November 12, 2013
How Soon ... How Many Songs?
Again this year we want to briefly take a look at how Urban stations can best handle the soul of the season ... Christmas jams. We start with the notion that Christmas is very important to the Urban audience. So now the question becomes, "When should Urban and Urban AC stations begin playing Christmas favorites?" Most stations we've spoken with say they are going to begin playing Christmas jams the day after Thanksgiving. This year that means Friday, November 29th.
At that time most stations are going to play at least one song per hour and gradually increase that number by at least one until Christmas Day, when they will be playing 50% or more Christmas music. The same policy extends into the weekends. The day after Christmas, these same stations will drop all their Christmas music, begin to count down the biggest songs of the year and prepare for 2014.
But let's examine the Christmas phenomenon a little closer and look at what Christmas songs should be played. The answer for most Urban and Urban AC stations is Christmas classics. Some stations have included certain Christmas songs in their research. Others will simply rely on the proven traditional Christmas classics. So far this year, the research shows the only recent, non urban inspirational song that seems to be developing interest is "Oh Santa" from Mariah Carey. These songs should replace a gold or recurrent in the scheduling process -- never a current.
Keep in mind that if you're in a market currently being measured by Nielsen's PPM, "unintended listening" will definitely affect you. Here's why. Those listeners who are shopping and wearing a meter will inevitably shop in a store that is playing an AC station featuring all-Christmas music. Guess what? Even though they did not and would not have chosen the station that the store is playing, nevertheless the encoded signal will be picked up and credited to their side of the board.
If it's any comfort (and misery loves company), the all-Christmas stations will be capturing some cume from all music-formatted stations. That trend will continue as Christmas Day gets closer.
Now for those of you who might say that the all-Christmas AC stations don't play enough of the type of music or feature the kinds of artists that our research shows most Urban listeners want to hear, you'd be right. While that is a fact, what is also a fact is that at some point, traditional Christmas music becomes the great equalizer. You're much better off competing by gradually spiking in those Christmas jams you know your audience wants to hear than either going all-Christmas or worrying about losing listeners during the holidays.
Also there will probably be some other formatted stations that will switch to all-Christmas music this season. There's no telling if these stations will switch back to their regular format when the holidays are over. There's no way to avoid what we call "casual cumers" -- those of your P1 listeners who may occasionally want an instant Christmas flavor fix that you can't give them. So you lose them for a few hours to an all-Christmas AC station. You're going to get them back as soon as they tire of it.
There are other things you can do in addition to spiking in favorite Christmas jams. Remember, people will eventually tire of hearing all-Christmas music and want to hear some hits. Too much holiday music too soon can be irritating, even for those who really love Christmas. You could be an alternative to them and they could re-set their pre-set so that after the holidays, they will have found a new station and you will have captured some new cume.
As we wind down the year 2013 and look back quickly and then forward, we find in spite of all the things that happened that we still have much to be thankful for, including a career that most can only dream about. And yes, there are many among us for whom this was a tumultuous year. But even they must keep their hopes and dreams alive. Ours is that kind of business.
Too often people squelch their talent and trash their opportunities and fail to count their blessings. Some feel held back by layoffs, needless firings, self-doubt and imagined difficulties. Few people have it easy, and almost none of us feel that we have gotten all we have paid for, regardless of the price or even how payment was made.
One of the ongoing axioms of our industry is "as mornings go, so goes the station." Yet while most formats have developed either a local or syndicated morning show, the blueprint or personality archetype for Urban radio is still developing. In other words, we have not yet developed a complete system for developing strong local morning shows for the future. Like those in other formats, Urban programmers continue to say things like, "The music is really the product. We'll get the music right and let it do the talking. We can hire or import a morning show, and we'll be all right." That philosophy and attitude in a world with no competition might have been able to generate some numbers in the past, but for those of us dealing with the real world where there are strong, well-financed stations hammering at us from all sides, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that you've got to have a "killer" morning show to be competitive.
And that syndicated morning show has got to play some Christmas jams. We checked last year and found that some didn't play many Christmas songs. Some played only one or two a day. And a few even played some tracks that either had not been researched at all or that were brand new. The same premise holds true for Christmas music as for the other songs. The morning show has to stay true to the values of programming with such a diversity of music and a wide variety of hit songs, while still finding those seasonal favorites that will cause a spark with the younger listeners while not alienating the older demos. Doing that give us the opportunity to continually adjust the music mix of both past and present Christmas jams to fit the situation in a given market. The Urban AC format's core listener demo is somewhere between 36 and 42 years old. The pure Urban format's core naturally is slightly younger - closer to 16-36, with some overlap. So the expectations and lifestyles are different.
Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's funnier. Truth avoids the perils of patterns. Although we kind of always knew it, in 2013 some of us rediscovered that noisy neighbors, a series of canned jokes, stale contests and forced phone topics just wouldn't get it. And the other thing that emerged is that humor often comes from editing. In this less-is-more age, the new "Generation Jones" audience wants its humor condensed and packaged. This means editing, inserting hit Christmas jams and seasonal content -- a role that the morning show producer must play. It's a role that has really come into its own.
The morning show producer role is becoming more and more common, even with local morning shows. Editing really means making choices and that requires that there be a lot of stuff to choose from. It also means your morning show needs the freedom to try a lot of new things. Some will be great, and the rest will never be heard again. It means your morning show should take the creative initiative and want to try new stuff.
And not all morning shows work in all markets. You could bring in a morning show that got great numbers in a similar market, and it could fail. Audiences are fickle and might not take to a new morning show right away (if they take to it at all). That's happening right now in all size markets. What happens in mornings affects the state of the format.
So many things affect the state of the industry in general and Urban formats in particular -- a strong morning show, precise math, research and merry moments of distinction. Some say today's audience isn't listening at all. It's merely practicing. In 2013 we're faced with an endless recombinant and fundamentally social process that generates countless hours of creative product. We're also involved in playing a perpetual game of catch-up, as best we can, while our new technologies redefine us, as surely and perhaps as often as we've been redefined.
As we wrap another busy year here at All Access, we wish for you and your family a very Happy Thanksgiving. We also ask you not to stop believing, in yourselves or in the format. Be willing to risk discomfort, to start over. The good news for all of us is that it's never too late for that. Don't be a corporate shut-in, marking time until your time is up. The future is not lurking under your desk. It's outside.