Eric Norberg's Weekly Commentary
A part of each issue of The Adult Contemporary MUSIC RESEARCH Letter is Eric's commentary. Here's this issue's comment:
2015 was the worst year we have ever seen for new music that appealed to the core AC female demographic, which caused our Recommended Playlist for the last year or so to tilt very old, just to keep enough "Recommended" songs available for Mainstream AC current playlists -- and which led to our first-ever warning about the "Also Recommended" section of our annual "Oldies/Recurrent" list for 2015.
On the other hand, to our pleased surprise, and for whatever reason, 2016 has been the best year in a long time for such music -- so we have been happily pruning the oldest songs from our "Recommended Playlist" as new songs keep entering it. And this week, two more do.
No sooner did we find in our testing the most appealing track in years by Adele for the Mainstream AC audience -- WATER UNDER THE BRIDGE, which entered our Recommended Top 15 Rotation this week -- than another track from her current Columbia album has also emerged, and it tests almost exactly as well, so it also goes into our Recommended Playlist: SEND MY LOVE (TO YOUR NEW LOVER). We are not sure which of these is an official single, if either one is, but both appeal to the AC core female listener, and both are getting airplay; both are now on our list together.
The other new "Recommended" track this week is from a new Dreamworks Studio animated movie called "Trolls": CAN'T STOP THE FEELING by Justin Timberlake, on RCA. It's not a complicated song, as indeed you would not expect it to be from the movie title and its target audience, but it's pleasing and tuneful, and it appeals to the AC female core listener about as much as it does to the kids.
One of our subscribers has been running an online radio station, more or less for his own enjoyment, using our research information, and has built a significant audience. The new streaming rates set by SoundExchange have whaled the tar out of him, but he is still operating so far. He writes: "What it boils down to is that small mom-and-pop Internet-only stations how have to pay $0.0017 per song per listener per play. In January, they made me pay a lump $500 fee to cover the first few weeks of streaming; because of the popularity of my K-Lite, that was used up very quickly. I owe over $800 for January/February. That's not counting March 1-15, when I shut off the stream. I found a company called Radionomy, which inserts two 2-minute stopsets per hour in exchange for free streaming. That's what I've done.
"The downside is, I no longer stream from my own automation system; the station uploads all of its songs. But the system allows you to create categories, create clocks, create templates for the clocks, and set up rudimentary rules as to how often a title is allowed to play.
"The scary part of Radionomy is that, now, I have read in news reports that they are being sued by some of the labels because they have admitted they've not paid song royalties since 2014! Oddly, in December, Universal Music purchased part of Radionomy.
"As long as Radionomy is in existence, and as long as they allow my station to stream, I will continue." We suggested to him he might try to sell a few ads of his own! He has an audience!
It is pretty obvious these days that broadcast radio is unable to compete directly with online music services that allow each listener to customize a playlist; yet radio still seems locked into minimizing the use of locally-immersed air talent content and music hosting, especially outside of morning drive -- even though that sort of content is highly prized by the mainstream AC core listener. So much so, in fact, that, so far, that content seems to be the main thing that saves ACs from drastic permanent declines as a ressult of the Christmas Music format change that they all too often indulge in, starting before Thanksgiving each year.
The appearance of a big ratings boost for this stunt stems mainly from the widespread use of these stations at this time for background music in stores, where the Nielsen people meters pick up the tones indicating listening -- but where the sound is turned down too low for people to hear the ads. That's the same problem that untimately doomed the Beautiful Music format a couple of decades ago; these stations all had strong ratings, but ads on these stations didn't work becasue few listeners had the music turned up enough to hear them -- and in the end, even the ad agencies stopped buying ads on them.
In fact, AC core listeners are NOT fond of constant Christmas Music until perhaps a week before Christmas, but they do tend to stick with the same station for the air personalties and the news anyway, even as they chafe about the music. That does not constitute a free pass for such stations; it is simply a safety net.
