Hitting The Moving Target
January 8, 2013
Programming Strategies For The New Year
As we charge into first month of the new year -- and it will be a pivot year for all of us -- we've got to remember we are still prisoners of time. Because of that and in addition to having an atavistic link to the past, real or imagined, the exigencies of daily life make a mockery of any attempt to ignore radio's realities. While there may continue to be elements of testosterone-charged combativeness, there's no logical reason why we can't continue to improve on our ability to hit the moving target.
Personal insight can make a difference if you're a programmer. You also have to become a calculated risk-taker and a problem-solver. Problem-solvers have to take some chances. Understanding how to apply research results can reduce some of the risks, but it can't eliminate all of them.
Change In Thinking
There is a change in thinking with today's generation of listeners. Whether it's generations of character, harmony, sophistication or style, they are evolving. This is where variety meets spontaneity. This is also where strong programmers have to develop a willingness to consider risks. They can't be afraid to look at the downside and answer the hard questions.
You need a back-up plan. Such a plan should address questions like, "What if the present programming strategies don't work?" This is where some foresight comes in. Some programmers appear to have an uncanny ability to predict the future. They seem to be able to find the best music, the strongest talent, the right contests and they keep winning. Are they lucky? Maybe, but consistent luck is eventually rewarded. Good PDs are prepared to create some of their own luck by cultivating their ability to shift their thinking and see opportunities others may overlook and then convert those opportunities into ratings.
Some things that may appear to be the result of amazing foresight are actually the result of hard work and discipline ... the kind it takes to constantly look forward and build. Foresight is also the ability to hire, develop and keep the right people. It also means realizing where the holes exist, inside and outside the format.
Mega -- Another Hole Story
One of the areas of obvious growth outside the format is with Hispanics. Something else that must be taken into consideration is the moving target created by the growing Hispanic "hole," which exists and is growing in many markets. This has already led smart radio clusters to make certain their Urban and Urban AC stations consider younger, Latin-leaning options among their choices of music offerings. These younger Latin-leaning music-based formats will have to be less rigid and more adventurous to be successful, as today's young people have so many choices with which to spend their entertainment time.
Last year the Urban stations that were able to attract Arbitron-weighted Hispanics did well. The growth of Hispanic-targeted stations and those stations that were able to develop a strong Hispanic following, in many cases, came at the expense of English-language Top 40, Country, Oldies and Rock stations. A new report shows in some markets, these stations posted a fourth straight year of declines. But the decline in share these stations experienced coincided with gains in audience share for Urban-formatted stations among listeners 12-24 and even for adults 24-49. Audience shares in the 18-34 age group, however, have been dropping. Interestingly enough, when the average median age bumped up to 29, some Rock and Top 40's median-age Hispanic listeners remained strong.
I've been saying for some time now that future research for Urban stations needs to be adjusted to include Hispanic listeners who love the music and artists we play. These Hispanics have to be included in the auditorium music tests (AMTs) and perceptuals. Why? Because if you're lucky you will get as much audience as you go after. If you narrow your target, you lessen your chances of victory. For example, if you target a 2.5 share composed almost entirely of African-American listeners, that's what you may get.
In the future, smart programmers will adjust their research and look for crossover potential between demos and music preference groups. Leave no potential listener type un-served, under-served or hanging for more than one song. Smart Urban program strategists will make sure their stations always come back through the "center line." In doing that, they appeal to the largest group of target listeners.
Mega's loyal listeners will now get the best, most-researched classic R&B and funk enhanced with the right current songs, which includes hip-hop. Mega's new core audience is female-based and targets a non-Arbitron-defined category that is 25-49. They are, for the most part, second and third-generation Hispanics. And believe it or not, they're into artists like Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Miguel, Chris Brown, 2 Chainz and Rhianna.
Hispanic-targeted radio is making huge gains in many markets, and it's not just the traditional markets such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Houston that have experienced this burgeoning swell lately. The Hispanic population in The Windy City, for example, has grown to 17.4% of the market's 7.7 million total. Chicago's African-American population is just 17.6%.
These past few years have been laced with change and demographic density. A population that is rapidly adjusting both its demographic status and its colors must be recognized. Urban radio's new target audience is not just black anymore. It's becoming more brown and yellow. In some markets, the catch phrase is "mega." Regardless of what it's called, it's what it means to the listener that counts.
