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.