Monday, July 21, 2008

The Soul of the Airwaves

I am a broadcast marketing professional in the urban radio industry. I work at a major market station which is one of the last independent, black owned and operated stations in the nation. I am fiercely proud of this urban radio heritage. I guess it is a by-product of my training and background as a broadcast marketing executive.

You see, I started out at Bailey Broadcasting Services, the company headed by urban radio hall of famer Lee Bailey and his then-wife Diane Blackmon-Bailey. At the time we were the premier syndicator of urban radio programs including the legendary RadioScope: the Entertainment Magazine of the Air. My experience at BBS exposed me to some of black radio's legendary Program Directors and Radio Men from whom I learned about the importance of black radio to our community. Through extensive conversation and correspondence, I was taught by a generation of black radio pioneers that Radio is often the first media choice of black people looking for culturally relevant content, music, news and information. During morning drivetime, the format is mostly the last bastion of culture for the African American driving into the workplace before they assimilate into general market America for the day. A captive audience for the exchange of information. In the home, the radio stays locked to the station for hours as the music, news and information speaks directly to the lifestyle of the African American consumer.

I have always marveled at how Arbitron measures the radio audience, particularly the black audience. The radio audience measuring company has always seemed to pride itself on its efforts to deliver accurate results when measuring the urban radio listener. I remember attending the first couple of Urban Network Conventions where Jerry "The Doctor" Boulding would host these comprehensive ratings strategy and research seminars featuring executives from Arbitron and the leading strategic research companies. They would always provide a great analysis and certainly convinced me that they put their best foot forward in the quest for delivering accurate measurement of black radio listening. In some cases, the measurement of black audience is so significant that the methodology math generates enough general market numbers to garner a significant piece of the cost per point advertising pie. The diary system was a shaky yet agreeable method by which to measure the listening audience. Now, they've come with the Portable People Meter. This new technology is being heralded as the best thing since sliced bread. General market stations love it's so-called accuracy. And Arbitron reps are really looking to convince us that it is a much more effective method to measure audience than the diary system.

The Portable People Meter (PPM) is a pager like device that is worn daily by the respondent. The device measures what the respondent is exposed to, not what the respondent actually listens to.
Consider this: Typical African American woman from the community participates in the program. We know that her primary station is the local black radio station. If she could, she would listen all day because the station is culturally relevant, and provides honest and trustworthy information on products and services, plus the news and public affairs keeps her aware of issues and concerns in her community, from her perspective.

She turns on the device at 7:30 am as she darts to her car, thereby eliminating the first two-three hours she was listening to radio while getting ready for work. Nonetheless, the meter hears her favorite station in her car. It registers the applicable info. On her way to work, she has to stop at Starbucks. The radio inside the store is tuned to the top forty station. Not her choice, but just because she visited this establishment, the meter records this as as one of her stations. At lunch, she stops at Home Depot because she needs some stuff for her home. In the Depot, the local country and western station is blaring. A station she would never listen to but because she was in the store for more than five minutes, her meter records the station as one of hers... When she arrives at her place of employment, she conforms from the chocolate diva from around the way to capable chocolate corporate.... The radio at her workplace stays on a station that she doesn't listen to and probably is not really listening to because it does not play the music she likes or provides information that matters or speaks to her directly. But the meter records this station as one of hers...

Is this theory of exposure an accurate measurement of this woman's radio consumption? Even though she is exposed to these out of home formats, does that mean she is a listener? How does this exposure translate into real advertising dollars? I mean if the station does not speak to her, how then does she really hear the advertising and take action to patronize the product or service? Is exposure an indicator of real listening? Or a by-product of where the respondent happens to go as she moves about this world.

In the diary system, the respondent was able to reinforce their listening habits through comments. They would document the personalities and times that they listen, thereby giving radio stations a seemingly more in-depth analysis of the audience. The listener could describe the emotional connection they have with their primary radio station choice. In black radio, the emotional connection is the gold. The music of the community, the news of the community and in some cases, the personalities with whom the listeners could relate because they were the brothas or sistas that lived in their neighborhood or went to church or school with. The soul of the airwaves is captured through the ability of the station to be culturally relevant.

With PPM, the soul of the airwaves is muted through a emotionless technological advancement that shows how a listener is exposed to media no matter where he or she goes.. It eliminates all consideration of that listeners qualitative proclivities. The cultural relevance of black radio is silenced. It's personalities now forced to an even more minimal on-air role as the quest to get exposed by whatever people meters are out there becomes all important. This means desensitizing your broadcast presentation to become more vanilla, transparent and soul-less. And while this may sound good in a world where multiculturalism is the goal, I submit that we can still achieve the goals of multiculturalism by remaining true to who we are as black or urban radio. Those who seek us desire the rhythm of our format. And most importantly they crave the cultural consciousness of our broadcast flow. We don't care who is listening, just as long as they listen and they listen because they can identify with the essence of the station.

Does random exposure generate results for advertisers? I mean if the respondent is only half listening to whatever radio station is ambient at the time and location they are in, then how does that spur the listener to take action at the cash register? Is the PPM holder more likely to respond to advertising on the ambient radio station? or to advertising on their P1 choice??

How many PPM's are in the field? More to the point, in a city like Los Angeles, how many PPM's are on black women 25-54? In Philadelphia, they said there were two (yes, two!) in the entire market. and each person represented more than 50,000 people. That seems like a huge guess!! I mean who validates this information? How is this acceptable?

I wish I had answers here, but I don't. What I do have is a perspective. One that is centered with the experience of marketing black radio. And like it or not, PPM is here. And so how do we cannibalize black radio to become more of the general market so that we can show up on the PPM rankers? Is the age of the personality dead? And what of the emotional connection forged by black radio through news, public affairs and the music?

Does PPM kill black radio? Do we abandon the heritage of doing black radio? Is the art form of radio dead?

These are the issues of the day. The Soul of the Airwaves is dead. Do we resurrect it? Or is it a bygone legend of the past??

Lord help us.


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