Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Smooth Jazz CSI: Top 5 Reasons Why The Format Failed



Launched in the late 1980s, smooth jazz became a top-rated radio format that consistently generated healthy profits and high audience enthusiasm.  For almost 20 years, it could be heard in the top U.S. radio markets as well as dozens of secondary and tertiary markets from coast to coast.  At the peak of the format’s popularity, close to 100 stations shared the laidback smooth jazz experience with its loyal listeners.




By 2007, however, the format was in a ratings and revenue decline, and by the end of 2008, it was for the most part gone from terrestrial radio dials (it can still be heard today in 15 markets, the biggest of which is San Diego).

I was a smooth jazz air personality1 from 2002 through 2008.  Using online research2, interviews with key industry personnel3, and my own personal experiences/observations, I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of the primary reasons why the format failed:

1.  Top down management structure.

The vast majority of stations that aired the smooth jazz format were overseen by an outside consultant.

 

In conventional consultant-client relationships, the consultant provides advice, guidance, and recommendations, which the client is free to follow, modify, or reject (since the client is paying the bill, the client has that prerogative).

In the case of the smooth jazz format, however, this relationship was skewed:  the consultant made all determinations of the stations’ on-air presentations, and his clients (represented by the stations’ program directors) executed the directives.  There was no discussion, debate, or disagreement about these decisions:  the consultant had the final say about the choice of air personalities, imaging, programming flow, and – especially – music.

The managers and sales executives from the stations that he consulted supported this arrangement:  in their eyes, the consultant possessed specialized understanding of the smooth jazz format and audience that had been carefully developed.  As long as ad sales were robust and ratings were strong, the operation of the format would be outsourced to the consultant.




The consultant has been quoted repeatedly in the radio press as saying that he didn’t hold sway over his clients’ business moves, and that they were free to make the programming decisions that were appropriate for their respective stations.  However, the truth is that program directors were chastised if they defied the consultant’s suggestions, and the threat of termination – while not overtly raised - was always in the air if a pattern of defiance was shown.




This centralized method of decision-making, which neither sought nor accepted input or suggestions from the field, would eventually prove to be highly problematic for the smooth jazz format.

2.  One-size-fits-all approach.

The consultant’s pitch was attractive for potential clients:  he offered a low-cost, easy to implement, turnkey solution that was a proven ratings winner and moneymaker.  The approach was established, tested (the consultant also operated a research firm that offered data which validated his actions and decisions), and attractive to advertisers.




The problem with this by-the-numbers methodology was that – while not a national format – smooth jazz was treated as such.  Across the country, regardless of the location of the market or demographic/ethnic make-up of the audience, all of the consultant’s stations sounded exactly the same.  There was no regional differentiation in the implementation, and no recognition that smooth jazz in Los Angeles might have a different flavor than smooth jazz in Miami.  The promotions, contests, programming, and music were a cut-and-paste from station to station.

While this way of doing business was convenient to implement and highly profitable for the consultant, it would ultimately be one of the main reasons why the format failed.

3.  Rigid, non-dynamic programming.

The terrestrial smooth jazz radio experience was an unusual species.

The consultant wouldn’t have categorized it an oldies radio format, yet in 2000 and beyond, the bulk of the selections that smooth jazz presented as its signature songs were almost 20 to 30 years old.



The consultant wouldn’t have called it an updated version of the beautiful music radio format, yet smooth jazz relied heavily on instrumental covers of pop hits from the 60s and 70s.





The consultant wouldn’t have ever described it as being static, yet the sound of a smooth jazz station in 2008 wasn’t vastly different from that same station’s sound in 2005 or 2000.





In order for their products and services to remain relevant to the marketplace, desirable to current customers, and appealing to new ones, companies need to constantly innovate.  They must understand the goals, needs, and desires of their users and reflect those goals, needs, and desires in their product/service offerings.  Apple, Starbucks, and Amazon are excellent examples of market-leading, innovative brands.  What they’re offering today is different from, and superior to, what they offered even six months ago because of their endless striving for improvement.

While the consultant insisted that his approach was innovative, no data, proof, or results exist to validate that argument.  No strategy was ever announced.  No benchmarks were ever established.  No examples or success stories were ever presented.  It’s humorous for the consultant to suggest that he achieved the same level and quality of innovation with the smooth jazz format that the aforementioned brands embrace with their products/services, but it’s not factual.

