Avoid Becoming A Second Choice Format
April 12, 2011
Confronting Challenges Of Evolving Audience
In certain markets, particularly those with a sizeable African-American population, Urban and Urban AC stations have maintained dependable audience bases with ratings that consistently make them one of the top-ranked music formats. But as more and more stations are now being measured by Arbitron's PPM, the days of "set it and forget it" are fading fast as evolving listening windows and shifting audience lifestyles have blurred the format's clear-cut persona. Urban stations have to find new ways to nurture the audience we have without losing the opportunity to welcome new, younger listeners and at the same time, avoid becoming a second-choice format.
That happens frequently these days with Urban or Urban AC stations that shift their emphasis to 25-54 demographics. The problem is you have to deliver to the listeners' expectations. You can't simply change or adjust a station's sound and expect new listeners unless you market the product properly. A niche Urban format that tries to be an adult station runs the risk of alienating its core. You have to be extremely careful because the 25 + listeners who love your station may bail when you target younger; even more dangerous is the possibility that when you head 25+ you blow off the base of your 18-34s ... and you end up without a base.
One of the ways to move up to being the first format choice has to do with careful placement of various elements. There have been heated debates among top Urban programmers regarding the proper placement and handling of these elements. And just when you may have thought you had a handle on whether to run that positioner first or last in a stopset, along comes Arbitron's PPM and suddenly there are other factors to consider.
One of the newest notions is "floating promos." The "floater" runs in the middle of a music sweep and not in a stopset. It always starts and ends with the station call letters naturally and is used music-to-music with no talk. Done right, especially in this era of syndication, voicetracking and shift-stretching, it can be very effective.
Using "floaters" properly means they're not competing with other commercial messages. That way the promo is highlighted and never gets lost in the clutter of a stopset; the listener benefit is a reward for listening to it with a power song (from the A-stack) following the promo.
The key to creating great promos is to make sure they're not rushed. They need to be well-written and produced or they won't be effective no matter where you place them. Another tip is to stay away from music fadeouts. They sound sloppy and detract from the promo's effectiveness. Make them sound exciting. Use power words in the copy. Just like a great commercial, a good promo or positioner should grab the listener's attention in the first three to four seconds. Delete unnecessary words. Write and re-write the script.
Make sure the copy is concise and easy for the listener to understand. Use the right music or effect to make the promo stand out -- but be careful not to over-produce it to the point where your message gets lost.
Here's where it gets tricky. Whether you have an outside image voice or your promos are produced in-house, you have to make sure that the voice guy and the producer both know what you want. This avoids re-dos and/or dissatisfaction. The delivery should match the tempo of the music. Keep it uptempo and enthusiastic and make sure emphasis is placed on the key words.
Double-check for errors. Make sure no words are slurred, or lost to the background. Make certain all dates and contest rules are clear and accurate.
With straightahead Urban stations, the trick is careful dayparting. You want to evolve the station throughout the day to the available audience. Keep mornings (assuming you still have a local morning show which you control) mass appeal. If your morning show is syndicated, you still need to make it as local as possible when you do the cut-ins.
Middays should be adult-oriented but bright with plenty of tempo and current songs. This is especially important when school is in session. By afternoons begin filtering in some teen and young adult jams and by 6p you should be jamming. Weekends should be uptempo and youth-oriented as well.
The future of straightahead Urban stations isn't 25+. Too many other formats in every market are vying for this demo. Before you make the move, ask yourself, "Can I compete with the various forms of format similar stations effectively?" If not, stay where you are or you'll just hand your competition some of your audience and instantly go from a P1 to P2 or P3. You will have become a "second-choice format."
Confronting Advertiser Perceptions
The relationship between sales and programming has been steeped in adversarial discord, with each blaming the other for not understanding the other's department. What's it like in 2011, selling Urban formats to new and existing advertisers for whom Urban is always perceived as a "second-choice" format? It's often a tough sell despite strong ratings. That's because Urban's relationship with broad, mainstream advertisers has always been a step removed compared to other mainstream formats. Another challenge is the perceived value of women which continues to grow in advertisers' minds as decision-makers or the one controlling the purse.
Add to that that it's no secret that younger people aren't spending as much time with radio as previous generations. They're getting music from different sources and allocating entertainment time to other media, particularly online.
Another problem Urban AC stations in particular have is confronting the notion that the boomer age cell is as important to its advertisers as the younger demos that both formats court assiduously. It's not only in advertisers' best interest to understand data on boomer consumers, it's critical that sales people do everything possible to present clients with facts to counteract inaccurate stereotypes about this massive chunk of the population.
The one thing that can solve all of these problems is a productive environment. And the most productive environment comes from close collaboration between the sales manager and the PD, often facilitated by the GM or market manager. A lot of managers, when looking for a PD, hold as a criteria, "Do they get sales and can they play well with others?"
You don't want to chase possibilities in an attempt to expand your audience base. Instead of being the fifth or sixth station in the 25-54 demo, it's better to be #1 18-34. This idea is to dominate that demo. Recognize that media buyers only go two or three deep in most markets in any demo, and if you're dominant you still get the buy. The key to winning wide demo acceptance is to make the station focused and fun, entertaining and exciting.
You also want to know how to get full credit for measured audience, whether yours is a market measured by the diary or PPM. There are a few basics to keep in mind. The point of purchase is the time a diary is completed or a listener with a meter has to make a choice. So here's the challenge: What can your station do to be top-of-mind at the "point of purchase?"
