Filling The Hit Hole
May 3, 2011
All Spins Are Not Created Equal
Finding the right music to fill the majority of your programming each day is a really daunting task. First of all, you want to make sure that every jam you play is one your audience really wants to hear.
To survive in today's extremely competitive environment, you need to have the best systems, highly trained and motivated people and the most updated technologies coupled with extremely effective business and marketing strategies. Because in many markets, that's what you're competing against. In other words, to win in the ratings battles today we need every possible weapon at our disposal. So with that thought in mind, we want to examine what this means in terms of effective music scheduling. Filling the hit hole is more important than ever.
First of all, don't be afraid to use your research to help you program. In some situations when something is new or unfamiliar, it's tempting to simply put it on the back burner or ignore it completely.
There's also been lots of discussion about the role research plays in the hit music rotation process. What you want to do is use research to scientifically validate what your audience does and does not want to hear. There are two distinct problems. First is how little time many Urban stations give songs to develop as they continually adjust their music rotations. The second issue is really a question: How many spins does it take for a song to really become familiar enough to put into callout or to consider moving up in rotation?
Rating Real Spins
What is absolutely essential here is the ability to look at "real spins" to differentiate between times when a song would literally "see the light of day," as opposed to those spins that come in the middle of the night when few are awake or really listening.
Of course, not all spins are created equal. Those that come in the key dayparts between 6a and 7p Monday through Friday have more impact since the available audience is so much larger at those times. This is not a new concept. It's merely another way of utilizing the principles of gross impressions, reach and frequency, which take into account the size of the audience exposed to a particular song or message. Some of you may remember a while back at the Arbitron Consultant's Fly-In when Arbitron and RCS Selector teamed up to help stations better use Selector and their actual Arbitron PPM numbers to come up with more accurate gross impressions, reach and frequency data.
So, is there a magic number and, if so, how do you know when you've reached it? Many factors affect the speed with which an audience becomes familiar with a song -- the strength and overall appeal of the song along with how it is moved through current rotation categories. This is critical in getting and holding the "music freaks." This directly affects your cume. And these are the people who still come to radio to find out what's new so they will know what to download onto their iPods.
First, a song has to be evaluated on its overall appeal, melody, lyrics, hooks and memorable-ness. A weak song will not win fans no matter how much airplay it gets. Secondly, tracks need to be properly managed for a station's format and the way its audience listens, which can vary from format to format. The number of spins and the length of time a song will stay in current and recurrent categories are important programming decisions. The strategy for managing current songs directly affects a station's ratings success ... especially in a PPM world.
Often programmers who don't trust their ears or understand how to apply research will use charts to help them make music decisions. They will evaluate whether or not a song is "safe" to add, based on the adds of other programmers in their format. The song's chart position is more important to them than listening with their own ears or using their own gut feelings. Charts only track the success of the record. One of the problems is that most retail stores do not stock or sell singles. Add to that the fact that many of today's young listeners have never been in a record store. Another factor that must be taken into consideration when using charts is how much to spin new songs.
Charts also do not measure the potential appeal of the song for your listeners. Charts do not indicate how familiar a song is with the audience. There is a tendency in Urban radio to move a song up in spins at the same time it moves up the chart. This is often much faster than the audience is able to absorb or become familiar with the song. The result is that songs are being moved to slower recurrent categories just when they have peaked with the audience.
Age also plays into the decision in how quickly songs can be absorbed. Younger listeners tend to be more active about music. They latch onto songs very quickly and move on in relatively short cycles. Older listeners don't have the time or passion to keep up with new music. Typically their awareness of new music is minimal by age 40-45. The exceptions might be listeners with younger music fans in their homes and those audience members who would be considered "music active." Every demo absorbs and responds to music differently. Assuming a song has enough appeal, typically it takes about 10-12 weeks to establish a song for 18-29-year-olds, 12-18 weeks for those 30-39, and 20 or more weeks for those over 40.
There is no one formula for finding and spinning new music. Does that mean it doesn't exist? No, it exists, but it has more to do with familiarity. Hitting the familiarity threshold depends on a number of different factors. Primarily it's the station's cume, TSL and the number of competitors sharing a song. We can calculate the exposure of a particular jam simply by entering its play history into the schedule builder in Arbitron's Maximiser program. The problem is that just tells you the exposure. It doesn't tell you whether or not it's enough exposure.
