Thursday, November 5, 2009

Good Times with Don Vito

For Halloween a radio forum website – the terrific Radio Sales Cafe -asked its members to recount their scariest sales experiences. That, plus a promo for The Sopranos I saw that evening, reminded me of the following:

For me the scariest experiences involved working with, er, connected businesses in a certain suburban market. (If you've seen any of the Godfather movies, you know what - and where - I mean.)

By the way, in that market, you either worked with such businesses or - do I haveta paintcha pitchure?

There was this one night club, a dinky little dive, that for some inexplicable reason booked all the top talent of the day. (Their tour schedule would be like, Las Vegas ... New York ...dinky dive ... Miami ...)

The owner was a guy we'll call Vinny (not his real name; he had a kid that made Sonny Corleone look like an alter boy, and I don't want any trouble). Anyway, Vinnie was a great guy. Always wanted to give me a little extra sump'n sump'n for my superior service (like I'm going to give him anything but). Like a car. ("Don't worry about those holes; they'll buff right out.")

But then, I guess because he was such a great guy, all his vendors always gave him a little extra sump'n sump'n, too.

Then there was Sal (same, deal, except he had a daughter ...). Sal was away a lot on "vacation." Upstate. Anyway, I spent many an entertaining hour at his estate, where he threw the Best. Parties. Ever. The entertainment, inexplicably, was the same crowd that played the aforementioned dinky dive.

Later I found out Sal was the tutti-frutti-di-tutti-capi. (Or something like that; I don't have my copy of The Godfather handy.)

Good times then. Scary now.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Perfect Cultural Storm

Okay, I admit it: I am absolutely fascinated with the fascination over a worldwide cultural phenomenon called Dancing With the Stars. Until my friend Lou Vito told me his kid was going to be on the show, it barely registered on my pop-culture-o-meter. Big mistake. Any show that can smoke another worldwide phenomenon, House, with twice the ratings, had better darn well be on my—and all of our—radar.

And now I am kind of hooked—not only by the trials of everybody’s second-favorite-with-a-bullet snowboarder, but the sheer down-market genius of the thing. The concept is solid; the production values are amazing; the hosts are better than you’d think the show deserves, but they fit perfectly; and the whole thing takes on a larger-than-life aspect that is truly compelling.

When I was consulting KIIS-FM, the first thing I told them was, “You are in L frigging A. Own it.” In other words, people expect the output of the entertainment capital of the world to be awesome. (Are you listening, Mr. Leno?) DWTS delivers in spades.

I just hope Louie doesn’t get on American Idol. I have to draw the line somewhere.

This article first appeared in the Small Market Radio Newsletter, of which your faithful blogger is editor and publisher. He is also its circulation manager, and as such encourages you to subscribe thereto.

Is the Sinking Ship Half Empty or Half Full?

The mood in the halls of last week’s radio gathering was decidedly mixed. There is a frightful amount of fear in the ranks of those who focus on the myriad new threats to our business. Sure, the argument goes, in the past we’ve faced down a flurry of new-at-the-time media—think television, CB radio, 8-track tapes, CDs—but not all at once. Today it’s a veritable blizzard of new technologies and applications that can pop up literally overnight. . .and melt away just as quickly.

On the other hand, those whose mood rings glow violet-green (Google it) fall into one of two camps: those who don’t see the light of the train bearing down on our industry, and those who intend to catch a ride.

I’ll bet you didn’t jot down on your wish list, “I want to be in the radio business because I love getting my butt kicked by a bunch of competing media in a giant technology-driven Whac-A-Mole game.” Easier would be nice, but what are you going to do?

No, seriously, what are you going to do?

Many of our best and brightest have left the business—all too often the business left them, actually. Some are taking their skills and experience to other businesses, or at least are hedging their bets by spreading those qualities around.

At the NAB Radio Show, a certain kind of schism surfaced that we haven’t seen in some years, between those who get it and those who don’t. And, as so often is the case, the dividing line runs down the middle of the hallway between sales and programming.

In recent years, sales and management people have been able to keep up, at least superficially, by using product jargon more or less correctly—whether they understand what they’re saying. But with the onslaught of new threats and opportunities that programmers are first to understand and embrace, the other side of the hall is lagging behind.

Exhibit A: The difference between the programming and group heads sessions at the Radio Show. Let’s just say that how to navigate the current landscape has not fully trickled up.

Cut to small market broadcasters, who, as usual, were under-represented at The Show. . .but who have an understanding of the climate that is both clearer and fuzzier than their larger-market counterparts.


While small market folks may be less wired into the trends being followed by large market folks, they know their own markets better. As such, they peer, like Max Headroom, 15 minutes into the future. We cannot afford to fall behind what our listeners and advertisers are doing and thinking; but it’s just as dangerous to get ahead of them.

For example, in some small markets it’s important that a radio station stream at least its local programming; in others, not so much. Ditto cellphone-ready websites, texting, Tweeting, and so on. And the operators of those stations by and large know what they need to know, and make it their business to know it.

So, as usual, a radio operator’s industry outlook is directly related to his or her field of vision. Those of us who manage our businesses with our checkbooks. . .know the spouses and families of our customers (and, for that matter, many of our listeners). . .are working for the betterment of the communities our stations serve. . .and have a strong streak of self-determinism. . .simply cannot be overcome by that onrushing train.

All hail small market radio!

This article first appeared in the Small Market Radio Newsletter, of which your faithful blogger is editor and publisher. He is also its circulation manager, and as such encourages you to subscribe thereto.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Acts, Not Words

In a paragon of timing, the NAB Executive Search Committee announced its pick for our new President/CEO just in time for the Fall Radio Show. The committee is to be congratulated for its low-key, no-drama, few-leaks process. . .whether the congratulations extend to its choice is an open question right now, a few short days after the announcement.

