Smooth FM: a different perspective

Radio Consultancy

Following the reactions to Brad March’s article on Smooth FM (here), here is a slightly different perspective, in a slightly different direction.

Note: I don’t know the long-term strategy for Smooth. This is about the long-term potential of the ‘relax’ position.

Regarding the discussion on demographics: in the long-term, under-40s won’t be the primary win for this position (see below for evidence of where the win is). There is too much competition under-40, and a risk of cannibalizing Nova’s top end, as Vega did. Any gains in these ‘younger’ under-40s demos are icing, not cake. However, a tactical decision to impact the under-40s demos makes sense – in the short-term. 

The much commented ‘huge gap’ in the market is a lot bigger than has been acknowledged. It’s as if WSFM/Gold are perceived as being at the upper end of the age groups accessible to FM stations! Yet people who are now in their mid-to-late 50s and early 60s were among the first adopters of FM radio in the 1980s. FM is not new to the people who first embraced it.

Which means there is a great deal of room to move tactically within the ‘relax’ position – potentially to include the 50+ demos where there is less competition and a lot of revenue upside.

So, in any analysis of Smooth’s long-term strategic direction, short-term tactical issues (even seemingly large music adjustments) shouldn’t be regarded as anything more than ‘trimming the sails’ while keeping the boat on the same long-term course. Music logs are not remotely the same thing as building perceptual positions. (Nova 969 in the early-mid 2000s being just one good example. Perception: a slightly male-leaning, edgy/alternative youth station with a cheeky tone. Reality: a pure pop music station primarily targeted at adult females. And Smooth has even more room to move than Nova did).

For Smooth, at-work and at-home listening will be the key. At-home listening is virtually uncontested – there is no truly dominant leader of at-home listening amongst FM stations. No FM station has pursued at-home listening as a foundation of its strategy. This is a large oversight.

Unfortunately, at-home listening is a slow-grow. People are quicker to try a new station in their workplace or car than to invite you into the intimate environment of their home while the kids are running around, the kitchen is a mess, and they're getting everyone ready for school and work. (This is part of the reason why building breakfast audience takes so long – even more so for breakfast television, which doesn’t have the benefit of the quick, easy, in-car radio sampling as people flick around stations on the way to work). Conversely, once entrenched as a habit, the station people invite into their homes is the one they’re slowest to change – versus their at-work and in-car stations. So, over the long-term, at-home listening is a big potential win for Smooth.

Within 3 years, consistent 10+ shares above 8% are achievable in Sydney. And once achieved, solid – because of a strong foundation built on at-home and at-work listening. Whether that will be achieved is impossible to predict, and partly outside of the programmers’ control – but that’s what’s achievable. So there’s little point in looking at this format survey-by-survey any time soon. Even though everyone will.

‘Relax’ is the key externally marketed position – and rightly so. Examples from around the world show it has long been the foundation of very powerful positions – and not just in this format. The UK’s commercial classical music station, Classic FM, grew to become the biggest and most listened to commercial radio station in the world founded specifically on the ‘relax’ position.

But equally important when making programming and imaging decisions, is a position and word that’s misunderstood and unpopular with media-professionals – “safe”.

“Safe” doesn’t mean “boring and beige”. The vast majority of people want to feel safe. And while the word "safe" is unlikely to ever be used on-air, as a guiding principle that's inseparable from the “relax” position, “safe” is powerful, positive and fun. In imaging, marketing, and perception-building terms, “safe” offers limitless and exciting creative opportunities. “Safe” = fun, laughs, pizza, the weekend!, holidays, family barbecues, gelato, Toy Story 3, Shrek, The Voice, Christmas-time, and building blanket forts with the kids. Safe is a good thing. For the majority of people “safe” is aspirational. (Though don’t bother researching it – it won’t test).

On the other hand, “safe” = a positive escape from the ugly outside world of “abusive shock jocks”, “angry old ranting AM talk jocks”, media stories of murder, abduction, disaster, terrorism, economic collapse, Grexits, political scandals and leadership instability, plummeting house values, job-insecurity – and it also means being guilt-free about driving a big fuel-guzzling SUV because it feels safe, even though you only go off-road doing a u-ey over the median strip. Most people want to feel safe. And most people can’t truly relax until they feel safe.

Ultimately, in brand marketing terms, that means owning one of the most powerful unspoken anti-positions in the market. For want of a better term, in Australia it’s the “anti-Kyle” position* – relaxing, fun and safe to listen to without being worried you'll be embarrassed in front of the kids/mum/dad. And if Smooth can guarantee you’ll never hear smut, abuse, or anything awkward that you want to avoid having to explain to the kids – but you’ll still have a relaxing, good fun time – then it’s a long-term winner. This approach works for animated movies, theme parks, Nintendo Wii games, reality television (The Voice – anyone feel in any way offended watching The Voice? It's safe to watch but certainly not boring and beige) … and successful radio formats around the world.

One final point on the ‘huge gap’ in the market:

Until quite recently (2010), for a long time the #1 music stations in Sydney for under 40s and over 40s respectively were 2Day and 2CH. That’s not a typo, but a little discussed fact – 2CH was consistently the #1 music station for all people over 40 for a very long time – averaging a 9% share of all people over 40 in 2010. Its two nearest music rivals were WSFM, averaging 8.2% for the year, followed by 2Day, averaging around 4%. No other music stations achieved much over 3% of all people over 40! (To ram home the point: in 2010, 2CH was also the #1 music station for all people aged over 35, averaging around 8%). That was based on its strength 55+, its complete dominance of at-home listening, and its solid at-work listening – which, combined, created the strongest time-spent-listening of any music station in Sydney.

So if one company had owned both 2Day and 2CH they would have had the #1 music stations for both under 40s and over 40s – an incredibly powerful sales proposition. As a combined spend, who could ignore it?

With the launch of Smooth, DMG now has the potential to achieve both within 3 years.


* This is not meant in any way as a criticism of Kyle. It’s just a positioning example, using the presenter with the most powerful and polarizing audience perceptions to position against. If we were in the U.S it could just as easily be the “anti-Howard-Stern” position.

Note: this article isn’t a comment on the current or future execution of Smooth; it’s a comment on its positioning potential for long-term growth – which will be a good thing for the whole industry. All statistics  are from Nielsen.

Scott Muller is Director of MBOS Consulting Group, a media management and consulting firm.

Click here to contact him.

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