People Will Listen To And Stay With What Works
May 28, 2013
A Boarding Pass For The New Generation
It's pretty well-established fact that people will listen to, remember and stay with what they like - what works for them. This fact transcends generations. Part of the Generation Y or "the bling generation" -- one that has grown up with the Internet, sophisticated gaming and mobile smart phones -- has many media choices. So it comes as no surprise that terrestrial radio, regardless of format, is hardly at the zenith when it comes to where they go for music and entertainment.
Our industry won't survive by doing things the way we always have. We have to communicate with our listeners in a whole new way. That includes texting, Twitter and interaction with them through social networking and our websites, making their experience with our brands a memorable one. Evolution on all levels is the key to remaining relevant and forefront in today's world. That works and today's audiences will listen to and stay with what works. .
For Urban programmers looking to find a way to "hit the big ballers and shot callers," it's more important than ever to appeal to them and avoid the "game-killers." The fact that a growing portion of this young adult generation isn't making radio part of their daily routine is a problem. The question is how do we get a boarding pass to these young "shot callers" and trendsetters? It's not like you can accidentally leave a "tube" of it lying around in hopes that it will be discovered. The answers go well beyond the transmitter.
I've often said that the best, most-experienced programmers know that part of any successful programming strategy is assuming that some of your listeners are going to get a diary or be asked to carry a meter. To really program effectively in 2013, you have to increase your Arbitron awareness. This simply means that at least once an hour, you have to program to those members of the audience who are also diary keepers or meter carriers.
Who Are The Boomers
Who are these people? They are everyday, living-for-the-weekend people. They span and overlap at least two generations. They are boomers, some 78 million of them, are more aware and more numerous than any generation before or since. They have influenced political power long enough to begin to stack the deck in their favor. They are brash, bold, beautiful, multi-colored and multi-cultural.
Boomers have always struck some as very self-centered and self-important because there are so many of them. They're always in the middle of the next fun moment at some hip party and they're not able to deter the gratification to tackle the long-term problems. What some of them did was expand the range of individual choices of how people live. The division today between conservatives and liberals is really a debate over the boomer's legacy.
Some of these boomers already take pride in what they have been bequeathed. Boomer women, for example, broke into many male-dominated fields on a broad scale and expanded options for those who follow.
Many of these boomers are "music freaks." As we look back on their lives, we find most of them had a good time. They partied and protested, then grew up to dominate with their chutzpah and sheer numbers. Yet now, as the oldest members of boomer generation prepare to turn 55, there are glimmers of doubt with this "want to have it all" Generation Y or Jones about how they will be judged by those who come next; and, by extension, how those who get Arbitron diaries or meters will judge and credit their favorite station(s).
You have to have the proper perspective on the difference between being passionate about new music and being irresponsible with the ability to place records on the air. For instance, one of the things that Urban stations need to do is slow down how fast they pull songs out of power, permitting them to bang the recurrents a little longer and tolerate the burn factor a little more.
The other part of that challenge has to do with being part of a group wherein you not only have to co-exist, but you also have to use your assets on an aggregate by using one station to benefit the other and vice-versa. For first-time cluster programmers, it's tough having to stay in your lane.
There are still a few time-tested formulas that, when put in place, can actually help stations achieve their Arbitron goals. As we move through 2013, we notice a unique market revolution that continues to take place in Urban radio today. We see it as a far-reaching, sociological change and with the new economic realities brought on by consolidation.
Born into the more favorable, less competitive environment of the last decade, many stations achieved ratings success easily and rapidly. Now with the economy and stingy group owners, the level of competition has increased in nearly every size market. There is a new, grim Darwinian law at work that directly affects this "shedding and growing" generation. One of the biggest challenges is finding new ways to integrate creative ideas and help sales monetize the product without compromising the brand.