In the past I have added my voice to those of other industry leaders in calling for installing an actual broadcaster at the NAB helm, but I’m the first to admit it’s not that simple. (Not to mention the potential havoc wrought by the selection of a TV guy, perish the thought.) While it would be refreshing to feel actual understanding of our daily lives in the voice and words of our lobbyist-in-chief, as opposed to scripted platitudes, the true value of the person and the position is his persuasive advocacy of our industry with the powers that hold our well-being in their clammy little hands.

Mr. Smith has a past, and being in the public eye for much of his career, that well-documented past includes some not-so-broadcaster-friendly views and actions. Credit our man for his adult, no-nonsense handling of that inconvenient truth: “Now, my politics are the interests of the National Association of Broadcasters, which translates into serving radio and television broadcasters and the American people.” I for one have no problem with Smith’s seismic shifts, as long as he can spin a credible tale that explains them. (Free advice: Use a variant of the time-honored “feel-felt-found” sales technique—“I understand how you feel [about this issue]; I felt the same way myself. But then I found. . .”)

We don’t yet know Mr. Smith’s mind and heart, but we do know those of the broadcasters who chose him. I trust them. I trust their choice. Welcome, Gordon Smith, to the most interesting neighborhood in which you’ll ever live.

This article first appeared in the Small Market Radio Newsletter, of which your faithful blogger is editor and publisher. He is also its circulation manager, and as such encourages you to subscribe thereto.

Dumbing Down

Throughout my career as a consultant, I have sat in meetings where management tried to wrest control of creativity from talent by using research to prove that, to coin a phrase, less is more.

Heretofore my favorite device for sucking the creative juices out of a radio show has been the little dials you distribute to a bunch of people in a room; as they listen to a recording of a show—usually a morning show—they are instructed to turn the dial up when they like what they hear, down when they don’t. The aggregate results are displayed as a line graph that snakes its way across a video screen while the recording plays, so you can tell precisely at what points the audience loses interest in the proceedings.

Some of the most awkward moments of my career have ensued when we’ve plopped talent in front of the screen, expecting a teachable moment to occur.

Now, as described in Bob Doll’s article on Page 9, the PPM data performs the same function on a grander scale. As Bob notes with a fair amount of understatement, the application of the PPM data is “a source of friction between management and talent.”

The problem with these applications is, we are using trailing data to inform the future. In other words, we expect an analysis of a spontaneous event—a live radio show—to result in better spontaneous events in the future.

Well, it doesn’t work that way. The analysis of spontaneity results in less spontaneity.

Radio is criticized for its blandness—for its lack of spontaneity—because it has been replaced by research-driven predictability. And it’s only getting worse, because each round of analysis destroys that much more spontaneity (a.k.a. creativity).

The cure, counterintuitive though it may be, is to take a deep breath and encourage risk-taking.

We like to vilify Mel Karmazin these days for abandoning his local radio roots, but let’s remember that he built his success by picking talent, cultivating it and giving it room to grow. You may not like his picks—Howard Stern and Opie and Anthony among them—but you cannot deny that his was a talent-based business model. It made for unpredictable radio that, whether you liked it, was far from bland.

Now look at your own stations. In and around the satellite and syndicated fare, you probably employ at least one live, local personality. And that personality probably drives you nuts with his or her—usually it’s a his—peculiar peccadilloes. And you probably long for research—whether using little dials or PPM data—to put him in his place.

Be careful what you wish for. Chances are, your station is a beacon light of creativity, thanks to your hard-to-handle friend—at least compared to the Station Everybody at Work Can Agree On Because It Plays 200 Easy Favorites Over and Over that Suck the Same for Everybody.

Congratulations. You are part of the solution.

This article first appeared in the Small Market Radio Newsletter, of which your faithful blogger is editor and publisher. He is also its circulation manager, and as such encourages you to subscribe thereto.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Telephone Game

Perhaps you played it as a kid: Arrange a bunch of people in a circle. One person whispers a brief story to the person next to him. That person whispers the story to the other person next to him. . .and so on, around the circle. The story whispered back to its originator is usually unrecognizable.

Thanks to irresponsible media and the ease with which data can be passed along via the Internet, we are experiencing the ill effects of the biggest telephone game ever played. And it is killing us.

Why this topic? Why now? It was prompted by an email from a reader:

My father just called me to let me know our new [FCC] Diversity Chief was on the Glenn Beck Show tonight.  He feels the U.S. should model our radio after Venezuela and that the government should tax stations 100% of gross revenues and if they can't pay it, they would have to forfeit your license. He didn't think there should be private ownership of radio stations. I thought you might want to look into that for our next issue.

Tax stations 100% of their gross revenues? Look into it, indeed!

It turns out that Dad was not entirely accurate in his recollection. A segment of Beck’s show was about new FCC Diversity Officer Mark Lloyd; Lloyd did not appear. The discussion was between Beck and Media Research Center Director of Communications Seton Motley.

Beck started the discussion by paraphrasing Lloyd’s position—based not on recent statements while in his current job but passages from his 2006 book, Prologue to a Farce: Communications and Democracy in America.

While Beck, in setting up the segment, said that Lloyd would have each station pay 100% of its gross—kicking off a lengthy diatribe—Motley later set the record straight(er) by saying, “That’s not exactly right. That’s an estimated total of what the operating costs are, for somebody like Premiere Broadcasting, who syndicates several large talk show hosts. That’s just an extrapolation of the fine we’ve been discussing, which is dollar for dollar for the annual operating costs.” Huh?

I’m not saying we don’t have concerns with the whole idea of a “diversity chief” within an already-misguided Commission. But with all respect to our reader—a good friend of this publication—and his dad, the email in question is a great example of a malady afflicting our land today.

It started with the estimable Mr. Beck, who didn’t have his facts straight. . .exacerbated by Dad, and doubtless many others, who heard the wrong information wrong and innocently passed it along. This is the telephone game writ large and at its most dangerous. (Our reader, in a follow-up email, noted that his dad is 81, so he can be excused. . .but I guarantee you that similar distortions have been spread by others far younger.)

Admittedly I am in extremis, having made some good-sized gaffes in this all-too-public arena. But how else to explain the ability of, say, the RIAA to perpetrate believable but baseless blather in the performance tax battle? Or the groups who would have us believe that the Portable People Meter is a racist tool?

