By  on May 8, 2006

NEW YORK — Some malls seeking a more sophisticated ambience are turning on the music — and it's not Muzak.

They are tuning in a system called Mall Radio Network, which broadcasts a hipper music selection and ads in the common areas, bathrooms and food courts of shopping centers. The service doesn't go into stores.

Mall Radio, a small company based in Natick, Mass., started operating two years ago. "Frankly, we have just now gotten the technology part down so we can put in a quality sound product that is consistently good," said Ken Levine, Mall Radio's chief executive officer.

The advertising is crucial. Levine said advertisers have been concerned their messages won't get through to shoppers, but company research showed 42 percent of shoppers are recalling ads. "We know we are breaking through, but it's been a process to attract advertising," he said.

Fifteen percent of Mall Radio's ad revenues is distributed to the mall. Landlords pay a nominal fee for the music, about $60 a month, but nothing for Mall Radio's equipment or programming service. Advertisers are charged $2,500 a month per mall to play two ads every hour the mall is open. Malls are typically open 320 hours a month, Levine said. Mall Radio is not yet profitable and has a volume of $2 million to $3 million. "It's a capital-intensive business to get the malls operational," he said.

Mall Radio is in 48 malls, including 44 Westfield properties in New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cleveland and Tampa. "We are actively seeking other mall partners," Levine said. "We are trying to cover the top 25 media markets" or about 250 larger malls. "Our advertisers want consumer mass. They are looking for the highest-traffic malls. In order to accommodate them, we have to be looking at malls in excess of 750,000 square feet of leasable space."

Cosmetic firms are big advertisers, particularly Estée Lauder and Clinique, Levine said. Other advertisers include Zale and Radio Shack. Gap will be in three markets representing about 12 to 15 malls, for four to six weeks, testing the system to see if it drives traffic to its stores.There are certain downsides. There have been complaints about volume levels, which Levine said were corrected, and mall workers can get tired of hearing the ads repeated hour after hour. As Levine said, "It's on constantly. You are always hearing something."

Mall Radio has a music library in Boston and downloads music to the malls through a private intranet to a digital sound system with a hard drive (dMarc's Scott Studios SS32). The music program is customized to each mall and can be changed daily. The system, including the SS32, the amplifier and digital signal processors, is priced around $20,000 to $25,000 and "gives us excellent sound quality and complete flexibility on how we program," Levine said. The digital signal processors measure ambient noise in different areas of the mall and send signals back to the sound system to adjust the volume. Malls on average require about 350 speakers, at a total cost of around $100,000, including installation, though a large center such as Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., is being rigged with about 700 speakers at an estimated $200,000 cost to Mall Radio. Most speakers are set into ceilings so they are barely visible.

"The more speakers you have, the less loud you have to play the system to hear it," Levine said. "We try to get as many speakers as we can get close to the human ear. What we strive for is a nice, comfortable level. At some malls, we try to run speakers every 15 to 20 feet. Sometimes the speakers are already there, but most times we have to supplement what's there. The original systems … were meant to be emergency [public address] systems or to play background music. We are trying to provide consumers with an experience — to get relevant music in the malls, without being loud and obtrusive."

As a mall gets crowded and noisy, "our music will rise, but we won't compete with the crowds. If the mall empties, the [decibel level] will drop." The Mall Radio music and ads cut through ambient noise with ads played more in the foreground.

Each hour has about 50 minutes of music and 10 minutes of commercials, and never more than 90 seconds of commercials in a row. "We found the sweet spot [per hour] is about seven commercial breaks, typically two songs, then a break, two songs and a break," Levine said. "And a break generally has two commercials in it with 30 seconds each."Programming music in the malls can be challenging, considering they attract people with different tastes. Mall Radio programs to the dominant demographic of the mall. "But we try to skew to an adult, contemporary mix," Levine said. "We can change it so it's a little younger on the weekends and less young during the week. We are safe with the music. Typically, there is no rap, no explicit lyrics, but Pat Benatar and No Doubt are in, he said. "The malls are trying to create a family atmosphere."

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