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Mike Couchman
SOS Radio / Las Vegas

The Perfect CHR Storm

 

 

 

There’s a potential window of opportunity opening up for Christian CHR; it’s up to you to seize the moment. The format has often struggled with an inferiority complex vs. the undeniably successful Christian AC format. The root of the struggle lays in the various, incongruent visions fueling what’s left of Christian CHR. Some play anything that’s too hot/too hip/too whatever for AC, others gravitate towards the extreme flavors of mainstream Top 40 (hard rock, hip hop) without supplying much in the middle to unite fans of those extremes.

There was a time when being simply not AC, or embracing the extremes of modern music, might have made sense. The mid/late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when the personalization power of the Internet temporarily sent many of us into dozens of personalized niches. If a station wasn’t Christian AC, it often felt obligated to cater to anyone AC left out, regardless of the fact that’s too wide of a group to please all at once.

What follows is specifically for stations with a vision and heart for modern music lovers. You’re targeting young adults, teens, and young-minded grown-ups who identify with Pop Culture more than Christian Culture. The believers and seekers who cannot be wooed by CCM/Christian AC outlets. If you’re at a station whose purpose revolves around these demographics/psychographics, you’re my target audience.

A funny thing has happened in the past half-decade or so. We have been retreating from our dozens of personalized niches and are gravitating once again towards what feels “mass appeal.” Mainstream music industry expert Bob Lefsetz explains: “I want to feel (like) a member of the group, to belong, to know I don't live in a Tower of Babel where nobody speaks my language.” The mid/late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when we all dived in 100 different entertainment and social directions, was our generation’s Tower of Babel. Social media probably stopped us from completing the top floor.

For proof, look no further than the year’s biggest events on TV. The Super Bowl. The various awards shows. March Madness. You’ll recall how, early on in our technology revolution, their obituaries were being written. Personalization and unlimited choices will kill the old models, we were told. And for a couple of years, it seemed so. Ratings for such things flattened or declined, but not for long. So far this decade, the trend has reversed and new ratings records are being set. Despite a lopsided Super Bowl match-up (congrats, Seattle…condolences, Denver) or awkward thank you speeches (hello, Oscar’s). Bob Lefsetz, again: “the ratings of live events… have skyrocketed. It's not that they're any better than ever, it's not like we like them, but we do enjoy watching them and commenting about them on social media. It makes us feel...connected.”

How does that translate to radio? To Christian CHR in particular? It’s a format with a lot of detractors. They think the target demo has or will soon abandon terrestrial radio. Yet Nielsen’s newest Audio Today report notes 18-34 year olds spend 11 hours a week with radio. Researcher Mark Kassof’s November 2013 study on Millenials found they value FM radio and Pandora equally (refuting the never-proven notion that today’s youth view radio as inferior to online competitors).

To quote this Bob Lefsetz guy once more…actually, wait. Before I do, you should know this about him: he HATES FM radio. He’s spent countless words dissing it on his blog. But even Bob cannot deny our medium’s strength, given the culture’s re-found love of mass appeal. Bob says “That's the ace in the hole of terrestrial radio…everybody challenging terrestrial radio has got it wrong, they believe it's about niches, when truly it's about mass. In other words, kids listen to terrestrial radio because other kids do.”

At the moment, the “kids” and most people under 30 just aren’t opting for Christian CHR. Despite it being one of only three formats targeting these ears. The other two are Mainstream Top 40 and Rhythmic Top 40. (Rock, Alternative, and Urban stations have all moved on to older targets.)

Christian CHR is still playing the niche’ game, and secondarily, the Rock-Pop game. Your potential listeners don’t live there anymore. Rhythmic and Mainstream Top 40’s combined national ratings last year were just shy of a 27-share. That’s more than 7-shares ahead of Country, and nearly 20 shares ahead of Urban. No modern Rock or Alternative format even cracked the top 5 most listened to among teens, or young adults.

Yet if you take a look at Billboard’s Christian Hot AC/CHR chart, you’ll see a list that’s almost exclusively Rock-Pop-AC leaning.  Why and how CHR got here is a whole other conversation. For the sake of time, let’s just consider the possibility that, for growth, CHR shouldn’t be here.

Think of it this way: if you recognize our culture’s pendulum has swung back to the mass appeal, and you also recognize few people limit themselves to one or two genres such as Rock-Pop, then you begin to see one of the things holding Christian CHR back. As long as your formulas and strategies rely on that music blend (or the others mentioned at the top of the page), Christian CHR will continue to have limited appeal instead of mass appeal.

And that’s a shame, because there’s another mainstream trend about to swing in CHR’s favor: the Top 40 Doldrums. Mainstream CHR expert Guy Zapoleon coined the term. I’ll let him explain: “People always want a variety of music styles at Top 40, Hot AC and Mainstream AC, and when they hear too much of one style and not enough of another, then the music pendulum swings the other way.  We know that the three phases -- Pop Rebirth, Extremes and Doldrums -- always repeat based on this pendulum swing.” You may recall the last time Top 40’s pendulum went the wrong way: the early/mid 1990’s. The music was such a train-wreck the whole format almost died.

