The Unexpected Always Happens
March 12, 2013
Relating to Audience Lifestyle With Genre-Based Sound
Increasingly today, every market is becoming unique in terms of how stations have to niche themselves in order to hopefully maximize their P1 position and force a few more fickle fingers to their frequencies. It's impossible to prepare for something that you've never experienced before and shows up for the first time. Even the best-prepared programmers realize that some things are beyond their control because the unexpected always happens.
It's also difficult to place a standard formatic description on each station because there are always market-to-market differences. It really comes down to relating to the audience's lifestyle with genre-based sound.
Many Urban and Urban AC programmers are really locked into whatever new trend appears to be happening at the time. That's good, but stations have to become active in the lifestyles of their audience and in the attitudes with which they communicate their position. Now more than ever, our stations have to fit the sound and the listeners' expectations of what the station is all about. In the case of Urban ACs, today's 40-year-old is totally different from a 40-year-old 10 years ago. The audience nowadays thinks younger and is more active. Things are quicker-paced. People get up earlier and stay up later. The problem with some Urban ACs is that it's difficult to get the advertising community to believe in you when your station's median age is in the mid-50s or early 60s. Once very artist-driven, this format is now much more song-driven. .
Today's Urban programmers are perhaps more unorthodox when it comes to giving direction to air-talent. The reasons are many and varied. First, most have at least one or two syndicated drive-time shows, over which they have little or no control. Second, they're often programming two or more stations. When working with their local on-air talent they don't bang out a list of specific things to do or not to do, but rather prefer to remain flexible according to the needs of the station and talent themselves.
In the ongoing battle for market share, today's radio listeners are constantly being bombarded with all kinds of clever contenders whose only hope is to pull up the perfect playlist before you do. Some broadcasters are convinced that outside of morning drive, "more music-less talk" is still the only way to increase market share. In spite of what some see as the need for speed between songs, personalities who have something to say and who can consistently connect with the audience can crank up your cume. If yours is a market where the PPM has replaced the diary, cume is king.
Recycling Makes Listeners Linger
There are those who feel the only way to recycle audience is with the right music blend. While a balanced music blend is certainly important, what goes on between the songs is equally important.
One of the focuses -- where what goes between the jams is often being over-researched -- is the daypart between drive times ... middays. Stations hurt themselves in 2013 if all they do is adjust their playlists and simply air the researched soft songs for the listen-at-work crowd. With format-similar stations doing so much niche programming, people today have many options. Boring stations won't be remembered. Listeners won't write them down or carry them along while they're wearing a meter.
At-work listening continues to be a problem. The best way for Urban stations to improve at-work listening is to constantly market and reinforce their images. It also helps in the Arbitron game if the audience has become emotionally attached to the station. Winning by emotion doesn't hurt. And emotion is best created not just by music, but also by talk.
Talk is not a tune-out. If it were, the News/Talk and Sports stations would be out of business, yet some of them are living large. But Talk is a tune-out on a music station, right? Wrong. Talented talkers are the cement that holds the musical bricks in place; they help to recycle audience throughout the day.
When you string eight to 10 songs together in a row with little or no talk (cement), you're taking a big chance. First, you don't want to go two or more songs without some kind of ID, especially in the Spring book. Second, even if you've figured out a format that fits, one that offers "more music and better variety," you still need some talented talkers to force those funk-seekers with fickle fingers to freeze on your frequency. Part of the answer lies in seeking and training new talent. Who has time for that?
And of course you know radio isn't driving alone anymore. Along with a line-in or port for an iPod, AM and FM are being joined on the dashboard by radio apps like Tune-In and iHeartradio, along with competitors like Pandora. And that's only the beginning. More WiFi in cars, apps, true integration of online and automobile ... it's already begun, and much more is on the way. And radio will have to compete with it -- all of it.
Terrestrial radio's going to have to fight to preserve its prime place on the dashboard. The connected car is coming soon and for some, it's already arrived.
Now let's examine a recent, detailed report on the Arbitron-Nielsen merger in the Wall Street Journal that showed exactly where the future of measuring ratings is heading. It is widely expected that Arbitron's PPM may change the face of television ratings. A person who is measured with a Nielsen diary can write in what they watch on their home TV, however, a person with a PPM will now transmit what sporting event they're watching in a bar. In terms of radio, the combined power of both companies could mean more markets get PPM ratings and markets with diaries that do not cover four ratings periods could potentially see their diaries replaced by PPMs.
While PPMs have changed how we manage listeners, we may be facing an even bigger change soon. Now that Arbitron has been swallowed up by Nielsen, the ratings leader for TV, the technology will soon be there to not just measure what radio station you're listening to and exactly when, but also what Internet stream you're listening to, which could be a great benefit to some stations and station groups like Clear Channel's iHeartRadio for their terrestrial radio station streams, as well as the non-terrestrial internet streams of Pandora, Slacker, and a potential future rival -- Apple Radio.