But, if radio is to remain relevant, it has to be more than just a music machine, since music machines are now easily available on the Net. That means that relevant local content, personality interaction, announcement of songs played, and creating positive expectations that the station can meet, are essential to draw listeners along and bring them back. Part of that is positive surprises. Always getting what you like is way too easy without radio, now -- but hearing new music you like with some regularity is something AC core listeners do look forward to. So, for AC radio, playing the right NEW music is more important than ever.
And, since the trade charts never have, and still do not, reflect AC listeners' preferences and tastes -- they simply show what stations have chosen to play, which is based on programmers' preferences, record promotion, and ... the charts! -- we continue into our 33rd year of weekly testing and publication, the only consistent source anywhere, in that third of a century, of what AC core listeners really like of the new and current music available.
Rap has been with us for over a generation now. Although it has made a lot of money for everyone involved in it, AC core listeners have been slow to warm to it, finding its rhymes simplistic, its attitude bullying, and its frequent lack of melody abrasive. However, virtually all AC females are familiar with it; and even at the older end of the demo they do not automatically reject it.
In that context, when we first tested SEE YOU AGAIN by Wiz Khalifa with Charlie Puth recently, we commented that we had seldom tested a song where the score fluctuated as wildly, as the song progressed as this one, in AC appeal. It has a pretty tune, dynamic changes -- and LOTS of rap. The rap in the original version was too frequent and went on too long to leave the AC core females interested in it, if they didn't simply tune out before it was over.
We suggested an edit for readers to try that could materially raise the score by changing the balance of the song towards melody, without completely eliminating the rap. One longtime reader rose to the challenge. Edward Ford created exactly the edit we had envisioned, and when we put it through our testing process, the score leaped three of our seven scoring levels to our second-highest score! Kudos to Edward!
It goes on our "Recommended Playlist", and made it all the way to #1 in our "Top 5" (in this edit ONLY) -- and, inasmuch as it is exclusive to us, we are making it available to radio professionals as a broadcast-quality stereo MP3. If you want it, you will need to request it using your radio station e-mail account, and we will return your e-mail to you at that address with the song file attached. We must strictly limit any music we may make available ONLY to those who qualify for free record service from the record companies!
So if you are willing to play just a few seconds of rap, the Edward Ford edit of SEE YOU AGAIN will be well-received by mainstream AC females! By the way, with this excellent edit, it only runs 2:30 now, too.
Not long ago we shared with you details of an elaborate study conducted for Gene Autry's Golden West Broadcasters in Los Angeles in the 1970s which actually did show that radio ads can be more effective in generating accurate ad recall than television ads. Despite that validation of the effectiveness of radio advertising, and despite radio ads costing just a fraction of what TV ads do, the GWB gift to the industry of the results of this expensive study were almost completely ignored, and to the best of our knowledge a similar study has never been conducted since. It was ignored at the time probably because the study was seen as benefitting GWB and its own approach to radio more than it did radio as a whole.
In reality, however, it meant much more to radio in general than was perceived at the time, and it should have become (and could still become) an important part of the arsenal of anyone selling radio. Just as one can use rating info selectively, one could do the same with this study, concentrating on the "overall radio/overall TV" comparisons, if one chose.
In fact, the "all radio" and "all television" figures -- "for accurate recall of at least one advertisement broadcast by a given radio or TV station in the past hour" -- were almost exactly the same, at around 20%. In this verified recall study, radio ads worked just about as well as TV ads, and for a fraction of the cost. That was, and still is, very valuable information to have in selling radio advertising. There was a substantial increase over "all radio" in the accurate ad recall for the Golden West station, KMPC, due to its "personality" approach -- but instead of making KMPC look transcendant, the study showed the same effect applied to KLAC's country format and any other station in the market using a "personality" approach to air talent presentation.
That, too, is vital information even today -- and validates what many have these days come to believe: That the use of LIVE, LOCAL, interesting people on the radio, particularly as hosts in a music context, build a relationship with the listener, which results not only in greater station loyalty, but also increases the effectiveness of the radio advertising in that setting by up to 50%. In radio, AIR TALENT can still make a huge and quantifiable difference in a station's ad effectiveness, and thus in the station's revenue -- and you can take that to the bank!