Luring Young Listeners
This year, lots of programmers will try to lure young listeners to attend shows and use contests to attempt to temporarily buy their loyalty. But the effect is short-lived. Even worse, you may just turn your audience into addicts. Every time you run a contest they want more and more. I knew of a big East Coast Top 40 station that gave away tickets to a sold-out concert to one of its biggest artists, gave away several cars and cash ... and still went down in the book. Then, to add injury to insult, the station had to run spots and promos for days. Nobody was happy about that. The PD had to settle for a short contract.
People listen to the radio to be entertained and informed. Anything we can do beyond that has to work really well or listener expectations won't be fulfilled. In his revised book called "The New Generation X," author Douglas Coupland talks about baby boomers and their expectations. Because of the current economy, many listeners in this generation are living under huge debt. Job availability for some of those between the ages of 18 and 29 is pretty limited, especially for minorities. So the whole prospect of getting older is a little unnerving if you're in the "Generation X" demographic.
Out of the "Generation X" group study came some results that showed that this group tended to react negatively to the hype most stations offer as part of their programming and positioning. Honesty is super-important. We've got to share our weaknesses as well as our strengths. This generation knows very well that nobody is perfect. To them, self-re-evaluation reinforces credibility.
Are Urban ACs Just Grown-Up Urbans?
There are some who say today's Urban adult stations are merely just "grown-up" Urbans -- Urbans without the rap in their current songs mix. While many seek to categorize Urban ACs, it's safe to say that some are a mainstream Urban station that has "grown up." What does that really mean? Well, for one thing, it's been coming for many years and now they have become real mainstays. Many Urban stations, feeling pressure from their sales departments to deliver some saleable demographics, had to change. That's because in some markets, Urban stations couldn't survive on 12-24-year-olds, no matter how many.
All the listeners who grew up listening to the mainstream station when they had huge shares are now 25-40. So what would happen if you were to select the best elements that made that station have a huge market share and then focus on 25-49s? If you are a heritage station that does it right, you focus on 25-49s but you still get some 16-24s and even some 44-55s. If you find you're in a battle with several stations crowded into the 12-24 arena, you don't need to play there.
Adults tend to listen to a station for things beyond the music. They want personality, community involvement and entertainment. The goal becomes to get the music right, keep the station hip and provide entertainment. That's very important. A lot of Urban AC stations have become sterile. You can't lose your hipness.
The other thing is you don't want is to become too gold-based. It doesn't matter how well some of the '70s and '80s gold titles test, if you play too many of them you're not going to maximize your audience potential. You have to interpret the research properly. Just because a group of people in an auditorium test say they remember a song and give it a good score, doesn't mean they want to hear it every day. Every hour's music log should be handpicked to perfection. It's worth the two-and-a-half hours a day it takes. Some hours will require 60% to 70% adjustment from the way the computer originally kicks out the jams.
The Different Drummer's Beat
A lot of rookie Urban programmers tend to listen to music with their eyes and make decisions based primarily on chart positions an research data. In reality, those are just some of many elements that go into picking the right tracks for your competitive situation. But suppose you're the only Urban station in the format in the market? Doesn't that mean that without a direct-format competitor, you have more freedom and can take more chances? No, while it may mean that you develop songs on your own agenda, you still have to be careful, because you could lose audience to a Top 40, Hot AC or Rhythmic competitor. Whoever you're sharing the most audience with, could take some of yours.
In addition to getting the music right, you also have to constantly scrutinize your positioning, promotional and programming elements and determine what still makes sense and what's just excess baggage. Another way heritage can work against you is that you can very easily end up with a bunch of people with a very complacent attitude. On the other hand, if you've been fortunate enough to have people on your staff who are as dedicated and excited today as they were the first week they were hired, that's a huge plus. Now you just have to maintain that feeling. By encouraging them, along with all the other things we've mentioned, you can make heritage work.
