Developing A Signature Sound
April 19, 2011
It Can Take You Where You Need To Go
During the past several months Urban radio's state of flux has left of us wondering about a lot of things. Programmers want to know where the format's headed in terms of music, promotion, presentation, research and the PPM. What changes do we have to make to score? One of the best answers involves a "signature sound." That's a sound or a blend that identifies your station. Obviously the market dictates what it is.
Then, radio has to be marketed as a product.
But first you have to find songs and artists that are compatible with your station's image. If you're going to establish an image or signature sound, it must be your station's predominant sound. You have to develop stationality. It's up to the PD to determine what fits. Sometimes, it's a very narrow musical direction. Other times, it's a little wider. That is determined by the available new music. Occasionally, you want to push the envelope a little and lean in whatever direction makes sense, depending on the competition in the market. You have to be careful that you don't polarize your station by guessing at what you think your audience wants to hear. Often that move can result in limiting your station's appeal.
You've got to play the hits, but you've also got to decide what type of music is right for your station and play more of that type than others. It's not a good idea to ignore anything new. That's what the "music freaks" -- who only use our stations as a music source to find out what new music to download on their iPods -- want.
Of all the challenges Urban radio stations are currently facing, perhaps none is more formidable than finding and playing the right songs at the right times. If that challenge is not met, none of the other elements ... air talent, promotion, marketing, sales, etc. ... will matter.
It's also important to capture some relevancy with our core audience. One of the problems is that we are playing less new music. Consolidation, research and risk management have seemingly determined that Urban AC formats should concentrate on playing more reliable gld and long-term recurrent titles. While these titles may be easier to find and research, they are also easier to download and share.
But the larger problem is that Urban listeners are far more impatient and less tolerant today. They want the latest fashion, the latest trends and the newest music. They want you to expose them to it and they'll tell you if they don't like it, but they still want to hear it. So you've got to give it to them.
Consultants and researchers who are not familiar with the uniqueness of the Urban format won't understand this. They keep trying to convince GMs and owners that they alone have the answers and that the research techniques they have developed for Top 40, AC, Country and Rock can be applied to Urban radio. The fact is that some can, but others can't.
These are some of the same so-called experts who failed miserably in the initial screening process when they do AMTs (auditorium music tests) or perceptuals. Often the entire sample is composed entirely of female African-Americans and drawn from the same zip code. A test based on that type of sample simply cannot be reliable. It is not representative of the total audience, therefore it can only be so relevant.
If this sad state of affairs turns around, it will probably be because the Urban radio industry somehow woke up and properly leveraged the technology that now dogs us, not because Urban radio got any smarter or more adventuresome.
Some of today's sharpest radio decision-makers have learned the hard way that what they anticipate their listeners will expect and what listeners really expect are not always the same. Today we will find our stations facing more obstacles and tougher competition than ever before. We are now not only in competition with other terrestrial, format-similar stations, satellite and Internet radio, but also with mp3 players of various types that can now easily hold more songs than most radio stations play. File sharing and cross-cuming may be slowed, but they cannot be stopped. And this year, 18-24 year olds in particular are no longer relying on radio for exposure and guidance. To increase cume and build loyalty, our stations are going to need to be much more focused. Urban stations still need to set themselves apart from format-similar stations with bigger signals and deeper pockets that can copy their music.
Here's a question: Should a station in the Spring sweeps try to keep its sound completely fresh by concentrating on only those researched current hits, or should they attempt to balance the list with some well-researched jams from the past?
If we're going after a young male audience, research has shown over and over that what they crave are currents, lots of hip-hop, and the right reggae blended with the right R&B hits. A lot of programmers overlook that reggae blend that is so important to the male audience. If there are no current reggae hits, pull something from the gold or recurrent stack.
If we want young females, we have to blend in some strong ballads and image artists such as Lil Wayne, Kelly Rowland, Jennifer Hudson, Keyshia Cole, Jamie Foxx and Chris Brown. This all-currents approach may seem extreme, but it works. The all-currents format can produce a highly-visible victory providing the math and the other necessary, non-music elements are in place. Again, it all depends on the market situation.
But pre-supposing we've decided to fill our carrier with all currents, which charts should we use? Today we really have to look at all the charts, digest their methodology, and then schedule the right rotations. We have to be aware of all the songs that fit so we don't open up a clear path for our competitor.
There is new Urban competition emerging every day. Top 40 and AC have joined Rhythmic Top 40s and some Smooth Jazz stations to become dangerous hybrid alternatives to straight-ahead Urban stations or Urban ACs. Their well-financed research shows there is a disenfranchised, non-ethnic audience out there that loves black music. To complicate matters even further, in many cases, the same company may also own Hot ACs, Top 40/Rhythmics, Smooth Jazz and Urbans in the same market
Fooling The Music Freaks
Today's music has to appeal to a generation that may be angry and frustrated in a different way than those of the generation they replaced. People of those decades were angry with optimism. Many listeners of this current generation are angry with despair. The economy is suffering. Young people are dying every week in a war that was supposed to be over. The job market may be slowly improving for some segments of the population, but for most of our listeners, it's down. Gas prices are going through the roof. Jobs are disappearing. Prices are up and the "prophet" or voicetracking machine is sending big voices to small markets that used to train tomorrow's talent.
This past year, many P-1s were between 12 and 24 -- on stations that thought they were mainstream. A closer look shows that while part of the ratings problems may be due to Arbitron sampling, there is also plenty of evidence to show that the crises we face developed because of the way we reacted to the tough times as well as the good times. Some of these "wounds" may be self-inflicted. What does this have to do with "developing a signature sound?"
Just this: All of these things affect the music that radio listeners relate to and want to hear. Studies show that when lots of angry, frustrated listeners -- particularly those music freaks living in the East and Midwest -- will have experienced a tough year. They're now ready for pure escapism. They can't wait to enjoy jams about fun, love or life. Young adult listeners, especially those in the non-Arbitron-defined category of 18-29 females, still want to fantasize.
And it's not short-sighted to assume that as the population bulge increases, we can snatch some serious 25-49s by staying on top of and testing new music that appears to be limited to just teens and 18-24s, simply because of the age and image of the artist(s). Developing a signature sound is a lot like passing the music test. No matter how sharp you may think you are, if you want to ensure a passing grade, you still have to study.