From a struggling AC to a fresh Top 3 – Sky Radio 101 FM reaches for the stars again by successfully using Modern AC format radio programming tactics.
I remember listening to Euphoria, noticing ‘Sky Radio‘ on my car radio’s RDS display, and thinking: is this really Sky?? As much as I have to get used to Modern AC after many years of Soft AC – it works magic for the non-stop music format. In 1 year, instead of further decreasing ratings, Sky went up 2 percent in 20-34 by re-inventing Adult Contemporary.
“Disc jockeys always have hated these three singers”
Refresh music, imaging, marketing
Sky Radio 101 FM Station Director Uunco Cerfontaine is programming radio stations for 15 years now. Before coming to the Sky Radio Group he was program director of 538, at the time of writing the still #1 in both market share and advertising revenue in Netherlands. The PD explained how a program format can evolve over the years, due to changes in the radio market, music cycles and audience perception. He did this during the Sky Radio Group Live Update, a relation event aimed at media buyers and advertising agencies. Even in this context, the Sky story is an interesting case about how a successful heritage radio brand can suddenly get out of fashion – but also find its way back by re-inventing its music format, on-air imaging and marketing promotions.
In the late eighties, Sky Radio started as a (Soft) AC station with a unique selling proposition: non-stop music and no disc jockeys – a revolution back then. Apart from sweepers, promos, commercials and a temporary late night show called Candlelight, the only talk on Sky Radio was (and still is) from newscasters and weather and traffic experts. The 1990s have been Sky’s ultimate decade with an all-time (sky) high market share of about 20%.
Be family & work friendly
“The basics have always been: adult pop music, without extremes. It has to be family-friendly; you can put it on while you’re driving in your car with your children, without triggering difficult-to-answer questions about obscure topics – which deejays like to address.” Cerfontaine explains that this is the exact reason why AC stations usually stay low-profile in terms of on-air personalities and have an office-friendly music flow. Their main goal is to be ideal ‘at-work’ stations that everyone in the office can agree on.
In the 1990s, Sky Radio was riding on a wave of power ballads, which was a perfect fit with their format. “Soft AC was in fashion; melodic MOR Pop without extremes. It was the time of the divas ”, he says while referring to Sky Radio’s high rotation artists in those days: Céline Dion, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. “Basically only AC stations wanted to play them. Disc jockeys always have hated these three singers.”
Differentiate yourself from competitors
Another reason for Sky Radio’s success was that there was less competition than today, and that they were different from anyone else. The Dutch radio market in the 1990s in terms of the biggest public broadcasting and privately owned stations looked like this:
- 538 (now Mainstream CHR) was a very young station, playing lots of Happy Hardcore
- Radio 2 was for middle-aged and older people, and featured a lot of talk
- Noordzee (now Hot AC Q-music) played Dutch Pop and Schlagers
- 3FM sounded pretty alternative with artists like Blur and Nirvana
- Radio 10 Gold’s play list included a lot of 60s classics
“The musical taste of our target audience is evolving”
Find opportunities in details
Uunco Cerfontaine’s opinion is that the radio market has become a lot more developed since the early days of commercial radio. “It’s actually much more difficult to reach a 10 percent market share now than it was to get 20 percent then.” The programmer feels like Holland is on the same level now as New York or Los Angeles, “the best radio markets in the world. Also among our competitors there is not a single bad program director or music director. All radio stations in the Netherlands are really professional.”
2003 was an important year in the history of Dutch commercial radio, because the government re-auctioned a lot of FM frequencies of privately owned stations. It made the state a lot of money. Media entrepreneur John de Mol alone agreed to pay over 80 million Euros over the course of 8 years for the very popular 100.7 FM – that Sky Radio had previously been using (and intensively promoting) through on-air imaging and off-air marketing.
Prefer recurrents above classics
Challenges that Sky Radio had to cope with since 2003:
- The station lost its popular 100.7 frequency to Noordzee FM (now Q-music) so Sky’s listeners had to go find their favorite station on the dial again
- The competition became a lot smarter; many stations started to play ‘Sky Radio’ music as well, or moved towards their (20-49) target demo
- The music cycle was shifting: power ballads went out of fashion and Trance by DJ Tiësto and other club deejays became popular instead
- Sky Radio sounded older as they were leaning more on Classic Hits (because of less suitable ‘AC currents’) which affected the ratings
Fortunately, things changed in 2010. American AC stations evolved their format into a younger version, better known as Modern AC. Cerfontaine credits 106.7 Lite FM / WLTW in New York as a first-class example for every Adult Contemporary station in the world. For several years, Clear Channel‘s Big Apple mass-appeal brand was coping with similar issues as Sky Radio – resulting in a downward ratings trend. It was time for a change!