But we who represent the Fifth Estate should be in extremis, too. Just as we take pains to ensure accurate reporting on the air, we must do so in everything else we do and say as well.

Truth is not-so-slowly being replaced by what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”: things that seem true but are not. We have the power to counter truthiness. Let’s use it.

This article first appeared in the Small Market Radio Newsletter, of which your faithful blogger is editor and publisher. He is also its circulation manager, and as such encourages you to subscribe thereto.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear

Not-So-Confidential Memo to Arbitron:

I know you guys are busy beating back the geniuses who are perpetrating the anti-PPM fraud, while at the same time making much-needed advances in diary methodology. I know you have a lot to focus on in the road ahead, but it’s a good idea to glance in the rear view mirror from time to time.

See that cloud of dust in the distance? See how it’s closer than the last time you checked? Guess who’s coming to the party? Guess who’s winning the PR battle, not having to worry about the PPM cacophony overwhelming their message? Yes, it’s They Who Must Not Be Named.

There are some who would like nothing better than to see our resident ratings giant brought to its knees. There a many who welcome formidable competition, and there is much to be said for that argument: better data, faster delivery, lower cost.

But the other side of the issue has merit, too: especially now, do we need confusing, conflicting radio performance data?

AIG and Bernie Madoff aside, I believe in a free market, and I believe competition is a good thing.

And the need for affordable universal health care aside, I believe in survival of the fittest.

That’s why this gentle wake-up call to the denizens of Columbia, MD: Beware that dust-cloud approaching quickly from behind. Not only might it just overtake you, but it might also, er, cloud radio’s story at just the wrong time.

Where Are Radio’s Cheerleaders?

Southwest Airlines was a different company when Herb ran it.

Wal-Mart was a different company when Sam ran it.

Radio was a different business* when radio people ran it.

With incredible respect to the broadcasters in boardrooms and on selection committees, we have lost focus and direction. . .because we have lost the clear, omnipresent leadership of yore.

When Herb ran Southwest, you would see him everywhere—taking tickets, handing out boarding cards, serving coffee.

When Sam ran Wal-Mart, you would see his plane at the local airport and the man himself leading associate rallies and saying to customers (who mostly thought he was just other retiree greeter), “How may I help you?”

When radio people helmed our industry* associations, they gave us a very personal, public, omnipresent face. They may not have served popcorn at remotes, but they were in touch with the community in ways that inspired, informed—and exemplified.

Yes, Southwest, Wal-Mart and radio are different businesses today, and all the king’s Herbs, Sams, Eddies and Garys can’t have stopped the trends of time.

Nor am I advocating a return to those golden days of yesteryear. We have to face the realities of today and tomorrow, and we need leaders who are of today and tomorrow.

But those leaders will serve us best if they are also of our industry. As individual operators, we need a big dose of what we’re lacking right now: visibility, inspiration, cheerleading. That’s the leadership we need. I hope we deserve it.

*A word about wording: I am sensitive to those who want to call radio something other than an “industry” or a “business.” “Craft” falls short and “profession” has a limited application. When we settle on a better word, I’ll use it.

Too Big to Fail

I note with interest that members of the minority broadcast industry are calling for emergency federal assistance.

Why not? I’m sure we’ve got a few billion kicking around that we can throw at the problem.

What’s that, you say? Your business is hurting too? Well, let’s see what we have for an unorganized bunch of independent business people with zero political clout. Um, we’ll have to get back to you on that.

Remember what I said about believing in a free market? Assuming for a moment that such a thing could actually exist, the logical extension is that in that environment, businesses are free to succeed—and they are free to fail.

Minority broadcasters have a bunch of burdens that the rest of us don’t, and I’m in favor of a helping hand. I agree with Inner City’s Pierre Sutton that “Black and Hispanic must not be allowed to go extinct.” But I feel less charitable toward anyone who leverages political clout to misinform and overstate.

I certainly don’t want to see obviated the too-short history of minority advancement in radio. But I want to see fairness and honesty in the process.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

My Friend George

morris-george George Taylor Morris died over the weekend. You may know George as the longtime host of Deep Tracks on XM. . .or the morning guy in Boston and New York. . .or the host of the syndicated Reelin’ in the Years.

I met George when he came to work at WBLI on Long Island, an experiment in youthful self-indulgence that, thanks in large part to George’s prodigious talent, ruled the ratings from a tiny town near the East End of the island. He and I became fast friends, but we both moved on and lost touch, although I, for one, followed his career with interest and just a little brotherly pride.

I found out about his diagnosis about six months ago from a mutual friend. I hadn’t talked to him in many years, but I called him, we reconnected, and the years fell away. Subsequently he visited many friends around the country—a farewell tour, as it turns out—and we spent a wonderful day together.

Even though George had not been central in my life for some time, his passing leaves a big hole. I thought of the line in James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”: “. . .but I always thought I’d see you again.”

Typical GTM: When he showed up on our doorstep, I told him (truthfully) that he looked great. He gave me a big smile, that trademark cock of the head, and said, “Of course.”

Only George could pull that off.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Why the PPM Mess is Important to Us All

With Arbitron’s Portable People Meter coming under more and more politically-driven fire, it’s tempting for diary-market folk to think this is a good thing for the diary methodology.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Before all these unwarranted, unfounded attacks on the PPM methodology, there were myriad discussions among small and medium market operators about the impact of the new technology on diary markets: Would the PPM cripple the credibility of the diary?

The consensus was, Not really. Sophisticated advertisers and buyers will use the tools available to them. Main street advertisers will be guided by their trusted media partners—that would be you—to use survey tools better to understand their market qualitatively, not to compare radio stations quantitatively and arbitrarily.

Unfortunately, all the negative attention on the PPM affects the stature of the Arbitron brand and the credibility of everything they do. It hinders our ability to help our clients be better informed advertisers.