Secrets Of Time-Shifted Listening
There is something that can help lighten the load and shorten the time it takes for the growth to show up in the ratings sweeps. That is time-shifted listening and musical consistency. While we're not trying to discount the value of variety in any station's mix, there has to be a synthesis of the different styles so that it sounds like it all belongs to one radio station. This means both from shift-to-shift as well as song-to-song.
Now the question turns to which songs? How do you find them? The answer is research. And right here we can say that neither callout nor auditorium testing, done under the most optimum conditions, is completely accurate.
This doesn't mean that you shouldn't attempt to do some testing. Rather, it means that you should understand that music testing is going to be distorted. It is going to be distorted by the artificiality of playing the hooks. (And unfortunately, some consultants and researchers not familiar with Urban radio couldn't find the song hooks with a road map. These guys can't even clap on the beat.) What we mean here is that playing a 7- to 12-second segment of a song with minimal airplay and then attempting to get the respondents to project and articulate their response to the song as a whole, resulting in some intellectualizing of an emotional response, is not only an inexact science, it's a pure guessing game. So before you bet the bank based on some flawed research, better think again.
There are three basic types of research that most stations do on a regular basis: Auditorium Music Test (AMTs), Focus Groups and Callouts.
AMTs are conducted with a carefully screened group of target listeners who evaluate portions of songs called hooks. Each song is scored according to its familiarity, appeal and passion.
Callout research is an evaluation process wherein target listeners evaluate 30 or more songs weekly, again indicating familiarity, appeal, fatigue and passion.
Focus Groups are smaller, carefully selected groups of target listeners who discuss and identify key issues and set priorities for quantitative research and are designed to enhance the overall value of perceptual research.
Over the years, a lot of programmers and even GMs ask, if you have a limited budget and time, which form of research should you choose? I personally feel that it depends on the station. For example, if yours is an Urban Adult, gold-based station, an auditorium test would be the best choice. If you have a mainstream, current-based station, callout research is the way to go.
It's important that the questionnaires be carefully reviewed so as not to confuse the respondents. And it helps if the moderator looks like those he/she is moderating. We cannot put absolute faith in a research process without understanding what the limitations are.
The worst thing we can do is base our music decisions on flawed research. This means that the participants have to be screened carefully to ensure that all lie within the station's cume. I strongly recommend using updated ZIP code data to determine where the respondents should be drawn from. I also like to make certain that all the ethnic considerations, including Hispanics, are reflected. In other words, there should be balance. A lot of companies assume, for example, that an Urban station should only have African-Americans in the sample. Then, despite any age skewing in the sample, it has to be demographically balanced. And, finally, the sample has to be of sufficient size to give some stability to the results. I like a sample of at least 400 persons.
Many managers and owners feel that they can save some money by reducing the sample size. After all, if they are paying an average of $35-$40 per person, the fewer people they have to pay, the more they can save, right? Wrong. You need a minimum of over 150 completed calls per week and over 600 per month just to have a chance at some actionable results. The larger the sample, the more reliable.
Perhaps the most actionable information that this research can provide is burnout -- finding out if the songs being tested are overexposed. Then, if your results show you have some titles that are tired, you should retire or "rest" them and go on to the next group of fresh songs in that category.
Capturing Bigger Cume
One of the other things that can achieve better radio is to fully understand how cume building really works. There's an old saying that you can't sell anybody anything until they come into the store. That means you can't generate cume ratings until you get your listeners towear a meter while tuned to your frequency, or write your call letters in a diary . Once they do, they become a potential part of your weekly cume. I've said this for years now: The biggest single problem many crossover and Urban radio stations have is failure to build and maintain cume. It doesn't matter if you have great average quarter-hours (AQH) or Time Spent Listening (TSL) if you've only got 10 listeners!
It would be impossible for us to attempt to sort out all the things you might need to know regarding cume, but we will at least want to point you in the right direction. What we will say here is that you should at least analyze your station's cume and compare it with both your competition and the previous sweep or book. If you find that your competition, regardless of who they are (the station or stations that you share the most audience with will work for now), has doubled its cume while you remained the same, you're in trouble and you'd better do some strategic planning to figure out how you can take a piece of their cume and put it on your side. Urban stations should be cuming at least 10%-15% of the total audience in their market.
Creating better radio is more than just research, musical diversity and recognizing character differences that translate directly into audience growth and swollen cumes. Usually it's all of those things combined with the talent of strong, hard-working personalities that eventually develop a loyal following. Also, you have to use some good judgment and caution, because if you try to be too fresh, too hip or too slick you may fall victim to overkill, and that can defeat your very purpose.
