Rearview Mirrors Often Distort Realities
April 16, 2013
Urban Funk In The Fast Lane
Everyone in Urban radio agrees that things are not the same as they used to be. People are smarter, technologies are faster and competition is fiercer. It's really "life in the fast lane -- everything all the time." The road to better ratings can be successfully navigated more effectively in a scratch 'n' win world with instant payoffs. Don't fall for road lemmings that destabilize your format. In 2013, the key is understanding that Urban radio done right is very appealing to all ages.
Since we're running in the fast lane, we can't keep looking back for answers that once worked. We have to make the right choices quicker. The road that carries these smarter, faster people and smarter faster technologies is filled with potholes, but loaded with opportunities.
We come to forks in that road more often and we've got to make the right choice. Competitors change formats, while creative talent (local or syndicated) come and go.
Demographics are more important than ever. Demography is the study of populations. We all know the baby boomer is aging and we know the family unit is changing. Faced with that knowledge, we can somewhat predict what will happen, anticipate the impact and shift gears. The aging population powered by Generation X, Generation Y or even Generation Jones is the best educated, most informed group in history. These smarter, faster folks have so many choices they feel constant time pressure. They may be comfortable with their ability to make choices. But before they do, they want their music and information presented to them in an easy-to-digest manner. The proliferation of mobile devices and Internet-connected media outlets will only expand audio's influence in the media landscape.
Let's look at this from your station management's point-of-view. They're complaining that they can't sell the 12-24 numbers on your hip-hop station. Is that just an excuse salespeople use when they don't reach their quotas, or because they don't really like or understand the format? They will say that it used to be easier to sell Urban radio. But the reality is that many sales-driven Urban stations softened their sound in an attempt to recoup some adults, only to eventually allow another format competitor to score. So now the numbers aren't there and even though the station is still an effective medium, it's more difficult to justify the rates for a station that has lost a chunk of its audience.
Many present day failures of some Urban stations has been hastened by a cross town competitor (in some cases, a rhythmic, Urban AC or Top-40 station in the same building)
In the case of the Rhythmic or Top 40, they often wind up snatching the 12-34-year-olds because the soft Urban station can't bring in adults quickly enough to replace the ones who left.
What the sales and management people seem to want is an Urban Adult station. The only way this happens is if you're fortunate enough to have an extremely strong, adult-appeal morning show. Nationally Steve Harvey, Tom Joyner and Rickey Smiley are syndicated examples of this type of show. In Atlanta, WVEE's Ryan Cameron is an example of a local morning show that, in a very short time, has been able to deliver adult numbers and still play hip-hop jams.
But mornings are not only key ... without them you've got no chance to capture and keep the audience that can move the adult needle. Why, you ask? Because let's face it, adults don't do a lot of listening at night. I understand the motivation of a straight-ahead, pure Urban station to try skew older to attract upper demos, but a pure Urban AC has a much better chance of satisfying those upper demos. Many of these hybrid Urban stations will wind up losing. It's dangerous for an Urban station to dump most of its currents and load up on recurrents, ballads and gold no matter what the research says.
A smart Urban station can attract more adults without making major format changes. As we mentioned earlier, a strong morning show is the first step. The second move is to give the adults more than a steady diet of non-stop hip-hop and jocks who are simply trying to appeal to the "clubbers" and "shout-outers." There's a lot of good hit music that tests great with adults, yet isn't being played by Urban radio. The answer is not to add a lot of gold and ballads. Attracting more adults involves skillfully blending the music, along with really creative features, promotions and media marketing. But again, a word of caution: Leaving a successful 12-34-niched Urban station to move into a hybrid situation is a dangerous path to take regardless.
If you can be successful with young adults and do well with adults from a business standpoint, especially in today's competitive environment, it's a dream come true. Occasionally, it can be done. And when it's done, the music mix becomes the key factor. Lots of programmers begin to exclude certain types of hits and get into trouble. From a pure numbers point of view, an Urban station should have a strong 12+ showing. But advertisers such as beers, soft, drinks, clubs, grocery, auto dealerships and department stores wrongly penalize Urban stations with a high teen composition. Some managers are running away from teen numbers. They don't want to defend have a huge teen share.
My advice is to learn to sell what you've got. Don't apologize for them. There shouldn't be a problem if you really think it through. Younger Urban formats have to understand that additional revenue may have to come at the expense of other media, rather than throwing yourself into the 25-54 quandaries. There's a ton of revenue generated in the marketplace by 12-34s and we have to sell against television, cable, some online and Internet mediums.
The other part of the problem is that advertisers, media buyers and agencies are into doing safe and buying safe. People need to take risks in buying and trying the 25-54 demo is too wide, Someone 25 is having a baby, while someone 54 is having menopause. And that leaves everybody in the middle where there's a still lot of room. There's massive consumption going on outside of 25-54.
Urban stations are not audience-driven, so if you shirk the 12-34s, you risk losing the adults you already have. When these Urban stations increase the ballads and gold, they lose their freshness. This ultimately hurts their 25-49 composition. Certain artists might not seem likely to fit adults but later prove viable for that demo. A station could miss a whole musical trend and that could blow its numbers for a couple of rating periods or more.
Part of the problem is that Urban radio failed to realize the fun and image aspect of the format, which is still very attractive to older females. Many Urban stations have become almost sinister sounding. They've over-positioned themselves with nasty, growling sweepers that turn off older women. These sweepers need to be benefit-driven, less combative and more fun.
Narrowcasting to a certain type of music leaves too much room for error, even with the best callout research. The niche you put together in the first two books may be gone in the next four or five. The risks involved in shelving true Urban for a hybrid Urban AC and then returning back to straight-ahead Urban are very costly. Going into Urban AC cold with a complete station repackaging is one issue. Back-tracking is another. We saw that firsthand several years ago with KRBV in Los Angeles.
Your job as an Urban station is to build your 12-34 base with integrity and as rapidly as you can. Then focus your efforts on the 18-34 audience as much as possible without giving up the 12-34s or 25-49s. The goal, especially with Arbitron's PPM, is to continue to build cume. If executed properly, these concepts can help Urban radio win. The battle for a sliver of the 25-49-year-olds is much greater than competing 12-34.
Remember, people don't listen by age. They listen by psychographic types and profiles. It's better to be in the top position 18-34 than 12th in 25-49. Even though objects in the rearview mirror often appear larger than they really are, the opportunities for ratings success are real. So are the potholes.