Keep your basic proposition
Lite FM’s programming team decided to choose a more modern, less soft approach, thus creating more drive and more variety in music styles – all while staying true to the basic format promise: it’s for adults; not for teenagers. This made the station #1 in New York again. In 2011, Sky Radio was looking for ways to adapt Lite FM’s strategy to the Dutch radio market. Uunco Cerfontaine elaborates: “Our studies showed that the musical taste of our target audience is evolving. There were indications that we could introduce this Modern AC format in the Netherlands.”
“People thought there was a man with a bunch of tapes,
flipping cassettes while the news was being read”
Refresh the entire brand
Cerfontaine knows that it’s about more than music – it’s about a modern version of the whole brand. “People felt like it had become a bit dusty, so we did research to see how we could align the brand Sky Radio with the music format we had in mind.” Under the wings of the group’s new CEO Philip Alberdingk Thijm it was decided to develop a new strategy “from broad to small”; from a large group of employees to the core programming team, and get some feedback from advertisers as well. The goal? Modernize without forcing things just to sound young. “That would be like a 45-year-old guy who grows long hair, buys a motor cycle, and puts on cowboy boots – kind of ridiculous. In addition, there are many young brands in the Netherlands that already deliver the CHR format very well.” It was decided to focus on 3 important areas: music, branding and marketing.
The program director notices that “the music cycle is back in favor of Sky Radio. People want to hear real music again.” He mentions the rise of the popular singer/songwriter James Morrison and probably the most-played AC artist of today – yes, Adele. Another example is Coldplay’s transition from an alternative Rock band to a mainstream Pop act with songs like Viva La Vida. To achieve extra variety, melodic Pop-Dance is being included as well.
Play 50/50 music mix
Modern AC profits from CHR crossover songs from artists like Rihanna, Pink and Alicia Keys. It allows Sky Radio to play a lot of hits that are relevant for its 20-49 year-old target audience. 50% of the average hour is current music – during work hours it might be a bit more; in the evening a bit less. “In every episode of The Voice of Holland I see a reflection of our entire play list. Sky is sitting in the now”, the PD states. He also sees an additional benefit of the fact that Modern AC offers more than just MOR Pop. “Because of Pop-Dance and Pop-Rock there are more tempo transitions – which creates a feeling of more variety.”
Almost since its launch in 1988, people seem to think that Sky Radio is playing the same music over and over. “In the early days, people thought there was a man with a bunch of tapes, flipping cassettes while the news was being read on air”, Uunco Cerfontaine recalls. Although their music database in reality had about the same volume as other commercial stations, people still believed that they heard less variety on Sky.
Include several different (sub)genres
“Especially the Soft-Pop formula in the 1990s and early 2000s limited the number of genres, thus creating a less dynamic sound which might come across as monotone.” The program director explains that Adult Contemporary is basically a greatest hits format; a collection of the biggest hits of today and from the past. As the majority of songs is already familiar to people (because they’ve heard them a lot already), it can increase the perception of hearing the same songs all the time.
“Together with the music,
it determines our on-air sound”
Focus on working hours
Because perception is reality in the mind of the listener, Sky Radio has been looking for ways to prove that they do have more music variety. For a while they’ve just had often-used positioning statements like ‘More Music, More Variety’. A few years ago, they introduced the No-Repeat Workday (between 9 and 5, never the same song). This promise also reinforces Sky’s desired image of being the ideal at-work station. The PD believes that working hours are even more important for an AC station as its morning show (speaking in terms of audience reach).
Sky Radio 101 initiates specialty shows that expand the usual format, and can even include some off-format tracks – when it happens within context:
• Power Women Top 101: a chart show of songs by female artists
• Summer Hit Top 101: a list of Summer style feel good hits
• Number 1 Top 101: a rundown of #1 hit singles
• Valentine Top 101: a collection of love songs
Invest in imaging & branding
Cerfontaine finds station imaging and on-air branding a major ingredient. “Sound design is essential for the image of every station, but for Sky it’s even more important. Together with the music, it determines our on-air sound.” From the very start, Sky Radio has been known for using high-quality jingles, which over the years have evolved from warm, classic, Soft AC jingles into a much more young, upbeat and contemporary Modern AC sound. “We try to create the best possible music flow, to increase our Time Spent Listening.”
