March 26, 2013
While They're Trying To Figure Out The Answers ... Come Up With The Questions
With all the demands on their time, it's easy for today's programmers to focus so much on not messing up that they wind up losing listeners because they're afraid to make the necessary changes that lead their station into the future. Many programmers depend too much on research. Research isn't going to tell you everything you need to be doing. It can certainly guide you in the right direction in most cases, but it needs to be balanced. That's where the calculated risk-takers come in.
Right Brain, Left Brain
By now most of you have heard of right-brain and left-brain functions: The left side of your brain is generally better at math, systems and logic; the right side takes over in art, music and creative skills. Almost everyone has a dominant hemisphere. People with equally strong sides are very rare.
That's why artists, for example, need business managers. And why radio stations can become boring. Radio stations used to be a haven for right-brained creative types but now they lean toward left-brain dominant mangers: people who are logical, organized and who can create and live within budgets. These qualities and skills can get you hired and even promoted, but they don't always lend themselves to creating an entertaining radio station. To do that in today's world, you need to be a calculated risk-taker.
Programmers have to be strong with rotation schemes, music scheduling setups, liners, promo scheduling, ratings analysis, budgets, clocks and generally just keeping things running - the business side of showbiz. Fewer of today's busy PDs are stronger at the "show" side, which includes colorful names, creative writing, cinematic production, "seize the day" stunts, events, show prep and general out-of-the-box thinking. Add to that the fact that radio continues to struggle to keep pace with the kind of measurable engagement offered by newer digital marketing platforms. Calculated risk-takers understand this. And unfortunately, some of those who do get it are left-brained.
They're left-brain PDs. So what's wrong with that? Nothing, really, except that stations need both products today. They need systems that keep the place running efficiently and they need colorful "calculated risk-takers." In most formats, and definitely in Urban or Urban AC formats, a left-brained station can be too dull to be to really compete. What happens is the station's rotations are probably great, but its verbal content may be lackluster. If your left-brain skills aren't balanced by right-brain creativity, your station is vulnerable. And even a format-similar competitor, like an Urban-leaning Top 40 or Rhythmic, can take you out.
So how do you convert from being left-brained to becoming more right-brained ... and what's the secret to becoming a calculated risk-taker? First of all, it's not for everyone. But understand that everyone, including you, can be creative. Creativity is a skill you can learn, not something you're born with. The first step is to learn the rules of brainstorming. Second is to get better at time management and delegation. Time pressure is one of today's biggest obstacles to creativity.
And then, and perhaps the toughest challenge, is that you've got to be willing to take some risks or you'll never be the first to do anything. If you always find yourself asking "Who else has done this?" you are way too conservative. And remember that websites need to be programmed as carefully as the on-air product. Your website is another delivery platform for your station; it's not just a marketing medium.
What you want to do as a leader and calculated risk-taker is create a culture where all of us are better than one of us. Taking calculated, well-thought out risks are great for building cume. You can drive cume simply by using research. Properly utilized, research will tell you where you are in terms of your listeners' demands for your product. What you have to do is hit all your goals --including cume, ratings shares, demo targets and product awareness. But when all else is equal in a competitive battle, the station that has the best information about the audience's needs and then does the best job of meeting those needs will score in the cume battle.
You can be the best programmer and have the best research, but no matter how talented you are or how hard you work, if you do not have the best information about the audience's needs, or you can't interpret the research accurately, you will not be able to deliver the results expected by your management. Here's why: As important as research is in 2013, even the very best research will not guarantee results for your station. Many stations spend a ton of time and money on research and still watch their cumes collapse.
Why is this? Well, some PDs are better than others at making research work for them. They aren't necessarily smarter or more experienced ... just more strategic, more calculating. They have a strategy and a plan to go with that strategy. In addition, they usually have a clearly defined set of goals that express where they want to end up. They have the knowledge and experience to deal with research companies. They are not intimidated by researchers who have had little or no firsthand experience and don't specialize in Urban formats. They have a formalized implementation plan to take the research findings and make the necessary changes to programming in order to achieve their goals. They have a staff with the skills and experience to get the job done. Research is just a tool. Without good management, the best research will wind up wasted.
Statistics & Sample Size
As a programmer, you need to know a little about the laws of statistics. Sample size is critical. To produce reliable results, you need large enough sample size to provide statistically accurate information. The larger the sample size, the more reliable. Unfortunately, for a lot of PDs and MDs in small and medium markets, the sample sizes needed for statistical accuracy are not proportionate to market size. This means that a station in Charleston would need just as many respondents as a station in Chicago in a quantitative study. That's why most small to medium markets can't afford effective quantitative studies.
Now we're not saying that if you happen to be in a small or medium market, your research is not valuable or accurate ... just that once you understand the law of statistics, you can make the necessary adjustments. This is even more reason for you to use your gut instincts and market experience to help make your decisions. As a programmer, you don't have to understand linear algebra to use research, but it is extremely important that you operate under and understand the laws of statistics. Here's a secret I'll share with you: The ballpark number for a reliable random sample for quantitative studies in any market over 10,000 is at least 600 respondents. Lacking this information and having a research project with a lesser number is a problem.
Another problem for a lot of small and medium-market stations in 2013 is the lack of independent attitudes toward new music. There are only a few real trailblazers out there. Now we're not advocating that you should suddenly become a trailblazer and lose your job -- even if it turns out you were right. That's like sacrificing your head to save your arm. Not all programmers are easily impressed by figures if they're not sold on a record's sound. You can still have some PDs who when told by a label rep, "Hey, we just sold 200,000 copies of this record and it moved 10 chart positions." will say, "Congratulations. But I'm still not adding the record because it's not the right sound for my station."
What should you do if you're working for a label and you run into this problem? First, respect the PD and back off. You're not going to win by being confrontational ... even if you're right. Fortunately, there are some calculated risk-takers, sound-oriented programmers out there. It's often an attitude vs. a format that dictates when and where a song is added. Also, understand that the Spring Arbitron sweeps are coming up. They're the most important ratings period of the year, so naturally programmers are going to be a little conservative. The question label reps should ask is "What would be good for the format and is it going to help build audience for the station?" The PD's answer to that question should be; "Is this a song that that would give my station the ability to be hit-oriented, fresh and still build cume?" Some successful PDs we know say, "We don't look at charts or research exclusively. If a jam doesn't fit our sound, it doesn't get played. All we do is read between the lines of both chart and research." Still others say they watch records that develop from their weekend mix shows.
Dayparting is vital in building cume. Knowing when to expose a new record is extremely important. For most Urban stations, nights are the most active listening period to break and establish new music. Nights also keep the base audience -- the young 12-24-year-olds who are locked into your station. For young female listeners, we need to be the soundtrack to their lives, their ride to their boyfriend's house and their ride home from class, the game or the concert. You can really get away with more at night than during any other daypart.
Finally, some programmers get overwhelmed by research. You don't want to make that mistake. You can't apply too much science to an art that is not totally scientific. Great radio is emotional and passionate. Remember, cume is still the key and the goal. With Arbitron's PPM, cume is even more important. Urban formats must address the fact that there are least two generations of listeners for whom our music is crucial .Combining the right music with the right content is what separates the calculated risk-takers from ordinary programmers. Done right, Urban formats can still produce adventure in what might otherwise be a wasteland of boring radio.
Calculated risk-takers are a necessary part of a new generation of passionate programmers willing to risk some exposure and take some chances. Passion is easy for those who are passionate.