Sunday, October 31, 2010

From Radio Intelligence

Memo to all radio managers around the world – Get prepared for PPM, it’s going to change your business, writes Sam Zniber and Emmanuel Legrand.
When PPM (Portable People Meter) technology was introduced in the Philadelphia market by Arbitron in 2006, it changed forever US radio and the way executives and advertisers were going to use the medium.
Rather than asking listeners which stations they tune to, with the old diary model, the system only requires listeners to be passive and carry a device that picks up signals with embedded information that can be identified.
As any radio executive who has been living with the technology can attest, it’s not simply an audience measurement tool. There is more to it.

Such technology has already been in place in the TV world for quite some time, with similar positive and negative aspects: it’s instant and it’s brutal… For many TV programmers, there is now a dictatorship of audience measurement systems. You know how many viewers you’ve lost (or gained) and when. But you also get to know better what makes the audiences tune in. Shows can be axed halfway through a season if audiences are seen to be declining.
Key radio executives in the US admit that their life has fundamentally changed since the introduction of PPM. It has increased the accountability levels of programmers and schedulers, whilst giving them more tools to do their work.
With a technology that informs you almost instantly and minute by minute about listeners’ choices, some argue that PPM offers a recipe for blandness as programmers are now – more than ever – afraid of making any decision that could have an adverse effect on audiences (and on their jobs).
Others, on the contrary state that, instead, it allows programmers to make some bold decisions as they get to see the instant effects of these decisions, and therefore can make adjustments if it is not heading in the right direction. What’s certain is that you can’t drop the ball any more, or if you do, you’d better pick it up quickly or face the consequences.
In the US, what has been witnessed in the radio field is an increasing volatility when it comes to staff and on-air talent. A show does not perform well? Here comes the axe, sometimes also hitting its presenter. A programmer fails to address the steady decline in audiences – the door is open. Within those extremes, most radio executives have taken the bull by the horns and adapted to the new regime.
After listening and analyzing the music radio markets in Miami, New York, Montreal and Toronto – all using PPM –, we can offer a few thoughts and advices about what awaits programmers who have to deal with the technology. (We will limit here our comments to programming aspects under the PPM regime and will not discuss the consequences for advertisers.)
We are aware that finding universal rules when it comes to PPM is not easy, if not impossible. As Edison Research’s Sean Ross wrote in a recent blog, “Looking for patterns and trends in PPM data as it rolls out in market after market is fraught with danger. Every time you think you find a consistent pattern, another market blows it up.” However, we’ve tried…
Learning #1: Check all your loose ends – everything matters!
With round-the-clock data to monitor audience’s reactions, programmers cannot let one single weak element in their programming mix. As the saying goes, a chain is as strong as its weakest component. If you have a weak morning show, it will affect your whole day; if your music programming lacks clarity and consistency, you will lose pockets of listeners; if your hosts fail to catch the public’s attention, you will pay the price instantly.
In a diary world, you can survive with a few weak spots in your schedule, but in the PPM world, everything has to be of the same standard. It is labor intensive and requires full attention at any moment from the team in charge.
Learning #2: Morning shows still lead
In the PPM world, more than ever before, a great morning show will drive the entire day. To become and to stay a top ranking radio station cannot be done without a powerful morning show. It remains the station’s calling card, especially in countries where people drive to work. Even when your station needs to win the “at work” position, the morning show is the engine for the entire day. A weak morning show will be sanctioned directly by listeners – who will be very difficult to win back – and will affect the performances of your whole schedule.
To avoid losing listeners, programmers should allow specific times for specific features. For example, on successful adult radio stations, service elements are still the main drivers of the morning show and listeners expect to hear them at specific times. While on successful hit-based radio stations, morning shows are still focusing on funny phone calls, celebrity gossip, and fun and entertaining elements. With PPM, setting appointment times for specific features is vital as it gives a compelling motive for listeners to tune-in on a daily basis.
Learning #3: It’s (still) about the music
While PPM may give you some indications about the songs that work and those that don’t, what matters is consistency and clarity in your music output. You cannot tempt listeners with one format and deliver the wrong music. You will pay for it instantly. If you promise “hit music only”, that’s what the listeners will expect. So don’t deliver half-baked meals. Listeners will immediately go see what the competitors are offering elsewhere.
This means that your daytime music schedule needs, err, “more music”. More than ever with PPM, at least in the US and in Canada, the amount of music you can provide is very important for successful radio stations.
And to achieve good daytime results, the role of the daytime host is completely different from that of the morning host. A daytime host is on-air to magnify the music and to make sure the music flows and gets well presented. During daytime, music station hosts should have very short on air presence: it’s all about the music, so concentrate on holding the music momentum.
And in the PPM world, the music flow seems much more important than before. Some stations have beefed up their non-stop music slots. It is not a new “trick” as stations have been doing that for decades, but with PPM a number of stations have been very successful by setting up commercial-free music hours. Not stopping the music in some hours during the daytime seems to work really well with PPM. In terms of experience for the listeners, this is probably the closest to internet radio streaming or satellite radio. Listeners seem to respond very positively to such offers.
So what does it mean for programmers? For a start, a constant attention to the output with a daily attention to logs. For listeners, music quality perception is a key factor. They rely on the station to make choices on their behalf and they want the right choices, or else… With PPM, music quality is vital and that’s why a music programmer needs to go over the logs for hours to prepare the daily logs. No more Selector in auto-pilot!
With audiences connected (and influenced) by the web, music cycles are coming in and leaving faster than before. More attention has to be put in research. Great music stations measure music quality with auditoriums and call-out on a constant basis. The most successful radio stations are doing one strategic market study per year.
The objective is to focus on the right music types and get a strong vision for the entire team to outsmart the competition at every level (promotion, music, hosts, events, positioning). This is crucial.
Learning #4: Success is in the package
This goes back to point 1. It’s all in the execution. And it has to be perfect. In a world of PPM and digital music streaming available for free, smart radio programmers understand that the assembly of the product is what makes music radio unique and exciting.
Successful radio stations are making sure that non-music content does not overpower the music output. What is important is to concentrate on the lifestyle of the local target. A stylish overall consistent sound makes all the difference.
Mixing the songs together in an artistic way, adjusting the production, making the imaging part of the music, all this contributes to have an overall stylish and consistent sound that lures listeners.
These are just a few findings from hours of listening to US and Canadian radio (and talking to executives there). These remarks are restricted to the North American market as the technology has not been deployed in regions such as Europe (except in a few markets). One fine observer of the European and US radio scene told us that Europe, with its specific mix of commercial and public broadcasters, and with formats not as tight as in the US, could offer a completely different picture under PPM.
“The big unknown is how public stations in Europe are likely to be affected by PPM,” says our source. “And, in particular, audience reaction to specialist shows that may differ from the ‘usual’ daytime musical output of the station. OK, we might know how the traditionally segmented US audience react to a station playing ‘inconsistent’ music, but will the same be true on the big public stations in Europe?”
Overall, even if there’s still a lot to be learned about PPM, there is no doubt in our view that PPM is a quantum leap forward for the radio industry. At last there is a measurement technology that matches the complexity of broadcasting technologies and increasingly flickering audience habits.
To some, it may not be the future that they want for radio. No matter what, it is here to stay and, as the old man used to say, deal with it!
Sam Zniber is an international radio executive and media consultant who has managed and overseen stations in France, the UK, Australia and South Africa, among others.
Emmanuel Legrand has been covering the entertainment and broadcasting industries for 25 years. He is the former editor in chief of European music radio trade publication Music & Media and ex-global editor of Billboard.
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