We recently reminded programmers that one of the most-often-identified unmet needs of radio listeners -- especially AC core female listeners -- has been well-known for decades, because it keeps turning up in research. The late Bill Gavin, our mentor, made the point clearly as early as the 1970's: Announce what you are playing! Tell them what the song and artist are! They want to know, so tell them.
This comment drew a response from a longtime reader, Buzz Brindle, who gave us permission to quote him by name...
Your commentary reminded me of something that surprised me when I sat in on an auditorium test for an oldies station in the early '90s, which was reinforced when I was programming an oldies station a few years ago. I sat in the back of the room as a test participant, and wrote down my responses to the hooks like everyone else (my responses weren't included in the test results), just to get a sense of a respondent's experience. Oddly, the moderator didn't prevent participants from verbalizing their reactions to the '60s and early '70s oldies which were being tested, so people were excitedly shouting out artist names and/or song titles as the test progressed. These were P1s and P2s for the station, and the songs being tested were the perennial hits which had been played many thousands of times on the radio -- so I was amazed at how often they misidentified the artists and songs. They were even getting wrong such highly identifiable artists as the Beach Boys and the Beatles!
Flash forward to the early 2000's, when I was programming an oldies station in our cluster. Like most radio folks, I presumed that my oldies-partisan listeners woulod have a high level of awareness about the titles and artists of the '60s and '70s hits they'd heard hundreds of times during their lifetimes. But, again, I discovered that I could not take that for granted. Consequently, we started backselling title and artist information for those oldies, just as one would (or should) on a station which plays current music.
Another observation I made, and which I believe has been noted in the Music Letter in the past, is that it's much more effective from the listener's perspective if the title/artist info is backsold, rather than provided just prior to playing a song. It's more likely that the question they're asking, if they've been listening all the way through, or tuned in halfway through a song, is "what is that?" At the beginning of the song, it's more likely that their decision to stick with the song will be based on how the way it sounds satisfies their needs at the moment, and the title/artist info is less relevant.
Thanks Buzz! If it's either/or, then yes -- the place to put the announcement of song and artist is after it has played. Because that IS the next thing they want to know. But we have always advocated introducing AND backselling everything played. Nobody tunes out because you are telling them what you are playing, and many really do want to hear it -- even if they think they know, your announcement confirms it for them.
And here is one more thing to remember: Stations that don't announce the music they are playing are showing that it is of no consequence to them -- that's it's just filler between the commercials. The station that respects both the music and the listener enough to tell them what the music is shows a respect for the music AND the listener that makes a difference in how the station is perceived!
In all the angst we have been reading in the trade press lately over how Arbitron's "People Meters" are seen as upending previous rating trends and undermining niche formats, one point seems to have been overlooked: Arbitron's diary rating method is the most inaccurate ever used by a national rating company, subject to more limitations and skews than any other. Although placement and cooperation issues still skew Arbitron's results, the meters at least seem to measure actual listener behavior, so they represent one step closer to reality!
And we remind you that your goal as a programmer should not be to build SHARE, which is simply an efficiency figure, but CUME -- which is actual circulation information, comparable to print circulation figures.
If your cume is high but your share is low, advertisers simply have to buy more ads to reach your huge audience. Big share and low cume means that just one ad will reach most of your audience, so advertisers only need to buy a few, and can save their budget for the station with the big CIRCULATION!
A longtime colleague in radio forwarded us a news item about a study conducted by Mark Kassof and Company about AM radio. It shows that the format most associated with AM radio is Talk. Surprise. WE did that to our audience; just because listener expectations of engagement and interesting content are still more centered on AM than FM (as explained in depth in Eric's still-available book "Radio Programming: Tactics and Strategy") -- expectations that make talk programming still more welcome there -- broadcasters for over a quarter of a century have been creating a vast wasteland, with no music, on the AM band. Listener expectations are based upon what we as broadcasters do!!! So, we trained radio listeners not to expect music there, and sure enough they don't.
However, we remind broadcasters that in the late 1950's and the first half of the 1960's, most people didn't even HAVE an FM radio, which made it hard for FM to compete with AM radio. At least today, even if they are mostly listening to FM, most people do HAVE an AM radio. As with FM then, give them something they WANT to listen to, on the band they are not tuning in, and you can still get them to listen. (And, for 80% of the available audience, that's music.)
