Game Changing Options
January 29, 2013
Speculation About The Format's Future
Who knows what lies ahead for Urban radio in 2013? We're going to take a stab at our crystal ball and attempt to predict how the format will fare in the next few months. Will there be continued growth in terms of the number of total stations in the format? Probably not. There may be room for an additional station in markets currently underserved by the format. But over the next year or two, we predict the number of markets where Urban is simply not in the picture may start to slip.
The pie may get bigger, but there will be smaller slices. We're no longer fighting a one-front battle. There are some markets where Urban stations are getting flanked by Rhythmic ACs, like the new one that Greater Media just launched in Boston, Top 40/Rhythmics and Mainstream Top 40s.
Here's the real 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 and the rewards. This template can be easily adapted to the financial trend that has defined this decade.
Last year saw more rising sub-prime delinquency rates and the ensuing failures of sub-prime lenders, many of whom were 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. Decisions are often made quickly and frequently by those who are light years away from the shallowest Urban experience.
Limitless Upside Of Compelling Content
As we begin to look forward in 2013, it's time to check out 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 winter and spring 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 P2 or even 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, audiences 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, other than the syndicated drive-time shows, not many stations offer "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 are so over-burdened that they simply don't have the time. But somebody has got to find the time to teach young broadcasters and air talent how to effectively connect to their audience.
Connecting To The Audience
You can hear it when a jock isn't connected to the topic or subject ... when it sounds fake or contrived. In all my aircheck sessions, the first question is usually: "Is this something that really matters, or is of interest to the audience that's really there to hear the music? 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-sized markets. The goal is the same: To grow and keep an audience. Here are three show prep rules that I use.
- 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 show sounding exciting and interesting. When topics come from life, they work. Show prep happens 24 hours a day, not just an hour before your show starts.
Show Prep Sources
There are a great many areas that can be show prep sources. 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.
One of the best who ever did it was Tom Joyner. He did mornings for me in Chicago before he became "the fly jock." Joyner would come 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 hear, even if you didn't need a haircut.
Creating consistent 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, it has to be done. A handful of hits coupled with cutting-edge content make all the risks worthwhile.
Game-changing options mean new market realities that include investment, trial, failure, success and starting over. They're all part of what we do. Going forward, there will be fewer free lunches and even fewer second chances. The big scores will go to those who have the vision to see the future, take some calculated risks and understand that tomorrow really is today.