It also gives rise to alternatives; Nielsen comes to mind, and Eastlan, and several lesser players. Competition is not a bad thing, but competitors should build their market share on legitimate advantages, not the unwarranted perceived weakness of their counterparts.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Is It Just Me?

I watch with mounting amazement (and more than a little trepidation) as more and more politically-motivated, ignorant people and groups latch onto specious, baseless arguments that because the PPM methodology delivers results that are less kind to certain societal segments, the methodology must perforce be wrong.

My heart goes out to those so affected, but Arbitron’s PPM initiative has been perhaps the most scrutinized, researched and cross-checked methodology in the history of statistics. Is it perfect? Of course not. The results of any sample-based research is subject to statistical error. (Statisticians don’t like the term “error,” preferring the more glass-half-full “significance.” Whatever.) But it’s demonstrably closer to reality than what it supplants. And no broadcaster or statistician with whom I’ve talked disagrees.

We are going through very strange times. Truth is irrelevant. We, as a society, shrug off the most outrageous misstatements of fact. Our BS meter has pegged so much that it’s now broken. It would appear that Orwell’s 1984 has finally arrived, a mere 25 years late.

Good News, Long Overdue

The NAB and small market broadcasters deserve to congratulate themselves on a job well done on the “AM on FM” issue—and not just because of the issue itself.

Listen carefully to the pronouncements of our frenemies and you’ll hear evidence that our message is getting through: free, over-the-air broadcasters are committed to service.

Listen to FCC Commissioner McDowell, commenting on the translator issue, talking about “an opportunity to strengthen the contributions that [AM stations] make in furthering our long-standing public policy goals of localism, competition, and diversity in broadcasting.”

While the ability to fortify our AMs with FM is a great advance, I hope that what is taking hold among our regulatory masters is the mind-set that what we offer to our listeners and communities is worth protecting at all costs.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Politics of Radio

Remember the good days when we could operate our radio businesses (successfully, hopefully), send our dues to the NAB, RAB and our state associations, and call it a day?

Those were also the days when our towns boasted more than one menswear shop and a few boutiques for the ladies. . .when we had several good car dealer clients. . .the DMV wasn’t the anchor store at the local strip mall. . .and your AM/FM combo was the only radio service in the market.

Well, fugaddaboutit. These days, in addition to retailers being as hard to find in our markets as a five-dollar haircut, we have to deal with the fact that everything we do as an industry is politicized. Congressional committees are convened to discuss what music we play, what words we utter (profanity is one thing, but political opinions are really under fire), and now, the ability of a public company to exercise its best efforts to survey our industry.

More on the Arbitron insanity in another post. In the meantime, when did radio become so dangerous to require such vigilance from so many people?

Was it the spawn of the lucky-13-year-old Telecommunications Act? Was it the increasingly prevalent conviction—fed first by reality television and call-in radio; then, haltingly and ultimately unsuccessfully by LPTV and LPFM; and now by YouTube and Twitter—that everyone, in fact, deserves to be a star?

Of course, all of this stems from the conceit that the airwaves are public property—a notion disputed hotly, if mutely, by some of our finest legal minds. And while we may celebrate the demise of local newspapers across the land, their decline clears the way for more heat on us.

The newspapers have always presented a problem to the powers that be. Just a we bear the burden of one conceit, so the print industry has benefitted from one of their own, rooted in the Constitution, called freedom of the press. (Why that one only peripherally applies to us, I leave to the aforesaid legal minds to address.) In their heyday, newspapers were royal thorns in the side of the ruling elite, and nothing could be done—overtly, legally, anyway—about it.

The government couldn’t prohibit newspapers from advertising a legal product, but they could force broadcasting to cease cigarette advertising. Ditto spirits. Ditto obscenity. Ditto free speech itself.

We live in contentious times, where no holds are barred and the loudest voices control opinion. Opinions expressed on broadcast media can be, and are being, manipulated in the name of public ownership of the airwaves. And who represents the public? Our good-hearted but industry-ignorant legislators, spurred on by a highly vocal minority.

As Bette Davis said in All About Eve (according to Google, anyway), “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

The Arbitron Insanity

Okay, everybody in radio has some issue with Arbitron. But really, does anyone really buy the political firestorm about the Portable People Meter?

Yes, the change in methodology has caused a seismic shift in reported listening patterns. Perhaps some groups have lost ground as a result. Perhaps those groups will lose revenue as a result.

Get over it.

What about the plight of poor Caucasian broadcasters in Los Angeles when Arbitron modified heir diary methodology and overnight the top five stations were Hispanic? Who raised a political voice in protest then?

I am a staunch civil rights advocate, but I think the prevailing MO of attacking and inflating every situation in the name of civil rights is madness. Are we so afraid of being branded as politically incorrect that we refrain from speaking out against minority leaders who use their bully pulpit to distort situations and, well, bully the opposition into politically-correct submission?

Back to Arbitron: the PPM is an advancement, but no survey can ever be accurate. (If you want accurate, you want a census. And look how well they turn out.) The PPM is arguably more accurate than the diary; but because it reflects a different reality, it should be suppressed?

What country are we living in, again?

The Unfortunate Mr. Rehr

It looks like history is repeating itself: TV guy crosses swords with NAB leader, compels resignation. Whether it’s Lombardo v. Fritts or Sanders v. Rehr, the result is the same: leader gets curbed for all the wrong reasons.

I like David Rehr and I think he’s a bright, earnest, driven lobbying professional. Whether that is the ideal profile for the NAB job is open to debate, but I don’t think the job itself is: no one in that position can stem the tide of power-hungry political ill will toward our industry.

I believe our NAB should be operating on four levels:

  1. Working feverishly the corridors of power to marshal support for our causes
  2. Mitigating and deflecting the forces arrayed against us
  3. Publicly reflecting absolute confidence that our brand of reason shall prevail
  4. Privately helping its members confront and cope with likely outcomes

While the NAB is generally effective on the first three levels, it can be more so on the fourth.