Because of the availability of AM radios, it is still easier to get people to tune in AM today than it was to get them to tune in FM back then! The music testing we do can and has made pop music work -- work well -- on AM. But, it has to be programmed a bit differently from how it is on FM. We can help.
For those wondering, we test each song from the beginning (no hooks), and keep playing the song in the testing process until the panel is ready to move on. If the test reveals that the AC core female listener doesn't want to hear a song all the way through yet, it cannot yet be "recommended", for obvious reasons. If there are no negatives to the song, though, it is scored as "borderline" -- meaning, don't play it yet -- but we will keep re-testing it for possible increased appeal with exposure. Perhaps 5% of "borderline" songs eventually move up; most don't, so it is NOT a good idea to give airplay to a song that tests below the "recommended" level.
Yet another album has been released in Africa by NiaNell! Suffice it to say that the only artist in the world that we know of, who can be compared with Celine Dion for the AC format -- but who also composes and produces (and owns) her own recordings, and has the highest hit percentage on all her albums than any other artist we've ever tested -- offers her seventh album, "Just Be". Since this album is currently completely unavailable on CD in the Western Hemisphere, we are happy to send a stereo broadcast-quality MP3 of her currently-"recommended" song TO THE LIGHT to any radio station wanting to consider it for airplay (or label interested in considering releasing her in the Western Hemisphere). Just e-mail us and ask us for it. You will need to give us an e-mail account to send it to that can accept at least a 12 MB e-mail.
Publishing is not shown on the tracks we receive these days, which means we cannot warn you when a SESAC song turns up as "recommended" in our testing, most of the time.... So, stations without a SESAC license should do careful homework to make sure they play no SESAC music! SESAC is owned by lawyers, and they subscribe to station-monitoring services, and they have already won a judgement of over $1,000,000 against a station that didn't have their license for "copyright violation". The station played a few songs by Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan, relying on label notations that these songs were licensed by ASCAP. SESAC paid a million dollars each to these gentlemen late in the last century to move their ASCAP compositions over to SESAC, so even if the label on the record says their compositions are ASCAP copyrights, they no longer are. Jim Brickman's compositions are licensed by SESAC. Plus, there are a few other releases, largely in the Country field, that are licensed by SESAC too -- as well as a lot of religious music that may turn up on paid Sunday morning religious programs. A word to the wise.
SPECIAL UNRESTRICTED DOWNLOADS
One of 2009's top AC hits, recommended as a "recurrent/oldie" to use for years to come, is "I DREAMED A DREAM" -- the astonishing live audition of an unprepossessing 47-year-old Scottish villager, Susan Boyle, for a TV program called "Britain's Got Talent". The YouTube video scored over 60 million views, and in addition to its great appeal to the AC core female listener, it was the subject of TV coverage and news reports around the world.
This LIVE performance was never commerically released as a CD single, but since you'll need it in your future programming for years to come, you can download a ZIP file containing the MP3 audio of this performance by clicking HERE.
In August of 2012, to commemorate what would have been the 100th birthday of the biggest star the U.S. Public Television Service ever had -- Julia Child -- PBS created an astonishing digitally-modified tribute to "The French Chef" called KEEP ON COOKING, and posted the 3:43 track on YouTube for public performance. We tested the audio track, which features excerpts drawn from 40 years of Julia's PBS-TV broadcasts -- modified to make them song lyrics with Julia as the "singer", accompanied by a memorable and catchy tune, and found the core AC female listener in the U.S. LOVED it...not just as a tribute to Julia Child, who passed away in 2004 (and was the focus of a Meryl Streep movie, "Julia and Me", in 2009), but as a piece of music! We are now recommending that this track go into your permanent Christmas Season playlist.
A novelty song? Certainly -- but an actual song, which will have "legs" because it is enjoyed as music as well. For your convenience in auditioning it and considering whether to use it on the air, the track is posted HERE as a ZIP file containing an MP3. If you would like to review the actual YouTube video, which makes it clear that Julia actually said every word "sung" in it, here is a link to that video: