Meeting Audience Expectations
September 10, 2013
My radio roots, like many of yours, reflect an era when just about all of radio was locally programmed and staffed. It's a much different era these days with talent and programming importation. Somewhere in the corporate management point of view, a decision was made that it's cheaper and more efficient to import and voicetrack. So now the question becomes can we still meet audience expectations?
There are stations that have become market leaders and held that position regardless of the musical trends. The audience identifies with and trusts these stations' call letters. They have met their audience's expectations.
Changes In Community Service and Listener Loyalty
Playing the hits is one thing. Serving the community is another. And you still need have to be able to do both. When you can do both consistently, you will have met the expectations of the audience and you can keep winning.
Let's examine serving the community. Regardless of how our industry has changed, we still have to find a way to serve our listeners. Each genre has its own special feel, but the basics are consistent. The problem is that now you have as many as two or three communities that have to be served with one busy programmer.
The only way to serve the community is to first get them to listen. You can't serve them if they aren't tuned in. And you don't have to stop playing the hits to serve them. Some well-worded liners that can run over the intro to the hits you keep banging are all you need to get the message out. That's the best way to do it in 2013.
Sometimes the way to stand out and meet expectations among today's Generation Jones and Generation Yers is to make the station's overall presentation simpler and not as overloaded with sweepers and effects. Conceptually, the straight approach says, "Let's communicate with this new audience in their own language."
Another goal for Urban radio in 2013 has to be improving the response rate of the audience. Recent studies have shown a substantial increase in away-from-home listening (mostly in the car) along with subsequent midday and weekend boosts. And don't forget to recognize audience churn as a continual process. Make sure you've adequately defined the station's target listeners.
We like to think of our listeners as loyal and committed, but the reality is that most listeners have low-station fidelity. They are not listening out of a sense of loyalty, but instead for the very practical reason that right now we come closer to filling their needs than the many alternatives available to them.
Hearing Vs. Listening Vs. Exposure
Another major issue for those stations that want to meet radio's new expectations is the substitution of the word "heard" for the word "listen." What does "hearing" mean as opposed to "listening"? For one thing, hearing evokes a more casual passive response. e.g. "I wasn't really listening to 102 Jamz yesterday, but I did hear Magic 95 for five hours at work." "I was rolling in my ride with my friends, having a conversation, and Magic was on the radio. I didn't really listen to it specifically, but I do remember hearing it." The difference between the two terms for ratings purposes is significant. Do we call it "reported listening" or "reported hearing?" When markets switched from the diary to the meter, the terms then switched from listening to "being exposed?"
Many Urban stations are going to have to develop new strategies to overcome the disadvantages they will face. For example, it's unlikely that many Urban stations are going to become favorites at work if they aren't already perceived as at-work stations, particularly if the word "heard" as opposed to "listen" or "exposed" is used. Realistically, how many postal workers 25-49 are going to be able to report "hearing" an Urban station during the course of a day? These concepts highlight the frailties of diary vs. meter research. There will continue to be winners and losers, no matter what changes are made in methodology.
Programming and marketing under the meter require certain changes in approach. The diary rewarded stations that developed a sense of time continuity throughout the day, educating listeners as to when various program elements occurred -- such as contests, special segments, weather, traffic and morning show hours.
The PPM requires a different outlook and a different approach. Timing and economical breaks have always been important, but now they're even more so because if your break wanders and things get off topic, the audience will simply press the button -- and that has a direct effect on your ratings. In order to navigate PPM, the tease becomes vital. Teasing and moving the audience forward into the next quarter-hour or giving them a reason to come back the next day is key and really does have a big effect on ratings.
The more informed your listeners are about your station, the greater the sense of vertical continuity you'll build; affecting their perceptions of Time Spent Listening. (TSL) This is going to be even more important with electronic measurement. Don't assume listeners know what time things at your station occur. Keeping hammering away. When you're doing positioning liners, try to tag some time references to them. "Power-105 is the station you can listen to all day. Every one of your favorite songs is here, along with your favorite jocks."
While some of the rules are going to change, the basic rule remains the same. The diary is still an instrument of unaided recall. The meter measures what the audience has been exposed to, as opposed to what they listened to. If your station doesn't have top-of-mind awareness, you will not score as we move forward
Urban Radio's New World Order
In a world of too many stations and too many other music sources, Urban radio needs to excel. Instead, today the only thing more tiresome than some of our songs is our on-air attitude. For some, variety as a concept died with deregulation. There are now so many signals (31% more than 10 years ago) and so many other ways people can get their music that you have to be a strong niche format.
Let's just talk radio for a moment. For today's listeners, variety exists as buttons on their car radios. Listeners don't want you to explore other genres -- even within a genre. They're perfectly content to do the exploring themselves.
Plus, there's another musical generation gap as weird as the one that was born in the '90s and peaked in the '00s. This time, Urban and Urban AC radio represent the status quo, which is ironic since we led the charge 20 years ago. We seem to have come full circle.
What we have to do is get innovative quickly. We're going to have to create our way out of this problem. That's going to be tough to do with today's short-term, shoestring mentality. It's being forced on us by new management -- broadcast owners and managers who are essentially "bean counters" for whom profit is the operative word.
What is happening to Urban formats is what happened to Top 40, Rock, AC and even Country. We have researched ourselves into the abyss. We have run off much of our audience to other stations and other music forms, including their own iPods. Some of this was to be expected. After all, if someone pays anywhere between $100 and $250 for an iPod device, they're going to spend some time with it. So what's the solution? What we have to do is look at the competitive landscape and gauge where we belong. For all but a lucky and skillful handful of stations, the middle has evaporated.
In 2013, you have to pick your niche, stake your claim and become a calculated risk-taker. If you add a new record, report it and play it. Play it enough to let the audience learn it. And sell it. Sell it by front or back-announcing it. Sell it with confidence. There are some incredibly strong and diverse records to choose from. Find them and don't get paralyzed by fear.
Urban radio has to play more current records to fulfill the implied new-song promise that meets the expectations of today's "music freaks." They're the ones who only want to hear their favorite songs over and over again. They're the ones who come to our stations to find out what new songs to download. Whatever you do, don't think only established artists deserve major exposure.
If you're programming an Urban or Urban AC station and you're pounding the same 600 titles, it's only a matter of time before they implode and take you with them. Find a creative way to get them in the mix. Be authentic. The audience can sense when you're not. Make sure your production matches the station's attitude. It not enough to just play the right songs, you have to have personalities who will sell them and the station with the right attitude.
Finally, regardless of your format niche, there is no built-in loyalty. The audience today is smarter and very impatient. They want the best, un-fatigued entertainment available. In 2013 they can program variety with their fingertips. In order to win them over, we have to go beyond the music and be our creative best minute-by-minute.
Many companies and managers think they can just order up innovation as if it's a choice on the room service menu. It's not. Meeting the audience's expectations requires creativity, innovation and a willingness to put oneself in a curious habitat: For Urban programmers, creativity and innovation come from a willingness to become creative risk-takers. We chose a narrower path - not by conscious choice, but often because life's vicissitudes necessitate a little more linearity.