Sensory Street Fiction
May 21, 2013
The experiences we have each day are shaped by our senses -- what we see, smell, touch and hear. A delicious meal, a beautiful sunset, the scent of flowers, favorite songs on the radio ... they're all simple pleasures that cause us delight and help make a difference in our lives and how we perceive our surroundings. Our senses help to set the mood, enrich our days, allow for a little exploration and shape our fate.
For radio programmers who fully understand and appreciate this, what is still surprising is how few diaries and/or meters determine our fate. How meter holders or diary keepers are using radio shouldn't surprise any of us. We know they come in for bite-size bits, so it becomes our job to keep them coming back for more. That's never changed.
One of the most interesting reports is the one that shows average meter counts. Those numbers tend to correlate pretty well with the share numbers. But the average meter counts -- data that has to be pulled manually -- are available two weeks before the PPM weekly is released. Now, let's back up and look at some diary facts. An often-overlooked fact is that the sample from one (diary) survey is independent of the next one. Comparing two books to see where the audience went can be futile. They're using different people in each case. If your station made big changes, or if the competition changes, they you need to examine what just happened. But sometimes the numbers shift simply because Arbitron is polling different individuals.
We know on top of every PPM or diary tactic we employ that it's still the brand that brings them in the door and keeps them coming back. It is for these reasons that we put such an emphasis on the sensory experience for our audience. Now we must be aware of the need to tilt most Urban AC stations a little younger. To do this, some programmers have adopted a street or club mentality. It's another form of "sensory street fiction." There's nothing wrong with that -- as long as it is kept in perspective.
Today's program directors and music directors have to be able to read between the research lines. Years ago programmers picked a stack of songs and hoped they were the right ones. Now the music selection process has become more sophisticated; we are better able to determine if well-testing songs are compatible with the format and have the ability to become "favorite songs on the radio." Ours is a never-ending quest to find and play the most favorite songs at the right time.
We can't effectively do this without delving into the topic of music research. Some of the approaches that worked in the late '00s are still valid. Others are not. Indeed, what we've learned is that many of the most reliable techniques still have some risks attached.
As the season rolls on, we find ourselves still gathering data, examining callout research and hoping to make our listeners feel comfortable every minute of their stay with us. In our relentless pursuit of ratings, we urge you to take a step further and ask yourself, what are most of your listeners and potential listeners doing while they're listening (day-parting) and what do they really want to hear?
For many of us in Urban radio, we wondered if there wasn't a better way to reduce the risk and get better answers to these questions. But there were concerns. One concern was the quality of listeners' feedback. When our stations are unable to give a new song enough spins for it to become familiar enough to show reasonable passion scores, there is a problem. When we interrupt someone's life with a phone call, barrage them with hooks of the songs we want to test, and then put them on the spot regarding how they felt about each tune, that's a problem. Was the approach getting top quality results? Or would we have to accept just any old answer to get the interview over so the listeners could return to dinner or whatever we interrupted. Callout on currents is done more frequently with fewer titles and is much stronger and can be effective providing the weekly spin totals can get over 50.
Stations have to be careful when they try to test their entire library through current callout. If you don't reach the target, passive audience you can wind up with a distorted view of what the audience really wants to hear, particularly from the recurrent and gold base.
Club Mentality & Street Credibility
I have always held that there are both similarities and differences between what might be considered a "club mentality," "radio mentality" and "sensory street fiction." Not every song that's a hit in the clubs translates to radio. And some songs that don't initially make it in the clubs could turn out to be huge hits on the radio. But where a strong club connection can really pay off is in the testing stage. If your mixers find a song that the clubs are really reacting to and you can be the first to put that record on the radio, you could make a nice score for the young Urban audience, who is always looking for the next new thing. The young 18-34 crowd does not want a steady diet of over-played, callout-proven songs. They want the latest songs and they will gravitate to a station that develops the reputation for being out in front with the new jams.
There are reasons for this. Let's first look at who today's audience is. Chances are they've got at least one iPod and many other media choices. And yet they've still got to listen to the radio to find out what new songs to download or buy. Now let's look at the clubbers. People always want what they can't have. If you put a velvet rope outside a club bathroom, it could suddenly become the most popular room in the club. There's a crude but effective economic club logic to a restrictive door policy. Yet for all those frozen out by the hippest clubs, the restrictions are nothing more than attitude, a snobbish arrogance that breeds resentment.
On the radio there are similar, but different dynamics at work. As a radio station, you want to be more accommodating. You want to attract listeners who the other "clubs" wouldn't let in. Many stations, like some upscale cubs, start with an "A crowd" (those P1s with money, style, celebrity status, the trendsetters), and then there's a B-plus crowd that follows them. Eventually, the A crowd moves on and the B-plus crowd takes over and now they're the ones sitting in the VIP rooms. It's possible to score with enough P2s and still win the ratings battle.