I wish David well on his career path, and I hope his successor is given the opportunity to succeed where possible—and artfully deal with defeat where necessary.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

An Open Letter to the NAB Search Committee

Anyone who has spent any time in small market radio knows this scenario all too well: we hire a talented, capable employee, and it’s only a matter of time before said employee is wooed away to a better gig.

Over time, most of us have learned that the best, most stable, longest-lasting employees are people who (a) love radio and (b) have another good reason besides the job to live and work in the market.

When the selection of David Rehr as CEO of the RAB was announced, I was not alone in expressing my reservations about the choice. There was no doubt in my mind that Mr. Rehr was—and is—a very bright, committed guy who knows a lot about the lobbying industry. My reservations had nothing to do with his skills; but he failed the two tests I always ran on people I considered hiring:

1.    Are you passionate about what you do?
2.    Do you have a reason, other than the job, for working here?

Define “here” as “in broadcasting” and you have pretty good criteria for hiring our next NAB CEO.

Another experience I had in my small town that may be pertinent: We had a Chamber executive director who wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree, and who wasn’t the most dynamic guy on the planet. But he was a lifelong local whose passion for the community was so strong, so heartfelt, that he did a lot of good for us all. After he retired, the Chamber hired a chamber professional. He did a good job, but it was by the numbers. Two years later, he was off to a bigger town.

We in radio know—as do our brethren in TV—the value of consistency and longevity. Our morning guy may not be the best in the business, but he’s a decades-long listening habit. (Ditto that venerable TV anchor.) Say what you will about Eddie Fritts, but for over 20 years he conveyed passion and conviction that can only be the product of true belief.

I’m not saying we should recruit another Eddie Fritts; the world, and the industry, has changed. But there are some excellent candidates in the ranks of broadcasting, and they should be taken seriously. What about lobbying experience? you ask. Any involved broadcaster has way more lobbying experience than, say, the average beer distributor; we enjoy unique symbiotic relationships with our elected representatives that no one else can touch.

We can agree, I think, that our next NAB chief should have these qualities:

•    Passion for broadcasting
•    Relations with key DC players
•    Lobbying skills—a.k.a. product knowledge and salesmanship
•    Mental commitment to the long haul

When looking for Eddie’s successor, there was a strong feeling among certain NAB Board members that we needed to look outside our industry for a professional lobbyist. We hired a professional lobbyist. And now we have to look for someone else. I hope this time that coming from broadcasting will not be a black mark against the candidate.

The Fight Must Go On

In talking with a reader of our newsletter shortly after the NAB news broke, he expressed concern that this might disrupt the many ongoing battles we wage, most importantly the war on the performance tax.

From my perspective, there is little cause for concern. For one thing, the NAB staffers who wage these fights day after day will keep doing so, and they’re very good at it. But no less important, a big part of those fights is waged by the local broadcasters who have unique access to the Washington deal-makers. . .and no one is more committed to winning the fights than we are.

Ratings: Value or “Tribute”?

Bill O’Shaughnessy is one of the finest broadcasters to grace our industry, having established a small-market-radio version of the Algonquin Round Table in tony Westchester County, NY—not to mention having the heaviest Rolodex in the business.

But I respectfully disagree with his characterization of broadcast ratings as “tribute.”

Ratings are like chainsaws: in the right hands, they are valuable tools. . .but in the wrong hands, they can hurt you. The Arbitron County Studies are out, and from all the chatter I see from clients and readers, ratings misuse continues to abound.

Ratings, especially in small markets, should not be used to aggrandize your station.

First, despite the introduced and proposed advances in accuracy, the potential for bounce is simply too great to ignore. If you brag about your ratings, you are giving the ratings a disproportional role in your sales/service arsenal. You paint yourself into a corner should you experience a ratings downturn—which, over time, you surely will.

Second, improper presentation of ratings information violates Rule One of sales, which says it’s always about the customer, not us.

This is a big topic and I can’t really do it justice as the last Last Word, but here are a couple of ways to use ratings safely and effectively:

First, downplay them when you do well. “Sure,” you can say, “we’re proud of the fact that our community seems to like what we do, but that’s not as important as how we can help you get more business.” Not only do you refocus attention where it belongs, but you protect yourself from the ratings downturn by putting the numbers in perspective.

Second, make use of whatever qualitative data are available to you to help your advertiser’s marketing objectives. That transforms the ratings from station-focused bragging to client-focused service. And that’s what we do.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Conflict of Opportunity

Small market radio has always lived hand to mouth, and our current economic “opportunities” have not improved the situation. Even when a small-market broadcaster achieves some scale, with some to many stations in his or her group, the practical, manage-by-checkbook mentality never quite goes away.

But small market radio is inhabited nowadays by a different breed as well—actually, two different breeds. One is the large- or medium-market operators who invested their investor money in a bunch of small stations, thinking they were just smaller versions of their kind of radio. Some have adapted; some have not. The other breed is the small-market-at-heart operators who rapidly got to be big group operators—often losing heart in the process.

I don’t believe any of the breeds so described are more or less capable of success in the small-market sand-box, but each breed responds differently—whether due to mindset or circumstance—to the challenges and opportunities before us.

But wait—there’s a fourth breed afoot as well. Take, for example, our friend Peter Smythe. Peter is a big-market guy with big-market stations in his group, but he’s a small-market guy at heart. (In other words, we small market folks would say he’s a real broadcaster; his words and actions are those of someone who knows what local radio is all about.)

But where the Peter Smythes and his well-funded brethren differ from most of us today is, well, that well-funded part. And nowhere is that more evident than in his essay about the importance of webcasting to radio.

The wonderful, magnanimous streaming-fees concession made recently—over which not a few in our industry are back-slapping and congratulating themselves—changes absolutely nothing. It’s a joke. No, it’s an insult—that some people in our industry are so out of touch with small market radio to think this is a victory. (To be fair, many of our small-market leaders are still on the case, viewing the latest episode as progress but by no means a win.)

I think the rest of the industry has gotten the small-market memo about HD: pass. As important as it might be from an industry public-relations perspective, it is the last thing small market operators want to spend money on—even when they have it.

