September 3, 2013
Why Is It Important & What is Radio's Responsibility?
It seems to be happening more and more with both Urban and Urban AC radio. Songs that weren't testing in callout research two weeks or a month ago finally kick in. Unfortunately, sometimes that happens after the label decides to walk away from the project. So does that mean it's time to drop the add?
Labels have always maintained that programmers expect callout research to produce passion scores and early results way too soon. If there was ever a time when labels, which have a huge financial investment in their artists, need radio to cooperate, it is now.
On the other hand, the future of radio has never seemed more in a state of flux than it is today. So radio's answer to the question of when to drop a new record that isn't performing is going to be quite different and based on a number of factors. At first glance, most of the programmers and consultants we spoken with said they're looking for positive results from their callout research, Mscores, requests and other market airplay. Even the most adventurous ones said they wanted research to confirm their gut feelings.
Programmers make the point that there are only so many slots for new music in a given week, and sometimes they simply cannot make room. Callout research is not infallible, but if used properly it can be one of the most important tools in their arsenals. My advice for label executives, and I've been on both sides of the fence, is even if you're right, you don't want to question the station's research. That's a battle you will lose; but if you have some fresh new information, you can promote that to them. Then it's like being in court. If you assemble your facts and arguments and do your homework, you have a shot. Radio still has the option of walking away from a record at any time and although it's rare, it also has the option of re-adding the song if it comes back in research or moving on to the next single.
Label executives claim there's a problem when you see all the active elements in a song not connecting. In other words, at the crux of the problem comes the question of when can a PD reasonably expect a song to generate callout. Radio still wants to see a song research in 150 or more spins. Labels say it's unfair to expect to see a record react quickly, especially when the stations may have one or both of their drive-time shows syndicated. It is my contention that the callout research system itself is flawed. If a station has a syndicated morning and/or afternoon show, a record in heavy rotation may only air 25 times a week. And if a record starts out with bad research, it usually stays there.
What programmers want is to get a really good read on a record early, which is why some of them put songs in callout as early as the 20-spin mark. Now to be fair, this can only work if the artist is familiar and/or the song has already been warmed up in the market. Most national record reps feel that an Urban Crossover record, which usually starts with other airplay in the market, will test sooner.
Another problem is when the record is played. If it is only played at night or overnights, it can take longer to develop. Sometimes radio will see perhaps 10 tracks a year explode right away. They get conditioned to expect that performance from any record after only 100-150 daytime spins.
Programmers are under tremendous pressure and are naturally impatient and want to play only immediate, proven hits with the least possible risks. But they need to allow artists and records time to develop. You're always going to be subject to the callout research itself. There are going to be weeks when the research is flawed and you have to ask the right questions to find out if it's a bad batch. There could be sample size issues or a certain demographic cells could be over- or under-represented and naturally you have to look at what the potential score might be.
Mitigating Exceptions To The Rule
Experienced programmers remember that callout research is just one element to be examined in making a decision on whether to continue or drop the record. If you're getting requests, if the jocks like it and if it sounds good on the air, you should give it some more time to develop. You don't want to be forced to re-add a record. Also, you have to discount heavy requests for an established artist because it an expected part of the equation.
Then there are songs that get added that may never callout. They are aired for other reasons. The two main reasons would be "balance records" and "event records." If, for example, yours is a straight-ahead Urban station and you're "ballad-heavy," you might put in a new, uptempo record just to keep the sound fresh and add some tempo to the station. An example of an "event record" would be a new record by an established artist who is coming to town. That record is part of an event. These types of records often get played regardless of what the data is showing. Because these records invariably don't reach critical mass as currents, once they do kick in they're much slower to burn. Artists such as Alicia Keys or Robin Thicke would be examples. If a "payoff" is only a few weeks away, it makes sense to wait. Experience tells us that while there's no guarantee of a hit, staying with a record for a little longer can make all the difference.
Cracks In The Corners
With multi-ownership deals crumbling and large conglomerates such as Clear Channel and Cumulus looking to sell off some of their stations, the once-solid foundation of broadcasting is now not without a few cracks. There are some really good broadcasters losing their jobs. The tragedy is that they are losing their jobs simply because the company has decided to cut back. Looking at this from a record label standpoint, now it means just trying to get someone on the phone to give you a few basic answers can be a nightmare.
So how should Urban radio respond to the need for ongoing artist development and when is it time to drop the record you just added? Maybe that question could be subsumed in the larger question of whether anything has a future. It's easy to look at, pick on and question the future of the Urban formats these days for various reasons, but look at it this way: Do the movies have any kind of future if all we're going to get is seven blockbusters a year that we have to stand in line for hours to pay $20 or more to see? Does anybody who has peeked into some of the galleries in New York's SoHo or even looked at the stuff that gets written up in the Art sections of Time and Newsweek see any kind of future for art that would involve its really mattering to anybody?
Before you attempt to answer those questions, consider this: Whether historical or projected, pre-tax of after-tax, cash flow is the formula on which performance, profit and today's jobs are based. Radio and the music industry are considered by investors and operations alike as the end game and the basis upon which most management abilities are judged. In an era where banks, brokers and buyers are shouting "show me the money," it should be noted that no one and nothing is really safe.