What Makes An Undecided Decide?
January 22, 2013
Programming Strategies For Touching The Right Spot
For those busy programmers left who still manage to be fertile, imaginative, full of wonder and curiosity, here's a question for you: What makes an undecided decide? In other words, what would motivate listeners who have more choices than ever to fill their limited available entertainment time to decide in your favor? The answer is we have to convince them that we are the best audio choice they can make. And then, we have to get full credit for their listening.
To do this we have to play offense and defense. Urban radio has to push itself out of the morass of format similar stations that have snagged some of its audience. We can't just let Top 40 and Rhythmic stations take the biggest jams by our superstar acts. Our format competitors have made inroads, particularly among younger listeners and hip-hop's reduced hegemony.
The next thing is we need to do is to find a way to touch the right spots. Not only do you have to find and play the right songs, you must also find unique, compelling original talent and content and promote it. Without this, you may be destined to be just another anonymous voice in a cacophony of generic second-tier media options.
There is a change in thinking of today's generation of listeners ... whether it's generations of character, harmony, sophistication or style that is evolving. This is where variety meets spontaneity. For some reason many Urban stations feel a need to keep reminding us of the fact that they claim they're offering variety, but with the same old lines. "Today's R&B and classic soul" and "Number One for Hip-Hop and R&B." These are the same stations that are still "paying your bills." And using designated callers to do it. Somehow, it just doesn't have the same meaning it used to.
It's kind of like the problem with being famous; if you stop being famous for a while, it's as if you never were. It's all part of the system. Trapped by the system, many programmers, consultants and air personalities put down their companies. Promotion people wring their hands in frustration. "How come we can't get the decision-makers at radio to really listen to music instead of waiting for some research guru to tell them what to play?" "How can so-and-so call themselves a Music Director -- yet can't hear that hit?" And then, for the radio decision-makers, there's the fear that if you do step out on your own and take a chance, if the Arbitron digits drop, the station will drop you.
Unfortunately, for most of us who have been in the business for a while, it's all part of the game.
Instead of creating robo-jocked jukeboxes of safe, researched songs, today we have to foster a deeply engaged relationship between the listener and the content. Sometimes our challenge is to provide an element of surprise by creating a better mix than the algorithm of an iPod. Simply serving as a music delivery mechanism is not enough to make an undecided decide. Brand enhancement encompasses everything from on-air personalities, to promotional and marketing strategies and community involvement and street presence. When you give your listeners a compelling reason to follow their favorite station, you make your station valuable to them as well as your advertising and marketing partners. Brand awareness works best when you generate enough passion and consciousness to motivate the listeners to seek you out and make you their selection.
The other area where tomorrow's listening/brand enhancement can grow is through the creation of unique content that allows for time-shifted listening to occur and for the audience to dig deeper into the jams and features they love.
A close examination of the trends in the last few years shows that what may have looked like silk blends are really polyester. Yes, it's true, the fabric of American life shows a surprising resilience born of traditional values and while this fabric, regardless of its content, may cover the "stretch marks," it can't erase them, or let us forget the pain that caused them to appear.
What can we do to get rid of or reduce the "stretch marks" in our business life? The truth is that often we can't get rid of them. Most of the time, we can't effectively reduce or mask them. And much like women who have to endure the real stretch marks as a consequence of the stress of giving birth, we may have to learn to live with and endure them for a while.
There is something that can help to eliminate some "stretch marks" for those of us involved with radio programming. And that is musical consistency. While we're not trying to discount the value of variety in a 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? Naturally, the answer is research. And right here we can eliminate some potential problems by understanding that neither callout nor auditorium testing done under the most optimum conditions are completely accurate.
Now this doesn't mean that you shouldn't attempt to do some testing. It doesn't mean that you should ignore the Mscores that could cause some listeners to leave. 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 some consultants and testers can't find Urban song hooks with a road map). Many of these aliens from another format can't even clap on the beat.
What we mean here is that playing a 7-12-second segment of a song with minimal airplay and then attempting to get the respondents to project and articulate their response to a song as a whole resulting in some intellectualizing of an emotional response, is not only an inexact science, it's a pure guessing game. And yet, companies pay thousands of dollars each year and base their programming decisions on the results of these tests.
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.
Another thing we've discovered that can make an undecided decide is burnout. Obviously, this is something you want to avoid. The Urban audience's tolerance level for burnout is not unique or different than those of other formats. The question is, how long will they listen to a song they've heard too many times? Research studies say they will listen for two songs in the home, one in the car. That means if you schedule titles that are too burnt-out, no matter how well-tested, you could go from a P1 to a P2 instantly in as little as two songs. The change comes even quicker in the car, where it's a one-button motion for those fickle fingers to switch frequencies. So, obviously, the way to win this spring is to ensure that your station, especially if it's an Urban Adult station, plays enough new music to keep the format fresh.
Most stations have a policy that says they will play a new song in an extra or "power new" category for a few days before they officially add it. This allows them to make certain they're comfortable with it. Then, by the time they're ready to report it, they'll know if it's something they can live with for the next five or six weeks in order to give it a good shot on-air.