The truth is that the consultant “innovated” as he saw fit.  He implemented changes/tweaks/updates in the programming of the smooth jazz format that he was personally comfortable with, not changes/tweaks/updates that best served the unique needs, goals, and desires of his clients’ listeners/customers.

It’s been said that the most perilous place to interact with your customers is through your office window, and that’s the exact location where the consultant chose to operate.





It was only a matter of time when this dangerous disconnect would catch up with the consultant and the smooth jazz format.

4.  Refusal to seriously address demographic challenges.

When Arbitron’s radio ratings system changed in 2007 from diaries to PPM (Portable People Meter), it marked the swan song for the smooth jazz format.



When measured by the diaries, smooth jazz had a strong listener base among the “money demo” of listeners ages 25 – 54.  But the PPM system negated that notion:  PPM, which samples and measures the actual listening habits of meter carriers (as opposed to the inaccurate entries of diary keepers), revealed that smooth jazz listeners were older than previously believed.  Older listeners are not as attractive an audience to advertisers as are younger listeners, and if smooth jazz wasn’t able to successfully lure these desirable younger listeners, then its communication value to advertisers as a messaging medium – and economic value to station owners as a format – was limited.





In an attempt to make smooth jazz palatable to younger listeners, the consultant approved the addition of hit songs to his stations’ playlists by artists that had strong appeal among younger listeners, including Fergie, John Legend, and Beyonce.  While these were excellent song choices by contemporary music stars that meshed seamlessly with the smooth jazz sound, it was misguided (if not delusional) to think that their addition would inspire a flow of new twenty and thirtysomethings to the smooth jazz stations that played them.




If the consultant was looking for a magic bullet to ramp up listening by a younger audience, this solution wasn’t it.  It was too little, too late, and just plain too wrong of an idea to save the format.


5.  Tendency to make excuses, not seek solutions.

Research played an important role in justifying the consultant’s decisions and actions.

As mentioned above, the consultant offered a wide array of research services in addition to the programming services that he provided to smooth jazz radio stations.  These research offerings involved auditorium music testing, which helped radio stations to determine the songs that would best resonate with their listeners.

In auditorium music tests, a roomful of participants are each provided with a handheld dial apparatus.  The participants listen to several hundred short song snippets and are asked to register their like or dislike of the snippets that they hear by turning their dial all the way (like), or not very much (dislike).  The data is tabulated and compiled, and the songs receiving the highest approval ratings are those that the research company recommends to the radio station for frequent airplay.



The consultant conducted all of the audience music testing for his smooth jazz clients, and the top ranking songs were used on the air.4

As smooth jazz stations – including many that the consultant worked with - began flipping in 2008, the consultant never considered that his research was a contributing factor to the format’s demise.  After all, his research expressed the exact musical preferences of smooth jazz listeners, so if his stations presented the songs that tested best, then he was just giving these listeners what they wanted, right?

Well, actually – wrong.

The consultant made the mistake of looking at auditorium research as being a valid, comprehensive, and infallible answer to guide his decisions and directives.  But auditorium research isn’t the answer.  It’s an answer.



In order for auditorium research for a radio station to be effective, it needs to be combined with an ongoing learning campaign that seeks to intuit the tastes, goals, and needs of a respective market’s listeners.  This campaign would need to be a constant fact-finding process that would include listener focus groups, direct interaction with listeners at station events, and plain old, honest-to-goodness gut instinct based on one’s intimate knowledge of listener tastes in a station’s market.

But that kind of research was more time-consuming, expensive, and inconvenient for the consultant to pursue compared to the fast answers that audience research provided.  It also was dangerous:  if sought, it could have presented insights that ran counter to what the consultant was recommending to his clients.

Another reason why the consultant’s research pursuits yielded unreliable results was because of his very narrow comfort zone:  he only tested songs that he personally approved of, and that he felt were appropriate to include in his interpretation of what the smooth jazz radio experience should encompass.  Songs that might have attracted a larger audience or a younger audience weren’t included if they didn’t embody the consultant’s cautious vision of what smooth jazz should be.



In his "passion for excellence", the consultant tapered, edited, and guided the parameters of what he wanted the research to reflect, and he ended up with data that confirmed his specific tastes, goals, and needs – and not those of his audiences.  While this data supported the consultant’s strategic vision, it contributed to the extinction of the smooth jazz format.