Engagement Lures New Listeners
While we're still at the beginning of the new year, this is a perfect time to look back and then look ahead. As we look back, one of the things we observed at the end of last year was that the so-called cookie-cutter, "off-the-rack" Urban formats were not working that well. As we look ahead, we find what our formats really need is a different spin from some innovators who can create a stronger overall brand in the listeners' mind.
In order to survive in business today, a station must have innovators. That innovative leadership can come from the GM, PD, MD, consultant or from some other source, but management must recognize and act on it. An organism dies if it doesn't grow ... and growth is a function of innovation.
Why do we need engagement? For one thing, terrestrial radio is becoming an old medium. With the agency focus over the last few years veering towards the 25-49-year-old listeners, there has come a concurrent decline in younger-age listeners. This is because of the change in how radio is perceived by these younger listeners. For the upcoming Spring ratings sweeps, we should remember the rule: 80% of your station's listening still comes from 20% of the audience. The problem is that 20% is shrinking ... particularly among young listeners. Remember, too, the "growing-shedding theory." And remember that young listeners really do drive trends, including listening trends. Either you adjust or you lose them. Teens and "tweens" grow into their 20s and take their habits with them.
We have to face that fact that there are new competitors that threaten to nibble away at our Time Spent Listening (TSL) and cume. Even when our reach is high, our TSL is dropping. That's because of the increased competition from other technologies. Today we are forced to compete not only with other radio stations, but also with other content delivery systems that our listeners are constantly checking out, trying to find one that satisfies them the most. Today when your station is P2, Pandora could be P1. And let's not forget that iPods continue to gain larger fan bases, with iTunes selling millions of dollars worth of songs and ringtones every week. Many of these audio forms can be downloaded right onto your cell phone, iPad or embedded in some other smartphone-driven media forms of infinite choices.
No longer is radio the only place listeners can go to hear new music. In some markets, it may still be the top choice, but with the explosion of media choices, it has become relatively easy for consumers to build their own radio stations on their personal listening devices. This constnat change in technology will continue to take its toll on terrestrial radio's natural ability to build cume by luring new listeners.
There is some hope, however, that agencies are beginning to see the need to expand and diversify their reach of advertising into younger demos. In short, youth-based radio will have to change to become really compelling again.
Future Content & Innovation
In the future, those stations that invest in and cultivate personality and creativity will become the big winners. Hopefully, they will also be the stations that are then able to attract and keep the most creative personalities. Now is the time to ask ourselves this important question: Are we satisfied with where we're at now, or are we prepared to make the changes necessary to convert occasional listeners to loyal listeners? To do this we not only have to give them something to listen to, we must give them something to believe in.
Urban radio can expect to be forced to compete with more new forms of technology Today, listeners can listen to the radio whether it's terrestrial, HD, Internet, iPods, podcasting, all while they simultaneously do other things, such as surfing the web, answering e-mail, texting, etc. Wi Fi Max is here and with it comes the possibility of broadband Internet connectivity in your ride and wireless Internet everywhere. In many markets, it will even be free.
Speaking of free, let's not forget about HD radio. I personally have experienced it under ideal circumstances and I can tell you that as soon as they figure out how to improve the antenna systems and bring the costs down, it's going to put a different spin on music radio. These HD side channels will offer a different format than the main channel and they're going to increase the available choices in an already crowded radio world.
Add to that the fact that electronic measurement continues to change the way we think and program. Now minute-by-minute instant audience ratings have become available, and children from six to 12 are now included in the PPM measurement process. College and non-commercial radio stations are being counted. All of this simply means innovation is more important than ever.
Finally, we want to examine what demographers often refer to as the new "Generation Jones." From the time someone graduates from high school at around 18, until they turn 30, their lives typically transform from dependents living with their parents to workers supporting themselves to married couples and inevitably, to parenthood. They've become a moving target -- one that is very hard, but not impossible, to hit. But you have to line them up in your sights.
To consistently hit this moving, musical target, however, Urban radio must keep up so that as it changes, so does its music and presentation. These things are all part of today's hyper-competitive changing media environment. Through it all we have to keep the music playing, but now it may have to have a different spin. The spin will always best be determined by the market composition and available resources.
In the future we're going to be forced to look at our targets a little differently and go a little deeper than just the surface and be conscientious. If you really want to hit the moving target, you'll find a way. If you don't, you'll find an excuse.