That credibility translates into audience retention and directly affects ratings, especially PPM ratings. Even with the emergence of PPM as the primary Arbitron measuring system, they still measure awareness as much as actual listening. Where are they listening? When are they listening? How long are they listening? We're finding out these young listeners are listening in tiny two-minute and five-minute clips. They're punching in and out all the time, especially when they're listening in the car. Winning the minute-by-minute listening battle means making appointment and getting the audience to remember to turn you on for a particular feature that they want to listen to. So you have to adjust the flow of the station from jam-to-jam and from hour-to-hour.
That means whatever you do, you've got to be one of those two or three stations people mention and remember. If you have two very good sounding radio stations, the one that is top-of-mind wins.
With PPM it is important to re-focus your programming strategies to reflect the value of different listeners. If most of your average quarter-hours (AQH) come from your P1s (heavy users), 25% from your P2s and 10% each from your P3s and P4s, you have to place a higher value on your P1s. Remember it still takes three P2s to equal the value of one P1. Then you need to be able to sort out your "loyal P1s" and your "fickle P1s." Why? Because your fickle P1s can be converted to loyal P1s.
Another type of ratings maneuver that can cause your ratings to rise involves knowing where your station stands in the awareness category. This should become an important part of your next research project. Just make sure you include it when you do your next auditorium tests. If it turns out you have great awareness, you just want to maintain share.
There are some very traditional strategies to be followed. If, for example, your station is #1 and you're taking up a defensive position, you should do like Ford did. Every time someone came out with a new product line, they either duplicated it or they made one even better. (And then they got credit for it.) They played to the "high rollers." They made comparisons between Ford, BMW and Mercedes. They talked about people who had both cars and liked Ford's features better. They talked about people who trade their BMWs and Mercedes in for Fords or Buicks.
If you're the new kid in town, you've got to figure out ways to get your product to market faster and make a big noise about it. You want to produce a product that fits the niche your competitor is trying to fill. Then, you get credit for it because you're the leader.
As the leader, you have to maintain top-of-the-mind awareness. Certainly having your listeners become habitual and constantly thinking of your station when they turn on the radio will help you to score with the P1's. However, we must all do a better job of customer service to really put the game out of reach. With so many stations changing formats and adding syndicated shows all the time, it makes it very difficult for the audience to become brand loyal; therefore, consistency is key here.
There is a difference between consistency and predictability. What we want to ultimately become is predictably unpredictable. This is so while listeners may not know exactly what to expect, they know it's going to be "off-the-chain." To be totally appealing we must be both fresh and familiar. It's not impossible, but it does require some research. A fresh, hip, familiar sounding station can score big numbers. All it really means is that the overall sound of the radio station, from the way the music is delivered to the promos and the liners from the jocks -- must be attractive to an audience that sees itself as the hippest and freshest listeners out there, whether or not they really are.
That's exciting, and excitement does make a difference - an Arbitron difference. We must always strive to super-serve and exceed listeners' expectations. This is another tactic which translates into a definite competitive advantage in the ratings race that leading stations use to lead.
What is comes down to is that in order to appeal to the "high rollers," the "shot callers" and "major players" Urban radio stations need to get back to being product driven and audience driven. We need to once again become the type of station where good creative people can make the difference. It's a given that the best way to ensure that your station gets the credit it deserves is to be top-of-mind.
Winning the format franchise means good management of cume and core. At any given point on your radio station, you've got people coming in and leaving the "store." What you want to do is get people to come and stay. You want to convert cume into core.
Musically, the best way to do this is to assess the appeal of a given song at a given time against its appeal to either the core or the cume. Then assign to it a category that makes it either a core or a cume song. Then you build your categories in sequence in such a way that it lets you manage the flow of core and cume. A song will pull in the cume listeners. They'll know that song and then a core selection will follow that, so that they're not alienated. We find too many programmers and consultants still categorizing songs by era and not really addressing the issue of cume and core stress.
Finally, the audience will always listen to and stay with what works for them. If you can do an effective job in all the areas discussed above, and then combine them with deeper footprints you can re-position your radio station. You can appeal to the "high rollers."
Those are the trend setters. We're talking great radio here. Great radio is like great sex. It makes the earth move! Not under your feet, but on-the-air.