How Urban Radio Can Compete In a PPM World

When Arbitron PPM for Philadelphia numbers were released to the public in late April, the ratings service was very careful to offer some encouragement for Urban radio–encouragement that most Urban programmers did not find in the numbers themselves.
Under the new methodology, with shares based on 6-plus listening, and with only those encoded stations being measured, the resultant shares for almost every significant commercial FM in the market were higher than they had been under the diary, often sharply. The exceptions were Philly’s five African-American targeted FMs. Heritage Urban AC powerhouse WDAS-FM fell to seventh in 25-54 (it has since, reportedly, rebounded to fifth in the April numbers). And yet, the initial Arbitron press release noted that:

  • “African-Americans have [the] highest time spent with radio”–12 hours’ listening vs. an overall 11.5 hours–“and [the] highest overall persons using radio” levels.
  • “There was a “dramatic increase in the composition of the radio audience (persons 18+) who are employed Full Time compared to what was reported by the radio diary.” That number went from 60% to 64% overall and from 56% to 69% for Black Persons 18+.
  • “Even as individual Cume audiences have increased, radio still maintains its targetability.” With all of the above likely to raise the question of whether there was now more forced listening involved, Arbitron released AQH audience composition numbers or Urban, Spanish Tropical, and CHR demonstrating, for instance, that only 12% of CHR listening was coming from African-Americans.

How broadcasters reacted to the first data depended varied widely. One anonymous executive told Inside Radio that the PPM results proved that ethnic weighting under the diary system had “failed” broadcasters by over-representing listening to Urban radio. But James Winston of the National Assn. of Black Owned Broadcasters contended that 18-to-24 sample proportionality was low–an issue which improved in the third month–as well as raising the issue of “exposure” vs. “engaged listening.” And even Clear Channel’s John Hogan recently told Forbes, “I question the way they assemble a panel, I question their ability to accurately reflect black and Hispanic listening.”
What hasn’t been said in all of this is that, to some extent, what happened in Philadelphia had already been happening to Urban radio, in that market and others, in a diary world. The fragmentation of Urban radio meant that many markets have two Hip-Hop/R&B outlets and two Urban ACs. And in Philadelphia, one can add a Gospel FM, a Rhythmic Top 40 and a Mainstream Top 40 that has long leaned Rhythmic, meaning that the biggest hip-hop hits often get played 200 times a week. Only WDAS-FM regularly emerged from that fray as better than a five-share performer 12-plus.
And the fragmentation of Hip-Hop has been even more noticeable in markets like New York and Los Angeles. Those markets’ young-end Urban stations have been hit in recent years by a broad mix of issues: new population estimates, morning show changes, the siphoning of several shares by a new Latin Urban, and a pop resurgence that had made Hip-Hop no longer “the only music that matters” for 12-to-24-year-olds. In addition, New York, like Philly, spent several books without a young-end Rock station, which probably allowed some potential Hip-Hop sharers to wander away from the radio altogether.
Philly, in other words, already represented a perfect storm for its Urban outlets, and it’s not hard to imagine similar results when PPM gets to equally fragmented markets like Detroit or St. Louis. Whether you regard the new numbers as defying or finally reflecting reality, it remains a situation that R&B radio has to deal with. And even if the issue here is losing rank, not actual listening, that throws another challenge–educating ad buyers to look beyond rank–on to those that the format already deals with. And already the predictions are coming in that some broadcasters will simply be less interested in the Urban format.
But no broadcaster should throw their hands up because of PPM. And no broadcaster has to. Here are some thoughts on how Urban radio can compete going forward:

