If you ever find yourself in one of those “We have to change formats” meetings – a common occurrence in radio – here's some free advice from your consultant friend Fred:
Do NOT bring up teens as an option.
In fact, don't flirt with a format that targets consumers under the age of 25. It is the quickest way to become irrelevant in the conversation, as the other participants will question your basic understanding of demographics, revenue, and the state of the radio industry.
The fact is, radio broadcasters tacitly decided not to pursue teen-targeted formats decades ago. They don't research teens, talk about Gen Z, or even think about them. The only time teenagers end up impacting their lives is if they're sitting at the dinner table.
If I had a buck for every time a radio broadcaster explained this true fact to me about his or her teen kids, I'd be rolling in dough:
“They don't listen to the radio. They don't even know what a radio IS.”
They often say this in a remorseful but accepting way. After all, why should teens listen to the radio (unless forced to), and that would somehow assume they accidentally left their phones at home.
Last week, I wrote a blog post called “The Agification Of Broadcast Radio.” It tracked radio's continuous skew toward the safety, comfort, and simplicity of the nostalgia craze. Along with other pop culture platforms, radio is aging.
Data from Edison's “Share of Ear” research and our Techsureys confirm the median age of core listeners is edging dangerously close to the “54 edge” of the industry's long-celebrated target demographic. It's not just Classic Rock and Classic Hits heading for the demographic cliff – it's the entire industry.
The dependence on tried-and-true – whether it's the Marvel franchise, “Seinfeld” reruns, or greatest hits albums and cover songs – the familiar blanket of nostalgic programming content clearly trumps all else. The old stuff is easiest to produce and program, and its odds for success are very good.
Of course, that thinking has worked its way into the boardrooms of the recording industry. Which would you rather invest in – an unknown, new boy band from Thailand or Billy Joel's entire song catalog?
(If you answered the former, you have my permission to stop reading this post.)
The aging of radio now impacts a significant part of the industry's stations. How many conventional radio formats reflect Edison's median TSL line of demarcation? How many have a sizable audience of listeners eligible to join AARP? We don't even need to do any math – like other traditional media, radio is showing signs of aging out.
Radio broadcasters have already thrown in the towel on Smooth Jazz, Oldies, Soft AC, and other formats more appealing to 55+ communities than TikTok users. At what point will the radio broadcasters make it an imperative to actively legitimize its mature audience to advertisers, agencies, and CMOs? Radio's 35-64 audience has incredible value, but you'd never know that the way demographic dictates punish stations that lean older.
This a ticking time bomb, getting louder with each passing quarter, “Share of Ear” report, PPM quarterly, and annual Techsurvey.
But there's another side of the story. And it's literally the other end of the age spectrum. When Arbitron revealed it would report a 6+ audience when their Personal People Meter methodology became the currency well more than a decade ago, most industry observers scoffed….or wondered what on earth were they thinking? After all, why report a demographic no one buys and that couldn't be more irrelevant to radio PDs?
But credit where credit is due. The teen (and pre-teen) demographic has become of paramount importance across industry groups and categories. It is a hot topic, driven largely by Gen Z's heft and ability to set trends already affecting all of us. In virtually every business sector, research is being conducted to better understand this generation, their mindset, and their marketing preferences.
Except in radio.
For me, the telling moment came last fall. I was conducting Zoom focus groups among public radio “underwriters” (yes, advertisers) as well as program sponsors. As our lively conversation ended with each respondent's final words, a furniture retailer posed what turned out to be a provocative question. After lauding our client – a full-service public radio station – he bluntly posed this question:
“What is the station's Gen Z strategy?”
Others in the group nodded, and wondered the same thing.
Interestingly, there is some movement on the public radio side when it comes to the teen challenge. In a fascinating article that ran in Vanity Fair, highlighting a new NPR hire, Emma Eun-joo Choi (pictured), we learn about the value of giving young people their shot.
Choi now has a podcast on the public radio institution, “Everyone & Their Mom.” It's a production of the award-winning “Wait, Wait…Don't Tell Me!” team. She's a fan of comedy, grew up listening to NPR, worked for the Harvard Lampoon, and is a Korean American.
She's also 22, and by definition, a card-carrying member of Gen Z.
And NPR is giving her the shot to make her mark on the network – and on public radio in general. Here's an insightful quote she gave Vanity Fair writer Delia Cai:
“I’m the youngest person in every Zoom room, and that’s weird because I just don’t know what power I have. Power is something I think about a lot these days, because I still think I’m an intern. It’s hard to pitch things or say a joke or say you don’t like something, even as the host, because I feel lucky to be there.”
The experiment is being repeated elsewhere. Late in June, I wrote a post (“Radio Broadcasters Don't Know Doodly-Squat About Gen Z”). One of the more interesting initiatives was launched by the LA Times. Headquartered in Atlanta, it's called the “404,” a team of a half-dozen young people charged with creating digital content. Here's how they describe this mission:
“A major expansion of our audience team…a major investment in our digital growth…(and) a critical step toward attracting news readers.”
And now, the concept may be catching on. Major League Baseball may as well be a newspaper. You can count the reasons why teens aren't enamored with “The Great American Pastime.” But that isn't stopping the league from learning what it will take to attract Gen Z fans.
Front Office Sports highlights Karin Timpone (pictured), MLB's CMO, and an executive greenlighting experiments that may or may not connect with Z's. Part of it is a learning process, As Timpone readily admits:
“We're just at the earliest stage of activating (growth strategies), but I can say that we'll both continue to super-serve the avid fans while also bringing that casual fan a little further into the mix.”
A exec at Yahoo! Media group, Seagram's, and The Walt Disney Company, Timpone says what everyone in radio inherently knows: it starts with audience research:
“In the past, I’ve started with a very quantitative view around what behaviors drive the most interest. I always started with a behavioral segmentation. It’s almost like the math side of it — the largest addressable market you can get. And what are the behaviors behind these fans? The second step is to wrap and package the right story, the right brand, the right message.”
Sounds familiar. That's what's leading MLB to focus on eight youth academies around the country. There's also a renewed focus on social media, especially around milestones like the All-Star Game and Celebrity Softball Game.
And Timpone is also overseeing research to see how the league can create interactivity around Web3 and the metaverse.
This commitment to “next gen” experimentation is essential to traditional institutions like newspapers and “old school” sports like baseball.
A Gen Z strategy is essential, but up to this point, broadcasters won't bite.
Tomorrow, we'll explore the stumbling blocks, and why ignoring teens is a strategic recipe for disaster.
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- The Case For Handcrafted Radio - December 5, 2023