There is a capacity of the human mind to live in a constant state of fear and forgetfulness. Management forgets that stations cannot save their way to success. Companies may need to temporarily set aside lofty cash flow goals and invest in the product now in return for larger cash flow later. Now is the time to fund more creative risk-taking since we will not get attention without it. We need to take bold chances, make new mistakes and be unafraid to do so. Creative talent performs best with a sole focus on entertaining an audience and great programmers know how to create that inspirational playground. Programming leaders must challenge that status quo and fight for the resources, especially now when it seems like management is trying to take resources away from us.
As long as people have to remember what they listened to, where they had a good time so they can return and tell their friends about it we have to face that challenge. In that sense we are all connected. Now would be a good time to wake up to this connection. If you need further proof that we are all connected, look around at the Urban stations that have been consistent winners in any market.
What do they all have in common? They've figured out a winning formula that
keeps them on top of their game. They've accepted the challenge, the connection challenge. The connection challenge is part of the "sensory street fiction."
Another part of that challenge is understanding the difficulty Arbitron has in obtaining usable diaries and increasing meter "carry time" from 18-34-year-olds, especially young males. That challenge has led to wide ratings swings. In addition, Urban radio's niche is now being threatened by other, music-similar formats, which have been trying to co-opt artists and jams formerly uniquely positioned as Urban or Urban adult songs. Add Top-40, Top 40/Rhythmic and Hot AC to the mix and you have a volatile brew. There is a huge amount of sharing going on.
Listeners' Product Knowledge
Product knowledge is one more important thing your listeners can posses. It means the difference between consistency and inconsistency. The single worst thing a station can do is believe that the audience knows all it needs to know about the station. Most people can only name two or three stations.
Do you know that fewer than 4% of your listeners ever text the station? Do you know that almost 24% of those who listen to a station website are also listening to at least one other Internet-only station too? Considering how the ratings systems work, if you take your eye off the listeners, they'll take the ears off you. Simply because people have spent time on your part of the spectrum doesn't mean they'll accurately remember you later.
That's why you must provide significant memorable elements to help listeners recall that they've listening to your station so they know where to find it on the dial when they're carrying a PPM or when they're asked about their radio usage in those markets that still operate with the diary.
The simplest thing you can do is speak to your listeners in their language. Your positioners and slogans should communicate the clear benefits your station offers and they should describe the sound. Don't try to ram your station's entire manifesto into a four-second liner. Once you've decided on a slogan, stick with it. People don't come to your station to hear positioners, so it's very difficult to burn them out. You don't need 25 to 30 different slogans in rotating position.
Over the years we've mentioned that Urban stations should get to know what types of people agree to participate in a diary survey or would be willing to carry a meter. The greatest single predictor of who participates in ratings or perceptual surveys continues to be consumption. The more one listens, the greater the likelihood one will devote time to a study. Casual listeners (less than one hour a day) are highly unlikely to spend time filling out a diary or carrying a meter. That ancient notion of passive versus actives has very little to do with this fact.
When it comes to research results with heavy contest users, we've seen these people's agendas have nothing to do with station loyalty or acquisition of information about the station. They simply have to do with winning contests. These people don't make good candidates for callout research, auditorium testing or perceptual testing. And they're poor choices for filling out a diary or carrying a PPM for any extended period of time, unless those activities are directly tied to the possibility of winning something.
Now that you know a little about the audience, you should remember to strive for consistency. Stations that are consistent over the long haul will score. Of course, format changes and modifications may be necessary from time to time. In some cases, even though the format has evolved through several musically diverse arenas over the years, the station should still remain a consistent market player in the minds of listeners and the advertising community.
Records Are Still Made To Be Broken
A contemporary format targeting adults can still take an aggressive current music stance. The ability to break new music and lead the way has always been an advantage for both Urban and Urban AC formats. For one thing, it helps create excitement. Programmers simply need to exercise greater discipline when competing with other adult formats that tend to be more scrutinizing of their product.
Urban Adult stations can use gold and recurrents to help balance and position the station. Putting a sufficient amount of nostalgia, particularly from the past 10 years, on the air can help to satisfy disenfranchised listeners who have recently strayed from the format. This can cause your station to score cume slices with the diary and meter.
Both formats need to improve their skills in executing the format. Too many stations simply take callout research, Mscores, positioning slogans, rigid rotation patterns and national charts and then "paint by the numbers."
What's really scary in 2013 is the lack of fresh blood. Without it our industries will become almost completely voicetracked, automated and syndicated. At this point, we'll become nothing more than a transmitter business. Broadcasting will become much like the oil pipeline business instead of being in the business of finding oil.
Finally, sensory street fiction is part of today's radio. Remember, radio is an art form. True works of art aren't created by painting by numbers. Some programmers are too reliant on research devices because they lack or don't trust their intuition and creativity. When using a map or GPS while driving, you still have to watch the road or you'll wind up lost or hit something in front of you.