Urban AC - Is It What You Think?
March 5, 2013
Urban AC stations are bleeding, some of them badly. So what should we do? First, we have to stop the bleeding begin with a band-aid - skin colored, of course. In some cases, we may not be able to stop the bleeding, but we should be able to cover the wound.
It's a wound that can be cured with one word - jamz. It's both a noun and a verb. It's what Urban AC stations used to do, and should do again. More about that later. Right now we ask, is Urban AC what you think it is?
Let's look at the Urban AC stations who use the term "Magic" or "Mix." You might say these stations recognized the advantage of the proprietary synonym for variety. The early consultants who advised our stations' management were often "aliens from another format." They told these owners and managers that their Urban AC stations should become very oldies and ballad-heavy and focus on women 25-54. The problem was that the younger end of the demo didn't want to hear what the older end of the demo liked and many of them left.
There are three groups of people who determine the health and direction of a station: owners/managers, programmers and listeners. Owners will either give their stations the resources they need or they'll continue to turn over PDs and consultants in search of the "magic bullet." Ideally, like any station that wants to win and hit its maximum ratings potential, Urban ACs need good and frequent audience research, both perceptual and AMTs. They need talented people, marketing and time.
Unfortunately, everything on the expense budget has to be looked at as an investment that will or won't generate a return. If your station could increase its ratings share by an average of one share point with an additional infusion of half- million dollars in marketing and research, this probably won't fly if you're in a $30-million-revenue market. And the reason is because one share point times a typical Urban AC power ratio of 1.5 times the market revenue yields just $450,000, which represents a $50,000 loss on the marketing and research investment. Owners need to realize there is a reasonable minimum level of marketing that Urban AC stations need to remain healthy -- and that number increases for new Urban ACs with a direct-format competitor or Urban ACs that have simply drifted or started to slip.
Sometimes ratings dip because programmers overreact to research that comes back from listeners who claim the station plays the same songs over and over. That's one of most misunderstood comments in radio. Here's how smart programmers interpret that: This group of listeners is probably "music only" people. About 10% of any format's audience only want music and may even favor obscure cuts. I remember a young woman who called a station I was programming, requesting an album cut she heard on the Internet that was never released as a single. She probably didn't like our morning show, commercials or promotions, either. She was a "music freak," a CD addict or Internet downloader who will never convert to P1 listenership.
Next, there is the "wrong song" issue. Listeners rarely complain about hearing their favorite songs too often. They can't hear them enough. But hearing a song one hates or doesn't know even twice is, to that listener, "hearing it all the time, over and over."
Check play histories of random songs in each category. Are the songs repeating in the same hours or time periods? This often happens with syndicated shows whose advance music lists are changed at the last minute. Are these songs being forced to play elsewhere before such a repeat? (A good idea.) Hand-editing of the daily music log is the only answer. Perform a software tune up to ensure that every music rule and category rotation is working properly.
One great solution to freshen your library is to cycle gold titles in and out of play. My favorite method is to rest those jams that played most often in the previous month for 15-30 days. Your music scheduling software can print a report of these songs. Rest up to 10% of each gold and recurrent category, using the most-played report as the basis. Doing this automatically allows for artist separation and other important scheduling factors and makes the procedure more subjective. Repeat the process every month and the audience will hear songs that have been rested and sound fresher.
All Urban stations have survived a wave of new technology, a new ratings measurement system, a sick economy and owners who simply want to cut costs. But what about Urban AC? Perhaps it's not as sexy as other formats, but it continues to be a profitable franchise with more than its share of ratings winners. But Urban AC sometimes gets a premature death knell because many programmers simply don't fully understand it. When it works, it is brighter and no longer sleepy, slow, dull and boring. Consistency is another big reward reaped by Urban AC stations. Well-run Urban AC stations tend not to have to have the wild audience swings like those in Urban, Top 40 /Rhythmic, Mainstream Top 40 and other formats.
What are the biggest mistakes most Urban AC stations make? They become too narrow. Their syndicated morning shows and personalities became narrower. They become "in your face" and hyped, not funny. Many sound like teens themselves and become obnoxious, alienating many adults, which are the original target.
Still other Urban ACs switch their focus and allow a "herd mentality" to take over. Stations, particularly within the same group, imitate each other's music and presentations, regardless of individual market conditions. They've lost their originality.
Some programmers target only their core P1 listeners. They assume they have maxed out their cume and stop trying to attract new listeners. Then they researched only their core listeners. The more you research your core, the smaller it will become. That can repel your P2s and P3s. Keep in mind that a P1 listener doesn't necessarily give your station a lot of quarter-hours, especially in PPM. A P2 listener may actually spend more time with you than a P1. Restricting research to core listeners ignores this reality. Focusing solely on P1s causes music to become familiar and burn faster to core listeners, making your station uncomfortable to some and unfamiliar to others, including those who spend more time with the station than your P1s.
Many Urban AC stations became niche formats instead of mass-appeal formats. Historically, Urban ACs have successfully programmed to a mass adult audience, both in style and demographic target. Urban AC stations had been so broad in appeal they reached several members of the household, benefiting the format and creating great diary and meter penetration.
All these are reasons why many Urban AC stations today have begun to bleed. The question is why and the answer is they forget how to jam. Why did we seemingly forget? We forgot because we were bored. And while we were bored, we were boring. We had people snoring. Our competition was scoring. Arbitron was ignoring. Adding up the score of sores we find that we're maybe ahead by a scab or two. Healing is just a feeling that comes in the night after the E-channel features Miguel's video "Adorn."
Those complaints you're making could now be forsaken. Then those vows that you've taken may soon need remakin'. Your friend's advice you've ignored - and all because you're bored. Well guess what? Now you're bored and you're tired. You need somebody to care. You need time to repair. And maybe prepare. It's your future out there. All because we've bored you. We tried to explore you. That's a combination for you. Scared and bored.
Well, it's 2013. So we'd better get un-bored, or we're going to be bored until we get on board. For those of you continuing on this flight, it's time to re-board. Radio has been transformed. Urban AC, is it what you think? Probably not. Part of reason is because some Urban AC stations have discovered an unlikely new audience -- younger females attracted by programmers that took an occasional chance and drifted away from the "safe song syndrome." As a result, some of their sometimes P2 listeners were occasionally surprised, even horrified but often amused. They soon realized that probably no station has even been able to choose from such a burst of originality, passion and energy -- a combination that has produced some of Urban AC's finest moments.