But webcasting is a different story. I applaud those who are paying the proverbial two dollars to stream their broadcasts on the Internet, even if selectively. (Interestingly, as we note in this issue’s lead story, a small station on Long Island has been streaming 24/7 for years; such was the passion and commitment of its late owner.)

Fifteen years ago, as XM was launching “Rock” and “Roll” to fearsome fanfare, some of us were saying that satellite radio was at best a transitional technology; today, even the hobbled merged remnants of that business realize their future is on the web. (But really, why pay them when you can get anything you want online for free?)

In the early days of what is now known as HD—a decade or more before the first receiver was sold (in Cedar Rapids, IA, I note with some perverse home-boy pride)—I asked my buddy, the director of engineering at Gannett, who was part of the ad-hoc consortium that eventually birthed the technology, “Is this anything, really?” (That was not the first time I was reminded that you never ask an engineer if his/her latest bright, shiny object has real-world relevance.)

So, the scoreboard reads thus:

Feeble attempts to supplant the hegemony of the Internet: 0
The Internet: 2

Paul Harvey Wannabe?

All of which is my wordy way of saying. . .

  • The Internet is vitally important to us.
  • We should do everything we can to put lots of our audio online.
  • We should plan to put all our audio online as soon as we can—and then some.
  • We should raise our disproportionately-loud small-market voice to ensure that the industry powers that be understand the streaming-fee battle is far from over.

Or, in the slightly less-wordy words of Chancellor Churchill, “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never.”

Come to think of it, Sir Winston would have made a heckuva small-market broadcaster.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Political Wrong-Headedness

As I’ve said before, I’m apolitical. I think that all political factions have valid points of view—but they also have a big stash of stupid pills. Right now, it seems, at least when it comes to issues important to our industry, the majority party is popping those pills like candy corn at Halloween.

Take this Fairness Doctrine thing. Debbie Stabenow says that there is an imbalance in the points of view expressed on the air and, by gum, it’s up to the government to right this grievous wrong.

Let me get this straight. Our economy is a shambles; people are losing their jobs, their homes, their hope. But our elected officials somehow find the time to indulge their petty retributive feelings to make sure there is an equal number of idiots on the air from the far left and the far right.

Here’s a novel idea: let the market decide. Personally I think there is a resurgence in the offing for progressive talk. Just the fact that the very smart people at Dial Global are snapping up marquee liberal talkers is a good bellwether. But if not, that’s the way it works: popular programming survives, the rest doesn’t.

While they’re at it, our too-much-time-on-their-hands legislators should redress another disgraceful disparity: the lack of Westerns on network television. There ought to be a doctrine ...

The Perils of Irrelevant Media

This week we had two reminders of why certain media are doomed ... and why others are fated to survive all challenges.

Both the venerable Muzak and the embattled Sirius-XM are facing Chapter 11 bankruptcy. At first glance the two have little in common; one is the very definition of “old media,” 75 years old, limping along; the other burst on the scene purporting to be a game-changer, full of sound and fury.

But on closer examination, Muzak and Sirius-XM are but two sides of the same coin. Neither is providing meaningful service to its consumers. Neither deserves to survive.

When I was a kid I sold Muzak for a while, and at the time the story was somewhat compelling: the music was scientifically designed to have a specific effect—energizing for a factory, soothing for a dentist’s office. But at its core, it’s just repackaged music.

Although Sirius-XM has myriad talk channels, most are music. And with certain high-profile exceptions—the over-exposed Howard Stern and Oprah Winfrey, for example—the wobbly satellite radio outfit offers nothing the media consumer can’t get elsewhere for free.

And then there’s radio. As we and others have said many times, our medium does pretty well, considering how badly we screw it up ... and right now we’re really excelling at that. But there is just enough genuinely relevant content—mostly in smaller markets, I have to say—to stave off the grim media reaper.

As long as we specialize in content that our communities find relevant and of service, we can survive. Actually, if we’re truly committed to our communities, we can do much better than survive.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Air America and the Fairness Doctrine

You have to hand it to Air America. Now on its third or fourth owner, the scrappy little liberal network has refused to die, in spite of being at odds with prevailing political thought since its inception.

Now, with the tide turning, it’s possible that Air America will fall victim to the more supportive climate. Instead of being buffeted by conservative talk radio, which now has problems of its own, the network is being dismantled by the defection of its stars to weightier distributors, most notably Dial Global (see story, Page 2).

It’s a familiar story: a pioneer creates and popularizes a franchise, only to see that franchise coopted by one or more more powerful competitors. I certainly don’t think ill of the coopters. . .but Air America deserves a little appreciation its pioneering.

I for one welcome a more balanced radio dial—if you can call extreme points of view from both the far left and the far right “balanced”—if for no other reason than it renders the Fairness Doctrine irrelevant.

Rush Judgment

In my newsletter a couple of weeks ago I wrote the following:
Recently on his radio program Rush Limbaugh blasted members of his own party who are sniffing the winds of change in Washington and are willing to engage in constructive dialog with the new administration. Rather than helping Mr. Obama, Rush said, Republicans should do everything they can to bring him down: “I hope he fails.”

What an appalling statement. If I had any vestigial respect left for Limbaugh’s talent or the positive attention he once brought to radio, this pretty much eradicated it. Not long ago, his divisive railings were in tune with the times; but times have changed. Unfortunately, Limbaugh has not changed with them. Americans have resoundingly rejected the antagonistic values Mr. Limbaugh espouses; in the context of today, he has been revealed as an anachronism, a bombastic blowhard, aptly described by Shakespeare’s line, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

If you are a Limbaugh affiliate, beware: before long his ditto-head audience will comprise only the 22% of the population who said, to the end, that the previous administration was doing a heck of a job. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.
You'd think I waved a commie flag or something, judging from the response. Herewith, a sampler:
NO PASSES. After your comments about Rush Limbaugh, I can only assume that you have also joined the millions of liberal Americans who believe that Obama has surpassed Jesus as the savior of the world. I don’t believe that and neither does Rush. And because McCain got nearly 50% of the popular vote last November, I believe that there are a LOT more than 22 million people who don’t believe that either.

