Not All P1s Are Created Equal
July 2, 2013
Sustainable Positions Fueled By Narrow Focus
We've been saying for some time now that even as some individual cume audiences have increased, radio still maintains its targetability. Urban programmers need to stay within the values their listeners love while still pushing the envelope. Listeners bring expectations to each tune-in. While these expectations can vary across formats, truth and a sense of how well the station really understands its listeners are nearly universally expected. It's a value-based proposition: a code of conduct that separates one station from its competition.
It's important to remember not all P1s are created equal. A new measure called "percent of listening" uncovers who really matters. And it's obvious the P1s or heavy users account for nearly 90% of the ratings. Fully understanding this can help to prevent what I like to call "the cume crises."
There are some dangers and risks connected with bringing major-market cookie-cutter programming ideas in and expecting huge shares, especially in small and medium markets. Yet that's exactly what many group-owned corporations do. And as ugly and tough as this is for programmers to understand, there's a reason for it. Most big radio companies have highly leveraged balance sheets and face a very tough future. .
Certain aspects of empty studios and centralized, cookie-cutter programming may work if they're just good radio basics, but it's still localization that can make a difference -- especially with all the syndicated programming now being offered in many markets. We need to reflect the mood and attitude of the market. Successful programmers listen to their stations and then do their own one-on-one focus groups, often in lieu of or in addition to a research budget.
Radio can't be an iPod, Pandora, Spotify, iHeart or any one of dozens of new media choices. Suddenly there are a dizzying variety of choices. In fact, there are so many options that people, instead of being liberated by choice, become paralyzed by it.
Radio cannot compete on just one plane - music. Years ago young listeners got music in two places - radio and record stores. Now they get their music from neither. Music is available everywhere, so there is nothing special about getting it on the radio unless you can make it special. Radio is still a community of listeners and only one of many attractions. People can play whatever they want on their iPods, but if a station can make them sit through a song they don't really like because they are connected to it in some way, that is our future. Urban stations today need to use every window to tap into the passion for music as a bonding tool between themselves and the listener.
Unfortunately, much of Urban radio ends up like dogs chasing their tails with so many small-market PDs imitating major-market stations instead of paying attention to local needs. Audiences tastes can change overnight ... and we need to focus on those changes. It's up to programmers to find the best available music, content and promotions for their market and present them in ways that appeal to the masses. You can't simply blindly follow the niche your research department defines.
Emotional Bonding & Captivating Young Minds
As programmers we're always looking for new and innovative ways to make an emotional bond with our audience, especially the younger audience members. I'm convinced that Urban formats have great potential to build that relationship because our listeners are so loyal.
The left-flank attack with a combination of strong, local and nationally syndicated air personalities can still be very effective. The key is to must make sure the station is perceived not only as the one for music and entertainment, but also as the station that's always on top of what's going on in the local market as well as the national music and artist arenas. The station should always have a cause it's pursuing. The higher-profile station needs to remember that Urban listeners not only want to have fun, but like to help someone who deserves help. This notion goes a long way in either holding your mountaintop position or digging away at the other guy's perch.
Another area that is becoming increasingly important is the digital department for those stations that need to take their online efforts to the next level. You want to be able to take what is happening on-the-air and match it hand-in-hand with your online presence.
Urban radio needs to come to terms with the fact that a mass-appeal Urban or Urban AC station is a niche format. And there is no new "one size fits all, quick fix" that GMs seem always in a hurry to find. Most of these "fad formats" will prove to be a disappointment. They can be easily duplicated or blocked by effective defensive programming. In the long run, if a mainstream or adult-leaning Urban station is focused, it can make some effective moves to slow down or stop a competitor, who is depending solely on its music to win. Sure, there will always be a few fringe flavor records and artists that cross over. But a well-programmed, focused mass-appeal Urban station can "block many shots," especially if it truly understands niche defensive programming.
With the bulk of the population growing older, Urban stations have to focus and concentrate increasingly on adults. Teens and sub-teens, who are now being measured by Arbitron's PPM, may seem less important from a sales standpoint. But for ratings purposes, they cannot be ignored, especially in the PPM world. Remember, PPM measures what listeners are exposed to and they can be exposed simply by being in an area where your encoded signaled is being picked up by a meter. A meter carried by someone who is a teen or bum-teen.
This is a decade of more bottom line-oriented stations. With some of the newly purchased or traded stations, owners may feel that they won't be able to make much money with teen numbers. But the reality is if teens carry a meter and keep your station on, those numbers could swell very quickly. Remember, there is a lot of unintended listening that could result from teens and sub-teens not only being measured but also keeping everybody in their immediate vicinity exposed to your encoded station. Even if you're an adult-leaning Urban station, we don't advise going after a hip older audience with a steady diet of ballads and oldies. Play the jams adults like that also have teen appeal. They're out there. And the formats can overlap on both sides.
Straight-ahead Urban stations should never concentrate on older demos. Those stations will always be an 18-34 format with some teens and some older listeners who want the hipness, thrown in on the side. Certainly there are 35+ listeners, lots of them, who fall in the Urban psychographic, and as the population bulge grows the format's listenership in that cell will grow as a result.