In 2009, the consultant put forth a variety of defenses/rationales/excuses that sought to explain the format’s failure, including:

EXCUSE:  “PPM killed the smooth jazz format.”
EXCUSE DECONSTRUCTION:  If PPM was perceived to be a threat to his clients, why didn’t the consultant seek to learn as much as he could about how it worked and devise a strategy to help them survive?  Rather than complain about how PPM was administered, why didn’t the consultant instead pursue solutions that would maintain his clients’ market position as well as the overall viability of the format?



EXCUSE:  “Smooth jazz was a Nordstrom product trying to maintain its position in a McDonald's economy.”
EXCUSE DECONSTRUCTION:  Was the consultant lamenting America’s economic downturn or the decline in his listeners’ personal finances?  Was he frustrated that the general public didn’t enjoy the upscale Nordstrom-esque experience that he was providing?  Was he praising Nordstrom’s customers and insulting McDonald’s customers?

Whatever the subtext behind this curious protest, the consultant was pretty much admitting that there was a disconnect between the smooth jazz format and the tastes of the majority of radio listeners.  His refusal (or inability) to implement a strategic effort to reduce this gap by better representing the unique tastes of listeners in each of his stations’ markets is inexcusable.  It shows an absence of an overall strategy, zero due diligence about his markets and customers/listeners, and a complete lack of preparedness for disruption.



EXCUSE:  “[The stations that I consulted] were all programmed locally by strong, independent-minded program directors.”
EXCUSE DECONSTRUCTION:  The consultant wanted it both ways:  he embraced Billboard magazine’s description of him as being “more than a consultant… he's an evangelist for the smooth jazz format”, yet when the time came to be a leader and effective manager, he stepped aside and – in so many words – blamed the “strong, independent-minded program directors” for their stations’ ruin.

He went on to say that none of these stations were programmed by his consultancy, and that fault for the format’s failure shouldn’t be ascribed to one entity.



The consultant’s evasiveness and dishonesty were glaring, especially to the program directors (now unemployed) who he had worked with.  These same “independent-minded” programmers knew exactly who was truly in charge at their stations, and they knew that to refuse the consultant’s directives was a very bad career move.5

The consultant’s irresponsible stewardship of the smooth jazz format left significant collateral damage:  not only did air talent, programmers, and other employees of the stations that he consulted across the country lose their jobs, most of the consultant’s employees were let go as well.  It was an exciting and very profitable ride for quite awhile for the consultant, but in the end, the house of cards that he built couldn’t withstand the weight of its own poor management, marketing myopia, and defiance of the basic rules of a well-run business.



AUTHOR’S NOTE:  As the above list makes evident, the reason for the smooth jazz implosion was because of failures in the management of the format as it was being presented, not necessarily in the idea of the format itself.  I believe that - if properly prepared, marketed, offered, and maintained - a lush, instrumental-based terrestrial radio format could be a revenue and ratings success, with huge appeal to the young audiences that are most attractive to advertisers.

UPDATE:  The consultant has shuttered his smooth jazz consultancy and has opened a new one that offers programming consulting services, talent guidance services, and research services.



1 - Sirius 2002-2003; syndicated terrestrial 2004-2008
2 -
articles, radio forum posts/discussions
3 -
booking agents, artists, journalists, managers, former program directors
4 - Stations that didn’t hire the consultant tended to follow his research.  In fact, program directors from non-client stations added songs to their playlists that tested well in the consultant’s markets, even if these markets were 1,000 miles away from their own.  This is an example of the influence that the consultant had over almost all programmers in the smooth jazz format, most of whom had little confidence in their ability to understand, determine, or reflect their own listeners’ tastes.
5 -
It was also a bad career move, it turned out in the end, to follow the consultant’s directives:  most of the smooth jazz programmers who lost their jobs when the format capsized are no longer working in radio.

2 comments:

  1. Rafe -

    You nailed it bro. Every point is dead on, and it's a pity that smooth jazz was pretty much killed by such an incompetent.

    If a variation of the format comes back, your the guy who should be running it!

    Pete Domenici (Philadelphia)

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  2. sadly over the last 20 years commercial radio has become a narrow cast medium that alienates it's listener's theres a reason why public enemy came out with a song back in 1991 titled how to kill a radio consultant, the culture is different today, ur points are exactly the same points that destroyed urban radio in this country.

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