I agree that we should support our new president and support his efforts to improve the lives of Americans. But, when he supports values and policies that I do not believe are truly in the best interest of America (gay marriage, increased government in our lives, government-paid abortion, nationalized health care, a smaller military), I think that we should speak out and point out that these are not the values or desires of the MAJORITY of Americans.

Nobody gave Bush a pass. Nobody gave Clinton a pass. And nobody should give Obama a pass. I agree that Rush can be a blustering blowhard at times, and occasionally I hear him on my station and wish he would just shut up already. But even if he is a little over the top at times, I still believe that what he is saying resonates with my audience and will continue to do so even more in the next few months when the shine wears off and Americans are disappointed to find out that Obama is not going to be able to save the world after all.
—Jeff Lovett, WGRA, Cairo, GA
STATING THE OBVIOUS. Congratulations for stating the obvious about Rush Limbaugh. Extend my subscription for ten years to help replace the feckless who will cancel in protest. The missing ingredient in our civic discourse in America today is civility. Regardless of your partisan affiliations, it is more essential than ever to restore civility to civic discourse.

Good work.
—Roger Utnehmer,, Sturgeon Bay, WI
HE SAVED AM RADIO. I look forward each week to receiving SMRN. You are a tireless advocate for a medium I live, breathe and sleep. However, I was appalled to read your vicious attack in the 1/22/09 newsletter on Rush Limbaugh, a man who has done more for small market radio than anyone alive today.

Prior to reading your partisan cheap shot on Rush, I have never paid much attention to your politics, preferring to tap your insight and sources advocating for small market radio. But your blistering attack was out of context (as most attacks on Rush are) and unfair. Allow me to quote him directly from a recent interview with Sean Hannity:

“Now, if he (Pres. Barack Obama) turns out to be a Reagan, if he adds Reagan to his recipe of FDR and Lincoln—and if he does cut some taxes—if he does not eliminate the Bush tax cuts, I would call that success. So yes, I would hope he would succeed if he acts like Reagan. But if he’s going to do FDR—if he’s going to do The New New Deal all over, which we will call here The Raw Deal—why would I want him to succeed? Look, he’s my president. The fact that he is historic is irrelevant to me now. It matters not at all. If he is going to implement a far-left agenda. . .

Look, I think it’s already decided: $2 trillion in stimulus? The growth of government? I think the intent here is to create as many dependant Americans as possible looking to government for their hope and salvation. If he gets nationalized health care, I mean, it’s over, Sean. We’re never going to roll that back. That’s the end of America as we have known it, because that’s then going to set the stage for everything being government owned, operated, or provided. Why would I want that to succeed? I don’t believe in that.

I know that’s not how this country is going to be great in the future; it’s not what made this country great. So I shamelessly say, “No! I want him to fail.” If his agenda is a far-left collectivism—some people say socialism—as a conservative heartfelt, deeply, why would I want socialism to succeed?”

I’m sure you understand how someone with Rush’s firmly-held conservative beliefs, shared by millions of Americans, is not going to toss aside his principles and walk lockstep with someone who wishes to take the country in a completely different direction. And given Rush’s record ratings, 20 years of broadcast excellence and a recently-signed $400-million contract, your morbid wish for his demise is not going to happen.

Please leave the partisan attacks on Rush to the mainstream media and stick to commonsense reporting on small market radio. Or at least balance your attack with a companion piece in the next issue answering the question: Does President Obama want Rush to fail? Since Obama attacked Rush in one of his very first acts as president, I think we know the answer. What would that mean for small market radio?

Lastly, I also have a suggestion that might better serve your readers: Undertake a research project by identifying the revenue and value of most AM sticks in the mid-80’s. Then compare that to the mid-90’s and since. AM radio was DOA when Rush Limbaugh arrived on the scene. The man singlehandedly saved the AM radio band. He should be celebrated by your publication daily.
—Scott Hennen, Great Plains Integrated Marketing/SMAHH Communications, Fargo, ND
HE’S LOST IT. A nice piece on Limbaugh.

I used to admire the guy as a radio pro, a true showman who understood what it took to hold onto an audience (granted, a niche audience, but a large niche). Now, yeah, I think he’s lost it.

At least he’s forgotten what made him successful, tapping into unexpressed feelings of millions of people.

I wonder if his gazillion-dollar contract is looking so good to his syndicator now.
—Jay Douglas, Los Angeles, CA
HERD MENTALITY. As an owner and manager of a real small market station, I rarely have the time or motivation to respond to the trite nonsense that passes as journalism and intelligent commentary in this day and age of herd mentality. However, your final thought in the January 22 newsletter was truly over the top for me.

To the specific: Your four-word quote from Mr. Limbaugh was your evidence that he is just a mean obstructionist to “constructive dialog.” Even the most superficial research would have revealed that Mr. Limbaugh had just listed a number of Mr. Obama’s positions and goals that represent a destruction of the free-market capitalist system (socialism) and the negative effects that result for small business and all Americans. It is in these endeavors, “I hope he fails.” That is the context in which the final phrase was made. You simply took the last four words from the CNN/MSNBC sound bite and came to your own conclusion as to the intent and, thereby, surrounded yourself with the dust of the herd. Was this simply from laziness or the chance to reinforce an existing bias?

Your other comments further reveal that you obviously avoid listening to his program, which is certainly your right. However, passing yourself off as an expert on his content and style is a bit disingenuous to say the least.

Clint Eastwood famously observed that “a man has to know his limitations.” I would suggest you stick to the broadcasting business and leave the political analysis to others. I’m paying for the broadcasting news. I can get the expert analysis from the vapid bubble brains on cable who probably really think there are 57 states in this country.

The breeze from bombastic blowhards wafts from many directions. Better to be a bombastic blowhard than an ignorant bombastic blowhard driven by the herd. I find it best to stay upwind of both.
—Jay B. Cessna, Cessna Communications, Inc.