The glory days when great 12+ ratings meant everything are gone. There are still some stations that, regardless of their target audience, spill over and expand into those demographics. But as advertisers become sharper and programmers become smarter, the demographic pie is being sliced into smaller slices. The goal is to be as mass appeal as possible and take full advantage of some of the secrets revealed above.
There probably isn't a single programmer who hasn't had to defend the format, either from inside their own station, or elsewhere in the industry. Our economy is down and billing is off by as much as 30% in certain markets. Owners and managers want answers. Yet some of the format's make-or-break moments are actually moments of choice. Urban stations today face a daunting array of choices and the real challenges have never been greater. But what if we could reduce the risks by putting in place the right elements designed with the use of real data mining and sophisticated, real-time analytics? Such imaginings are now possible.
No matter what you may have heard or from whom, cume is key for Urban formats. That means getting some new people to listen to your radio station. This is nothing new. What may be new is the fact that for many Urban stations the passion that drives that cume is fading. In order to build cume our stations need to be doing the very best possible job of making sure there are no wasted words, wrong songs or confusing marketing. The other thing that always helps to build cume is to find and play the right fresh jams.
Very few Urban PDs are listening to and finding new music. Why? Because they are just too busy. But we've got to find a way to do it. It's too important. Overall it's essential to prioritize your duties by what's going to impact the product and what isn't. It's so easy to get sidelined or distracted by issues that may be important but aren't going to immediately affect the station's ratings. We can't afford to get stuck in the middle, waiting for the next thing to come pick us up. Many Urban stations have done a poor job of engaging the next generation. This is partly because the powers that be can't measure a young audience very well. As a result we tend to program for people that can't be measured. That means we're missing the next generation of adults.
As a result, for many listeners Urban formats have become unbelievably boring. Boring formats translate into serious cume crises. A few years from now when our libraries are fried and we're left with no current music image, we're going to really be in trouble. There is also a confidence problem. We're starting to see it in focus groups. As fragmentation continues, Urban stations need to become not only a new music source, but also mood setters.
All music formats are guilty to some extent of adding, but not playing songs. If you add a record, you've got to play it four, five or six times a day. Otherwise, why bother? A lot of programmers we've spoken to lately say that the problem is compounded by the fact that they have syndicated shows, whose music they don't control. The solution is that regardless of whatever else may be going on at your station, you need to realize that records that are under-played, for whatever reason, are not going to do well in callout research. When we asked several PDs in various size markets if they had heard any outstanding potentially cume-building records lately they said, "Let me check." They hit a few key strokes on their computer and came back and said, "No."
When I pressed them further, the answers they all gave were that very few of the records they thought had potential came back in their research. Now I believe in research as a tool. But effective research is a careful balance of science and emotion. Everything should start emotionally and creatively. Then we use research to see if it confirms our gut instincts. One of the reasons Urban AC radio gets so stale is because people keep researching past behavior. What that means is any pure researcher in any field except marketing would never ask a series of strategic questions like: "What do they like? What don't they like? Why do they use radio?" For this type research, we need to use forward-looking questions, such as "Would you listen often, sometimes or never to a station that played the following titles?" And then list the titles.
Strategic Cume Building Secrets
I probably get more requests for this than any other subject. And it isn't just from new, first-time programmers. It's from veterans as well. They all want to know the secret to utilizing research to build cume. Properly utilized, research will tell you where you are in terms of your listener's demands for your product and what you have to do to hit your goals of 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 win the cume battle.
You can be the best programmer and have the best research but no matter how talented you are, 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. There are many stations that spend a lot of time and money on research and still watch their formats fail. Why? Some PDs are better than others at making research work for them. They aren't necessarily smarter or more experienced, just more strategic. They have a strategy and a plan to go with that strategy.
In addition, they usually have a clearly defined set of goals that expresses 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 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 Flint would need just as many respondents as a station in Philly 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 that 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.
I'll share another secret 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 or calculated risk-takers 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. And not all programmers are easily impressed by figures if they're not sold on a record's sound. Fortunately, there are some calculated risk-takers -- sound-oriented programmers -- out there. It's often an attitude, versus a format that dictates when and where a song is added.
Also, understand that we're now approaching the summer ratings sweeps. They can a very important ratings period. Now is not the time to go conservative. What's the answer? Any song that would give the station the ability to be hit-oriented and 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 locked into your station. You can really get away with more at night than during any other daypart.
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 PPM it's even more important. Urban formats must address the fact that there are least two generations of listeners for whom our music is very important ... even crucial. They can still produce adventure in what might otherwise be a wasteland of boring radio.
Finally, now that we know that not all P1s are created equal, we should also know that although we invest a lot of time and money trying to ascertain what's next, our track record at doing this is spotty, at best. Had we simply focused on the extenuating circumstances and not on the voodoo of a single research study, we might have learned a whole lot more and reacted a lot less nervously. It's as simple as recognizing that you don't need a baseline or benchmark. By the time you're base-lined or benchmarked, it's already too late.