It’s been almost a year since Momentum ‘18, and many CCM radio programmers have been wrestling with some of the points Alan Burns made in his “How To Convert Non-Listeners to Listeners” presentation. In case you weren’t there or don’t remember, our format’s perceived lack of tempo/energy is an obstacle to our growth. Maybe you’ve seen Centricity Records part of the solution? The “Make CCM Fun Again” hats? How can we if most of our best testing songs are exactly NOT fun? The answer may make you and/or your consultant cringe: demote your research. (I just talked myself out of quite a few future job opportunities. But hey! That’s more for you!)
Before you write me off, let’s go to the actual data Alan Burns presented:
Clusters of songs like “O Come To the Altar,” “Good Good Father,” and “King of the World,” were tested against clusters of songs like “When We Pray,” “Joy,” “Soul On Fire,” and others similar in appeal/tempo/texture.
The slower and worshipful songs scored GREAT with current CCM radio listeners. DUH. On the 1-5 scale, those clusters were at 4.4. But among prospective listeners (those in the demo NOT listening), the slow song clusters came in at 2.64 (Women 35-44 ) and 2.91 (Women 45-54). #OUCH
Meanwhile, the upbeat clusters scored 3.7 with Prospective listeners and 4.6 with current CCM radio listeners. Upbeat music scored better than any other flavor of CCM. (Nothing scored above a 4 with Prospects, probably because they weren’t familiar with any of our songs.)
Beyond the exciting world of song statistics, those who don’t listen to our format said they wanted music that “picks you up and feels good.” Words and feelings like “Fun,” “Joy,” and “Happy” kept popping up. (Our current audience also likes those feelings.)
Alan Burns confirmed with data what many have said anecdotally for years: for outsiders, CCM radio can tend to feel low key and monotonous. Let’s do the math. The worshipful, chill side of our format that endears our current core P1’s to us is the exact music Christians who don’t listen DON’T want to hear. Meanwhile, upbeat music shows the most promise with them AND it scores highest with our own audience. Then why is it so hard to turn this corner? As I write this (early summer 2019), 8 of Christian AC’s Top 10 songs are either ballads, worship songs, or both.
The fault is in our stars. No. Wait. That’s a movie I’ve been able to avoid. (Sorry if you love it.) The fault lies with how we use our research, and who we hear from. Most CCM stations rely on P1’s who take our online tests, and P1’s recruited for auditorium tests from our station databases. Often the donor databases. They are not an accurate reflection of your audience as a whole; they don’t even represent your average P1. What we’ve created is a feedback loop. A never-ending cycle of “because they liked that, they’ll like this.” Mark Ramsey once said: “there’s a danger to being rewarded with only what you already like. In the literature they call it a ‘filter bubble.’ The stream of filtered content chokes off serendipity, chokes off surprises, chokes off unexpected delights. It sends you down a rabbit hole of self-satisfying sameness.”
Jeepers! “Self-satisfying sameness” could be a pretty on-the-nose description of CCM. (Sorry not sorry!)
Some programmers left Momentum in September of 2018 vowing to put their toes in the higher tempo waters Alan Burns suggested we swim in. Quite a few of the songs they tried bombed. And before it even began, their experiments were over. Because of how we do research (see above! Please! I can’t stress that point enough! I’m using exclamation points like I’m Elaine Benes writing an ad for a J. Peterman catalog! #SeinfeldReference)
Maybe I should have saved my exclamation points for this: STOP. LETTING. RESEARCH. BOSS. YOU. AROUND. (!) And obligatory smile emoji because I love you. 😊
Two or three years ago (roughly), I admitted to my boss that I spent my first year programming JOY-FM/St. Louis from a place of fear. I told Sandi Brown “my primary goal has been to not be the guy who broke JOY-FM.” #PlayItSafe. I then asked questions about our mission and her vision. We talked 30,000 foot stuff and ground level stuff. To that end, song tempo came up. Like every other station in the format, our best testing songs were slow and somber. We played them nearly exactly how the research spat them out. Because she’s an empowering boss, she didn’t tell me how to do my job. Sandi left me with this: “If our name is JOY-FM, shouldn’t that be what people hear?”
Our station turned a corner that day. The power of her statement informed our show content, our promotions decisions, our marketing strategies, production/imaging, and obviously our music. It was a reset of sorts. Research would serve our mission and vision. We were no longer going to rely on research to tell us how to sound.