MY TURN (AGAIN). First, a bit of housekeeping. Scott correctly pointed out that the quote came from an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News TV show. Scott’s transcript is essentially accurate; to get it from the fox’s mouth, read and watch here.

I was interested but not surprised to find that most of the responses assumed that I was taking a political stance; in fact, my comments were intended to be about radio. I hate politics as usual. I have voted Republican, Libertarian, Democrat, Natural Law; my guy is always the one who lies to me the least. And I listen to Rush’s show often.

Thanks, Scott, for complimenting me as a “tireless advocate for radio.” I try to be, as do we all. It’s true that Rush, more than anyone else, reinvented AM radio. I just don’t want him to undo all the good he’s done for our medium by becoming irrelevant and out of step.

I have been kind of hoping that we were entering an era of more respectful discourse, but recent events have dashed those hopes. Given the resumption of politics as usual, not to mention Rush becoming Topic A on both sides of the aisle, I only hope the attention will be beneficial to our medium. Time will tell.

THE LAST GASP. I received one more letter, from Adam Wright, WSNW, Seneca, SC about my opinion that Rush has to be careful not to turn into a marginalized wacko; let this be the end of it:
I have been reading The Small Market Radio Newsletter on and off for several years. What most don’t seem to understand is Rush is an entertainer, not a news source. The same goes for Hannity, Ingraham and Boortz. It just amazes me the number of people who listen who actually consider their comments news. If these were actual news sources, we would have little or no use for the traditional news we get at the top of the hour from ABC and CBS.

As far as your comments go, I have no problem with you sharing your thoughts, political or otherwise, in this publication from time to time. Keep up the good work.

Spreading the News

I was struck by the sound reasoning of Paul McDonnold in his recent commentary in the Christian Science Monitor: “While things in the economy truly are bad, this is not simply about reporting the truth; it’s about representing that truth in the most responsible way. A media that is too much in love with stories that bleed is capable of making the recession worse than it has to be.”

We need to take these words to heart and remember that we have a great deal of influence over the thinking of the business people in our markets.

That influence comes in two forms: first, as a powerful news medium, our choice of stories and wording contributes to a climate of hope or despair (which is McDonnold’s point).

But equally important is the more subtle effect of the hundreds of personal interactions between our sales people and our clients that take place every week. As the saying goes, a sale is always made; either we buy into the clients’ fears or they buy into our optimism.

But for our people to make the “sale” of hope—which often will lead to the sale of radio advertising—we need to be absolutely positive in our thought, speech and action. . .and be vigilant against negativity among our people.

Which leads us right back to the whole cutback thing: part of the art of prudent pruning is preserving the spirit of our people.

Think Small

I don’t know about you, but I’m not getting any bailout money. I’m also not ordering any private jets, hosting any Super Bowl parties or redecorating my office to the tune of $50,000. I’m also not cutting my workforce by 10%.

The responses to current economic conditions dramatically spotlight the difference between most big companies and most small operators. But, as we see from our Costco article on Page 8, a sense of responsibility for employees, vendors and our communities is not at odds with being a large company. As Costco CEO Jim Sinegal exemplifies, if you’re successful, you can better resist the pressure of Wall Street and/or your investors; if you are not successful, the money guys are completely in control.

If a big radio company is not successful, it’s rarely a case of gross incompetence. Usually it’s a case of a flawed business plan—not understanding the consequences of being national in a local industry. No matter the reason, weakness puts the capitalists firmly in the driver’s seat.

As Mr. Sinegal puts it, “People in that business are trying to make money between now and next Thursday.”

Every day, too many good radio people are broomed in the name of fiscal responsibility. I’ve run radio stations and other businesses, and I can find lots of other ways to cut back before I hit the payroll. (This assumes that I have a reasonable staff level to begin with.) I might still have to hit the payroll, but by making tough calls elsewhere first, I can minimize the human toll.

Putting aside for a moment the consequences to those who are put out of work, the practice could seriously damage our business when we need it least. Formula music radio cannot compete with new media, but compelling personalities can. (That includes you, Mr. Limbaugh.)

And to those who are cutting successful sellers because they make “too much money”: You are just crazy.

Let’s do all we can, at every level, to preserve the strength of our business. I urge our leading radio companies to halt the bloodshed, reset your priorities and put people first.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Cutting Edge

Cutting costs is always difficult; the trick is to do so without cutting the soul out of our business. Since our people are the soul of our business, small-market owner-operators do everything they can to avoid outright staff reductions. After paring everything else to the bone and it’s not quite enough, some readers tell us they have cut part-time staff; others say they have implemented pay freezes or cuts. But most of the readers with whom I speak view cutting full-time staff as an absolute last resort.

Operators who live with their people and their communities know firsthand the negative consequences of staff cuts. Those operators know their own people well, and in some cases have formed close friendships with them. They are embedded in their communities, and they see firsthand the intricate interconnection among the station, its staff, the advertisers and the community. They realize that a staff cut ripples negatively throughout the community. Sometime it’s necessary, to be sure; after all, most of our operations today employ far fewer programmers, for example, than 10 or 15 years go.

On the other hand, larger and publicly-traded companies approach cost cutting in a very different way. It’s about the numbers, and since payroll accounts for the largest percentage of most companies’ budgets, that’s one of the first places such companies look to achieve drastic and immediate—and shareholder-pleasing—cost reductions.

The business climate in which we find ourselves has become so singularly focused on shareholder value that we have lost balance. We have a generation of executives who will do anything and everything to maximize shareholder value; those executives are praised for getting results, with no thought to the means used to achieve those results.

This is a shortsighted approach to business. But it is difficult—impossible, really—to change it without a fundamental shift in the thinking of everyone concerned—corporate executives, their boards of directors and the shareholders themselves.

We seem to be entering an era in which balance is valued once again. The days of black-and-white thinking seem to be over. My hope is that eventually the heads of large corporations will be able to acknowledge theirs hearts—and their souls.