By Dan Vallie
Founder and Consultant
BOONE, NC — It’s an interesting time for AC radio. One of the current challenges is one that pops up every few years: top 40 is on a hot streak again, and this time hot AC is joining that ride. Contributing to that hot streak is the PPM methodology. In the AC world right now, the hot AC’s are generally looking very good, so let’s begin by talking about Hot AC.
Much of today’s top 40 music is compatible with hot AC…the fact top 40 finally, after many years, has moved out of its more narrow hip hop essence to a more pop mainstream essence, and has once more allowed moms to listen with their kids (and many of those moms personally like much of the music they hear on top 40 today). In addition, there are more single people in this demo than ever, and that also affects listening habits.
Right now, all of us working in hot AC and top 40 look brilliant. It’s sort of how we all looked like brilliant investors in the late 90s when the economy was so strong, but then the economy sunk. Did we all look like brilliant investors after that? Not so much. We’ve got to be smart through all of these ups and downs and not over react or misread the market.
Scott Shannon once said to me, “It’s not how heavy you are, it’s how long you are heavy.” He was right. That translates to: We need to plan our strategy and build and program stations so that they don’t just win in the current business climate, but win consistently over a period of time. Longevity is real success.
It’s very commonplace in today’s environment to look at other radio stations in other markets and imitate them. While there are common threads in very successful stations, there are also unique things in each market, ranging from the makeup of the market to the competitive environment that makes a difference, and programming with that in mind makes a difference in a good performance and a great performance. We have to analyze the market, not just the format.
The listener in the 25-54 demo goes to top 40 and hot AC for a reason. She goes to soft AC/mainstream for another reason. It’s the difference in going to McDonald’s or going to your favorite nice coffee shop. You go to each for different reasons and different moods. One is fast-paced and convenient when in a hurry; the other is where many prefer to go for the atmosphere and an inviting environment, and to linger longer.
Hot AC has embraced much of the pop culture aspects of top 40, along with some of the disposable music that is fleeting in success, often with the popularity of the artist.
If you are a hot AC, you have to be concerned and have discussions about whether you play Katie Perry or Rihanna. If you are a soft AC/mainstream, you have to be concerned with whether the song fits the essence of the station in regard to texture, feel and lyric content. There is a difference in considering the artist and considering the song itself. The more current-based a format, and the more pop culture-focused , then usually the more artist-conscious the station has to be, in mainstream AC, it’s really the song much more so than the artist.
When a format gets on a ride, like hot AC and top 40 are on now, it’s much like the economic situation where we acted as if we thought it would never end. It always does. During these times, hot ACs have to make sure they don’t lose their identity or distort their brand to the point of going too far into top 40, unless that is part of the strategy. It’s one thing to move a hot AC blatantly and strategically to top 40, like Movin’ in Seattle has done so successfully. Movin’ made a conscious strategic decision to move into top 40, and it is performing well.
The danger is (and it’s another thing altogether) to try to toe the line between top 40 and hot AC to the point where you are neither fish nor fowl. When those decisions get tougher and tougher on songs to play, and the texture and feel of that music sweep, along with the number of currents and recurrents…ultimately you have to be one or the other, or the time will come that you pay the price, and the fiddler on the roof can no longer keep his balance. It sounds like an easy decision to make, or an easy problem to avoid, but it isn’t. Those mistakes are being made in many markets in America every day.
The key is not just keeping your focus on a specific demo and gender; it’s keeping clear on the essence of the station’s music, knowing what the station should sound like musically. It’s having a clear understanding in your own mind of your “reason to be.” The problem sometimes is that the hotter the station gets, the hotter the station gets. It takes just as much discipline to stay focused during the successful times as it does during the tough times. It’s easy to talk the talk, especially if the numbers are good, but it’s tougher to walk the walk.