Then there's the pure music factor. Not all songs are the same. Different types of songs will hit a certain familiarity threshold at different points. Sometimes songs from core artists will become familiar faster than songs from new artists since the artist is already more familiar.
Most veteran programmers use an intuitive approach to determine when to throw a song into research or move it up. Often they choose a number somewhere between 60-80 spins, a rather obvious but arbitrary number.
Now, while some would argue that Urban's typically long Time Spent Listening brings those numbers down, we believe it takes a lot longer than most admit for listeners to really hear a song. While many Urban stations are certainly not taking records off the air once they peak at #1 and the label releases a new single, the fact is that programmers probably are moving them to heavy recurrent or lower rotational categories and reducing the number of spins they get precisely at the time the audience is becoming most comfortable with them.
Callout Misuse, Balance and What's Next
Urban radio has always had a problem with callout. The reason is that songs simply don't get enough spins from 6a to 7p before being put into callout. Since very few Urban stations really do effective local callout, this point isn't nearly as relevant as it is in other formats.
Too many programmers fail to fully understand the importance of building strong music rotations into their format clocks. At the same time, some thought has to be given to the balance of music types, eras, strengths, familiarity and the placement of transition songs next to new music. There is an art to building a good format clock, and those programmers who do it well consistently outperform those who don't. With the current level of competition, programmers have to spend more time focusing on the format clock they have built and its execution by their air talent.
There are always going to be songs on the air and the top of the charts that don't exactly match up with callout results, whether national or local. And most of the time there's a strong correlation between what consistently tests well at most radio stations and what makes it onto the charts.
Just because a song tests or does not test in callout is not a reason in and of itself to play or not play that song. Callout should be just one of the tools you use. Properly done, callout tells you what the middle of your audience thinks -- not the opinion leaders or the super-actives. Sometimes songs belong on the air because they are "what's next."
That's where programmers, music directors and even weekend mixers are crucial. They're plugged in. They know what's going on, whereas the average person isn't aware of "what's next." Urban radio stations can't afford to be late with "what's next." Urban is still one of the edgiest formats. It's about finding a trend, making a trend and even being a trend. Sometimes when a song that stiffs in callout it doesn't mean a thing. If it's "what's next," you have to step out and educate the audience, develop their taste for that music, spin the jam and make them aware of that artist.
Effective Dayparting & Lifestyle Programming
Now we take a look at effective dayparting. There are those who say dayparting is both a blessing and a curse, which brings unique challenges and vulnerability as the station evolves. Many heritage Urban stations have knee-jerked in response to fragmentation, lost their balance and eventually, lost the game. At that point, it's really hard to get back to the center. Many adult-leaning mainstream Urban stations are very 25-34-driven. They need to win not only 18-34, but also 25-49. To do this you have to hyper-focus on the lifestyles of your life-groups, which means that you're going to be heavily dayparted. During middays you absolutely have to be a little more conservative sounding so that you can capture some of that at-work listening. Those P-1 listeners who carry their meter or diary to work with them could be key here.
The risk is that those music freaks who expect you to be blowing out the hits will be disappointed. Make no mistake about it ... some of them will leave. Yet, you still have to image the station as a very hip, very "in" music source. Everyone wants to believe that they're different and eclectic and hip. Part of being mainstream is believing that you're not mainstream.
Musically, the trick is to play the most popular jams more often, where the biggest benefits live. Pound those great passion tracks where they will pay off. The mood of the station evolves throughout the day as a listener's mood and lifestyle evolves. We need vertical music; we need it to be hip. We need music that's true to our format. One way to achieve this is to pull from other passion, cume-driven formats such as rhythmic and Top 40. When they're healthy and hot, vertical product is hip. It's not that often that you see music begin at Top 40 or rhythmic and spread to Urban and other formats, although the reverse is happening with some artists right now at Urban.
Currently there's not a lot of vertical music that's true to our format that has high passion levels. And within all that passion and those daypart restrictions, there still has to be balance and variety. Variety is not so much about library depth as it is about sound codes, burnout, familiarity and passion. Filling the hit hole effectively combines all those factors and skillfully packages them with speed and forward motion. It's a lot like a bicycle. If it's not moving forward with enough speed, it wobbles. And if it wobbles too much or too long, you're forced to get off. And not the way you want to.