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:
Four issues ago we presented for subscribers our annual "Recurrent/Oldies" list for the year 2015. In recent years, what has been exposed strongly to AC's core audience by the average AC stations, in terms of current music, has been veering ever more strongly away from what the AC core audience actually LIKES, which has resulted in shorter and shorter annual lists from us. After all, the primary reason to play noncurrents in the AC format -- where nostalgia is NOT a major factor (or the audience would choose oldies stations to listen to instead) -- is FAMILIARITY. (On the other hand, PREFERENCE is the major reason to play CURRENTS, where familiarity is not very important.)
This past year was sort of a watershed year; so much of what qualified for the third level in our list -- what we used to call "Also Recommended", and now feel forced to retitle "Also Acceptable" -- had familiarity but disinterest for the core AC audience, that we believed we had to make it extra clear that these additional songs COULD be played as recurrents or oldies on a pick-and-choose basis, but DID NOT HAVE TO BE. The first two levels are strong for the format and SHOULD be played, at least in the specified versions; but the remaining familiar songs from last year are pretty boring to the core AC listener. Keep that in mind as you put together your recurrents/oldies for 2015. If it weren't for Taylor Swift and her album chock full o' hits, heaven knows what songs we'd have left for 2015!
Meantime, this week, two songs reached our "Recommended for your Mainstream AC Playlist" scoring level -- of which the stronger of the two (testing a step higher than the other) was STITCHES by Shawn Mendes, on Island/Republic Records -- already a Top 40 hit. The melody is good, and the rhythm track is infectious. Mendes is only seventeen, and is a native of Toronto.
The other new "Recommended" track, also a Top 40 hit, is LOVE YOURSELF by Justin Bieber, who is also a Canadian. The panel, after the score was recorded, was told who was singing -- and eyebrows went up and jaws dropped. The female core audience for Mainstream AC has regarded Bieber as a spoiled brat and hasn't respected him, but they do like this song. Since we test all tracks "blind", and they have never recognized his singing in the past during the testing just as they did not this time, their attitude towards Bieber has never hurt the scores his songs have received, and didn't this time either!
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 is now 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.
After a third of a century of decreasing content, de-emphasizing live and local personalities, presenting very little local news and hardly any local public service announcements, and never announcing the songs we are playing, we now have an industry that frets about Pandora and similar services, streaming, satellite radio, and the difficulty of attracting and holding an audience with a "perfect playlist" -- or as perfect as one can ever be, when it has to appeal to a variety of people.
Yes, after all that, we are surprised that broadcasters still can't seem to figure out why they seem to be becoming irrelevant to their audience.
It's pretty simple: People tune in, and keep coming back, because we build expectations in their minds. Expectations of how we will respond to their tastes, preferences, and needs; and when those expectations bring them back we must meet or exceed those expectations. The music is only part of it.
If all we have left to create those expectations is offering an unhosted playlist that cannot ever appeal to any listener as much as a personal playlist of their own would -- can we be surprised if they expect little of us, and seldom bother tuning in to see if our station has gotten any better...?
Radio HAS to start putting back the elements that create and then MEET those expectations, or we HAVE become irrelevant.
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 sixth album, "My Heart". 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 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 10 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: