April 2, 2013
A lot of what inspires new listeners and encourages old listeners to continue to listen is reinvention. Reinvention is the art of relishing the idea of looking for a new way of doing something. It's presenting something fresh. Exercising our creative abilities is one of the most important aspects of being involved with radio. The more we explore looking at things differently and creating another way to do them, the more choices we'll have. We'll be able to put a new spin on an aging format, or come up with a new concept. Why is that important, you ask? Because now we have to invent a new framework that will allow us to compete with digital radio competition.
Our audience has many choices when it comes to accessing audio content (on-air, online, in-game, in home, in-car or Internet-connected devices.) Data-driven decision making is where successful programming models are heading in the future The proliferation of mobile devices and Internet-connected media outlets will only expand audio's influence in the media landscape. We're quickly heading toward a need of a kind of digital reinvention.
It appears that in 2013, terrestrial radio has failed to inspire listeners, some of who are now turning to digital media choices. Most of these choices have a theme and range from classical to hard rock to hip-hop to children's music. A computer in New York picks the tunes. There are no commercials and no air personalities. The advantages are that they have none of the advertising and DJ chatter that aggravates some radio listeners; it has the rich sound of a compact disc player; and it provides a home for such formats as straight-ahead jazz and children's music, which couldn't sustain an independent radio station but could be a factor as Arbitron's PPM replaces the diary. Remember that under PPM, for the first time in Arbitron's history, children between six and 12 are going to be measured. They could keep the radio on and expose their parents to choices they would never make on their own. Remember the meter doesn't measure who's listening ... just who's exposed.
Losing Our Car Connection
Radio's utility is not just a function of its ubiquity, it's a function of providing unique value over generations and giving listeners what they want. At a recent national conference, a number of highly respected tech researchers shocked an already paranoid industry by making some scary claims, which they said, were the results of exhaustive studies. But any reader of Greek tragedy could have told them what happens to heroes besotted with hubris.
They talked about the digital dashboard or the connected car. They claimed that AM and FM would be eliminated from the dashboard within five years. The reason - young listeners don't use radio anymore. These kids want Pandora, Spotify and other similar devices, they said. And if they want terrestrial radio they can get it on iHeartradio, TuneIn or a similar service. It turns out their claims are not altogether true. We've known for some time that radio is losing its in-car monopoly as other music services hit the dashboard, but it's not going away. According to Arbitron, people-- including young people -- still love their radios.
Remember, too, these digital device's shortcomings are equally obvious. They lack the verve, immediacy and localization of good live radio. They don't adjust for regional differences in music taste and often can't be carried into the car, where people do most of their radio listening. How excited can analytics and digital computers get about a song? Obviously, they're competition and they will take away some of the listeners to terrestrial radio. But just as movies didn't destroy the theater, television didn't destroy the movies, and cable TV didn't destroy television, digital choices aren't going to destroy terrestrial radio. They're just one more media choice competing for our listener's time.
Overcoming Sales Objections
One of the important steps to inspiring any new concept, including digital, is understanding terms. Just as the term "Urban" embraces a wide variety of musical styles, there are many different sounding stations that can be called "Urban." Although each of these formats may sound different, even within the same chain or group, there are similarities. They generally feature large playlists and play more new music than their competitors, and maintain music libraries that are more varied than other similar formats.
In today's competitive environment, even though in some markets where Urban format shares are shrinking, if you can compete and make money with this niche format you can score. The key elements for the existence of the format are longevity, a large-enough demand for the music, and a fragmented Urban market. While the demand for this kind of format exists in lots of markets, the big question is how large a piece of the pie can you claim? Markets with strong local music heritage are natural locations for these kinds of stations and formats. Yet, while the perceived niche may have been obvious, the young-skewing demographics have deterred many stations from looking at Urban or Urban AC as a viable format choice owing to sales problems.
What are the sales problems? Some stations change formats because they feel they can't make money with their present on-air product. What is the answer? We have to convince ourselves that the format is being underutilized by advertisers. Then we'll be in a position to convince others. No matter how poorly people think Urban is doing today, it does incredibly well in some markets. So why are GMs unwilling to tell the Urban story and why are some advertisers and agencies obsessed with 25-54 demos?
People, especially salespeople, take the path of least resistance. They do this mainly because of demographers who've tracked where the bulk of the population is centered. By wrongly focusing of the 25-54 demos, we've renounced our share of what amounts to millions of dollars annually by advertisers. Media buyers currently are directing 60 cents out of every dollar to 25-54 year-olds, so naturally radio is positioning itself to be in that pipeline.
Meanwhile, we need to re-examine our paradigms, the personal belief systems that define the boundaries of our perceptions and establish the rules of behavior within those boundaries. The current paradigm is that many salespeople in the format are almost ashamed to admit they represent a format that plays rap music and have teens as part of their core audience.
A lot of programmers have been asked to become format contortionists. Straightahead Urban stations are designed to do one thing: appeal to teens and young adults. But we're constantly being told to get the other demos that belong elsewhere. If you're successful with 25-54-year-olds and if that's your core audience, then you may not be a true Urban station. The secret is that if you're an Urban station, you must have a young core. But that shouldn't preclude you from having older listeners.
Most programmers aren't being encouraged to win 12+ when they're asked to get into the advertising pipeline. If PDs were turned loose on a realistic ratings target, we'd be fine. It's a major compromise to stretch to where you're playing music that's not in the target. Urban stations that still grab a wider share of upper demos have a strong presence in the community and on the air, plus they usually have a great morning show.
Many Urban stations are in the process of rebuilding for the future. Their timing couldn't be worse. Although it's improving, we've still got a slow economy, a banking and gas crises and a push for the 25+ audience. Added to this, many stations have been forced to take on syndicated shows that don't work. Station programmers didn't make or even participate in the decision to bring these syndicated shows on board. But if the show fails, the PD is blamed.