Hot AC’s PDs, managers, corporate offices…should make it a point to know who they are, and to know the parameters of the AC format. Most, in casual conversation, will say they do, but behind closed doors, the confidence is not quite as apparent. But it’s a decision that has to be made and followed with discipline to make sure you not only don’t hurt your brand and position in the market, but strengthen it.
Mainstream AC and soft AC
While hot AC in most markets is riding high, many of the mainstream/soft ACs are not performing as well as a couple of years ago.
The problem many are concerned about, and it is a problem, is that the softer or mainstream ACs in many markets are not doing as well as they had grown accustom to. That is often leading to a problem that has happened before, and now is happening again. It does seem our industry would learn from past mistakes, but some of those same mistakes are being made again. Mike Donovan from Vallie/Richards/Donovan Consulting calls it, “top 40 envy.” This leads many to over- reacting and forgetting the fundamental reasons people listen to an AC radio station. It’s too easy to say, and we hear it from AC stations, that the mainstream/soft AC station needs more tempo, more of an edge, and maybe play a few more currents. The problem is, though, that that is seldom the problem, but is an easy action to take.
Isn’t it interesting how this seems to happen in both directions. When AC is on a roll and performing extremely well in the ratings, top 40s start adding more “AC” songs they should not be on, and often change their on-air presentation. If you’ve been around long enough, you can remember eras when top 40 over-reacted to the success of AC by becoming more like the AC stations. You will recall how that killed a lot of once very successful top 40 stations. They tried to become something they aren’t, and tried to get their product used in a way the listener doesn’t want or need. Now, that is happening in reverse with some AC stations reacting to top 40. It will…and is…doing more harm than good to many AC stations, and will lead to the death of some formerly successful ACs. They don’t’ have to die.
A great AC has to be a great AC, not a top 40 or hot AC wannabe. AC should play to its strengths. The ones that do will thrive. It takes discipline and sound strategic thought and good day-to-day decisions. The AC format is a great format. The format has been on a good, long run. Now with PPM and competing against more top 40 and hot ACs, many mainstream/soft ACs have struggled against new, improved and more competition and fragmentation. But that doesn’t mean you copy the competitor, which best case leads to mediocrity. It means the AC has to step up its game and do what AC does best…and win. Decisions for AC have to be made by looking through an AC lens; you have to have AC sensitivities and all decisions must go through that filter. Just like there are certain nuances to the format and to the audience of top 40, rock and country, etc., there are very important nuances to the AC format. If ignored, you not only lose ratings, you lose the AC franchise and you lose money.
A real risk now is that many AC stations feel the way to better compete against a successful top 40 that is scoring huge 25-54 ratings is to add more top 40 music to their currents or library. While the AC format has always played some songs that had heavy top 40 play, the mainstream/soft AC format is more mature, more associated with quality, while top 40 — by its pop culture nature — plays a lot of disposable music that will not or should not ever make it to AC.
Too many stations just put on songs because they are considered “hits,” or because they test well, but that ignores the art of programming, the art of building a product and a brand image and creating a music essence. It’s not that difficult to put on the hits, the songs that test well, it’s more difficult to build a unique brand in a market place that differentiates from the competitors with a quality, appealing, and distinctive product, but that is what you have to strive to do.
Some stations, etc. point to their research and say more top 40 music or more upbeat, etc. music is what they should do. They research it, so how can that decision be wrong. Do the research; you need it. But it’s not usually the research that is wrong; it’s that the interpretation of the research is sometimes wrong. Often the appeal of a song or a sound gets more weight in the decision-making process than the sound and image and position of the station itself. At Vallie/Richards/Donovan Consulting we often talk of a station’s “reason to be”…and a station can’t lose that reason to be. Yet often that takes a back seat in the decision-making process.
