a station is remembered for its "audio snapshots." That's why being consistently good is really a lot less important than being occasionally great.
The Future & The Meter
Another big thing that happened this year, and one which received extended coverage in All Access, was the continuing development of Arbitron's PPM system. Arbitron has been developing its electronic measurement system for 20 years. And they've made considerable progress. For example, PPM showed more young listeners are using radio than many originally believed.
The meter was supposed to be an improvement on the diary. New data gathering technology indicated that more people were listening, but it also revealed some unexpected and unpredictable habits. For example, the meter showed that morning drive isn't as important as it seemed, nor are Thursdays. More people are listening on the weekends than before. Some formats were faring better than others. Getting enough usable data from the sample pools is the big problem. Again this year the usable sample sizes have fallen below Arbitron's targets; the company is having difficulty getting young adults of any ethnicity to comply with the requirements of wearing the meter all day.
In theory, if the same people who used to get diaries now get meters, we should get similar results ... only faster. But in reality the results with PPM are very different. First of all they are derived in two different ways. As a result, cume has increased substantially, while Time Spent Listening (TSL) has dropped to half of its previous levels. The ratings may look similar because there are twice the number of people with half the TSL.
Here's what we know for sure: With the diary, unaided recall meant everything. While recall is still and always will be important, with PPM, it's important for a different reason. Urban stations still need to have their listeners remember who they listened to and where to find you on the dial, and then listen to your station, as opposed to trying to remember which station they listened to.
What else have we learned this year? We re-discovered that we need to focus on the product, embrace the technology and continue to grow. What we see is not always what they hear. Sonic tricks of the trade can defy reality and flaunt the truth. Smart radio programmers have played into these clever deceptions over the years with engaging works that insist we look at the familiar with a new point of view.
Despite economic conditions that have led radio companies to announce layoffs and restructuring, one particular programming segment seems to be enjoying growth. Daypart syndication is expanding, along with voicetracking. Undoubtedly, financial pressures have caused the elimination of an increasing number of local dayparts. The latest example of the recession's deep impact is the recent wave of layoffs that Clear Channel, Cox and Cumulus enacted. It impacted all formats ... including Urban.
Less rigid than syndication, but not as localized as point-to-point voicetracking, Clear Channel developed Premium Choice, another option for the company's programmers to consider when replacing talent.
Morning Wake-Up Call
One of the ongoing axioms of our industry is "as mornings go, so goes the station." Tt doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you've got to have a "killer" morning show to be competitive. And not all morning shows work in all markets. There's really no question about the power of a strong morning show on Urban radio. But what changed this year was the implementing of more syndicated Urban morning shows and the recognition that morning humor really comes from characters. Nationally syndicated morning shows from Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Rickey Smiley and Russ Paar have proven this.
While most other formats have developed either a local or syndicated morning show, the blueprint or personality archetype for Urban radio is still developing. In other words, we have not yet come up with a complete system for developing strong local morning shows for the future.
There was a time in Urban radio, just like general-market radio, when we obsessed on morning show benchmarks. We were totally into games and bits. Games and bits may be icing on the cake, but they're not what makes great morning shows work. Everything that's funny about successful Urban morning shows comes from the characters of the individuals and the way they mesh, or even clash. Humor comes from truth reflecting on life and the way these morning shows relate to the audience they were designed to reach. The harder your morning show has to try for laughs, the fewer laughs it deserves. Character doesn't come in a can. It comes from truth.
Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's funnier. Truth avoids the perils of patterns.
Although we kind of always knew it, in 2012 we rediscovered that noisy neighbors, a series of canned jokes, stale contests and forced phone topics just wouldn't get it. And the other thing that emerged is that humor often comes from editing. In this less-is-more age, the new "Generation Jones" audience wants their humor condensed and packaged. This means editing, a role that the morning show producer must play ... a role that really came into its own this year. Editing means making choices and that requires that there be a lot of stuff to choose from. The morning show producer role is becoming more and more important ... even with local morning shows.
We're talking about someone who can juggle the phones, run a tight board, lead the team, make snap decisions and get a celebrity or the mayor's office on the phone at a moment's notice. Today's morning show producer is someone with all those skills, connections, instinct and vision. Today's morning show also needs the freedom to try a lot of new things. Some will be great and the rest will never be heard again, but your morning show should take the creative initiative and want to try new stuff.
And not all morning shows work in all markets. You could import a morning show that got great numbers in a similar market and it could fail. Audiences are fickle and might not take to a new morning show right away (if they take to it at all). That's happening right now in all markets. What happens in mornings affects the state of the format.
What we have to do going forward is combine all these elements and then leverage what the audience remembers best in order to get credit for measured audience from Arbitron. People recall "snapshots" which stand out in their recent memories. They don't remember every consistent moment no matter how consistent those moments were. In television, a show, game or movie is remembered for its highlights. Artists are remembered for their hits. A hit is remembered for its hook and a station is remembered for its "audio snapshots." Inadvertent listening might help our station's cume, but it doesn't contribute many quarter-hours. The quarter-hours that our stations need to perform well in share come from listeners that intentionally tune in and do it day after day.
PPM & Accidental Listening
One of big things that happened this year was the continuing development of Arbitron's electronic measurement system. The question is should the PPM continue to change or affect how we program? The answer is yes. New data gathering technology indicates that more people are listening, but it also revealed some unexpected and unpredictable habits. Because PPM is passive it picks up accidental tuning. That's why cume is larger in PPM than it was with the diary.
Even if a listener likes what they hear, there's still no guarantee they'll return. The challenge is getting this accidental listener to come back later. To return they have to figure out what they're listening to and how to get back there. Unfortunately, every station has audience churn. Listeners might grow tired of a station or even outgrow it. A listener might change jobs and stop commuting. Or, they could lose their job and watch television all day. There are many reasons unrelated to the quality of the product that a once loyal listener might stop listening. Just to maintain, you have to replace each listener that leaves. And to grow you need to add more listeners than leave.
It probably comes as no surprise that Urban and Urban AC formats have suffered in many markets. Getting enough usable data from the sample pools is the problem. For the last several years the usable sample sizes in many markets have fallen below Arbitron's targets; the company is having difficulty getting young cellphone-using adults of any ethnicity to comply with the requirements of wearing its meter all day.
In theory, if the same people who used to get diaries now get meters, we should get similar results -- only faster. But in reality the results with PPM are very different. First of all, they are derived in two different ways. As a result, cume has increased substantially; Time Spent Listening has dropped to half of its previous levels. The ratings may look similar because there are twice the numbers of people with half the TSL. For agencies and advertisers, PPM is a mixed blessing. On one hand they've demanded to see more accurate audience estimates data, but now many assumptions about radio listening are being challenged.
As we wrap up 2012, we find in spite of all the things that happened for those of us who are still employed, we still have much to be thankful for, including a career that most can only dream about. So it's important to keep believing, in yourselves and in the format. And yes, there are many among us for whom this was a tumultuous year.
We leave you with this thought. Instead of loving your enemies, treat your friends a little better.
We wish for each of you a joyous holiday season, and, we look forward to serving you even better in the New Year. Happy holidaze.