Forging Urban Radio's New Era
March 1, 2011
Beating The Bulge
A few years back, when urban AC stations were just coming into their own, some of us recognized that the format needed some new blood in terms of younger artists. We also needed to reach out to and nurture young adult listeners. Now that the format has gained some traction, we find the bulge of adult listeners is heavily female and squarely in the 25-49 cells.
This was the most obvious target for a format such as Urban AC, which was conceived for adults. It's easy for a programmer to focus so much on not messing up that they mess up because they're afraid to make the necessary changes that lead the station into the future.
But as time went on, that bulge began to shift. By 2000 it was 30-39 year olds. By 2005 the bulge had moved to 40-49. So the bulge was growing older. Very soon the bulge will be 45-54. This is dangerously close to falling off the edge in terms of the way advertisers think when they buy 18-49 and 25-54 demos. When your demos grow beyond 55, your value begins to drop quickly. We have already begun to see this happen at some Urban inspirational and gold-based Urban AC stations that can no longer sustain themselves and are looking to change formats.
The choice Urban AC radio has to make is either euthanize or "youth-anize." The secret is to continually adjust the musical mix of both past and present music to fit the situation in your market. The best way to do that is by staying true to the values of Urban AC programming, such as diversity of music and a wide variety of hit jams. It's also important to find the range of songs that will cause a spark within younger listeners while not alienating the older demos.
Something else that seems to be on the minds of everyone we talk to lately centers around the question of how to effectively serve the "bulge." That bulge or the format's core listener demo is a non-Arbitron defined category somewhere between 29 and 42 years old and leans female. But Urban AC's 29-42 year old is much different from the straightahead Urban core of 29-42 year olds. The expectations and lifestyles are different.
There's a portion of today's young adult Urban audience we might call the significant minority. It's a significant minority that must be served with the right music and compelling content between the jams. This group has taken a dramatic step forward into the public consciousness. If you underestimate them, you could instantly go from a P1 to a P3.
So what do they want to hear? They want to hear the hits, of course, but they also want freshness. They want to hear some songs that are about to become hits. Songs that were once considered special or fringe are not only attracting a large following, but also sometimes even surpassing the audience for mainstream-formatted Urban stations.
There's no doubt that there is a lot of new music that is legitimately happening and should be considered and played. Unfortunately, some of the new jams will never get aired. My theory is that much of the new music that gets played by the format exclusively never becomes that familiar, even after several hundred spins. Once you get past your P1s, it takes a lot to get a listener familiar with new music and therefore, completely comfortable with your station. When you combine this with the fact that a lot of recurrents and gold titles have been played into the ground in the hope that their exposure will help bring some adults with diaries and meters to the dial, you can easily see we've lost an edge.
A Subjective Evaluation - Current Vs. Gold
What are the advantages of currents vs. gold? Should a station try to keep its sound completely fresh by concentrating on researched current hits or try to balance the list with some well-researched hits from the past? The answer is the right combination of both.
Some experts feel the highly visible victories of major-market stations, playing little or no gold and winning, is enough to force some Urban AC programmers in similar or smaller markets to change their minds and their mixes. Yet obviously, very few have gone to the all-currents extreme. Most still keep some short-term recurrents around for flavor, tempo and balance, especially with the increasing number of hit ballads out.
Detractors of this type of music technique say it tends to favor familiar oldies over fresh currents and can lead to staleness. Callout supporters naturally say that such criticisms are being made by those who haven't done it right or don't understand how oldies research really works and/or how to apply the results of an auditorium music test to your gold library. We feel that in either case it should be done on the basis of subjective evaluation.
Ironically, during the first phase of the Spring sweeps we find ourselves at a point when both the previous Winter sweeps and the current Spring sweeps place even more pressure on us to maximize ratings. The advantage with more currents is increased freshness.
But stations utilizing too many recurrents and gold, especially during the cume-building nights and weekends when the younger adult demos have been shown to be more available and controlling the dials, could see their cumes collapse. You run the risk of turning off the people who can keep your station on; if these people just happen to be carrying a meter or diary, well we all know what kind of difference that can make. During Spring, even gold-based Urban adult stations have to be fresher and add more tempo to their mix, if they want to score.
Perception Vs. Consumption
Forget what you may have heard about the new, so-called Urban Adult format for a moment. If you want strong, young adult numbers this year, numbers which the Urban formats are designed to attract, you simply can't ignore or bore your listeners with a bland diet of soft funk, little or no personality and burned-out oldies.
Despite what your research or consultants tell you, it won't matter if you slam 10-in-a-row ... if it's the wrong 10-in-a-row. The results will be the same. Especially during the current Spring sweeps, a shared radio can easily become a switched radio. To score, you have to fight the power, the perception and the switch. It's really nothing but a language though you have to learn the words and what they mean.
Some of this language includes words that have to come from rappers. Today's young generation grew up with rap and some hit rap records are just like any other hits. They bring energy and familiarity to the format -- if they're used and rotated properly. Many of these rap records are adult party jams.
For those Urban programmers who are still looking to callout for results, pause! First of all, you can't expect callout results from only a handful of daytime spins. Second, you should probably lower the demographics of the audience you're testing to include some 18-34s and become more musically aggressive. This can help to keep your younger, active P1 "music freaks" happy.
We've got to find and play the adult party records. Some of them are rap records. But once a hit rap jam is established, the familiarity precept takes over and young listeners are hard to fool. That nearly $350 billion worth of buying power they represent is not just pocket change. Those Urban Adult programmers who fear that playing even a few rap songs will alienate your adult listeners or who feel that for adult stations, playing any rap is a "violation of expectation," are wrong! Not only will you not violate their expectations, you'll exceed them! Urban Adult stations take a huge risk when they become too conservative musically. To those who still place all their faith in callout music research, tight playlists and high rotation to maximize market share, we say you can play it too safe and become predictable and boring.
Wining the perception battle is really about developing a custom-tailored format with dominant ratings potential and attractive demos for advertisers. The objective is to build a successful station that has large ratings potential and a new revenue stream. To do that, you've got to be willing to take some chances musically.
As they're forging Urban radio's new era, stations that limit themselves based on an imaginary criterion of incompatibility (fearing to overstep the intelligence of their audience) are following a dangerous philosophy in today's competitive environment. Urban-formatted stations should be mass appeal. And the demand for quality and depth suggest that this group of hip, young listeners can not be force-fed or fooled. Their sophistication and available choices allows them to display a diversity that encompasses junk food for lunch and a good wine for dinner.
If their influence is ignored by programmers and consultants who forget there are alternative ways to find out about a new CD, television show or movie, this audience will continue to be less dependent on conventional media. Incorporating these things into your thinking and programming constitutes a type of risk reduction. I believe in risk reduction. I also believe in library depth, sound codes, burn, familiarity and passion.