Sky Radio made some dramatic changes in the process. One of them was moving from a pretty long logo melody of 9 syllables (incorporating both their station name and frequency) – of which they altered the melody a few years ago – to a much shorter one of just 4 (station name only). The main reason for this third logo melody change within a relatively short amount of time was the changing pulse of society.
Adjust tone of voice
Uunco Cerfontaine: “Everything’s going faster. TV shows from a couple of years ago feel really slow now. Things have to be more condensed and faster.” Sky’s two station voices [consisting of one male and one female] also come across differently; they sound more personal and dynamic. Also the production of sweepers and promos includes more FX – without going over the top and losing credibility as an AC format. “It doesn’t have to become a kids station.”
“When your format is drifting, you’ll always go down”
Include visual & physical promotion
The PD realizes that no matter how much you have improved your content, “if your audience doesn’t know it, it won’t help you”. So just as the logo melody, the visual logo got an update as well. Besides introducing a new on-air sound and off-air look, Sky Radio launched a lot of music-related sweepstakes to support the desired image. From a VIP arrangement for an Adele concert to a showcase of the popular Dutch pop band Racoon on a platform up in the sky, held up by a crane – promotions like these show what kind of music Sky Radio is associating with and create attention as well. Other successful concepts include various giveaways; from iPad devices to Disney arrangements.
Cerfontaine is happy to notice that these promotions seem to be relevant for a 20-49 year-old audience that Sky Radio wants to reach. “A huge amount of listeners participated online and through text messaging, but also – and that’s what I appreciate even more – we have received a lot of positive response through Twitter and Facebook. Sky is becoming top of mind again”, is his conclusion. “People speak about us again, in a positive way.”
Give your strategy time
He knows very well that making plans, and even taking action, is just the beginning. What matters most, is consistent execution: “When you are on the programming side, you are constantly getting input from your sales department: we have to do this and that; our clients want to reach ABC1, and so on. But when your format is drifting, you’ll always go down. Radio is different from television – it takes 6 months or a year before you know see the results of what you’re doing now. Don’t get nervous and stick to the plan.” Therefore Sky Radio’s programming team asked (and got) permission to try it for at least 1 full year.
Sky Radio is continuously monitoring (trends of) how 20-49 year-olds perceive the station’s brand, programming and promotions – and they closely keep an eye on the competition as well. “That’s what I like about my job”, the program director says. “You’re constantly anticipating on what happens in the market. We then want to turn [positive images] into conscious listening behavior, because that [translates into] crosses in the Intomart diaries.”
Offer additional tune-in moments
Besides focusing on being (one of) the most popular station(s) at work, Sky Radio runs a side strategy to increase their cume on other moments as well. “We want to show that for everyone who wants it, there is a suitable moment somewhere during the week – whether it’s on weekdays or on Sunday morning.” On-air promotions keep playing an important role, especially music-related contests, and thematic weeks or weekends. “My intention from a programming perspective is to make the station sound like an ‘A’ brand. That’s why we have expensive jingles and do extensive research. We have the same goal with our promotions; they should all have that same [quality] image.”
“They are the thirty-some of tomorrow”
Focus on 20-34 demographic
Uunco Cerfontaine is eager to tell his audience of ad agencies and media buyers (in a subtle way) that their new approach, initiated in 2012 and fine-tuned in 2013, is successful. He makes his point by sharing that “in all demographics that our relations appreciate, we’ve seen a growth of about 10%.” Prior to the Modern AC format introduction in 2012, Sky was losing its connection to the 20-34 year-old audience, while the young adult demographic is an important group for radio advertisers. “There we’ve seen around 15% growth compared to the previous year.” The official ratings book for Sky Radio over January/February 2013 shows a nice comeback in terms of market share indeed:
- 9.5% as an overall 10+ market share (+ 1.2% *)
- 9.7% within the popular 20-49 year-old demographic (+ 0.7% *)
- 9.3% within the highly sought-after 20-34 year-old group of ‘young adults’ (+ 2% *)
The PD is particularly happy that 20-34 is “embracing” the station again. He knows that Adult Contemporary is predominantly produced for and appealing to a 30+ year-old audience – but emphasizes the importance of reaching the next generation of Modern AC listeners as well. “You need listeners in their twenties as they are the thirty-some of tomorrow. If you have a connection to them, you know that you have a future.”