Now, let's talk about the economy for just a moment. The biggest problem lots of stations that are part of a large group face is debt service. The amount of money borrowed to purchase the stations. Last year, nearly 60% of all stations lost money. Let that marinate for a moment. Ownership has a vested interest in making money, not staying in a particular format.
Unfortunately, very few are enjoying profits. It's important to grasp this point. If owners aren't making money in the format, they can't stay with it, even if they want to.
But there's evidence to show they can make money with Urban formats. The format will continue to change unnecessarily and unproductively. The programmers, air personalities and listeners are already suffering. Many people are losing their jobs and not coming back, and the format isn't serving the core audience. But if we can refocus ourselves, the creativity will come back. However, who can be creative when budgets and staff are being cut? It's an unnerving environment.
Some are blaming the rep firms. Today, rep firms are basically clearinghouses for advertisers who want to buy radio. Then we have the RAB -- basically an educational organization that lobbies for radio as a whole. They've been inspired to be more active advocates of Urban radio in the last few years.
We need to convince and inspire all these people, including our bosses, that there is a huge market for those 18-49-year-olds, and the product and service categories that target this audience -- soft drinks, beer, clubs, concerts, the automotive aftermarket (parts and servicing), music, movies, sporting goods, fast food and clothing -- all fall into this category. Strength in this demographic enables Urban stations to position themselves as a critical ingredient in the mix for any advertiser looking to reach the entire 18-49 demo cell. If you dominate any one cell, you'll be viable in broader demos. We need to stress the active, responsive nature of our audience. We need to focus more on local advertisers who are less likely than national agencies to play a strict numbers game. National business may account for only 15-20% of the stations' total business. The stations' sales departments also need to develop other way of getting business on the air than just through agencies: co-op, direct business, vendor programs, the food business and the Internet.
Crossroads & Crossover - They're Not The Same
Are the Urban formats at a digital crossroads? Maybe. Is the honeymoon over? In some cases and markets, the answer is yes. Let's go back a few years and look at what has happened with Urban radio. In some major markets, there were two or three different versions of Urban and Urban Adult formats. Eventually it was whittled down and the strongest player or players survived and the others changed.
While most general-market stations have found their formats fragmenting in recent years, Urban radio has its own set of problems, particularly Urban Adult radio -- and those that continue to use the "ballad-heavy and oldies" approach. The decline of total audience in some markets is also affected by the increasing disaffection from our core audience for women 25-49. This trend is not related so much to the vagaries of research, but to improper programming.
Many Urban AC stations are suffering from image problems. They were perceived as being too laid back, much like the jazz and blues-formatted stations that realized that if they were to remain true to their causes, they would have to change or be forced to accept a much smaller slice of the ratings pie.
In a recent national survey, a number of listeners claimed that except for evenings, they weren't really into Adult Urban stations. A few even said, "It was like background music they used to study to." While this may be an exception, it touches on reality. The reality is that if an Urban AC station gets too soft, if nobody is paying any real attention to the songs, artists, titles or call letters, the station could become an instant victim of fragmentation.
With Arbitron's Personal People Meter (PPM), that could prove disastrous. For one thing, the audience does not grow in the first minute of the song, but it also doesn't shrink. This means tune-in and tune-out are likely to be very small in the first minute of a new song. The growth in audience takes place in the second and subsequent minutes of a song, indicating that much of the new audience is added as new listeners tune in and that tune-in tends to outweigh any losses over the course of the song's exposure. What's also interesting is that in a series of recent PPM studies, uptempo songs performed better than slower ones. Thus, higher energy jams did much better than slower songs. Mid-tempo songs, performed right in between the slow and the up-tempo songs, increased the audience just under 2%.
Based on the recent PPM results, there are certainly some issues with sampling and proportionality. Consultant Tony Gray says the key to measuring the ethnic audience is tied to where the measurement takes place. Arbitron's Jon Miller claims that Urban stations shouldn't rush to judgment based on what happened in other markets and that the future for the continued growth of Black and Hispanic stations is strong.
Music And Math
Mathematically, it's possible to gain or lose some quarter-hours depending on how you play your math game. The key is to be able to analyze your music's mathematic strengths quickly. Once it's set up, additional monitoring helps to analyze your rotations properly. After you've analyzed your station, you must take time to monitor the competition. A music monitor has to be least 24 hours long.
There's a predictable difference between the weekday audience and the weekend audience. For one thing, the Time Spent Listening (TSL) increases significantly on the weekend. What smart programmers have been doing is to chart each song that both you and your competition play, indicate the hour each one was played. High repeats should be identified immediately. Gold and long-term recurrents should have no repeats.
On your own station, you will immediately discover which air talent is cheating on the format and/or just not paying close attention. Not only will this process allow you to discover your competition's format and musical strengths and weaknesses, you will also be forced to discover your own, perhaps for the first time.
As a consultant, this "detective" role is one I've had to play many times. It's a role the program director and music director should play, so that the consultant can concentrate on other things such as mistakes, auditorium tests and focus groups.
One of the eternal axioms of our industry is "as mornings go, so goes the station." Yet while most formats have developed either a local or syndicated morning show, the blueprint or personality archetype for Urban radio is still lacking. In other words, we have not yet come up with a system for developing strong local morning shows for the future.
The fact is that in 2013 we have to inspire and attract listeners who have lots of other portable media choices, many of them digital. We have to convince and inspire them. Are there gender specifics? Do we need to apply different strategies to inspire women separate from men? Not really. Digital reinvention is matter of what you do and what you don't do. It's a lot like the difference between being at a singles bar and going to the circus. At the circus, the clowns don't talk.