  • If the name of the game indeed turns out to be exposure and not just preference, Urban radio needs to compete as aggressively as possible to be in front of as many listeners as possible. That might seem difficult in a format where so many midday contest winners still say they’re not supposed to be listening to the radio, but whenever a office or retailer is available, Urban should be aggressive in asking for the order. That means doing the same kind of workplace visits and “work force” contesting that every other format does. And if not every person in that office is a potential fan, well, that doesn’t stop other formats from showing up.
  • Conversely, with Urban radio’s largest groups–Radio One, Clear Channel, and Citadel among them –now represented on the Web, R&B radio also needs to make sure its listeners who don’t control the radio for the whole office know that they can listen at their desks, rather than have to listen to a co-worker’s choice.
  • Rather than resign itself to a world with lower Time Spent Listening, Urban radio should campaign relentlessly for as much TSL as possible, with as much recycling as possible. That could be the “nine-two-five” money songs at 9 a.m., 2 p.m., and 5 p.m. It certainly means making sure that listeners to a syndicated morning show hear as much about the programming during the rest of the day as possible.
  • Don’t give up on younger listeners. Even before PPM, Hip-Hop/R&B radio’s place as the center of youth culture–African-American, Latino or white–had been whittled down in many markets. 18-to-34s are certainly hard to sample, but the problem gets worse if they’re allowed to stop using radio. And to that end…
  • Urban radio has to address some of the problems that were becoming apparent before PPM and be sure that it is still on target for its listeners. After nearly a decade in which Mainstream Urban radio was Hip-Hop radio, the format has settled into a template in many markets that often borders on Urban AC–just as it did in the early ’90s. And while that could conceivably be the right strategy in a world where workplace-friendly formats win, it is hard not to look at the decline in young-end listening and wonder if the 18-to-24s are being pushed away. And in a world where TSL is no longer promised, it also means asking if spotload issues have been addressed as aggressively as they have been by general-market competitors.

Urban radio cannot, in its quest to become competitive in the workplace, stop super-serving its core audience. Even under the new methodology, WDAS-FM still leads Rhythmic Oldies sister WISX by more than two shares. And the records that set those two stations apart are the ones that many listeners beyond the core have never been exposed to–Al Green’s “Love & Happiness” or Maze’s “Before I Let Go.” Taking those records off WDAS-FM would effectively be giving up on the format, too.
But being workplace friendly can manifest itself in other ways. More than a decade ago, I suggested that Top 40 stations thank not only the listener who turned them on in the office, but anybody else who might be discovering the station as a result. And even if you’re talking to a roomful of core listeners, people still like to be thanked for listening. And it’s never a bad idea to give any listener as much of a user’s guide to the station, particularly by front- and back-selling.
Stations like WDAS-FM have been part of the cultural fabric in their market for 40 years. And whatever happens to the station’s ratings in a PPM world, it seems unlikely that fewer listeners are going to show up at the station’s Unity Day event this summer as a result. But with stations in other formats now benefiting from listening that would have been lost to phantom cume in the diary, Urban radio should fight to keep its place at the front-and-center of its best markets and it should do whatever it takes to hold on to that.

5 replies
  1. Autumn Caviness
    Autumn Caviness says:

    FANTASTIC glimpse into how PPM may shape the Urban World.
    What was best about your article? You tendered solutions.
    Thank you!

  2. Long John
    Long John says:

    This is what I’m looking for… solutions. I’ve been researching the PPM for a while now and I understand the issues… higher cume, lower TLS, more male listening, exposure, ect. But what programming adjustments will need to be made to compete in this new ratings measurement era?
    Thanks for the article Sean.
    Long John, PD WUHT Birmingham

  3. steve
    steve says:

    I agree that urban aka “black radio stations.” need to not give up, but when will they fight? that is the real question and concern here, since the late 80’s and into the 90’s black or as it’s known now urban radio has seemed to have losted it’s identity and followed their pop radio counterparts ofcourse in a browner way, but until we as black people really start focusing on the issues that have always plagued urban/black radio over the decades…like ad dollars!!! rating game tricks and uneven playing fields, then we will be fooling ourselfves, ppm is not a friend to urban radio nor was the diary system. Let’s be real and clear here folks how can a city like philly with a large black population not have atleast wdas being number1 even in the ppm age? hehe ask yourself that question…peace.


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