Most mainstream Urban stations have to juggle and expose new artists to maintain the freshness their audience demands. With only so many slots, that becomes a very difficult game. "So why not just expand the number of slots?" asks a well-known promotion executive for a major label group. And the answer is if you expand the light rotation (this is where most new adds wind up) those lights don't get enough exposure in a week to justify a report or to determine whether or not they (the new tracks) should move up, remain in light rotation, or go away.
The key is steady growth over several weeks. For new artists this is especially vital. But it's also a negative to see a major artist slow down after just a few spins. Callout research can give you an early indication for the initial feel of the song from the passive audience (provided they can hear the right hook, of course). The problem there is that you have to get your spin totals up above 50 a week before the passion scores kick in. A lot of Urban stations, especially with syndicated morning and afternoon shows, are simply not able to do this.
Another ongoing problem many stations have centers around label add dates. For example, a new single from a major core artist is sent to the station. The label gives them an add date and the station prepares a spot for the track on its playlist. Suddenly, the label decides it wants to push the add date back a couple of weeks. The station told the rep they were ready to add it now. This did not make him happy. Later in the day, an independent promoter calls for the station's adds. The station mentioned the record in question. The independent rep reminds the station that the label wants to wait on that one. They've pushed it back. Now the PD is really upset. "They're (the label) not responsible for my playlist or my ratings. I've had a couple of down trends and I need to be fresh this spring." He politely told the rep they were ready to add it now. The result was that that record did not show up as one of the station's reported adds the next week, even though the station added and was playing the record.
Now this is not a case of other radio stations not having access to the song. This is a case of the label wanting all stations to add the record on the same day to make a big impact. This type of scenario brings to mind the question of whether or not we want charts that give a true representation of what is being played. Is this really much better than reporting a record and not playing it?
There are two schools of thought, one which holds that regardless of add dates, once a record is released it should be fair game for any station to play immediately. The idea is taking a chance on a new jam can provide a competitive advantage over other stations by allowing the station to be first with a major established artist's new jam.
The second school of thought says that since many trade charts are composed entirely of airplay, trying to display a first big week of reports would appear to be an attempt to orchestrate a high chart debut by forcing reluctant stations to add a record that may eventually prove to be a stiff. From the label standpoint, the reality is that add dates give them the opportunity to service all stations before airplay begins and to allow them to coordinate their promotional efforts.
We spoke to a number of winning program directors around the country concerning this subject. Their feelings varied from "When you get a record you should play it if you believe it can build audience " to "If you want to break the record in your market you should be able to, regardless of whether it gets reported and counted that week or not." Still another major-market Southeastern programmer said, "Stations should be able to take full advantage of pre-release schedules that permit early evaluations."
We should point out that the interval between receiving a record and its add dates gives programmers time to evaluate the release and lets them avoid impulsive commitments. The station's primary job is still to please its listeners. Nobody should get in trouble for early airplay of a released record.
There is one more issue that we feel compelled to bring up at this time and that is the tendency of some labels to have different add dates in different formats for the same record. Often today with consolidation these stations are in the same building, just down the hall from each other. That can cause confusion, frustration and chart problems. It also means, in the case of the individual stations, that they have to hold off reporting adds in one format if it's past the add date in another format on the same record. What's the solution? Again, it depends who you ask. Personally, I think stations have to do what's best for them regardless of who it affects.
Finally, we come to the problem that affects so many Urban stations today. They tend to get off songs too quickly. We all seem to have this chart-driven mentality that dictates moving a song down in rotation or dropping it altogether the second it loses its bullet or momentum. Studies continue to show that it takes a lot longer for the audience to become familiar with or tire of a record. We're dropping records just about the time listeners are starting to get into them. We often feel as though there's this 10 to 12-week time frame during which a song can remain in a current rotation. Often, with syndicated drivetime shows, dayparting and gold-driven soft night segments factored in, light rotation can be as low as one or two daytime spins a day. This is simply not enough. A station must be able to play those hits as least four or five times a day for several weeks. But we seemingly grow tired of a tune. A few of the active "music freaks" call up and start complaining and suddenly the jam is gone. This forces the passive listeners to find a new frequency so they can hear a song they really like that the labels chased off the radio so they could play a new one.
That answer is a program or music director who is knowledgeable, driven, passionate and committed with a decent set of ears. One who's not afraid to say no to a record that he/she feels doesn't fit the system or yes to one that does. One who also knows when he/she does hear something that works and fits, they do not need to wait for the callout research to kick in before getting it on the air. Then, they need a GM and/or market manager and consultant who support them.
What makes an undecided decide depends on who you ask, but what matters more is that each station will succeed or fail based on its own ability to carefully target its content to its audience. In the final analysis, Urban stations will be defined by how well we answer the question: What does our audience really want to hear? It's not just research, musical diversity and recognizing character differences that translate directly into audience growth and convert "likes" to "lovers" of the format and the station. It's the combination that can lead directly to success, longer Time Spent Listening, swollen cumes and a loyal following. Success is often built upon lessons from failure. The only time you really fail is when you stop trying.