2014 did not start as a banner year for mainstream Top 40. It had a great run though! From “Party Rock Anthem” and “Call Me Maybe” a few years ago to Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, and Macklemore in the past year, Top 40 exceeded expectations.

I quietly polled a dozen mainstream Top 40 PD’s and MD’s recently. In large, medium, and small markets. At stations owned by Clear Channel, Journal, Cumulus, and Entercom, among others. The overwhelming consensus:  their options for this year, so far, are less than ideal. They feel trapped by ballads and non-core styles. The year is still young and a lot can change, but golly, the current state of things sure sounds a lot like the start of a potential Doldrum season.

The biggest music strength of mainstream CHR has been the biggest weakness of Christian CHR: diversity of mass appeal songs/styles. I can’t stress “mass appeal” enough (talking style here, not substance. Don’t water down the gospel please). I almost went to thesaurus.com to give you some relief, but there’s something about that “mass appeal” term. The very words reject the musical extreme approach, the anything not-AC approach, and the Rock-Pop pigeon hole approach.

Sean Ross of Edison Media Research backs up Guy Zapoleon’s point about the music ingredients for a successful CHR station: “Every great Top 40 period from the '60s forward is remembered for its stylistic breadth.” (By the way, in his Top 40 check-up reports featured in Billboard last fall, Sean also smelled a potential Doldrum season blowing in.)

A third trend potentially working in Christian CHR’s favor: the decline of Hip Hop. The style itself is still beloved by modern music lovers. But the genre has jumped the shark. There was a time when it made you think, made good points. Today’s hip hop artists, nearly all of the ones heard in Pop Culture anyhow, rap from the same playbook about night club life, drugs/alcohol, sex, etc.

Finally, demographics are swinging in CHR’s direction. For most of my career, and yours too probably, 25-54 “boomers” dominated everything, from what you heard on the air to how the money got there via advertising and donations. Researcher Mark Ramsey recently noted the youngest baby boomers are now 49-years-old. Any format going after that wide 25-54 group is going to find it increasingly hard to appeal to anyone under 40. Mark says “While the 25-54 group remains the largest, the 16-24 number is about a third as large – and growing. And this, of course, is exactly the demographic segment where radio is most challenged by new technology, new content, and new ways to consume it. It is also a group for which radio has relatively few ‘format’ options.” (Doesn’t Christian CHR purport to want 16-24’s, among others?) Clearly, not many others are chasing them.

Christian CHR should seize this season. With at least these four movements working in the format’s favor: First, the mass-appeal tastes of Millenials. No need to throw various bones at incompatible audience segments.  It goes beyond music by the way: because of their desire to experience things in community, customized options like Pandora and Spotify aren’t positioned to meaningfully bond with them. You are!

Secondly, the potential challenges the only two other formats targeting the under-30 crowd will deal with this year (and beyond). Their audience, many of them Christians, many of them seekers, will get restless. They’ll be looking for an inviting, mass appeal, diverse music mix in a compelling/relevant/appealing package. Can Christian CHR deliver it? Playlists revolving around extremes, those barely distinguishable from AC, married to fringes, or backed into a Rock-Pop corner won’t win the day (or hearts and souls).

Third, Hip Hop’s decline. The format has been skittish on the genre. Missed the boat. It is an integral part of the lives of many people under 40, and definitely the majority of those under 30. It’s not limited to skin color or zip code anymore. Christian Hip Hop artists are selling as much or more music than their mainstream counterparts, and earning accolades from them as well. They have fresh things to say to your core audience and your potential audience, and they’re doing it in fresh ways that resonate far outside the genre. To ignore it, be scared of it, etc. is to close the door on untold numbers of listeners.

Finally, the changing population of America means Christian CHR’s potential audience, if you can win them over, could be sizeable enough to actually sustain your station and help it grow.

Christian CHR has never had a unified musical center. If there was ever a time to find one, now seems as perfect as any. Be picky. Don’t play a song or artist simply because it’s too hot/fringe/hip for AC. Walk back from the extreme edges of modern music. Treat harder rock and harder rap as flavors, not as your musical center. Break free from the monotony of the “safe” Rock-Pop songs that chart. Play them? Sure! In moderation. And filter everything through “mass appeal.” When you’re adding those new textures (Hip Hop for example) to your library, stick with only the GREAT songs that have appeal beyond the genre’s border. Most Hip Hop you hear on mainstream Top 40 provides a good template: they’re essentially Pop songs, using Hip Hop as a tool. There are Christian rappers and rockers doing the same thing in their genres, and your audience will find them just as/or more compelling than the fringes and niches Christian CHR has relied on up to this point. And don’t forget to weed out songs and artists in your library who don’t line up with these growth opportunity areas.

Above all, make sure all the non-music stuff your station does matches your mass appeal music approach. Applying a Colossians 3:23 excellence vibe to every area.

Carpe’ Diem.


Mike Couchman currently serves as MD/middays at KSOS/Las Vegas and PD/middays at Boost 101.9/St. Louis. Previous work includes on-air and programming at various Clear Channel Top 40 and Country stations in Detroit & Grand Rapids (MI), WAY-FM/Denver, among others. Mike also belongs to CMB’s Momentum planning team. Contact Mike at waymike@gmail.com


 

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