Regardless of how your market is measured, just as a major-league sports team has to try to put together the best players, so do we in Urban radio. That role is the responsibility of the program director. He/she has to find, hire, motivate, train, counsel, protect and dismiss the people who rap on the radio.
Let's look a hiring. According to a recent national study of programmers, consultants and GMs, they all agreed there is an ever-increasing demand for qualified air talent, particularly morning talent. The demand continues to exceed the supply. The sad thing is they're out there ... extremely talented personalities just waiting to be discovered and trained.
Programmers have to spend a good deal of their time listening, trying to find the "true players." They must also listen to music, airchecks and the GM, although not necessarily in that order.
Occasionally, the GM wants to join in the listening process. I've often said a GM with a music log or an aircheck can be dangerous, particularly if he/she doesn't come from the programming side. It's not that GMs don't mean well. They do. The problem is most don't fully understand the product well enough to improve on it and they tend to work down to a price rather than up to a standard.
Finding and maintaining strong talent directly affects the station's bottom line. The more audience you build in the morning, for instance, that can be passed on to middays, afternoons and evenings, the better you look. The crucial question of where to find strong air talent continues without regard to format or geographical boundaries.
There are no easy answers. We still hear touching tales of programmers, consultants and GMs pouring through reams of resumes and lots of audio, trying to find someone with some semblance of real talent to help them compete.
Those who have a strong morning show, whether local or syndicated, are tying their talent up with contracts, hoping to keep them in place. Others recognize they have to find or build a show that has some "morning magic." They're constantly in the search mode. Some small-market stations whose talent had bugged out for bigger bucks were really desperate, but it's still more of a raw talent recognition problem that one of money.
Let's face it: The vast majority of jocks who come into radio lately are often people who are simply into the music, not high-powered personalities. The ability to be funny and do phone bits was not what lured them to the profession. The legendary super-jocks who inspired many of us were not clever comedians or actors with a battalion of writers and producers.
As a programmer you want a station full of people who share a common vision of what the station sounds like. We hate the sound of five people doing their own shows, who just happen to land on the same frequency. Personally, I'm a fan of whatever works for each individual as long as they pull it off and touch the audience. The biggest mistake programmers can make is forcing something on jocks that they don't do well. The exception might be when talent experiments in an area they've never attempted before. That's trial and error. But the more marquee the talent, you both already know what they can and can't do well. Stick with what works.
It's entirely logical that a format that always stresses music as the message should experience such growing pains. Given the current state of air talent affairs, the PDs role as a coach and talent scout has become even more crucial. It's a top priority because winning is so essential. Finding talent is one thing; making them work consistently is another. You need to do both. To really score big time, you also need to do one more thing. You need to put the spotlight on their talent.
Once you've found a future star, you got to let him or her perform. You can't just put talent on their shift and then not let them do what you brought them there to do. If they replaced someone with mediocre or limited ability who only talked four times an hour then have them only read some tired liners that hadn't been changed in six months, let them stretch out. When you change jocks, change tactics. Change strategies. Freshen those liners. You've got to let the stars shine; there's nothing worse than a potential superstar jock, doing two or three hours of show prep only to be told to "shut up and play those jams."
Another thing that is not the programmer's fault is management's inability to understand how crucial talent is to winning. For example, many GMs are convinced that a syndicated morning show is the answer. But if one is not available, they are often unwilling to financially support a local morning show. A few who have been around for a while still think it's a one-man band. They (the owners) don't want to pay a producer, a co-host, do perception studies, subscribe to any comedy services or even run any syndicated short-form program aids.
Others take the approach of "shape up or ship out." The tactful and most effective approach is probably better than any attempt at intimidation. While management has to be firm in settling and enforcing the rules, the requirements of discipline should never blind them to the human values and the talent involved.
What about counseling and protecting the air staff? These are two areas which many young programmers may not be aware of, but which can be vital to a top performing, smooth running air staff.
While providing this type of service to the staff is not a requirement for the job, when handled properly it can aid in building loyalties and morale. Often, in much the same role, the PD has to act as a buffer between his air staff and the sales department. A client has a complaint; the manager's wife heard something she didn't like. In order to keep the peace and the faith, the PD has to shield these oftentimes temperamental people from harassment by outsiders.
Yes, it's a tough job, even for an experienced true player because once again, the unexpected always happens. The pot keeps boiling while the PD sits on the lid. But having air talent that can and does relate to the audience can not only help to keep their seat cool; it can also help to "ice" the competition whose only weapon is music.