We began adding songs that served the JOYful side of our calling. Not at the expense of proven hits. But definitely in place of the me-too songs that can be tempting to add because they sound like what works. We also put stricter parameters on how many slow songs could play and how close together they were (or weren’t) allowed. Long story short, we’re pleased with who we are becoming on all fronts, and our measurable metrics are the best we’ve ever seen.
If you think there’s merit in evolving your station to a place more upbeat, joyful, and welcoming to non-listeners, consider these suggestions…
- Forget everything you’ve learned from research and have the “big picture” conversation with whoever you’re accountable to. You need to be on the same page with The Brass before you do anything substantial. Try to forget research exists, because it will color your discussion. What would you sound like if you only chose songs based on your mission, vision, and target audience? Accept that the boss may not feel the need to go where you feel called to. But don’t put off the talk. Pray for guidance, the right words, and for God to show each person involved what obedience to His purpose for your station looks/sounds like.
- Without adding or dropping a single song (assuming you’re moving ahead), adjust your music software’s rules and coding to reflect how you want to sound. Then, as you schedule, the ingredients your library is missing will become clear. Like, you may discover your Power Gold category doesn’t have enough of what you need to achieve your desired balance.
- Methodically begin to adjust your library. Meaning, unless you have nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up, don’t change everything at once. Make gradual moves, evaluate, tweak, correct, etc. You may also want to consider experimenting with clock and rule changes during non-critical hours/dayparts. Clock changes we’ve made at JOY-FM began with nights and weekends and then graduated to the other dayparts.
- Don’t play janky songs just to sound more upbeat. Don’t trade proven slow/worshipful hit songs for mediocre songs with energy. Even within the confines of how our format conducts research, there are ways to use it to find helpful songs. The 1-5 scale is not the only way to evaluate, for example. Not all 4.1’s or even 3.8’s are created equal. There are times when a 4.1 has less value than a 3.8. That’s probably a whole other topic. (It’s also why a few stations pay for me to consult them. Wink Wink. Hashtag let’s talk.)
- Accept that any significant change you make carries risk. (Otherwise, why bother?) The measurable wins may not be obvious in your research, and may simply take time to appear. Again, quoting Mark Ramsey: “Consumers don’t want only stuff that’s similar to what they already like, they also want stuff they don’t like at first but will learn to like in time…In a world of filtering and personalization, consumers – listeners – will value that which stands out; that which provides a bit of challenge and a dollop of surprise.”
- Don’t neglect the rest of the package. If your music blend changes but your imaging, personalities, and even your promotions/marketing efforts don’t match the blend, the result will be a disjointed, confusing product.
This is not meant to trash research, stations who are legendary for using it (we use it!), or the slow/worshipful songs our format is built on (we play them!). Before CCM became a radio format to reckon with, many would contend it was more fun and upbeat. (Hence the “Make CCM Fun Again” hat.) We were fun with no focus though. A lot of the songs we played because they sounded “fun” or whatever turned out to be our audience’s least favorites once research began to spread across the format. They were novelty (Cartoon Song anyone?), lyrically irrelevant/cheesy, or not in our center lane stylistically (I love you Stacie Orrico. Platonically.) I’m not advocating we go back. I’m suggesting we overcorrected though.
Whatever changes you make, use research, use consultants, use every tool at your disposal to bring your station closer to its purpose. If a research provider or consultant isn’t on board with helping you accomplish what you’re called to above all other priorities, you may need to have tough conversations. And while I’m busy costing myself future jobs, this is not a diss on any currently famous consultant in our industry. I’ve had the privilege to work with almost all the ones you’ve heard of, and each of them will readily help you achieve what you want to. You just need to have clear confidence in your mission. One of these consultants names is synonymous with the question “What are you trying to accomplish?” When that’s not quantified is when stations tend to drift in whichever direction wind and consultants blow. So, ask the hard questions. Recognize innovation/growth can be in conflict with what already works. And rely on God’s calling to be your compass above all.
Mike Couchman is the Program Director at KLJY/St Louis and BOOST 101.9 in St. Louis. He also does freelance work with the SOS Radio Network based in Las Vegas, Solution FM/Bangor, Maine, and Smile-FM in Michigan. Prior to all this he was part of many mainstream Top 40, Country, and Christian stations in Denver, Detroit, and most of Michigan. Reach Mike at [email protected]…