Innovation And Time-Shifted Listening
January 25, 2011
The More Ways We Engage, The More New Listeners We Lure
We're still at the beginning of the new year. A perfect decompression time to look back and then look ahead. As we look back, one of the things we observed at the end of last year was that the so-called cookie-cutter, "off-the-rack" Urban formats are not working that well. As we look ahead we find what our formats really need is a different spin from some innovators who can create a stronger overall brand in the listeners' mind.
In order to survive in business today, a station must have innovators. That innovative leadership can come from the GM, PD, MD, consultant or from some other source, but management must recognize and act on it. An organism dies if it doesn't grow -- and growth is a function of innovation.
Why would we need innovation and a different spin? For one thing, terrestrial radio is becoming an old medium. With the agency focus over the last few years veering towards the 25-49-year-old listeners, there has come a concurrent decline in younger-age listeners. This is because of the change in how radio is perceived by these younger listeners. For the upcoming Spring ratings sweeps we should remember the rule: 80% of your station's listening still comes from 20% of the audience. The problem is that 20% is shrinking ... particularly among young listeners. Remember the "growing-shedding theory." And remember too that young listeners really do drive trends, including listening trends. Either you adjust or you lose them. Teens and "tweens" grow into their 20s and take their habits with them.
Another thing Urban radio has to face are new competitors that threaten to nibble away at our Time Spent Listening (TSL) and cume. Even when our reach is high, our TSL is dropping. That's because of the increased competition from other technologies. Today we are forced to compete not only with other radio stations, but also with other content delivery systems that our listeners are constantly checking out, trying to find one that satisfies them the most. Today when your station is P2, Pandora could be P1. And let's not forget that iPods continue to gain larger fan bases, with iTunes selling millions of dollars worth of songs and ringtones every week. Many of these audio forms can be downloaded right onto your cell phone, iPad or embedded in some other smartphone driven media environment of infinite choices.
No longer is radio the only place listeners can go to hear new music. It is usually the top choice, but with the explosion of media choices, it has become relatively easy for consumers to build their own radio stations on their personal listening devices. This fundamental change in technology will continue to take its toll on terrestrial radio's natural ability to build cume by luring new listeners.
There is some hope, however, that agencies are beginning to see the need to expand and diversify their reach of advertising into younger demos. In short, youth-based radio will have to change to become really compelling again.
Innovation & Content Are Key
Even though, initially, it seemed to play well in markets measured by Arbitron's PPM, the days of "10 in a row" jukebox radio is coming to an end. That's because listeners became hip to the fact that the price they pay for 10 in a row is often 15 in a row (as in 15 commercials in a row). They simply are not going to tolerate that any more. This is especially true for those listening in their cars, where it's a quick, one-button motion (often right on the steering wheel) to find a new frequency.
We shouldn't be surprised, because every situation hits critical mass sooner or later. That moment has now become sooner rather than later. The small percentage declines in Time Spent Listening over the last decade will become greater and greater until an effective remedy is put in place. It is time for our stations to become more adventurous and to put the emphasis back on personality and creativity. It is time to stop talking about all the things we shouldn't do and to begin focusing on things that we can and should at least try to do.
The policy of restricting air personalities to back-sells and liners has led to a less-than-compelling overall product. We risk continuing to lose our place as a primary medium unless we understand time-shifting and put something compelling back into our presentations.
In the future, those stations that invest in and cultivate personality and creativity will become the big winners. Hopefully, they will also be the stations that are then able to attract and keep the most creative personalities. Now is the time to ask ourselves this important question: Are we satisfied with where we're at now, or are we prepared to make the changes necessary to convert occasional listeners to loyal listeners? To do this we not only have to give them something to listen to, we must give them something to believe in.
Urban radio can expect to be forced to compete with more new forms of technology .Today, listeners can listen to the radio whether it's terrestrial, HD, Internet, iPods, podcasting -- all while they simultaneously do other things -- surf the web, answer e-mail, text, etc. Wi Fi Max is just around the corner and with it soon will come the possibility of broadband Internet connectivity in your ride and wireless Internet all over. In many markets, it will even be free.
Speaking of free, let's not forget about HD radio. I personally have experienced it under ideal circumstances and I can tell you that as soon as they figure out how to improve the antenna systems and bring the costs down, it's going to put a different spin on music radio. These HD side channels will offer a different format than the main channel and they're going to increase the available choices in an already crowded radio world.
Add to that the fact that electronic measurement is changing the way we think and program. For the first time, minute-by-minute instant audience ratings have become available. Children from six to 12 are now included in the measurement process and college and non-commercial radio stations are being counted. All of this simply means innovation is more important than ever.
Mega -- Another Hole Story
Something else the new innovative spin must take into consideration and target is the Hispanic "hole" which exists and is growing in many markets. This has already led smart radio clusters to make certain their Urban and Urban AC stations consider younger, Latin-leaning options among their choices of music offerings. These younger Latin-leaning music-based formats will have to be less rigid and more adventurous to be successful, as today's young people have so many choices with which to spend their entertainment time.
I've been saying for some time now that future research for Urban stations needs to be adjusted to include Hispanic listeners who love the music and artists we play. These Hispanics have to be included in the auditorium music tests (AMTs) and perceptuals. Why, you may ask? Because if you're lucky you will get as much audience as you go after. If you narrow your target, you lessen your chances of victory. If you target a 2.5 share composed almost entirely of African-American listeners, that's what you may get.
In the future, smart programmers will put a new spin on their research and look for crossover potential between demos and music preference groups. Leave no potential listener type un-served, under-served or hanging for more than one song. Smart Urban program strategists will make sure their stations always come back through the "center line." In doing that they appeal to the largest group of target listeners.
These past few years have been laced with change and demographic density. A population that is rapidly adjusting both its demographic status and its colors must be recognized. Urban radio's new target audience is not just black anymore. It's becoming more brown and yellow. In some markets, the catch phrase is "mega." Regardless of what it's called, it's what it means to the listener that counts.
Mega's loyal listeners will now get the best, most researched classic R&B and funk enhanced with the right current songs, which includes hip-hop. Mega's new core audience is female-based and targets a non-Arbitron-defined category that is 25-49. They are, for the most part, second and third-generation Hispanics. And believe it or not, they're into artists like Lil Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Jamie Foxx, Chris Brown, Ne-Yo and Beyonce.
Hispanic-targeted radio is making huge gains in many markets, and it's not just the traditional markets such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles and Houston that have experienced this burgeoning swell lately. The Hispanic population in The Windy City, for example, has grown to 17.4% of the market's 7.7 million total. Chicago's African-American population is just 17.6 percent.
Hitting The Moving Target - Generation Jones
Finally, we want to examine what demographers often refer to as the new "Generation Jones." From the time someone graduates from high school at around 18, until they turn 30, their lives typically transform from dependents living with their parents to workers supporting themselves to married couples and inevitably, to parenthood. They've become a moving target -- one that is very hard, but not impossible, to hit. But you have to line them up in your sights. To consistently hit this moving, musical target, however, Urban radio must keep up so that as it changes, so does its music and presentation.
We have witnessed lightning constantly striking while the game and the rules continue to shift. It's all part of today's hyper-competitive business environment. Through it all we have to keep the music playing, but now it has to have a different spin. The spin will always best be determined by the market composition and its colors. In the very near future we're going to be forced to look at these colors a little differently and go a little deeper than just the surface and be conscientious. And if you really want to lure new listeners -- don't stretch credibility ... make tact and innovation your new best friend.