First of all, diary-keepers and meter carriers are interested in radio. They aren't radio buffs or experts -- and they always know less than we like to think they know. However, research indicates people who keep diaries or agree to carry meters are somewhat more interested in radio than people who don't.
Think about it. If you don't own a car, how interested are you in answering a survey on cars? If you don't care about radio, if it's not at least marginally important to your life, are you at all likely to spend time keeping a diary or carrying a meter?
So how do you take advantage of this? If you conduct regular station events and press the flesh at every opportunity, you're reaching out to the diary-keepers and meter carriers. If you treat callers or active listeners like the VIPs they are, you're catering to the people who are most likely to keep your station on.
These listeners are opinion-givers. They're part of a survey group of participants. Research indicates people who participate in one survey are likely to participate in more.
One of the key ingredients in any Urban format is freshness. Even for adults, when the temperature goes up outside, it should go up on the radio as well. There are several reasons for this. First of all, spring and summer brings with it a thirst on the part of the audience for something new and fresh. Today's Urban audience is forgiving, but they're not patient. You can't simply feed them a bland blend of library gold and ballads and expect their loyalty. This is still party time for a lot of fickle adult folks -- especially on the weekends. And if you don't give them something they can feel, they will find a fresh new frequency in a flash.
Giving your audience constant freshness by staying on top of the music, trends and feelings for the younger end of your target audience can really charge up your station's sound and image and has been known to help you score big digits. Remember, if your teens and 18-24s go up, so do your overall numbers. Give them a reason to go up.
Many markets have fragmented young listenership. The teens and 18-24s who still think and dance like teens still want to hear their music. There is a growing Hispanic core that loves Urban music -- especially rap and even some old school jams. And even though for the teens and many of the 18-24s, listening is often scattered, it can really help to swell your totals, especially with Arbitron weighting and sample balancing. Teen and young demo awareness is often the catalyst that leads to a stronger overall showing. The 18-34 females follow the teens and eventually the entire 25-49 cell develops.
Research shows that males like less repetition, while female acceptance of love songs is overwhelming. Both like energy. Power ballads mixed with uptempo jams or dance tracks can provide the balance needed to lock up teens and 18-24s. The key is to give audience the fresh new songs that are mass appeal but have a hip image. A lot of reactionary records fall into this category.
Teens and 18-24s are critical to any Urban station's ratings, especially in the season when many adult-targeted stations tend to slow down the number of new songs and increase the long-term recurrents, stay-currents and library gold tracks. You have to take yourself out of the big picture. Music is much like fashion and other trends in that it always begins with the young people. They're the trendsetters. Music trends are created with them and that's another reason why teens are important.
Teens who can't or don't drive often are more like their parents, while older teens and 18-24s begin to make their own decisions and invariably choose things their parents don't like. Urban music and radio fall right into this category for a lot of rebellious, suburban non-blacks looking for a hip alternative.
Now what about the sales managers and GMs who tell us they only want 25-49 numbers to fill in the 18-34 cells? They wrongly try to separate the teens from the adults, which is an inter-connected process. When building familiarity with a new song, callout and requests kick in first with teens, build to women 18-34, and then spread to men. Few straight, Urban male listeners over 16 comment about music at all on these callout tests. Tomorrow's teen artists will appeal to tomorrow's 18+ audience.
Even some rap has done well with adults, proving the familiarity precept and the strength of a hit record actually transcends demographics. Rap and Urban music is no longer just a success story. It's the story of the music industry, which it currently dominates. It's possible to keep your adults and add some teens. And teens can actually generate some adult numbers. Also, don't forget that there are a lot of mainstream Urban stations that have attempted to go adult and ended up dying in the process.
On the other hand, it's not uncommon for a mainstream station to be #1 12+, second or third in the 18-34s, and fourth or fifth overall in the 25-54 standings -- even in PPM markets. This means an advertiser can buy one station and reach nearly everyone, with some bonus audience on both sides.
Whether it's a top-10 market or a small station in a market with only one Yellow Page, the waters are just as turbulent. Markets and stations are changing. Competition, like the wind, is coming from every direction, every format. Economists and major agencies are both forecasting a softer spring and summer for Urban stations from an advertising perspective this year. That's always bad news for programmers. When money's tight, GMs' tempers are short ..;. and so are their budgets.
A lot of careers will be on the line this year as we find our industry involved in some real ratings battles. There will be scars and wounds. In fact, in some markets, every book is so critical formats and fortunes have been known to change quickly. Every time business gets soft, the entire media gets the jitters. Tight money and sluggish economic growth may have a lot of radio stations singing the blues in 2011.
Stroking The Music Freaks
Finally, another way to avoid becoming a second choice station is to freshen the format. That tends to satisfy and to recognize the "music freaks." They're selfish listeners who are disenfranchised. They're waiting for a station to give them what they want. These are listeners who can be yours for a song ... or the right series of songs. The only thing they really care about is music. They want to hear the hits, their music ... and lots of it. And they really don't care who gives it to them.
And speaking of giving, whether you understand or agree with them or not, don't be too hard on the competition with their wacky, scattered playlists or the stations that are about to switch up and offer 10,000 songs in a row. Give them a break. They may have done us a huge favor. They have created a void that will allow us to return an element of fun and personality to an industry that is turning largely robotic.
In this era of iPod shuffling and downloaded singles, variety and personality is obviously what people crave. If we give it to them, they'll give us ratings. One thing about most of us, we can adapt and endure a storm or two as long as we know there's some sunshine waiting on the other side ... and there is.