Mainstream/soft AC, if it doesn’t let itself get too narrow (and hot ACs run even more of this risk), can play from various music styles to help create its positive and appealing music essence in a balance of pure pop, pop rhythm, alternative, triple A and country. Adele was first played in triple A and Carrie Underwood and Lady Antebellum in country. The balance, the texture, the style, the tempo, the familiarity, it’s all key. Stations need to build a brand, just like successful products in other industries do. You still need to create a position on the product ladder in the listeners’ mind. Stations do build an image for the station, though often that image is not created intentionally. It should be intentional, deliberate and clear.
There is a winning position for an AC station in every market. We are not saying to sacrifice winning today in order to win in the long term, we are saying you can do both. But it takes more work and discipline to do both. Build your AC not based on what you want it to be, but build it based on what it needs to be to have a unique, distinctive and differentiated appealing position in the market place.
Maybe more than any other format, the “right brain” of feelings and emotions comes into play when choosing and spending time with this format, less so than the “left brain” side of being analytical. There are certain things that make us feel good, feel warm inside, and to find our “happy place.” It is done through the music, the talent, and very importantly, in the station imaging. But programmers usually translate the words “feel good” to mean upbeat music and “party.” That is much too narrow and is not the answer for a mainstream AC format.
AC should remember the words, “they may not remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.” Make them feel good and they will keep coming back.
Much of the discussion with the AC format is usually about the music, but before we leave the subject, we would be remiss if we didn’t’ talk about the talent.
Whether hot AC or soft AC, the talent must buy in and understand the format and communicate. Everyone says it’s important to relate, to be topical, and real; to make eye contact with the listener. Everyone says it, so few do it. I want the talent who has a likeable personality I can hear in his/her inflection, pacing, attitude, and believability, even if they don’t adlib one word. Because then, when they do adlib, they will be real communicators and not just jocks. The content has to be good and targeted, but it has to be more than that. It’s not just what you say (the content), it’s how you say it. And with a great communicator and a talent that cares about the audience and is genuine, it doesn’t matter if it’s live or voice tracked. Think of your favorite recording artist and the emotion in their delivery, and the story they tell in the song…the fact that it is recorded doesn’t matter, it’s the emotion, the passion, and the content that matters.
In regard to content in AC radio, more stations and talent should be focusing on things that matter to the listener. Much of the pop culture content is often even more disposable than some of the top 40 music. Again, that is its nature. Most of it is trivial and, in our pop culture crazed society, you can get that information anywhere and everywhere at your fingertips. While some of it is topical and can be content on AC radio stations, most of the time it appears because it’s easy and lazy show prep. More of the AC target may find it interesting to know that Wendy’s hamburger chain is designing its first logo change since 1983, and the Wendy girl will be less childlike, or that Tylenol and Ibuprofen used on a regular basis can cause hearing loss in women, even from just standard use and strength…though they may have assumed it came from listening to too many Prince and Bon Jovi songs in the 80s. Which do you think is more meaningful and relatable to them, this, or whether “Justin Beiber is in a new feud with Sharon Osborne.”
AC is a solid format, a staple format. As history has proven, those that do it right and stay committed to the format, as it should be delivered and designed for each specific market, will do well. One final thought, AC stations should be conceptualized, not just built. By conceptualizing the station, you focus on not just the music, but the entire concept of the station, which leads to a cohesive product. It’s not a matter of just “playing the hits,” every station does that. With AC, it’s also the environmental aspects. When we first coined the term “stationality,” it was meant to address all aspects of a radio station, the talent, the imaging, not just the music. That AC brand, franchise, position in the market place, must be conceptualized, understood and protected, and in doing so, your AC radio station will be very successful for many years to come. Just go “touch” the audience.
Dan Vallie is a 40 year broadcast veteran. In 1988 he founded Vallie/Richards/Donovan Consulting, a premiere consulting firm in the country for over 20 years with an impressive clientele. Dan is a non-traditional and creative thinker who believes creative discoveries are best maximized when they have practical application. He can be phoned at 828-262-3919 or emailed at VallieDan@aol.com