Wednesday, November 30, 2011

That IS What I Said, But It Wasn't What I Meant

With programmers looking for benchmarks or norms to compare their station to, Arbitron, Media Monitors and Inside Radio are working on a study that looks at the musical characteristics of top performing stations under PPM measurement which will be revealed next week at Arbitron's annual Fly-In in a presentation by Arbitron's Jenny Tsao and Heine.

It examines key music metrics, like library size, current playlist and turnover rate, at top performing stations and compares them to the average in that format.

Since one of the formats they’re looking at is country, Inside Radio's Paul Heine conferenced with Mike O'Malley and me the other day and then printed a few bullet points from that lengthy conversation.

In reading it, I felt a bit like Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich, wishing one of us had done a better job explaining what I meant to communicate in a clearer, more quickly-quotable manner.

The data shows top performers share remarkably similar musical characteristics with average stations in the same format. The study both reinforces the importance of playing the hits to build a ratings foundation while demonstrating how non-music programming components separate ratings winners from also-rans.

As Heine previewed yesterday in Inside Radio, the percentage of airplay devoted to the most played songs in individual formats is largely the same – whether a station is ranked first in its target demo or not. For example, nearly one in three spins (30%) on CHR stations are from the format’s ten most played songs and nearly seven in ten are from songs in the top 50 — regardless of the station’s 18-34 rank.

While slower current music rotations mean country devotes a lower percentage of spins to songs in the top 10, the percentages hardly vary whether the station is No. 1 in 25-54 (18% of spins) ranked No. 2 - No. 5 (17%) or ranked No. 6 - No. 10 (16%).

The findings of the study were largely consistent across six major contemporary music formats.
Arbitron and Mediabase — in conjunction with Inside Radio — tracked stations in PPM markets from April-June for the study: "Country — radio’s most programmed format — exhibits few variances in selecting top songs. No matter whether ranked first or tenth in 25-54, country stations appear to be spinning and rotating the same current songs at the same levels across PPM markets."

In viewing the stats, Mike O'Malley told Heine there are only minor differences in the way number one stations spin the top 20 (or even the top 50) vs. #6-10. What is outside the Top 50 creates the majority of what country plays regardless of rank. 6-10 play slightly more songs outside the top 50 than #1s (2%) or #2-5 (1%), but really that difference is insignificant. Because there’s little different in the way ‘currents’ are spun, ranks are a function of something else.

My perspective on what that might be: no matter whether a specific market is highly Hispanic, black or primarily non-ethnic, the leading country stations still do best when they overachieve among non-ethnic listeners with an almost even balance of 25-34, 35-44 and 45-54 listeners. Thus, "common thread/low polarity" songs which work to help hit that goal tend to be the same ones regardless of whether the city is Miami, San Diego, Philadelphia, Houston or Boston.

Secondly, music promotion to country is driven by the reality that many country music fans continue to purchase music on physical CDs as opposed to digital downloads and so record labels strive to keep stations in synch on the number of consensus current hit songs that retailers like Wal-Mart and Target have on their shelves at any given time, which keeps the number of currents we're all exposing to fewer than 20-25.

O'Malley made the point that, given that, smart country stations tend to differentiate themselves musically by the gold library material a station either plays or doesn't, rather than currents or recurrents.

Heine's report included the factoid that top-ranked 25-54 country stations are playing, on average, 200 more titles than lower ranked country stations: 681 active titles for top-ranked stations, 484 for stations ranked No. 2 - No. 5 and 480 for stations ranked No.6 - No.10.

Then, he added his own observation that bigger libraries and slower current rotations are one of the hallmarks of a format long on Time Spent Exposed and light on cume followed by a quote from me, “If a country station increases its rotations too high, TSE generally declines. That’s the steel sword country has: a very loyal, passionate core that listens for a long time...” which had me seeming to say that big libraries are what makes winning stations in ARB PPM when, actually, just the opposite is true.

The repetition I was talking about was spinning currents too often which can harm heavy user time spent listening, based on audience turnover that is about half for country what the contemporary hit formats have.

They need to play currents twice as fast as country radio does to be sure that their average listener hears them about the same amount.

Country has a weapon in its arsenal that CHR generally doesn't have access to, given our wider target age: high appeal gold songs as well as currents and recurrents.

However, I sure don't want anyone to get the impression that when it comes to country bigger gold categories beat tighter ones in PPM. They do not.

The main reason a country station ranks higher in a Minneapolis or Cincinnati than in a Miami or Los Angeles has everything to do with the size of the non-ethnic 25-34, 35-44 and 45-54 population in those places and how accurately the PPM panel reflects those demographics in the correct male/female balance, NOT the number of songs in their library.

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