Saturday, January 30, 2010

Good for Radio. Bad for America?

Like many, I was stunned by the Supreme Court’s gratuitous decision to remove limitations on corporate advocacy spending during political campaigns.

Broadcast interests and analysts are busy counting the money; certainly, the battered broadcast industry can use every scrap of good news, and I for one would not for a moment suggest that anyone stand on principle—not that we could, legally, anyway. But we need to see beyond self interest in all cases, or we become part of the problem.

In that spirit, I am of the opinion that this is an improper, impractical extension of the legal notion that a corporation is a person, with all the attendant rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

What’s significant here is the amount of money that major corporations can bring to bear on political causes they favor or oppose. This is good news for broadcasters—especially TV broadcasters, to whom most political dollars flow anyway. But it’s extremely bad news for those among us who cling to the notion that ideas deserve more than sound-bite treatment. . .that an examination of facts and motivations should inform our votes more than hot-button, often illogical—if not downright false—rhetoric.

We’ve come a long way from the high-minded reasoning put forth to justify the Lowest Unit Charge rule of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971: In order to qualify, as we all know, the candidate must appear in the ad—the implicit argument at the time being that the candidate would use that opportunity to express ideas and positions. Well, we all know how well that has worked out.

But this week’s court ruling offers no such alleged benefit to the populace, however specious. It is a straightforward opinion that corporate interests are under fire and deserve the opportunity to fight back. It neatly side-steps the commonly-held view that modern corporations usually operate solely in their own interest, with little or no social conscience.

Politics has become all about the money. Nowadays more media attention is paid to how much a candidate has raised than to where the candidate stands on the issues. Our system of government has quietly morphed from a democracy (well, technically a representative democracy or a republic—Google it) to an oligarchy—defined by Wikipedia as “a form of government in which power effectively rests with a small elite segment of society distinguished by royal, wealth, intellectual, family, military, or religious hegemony.”

Viewed in that light, all the Supremes did this week was take one more step away from rule of the people. In the midst of perhaps the biggest political mess of my lifetime, it might not be the worst thing that’s happened to the American people lately. But it sure doesn’t help.

RIP: Jim Quello

I did not know Mr. Quello but I know many who knew him well. They, and our entire industry, were influenced by this fair-minded, common-sensible gentleman.

He always struck me as a dedicated broadcaster, but one who always tried to focus on the greater good.

I can’t help but wonder what his take would have been on this week’s Supreme Court decision.

RIP: Air America

The troubled progressive talk network finally gave up the ghost this week, and a memorial service might well be held for a fair and balanced radio dial.

In the wake of November’s general election, liberal talk radio was eagerly anticipating the turning of the tide. The same people who propelled the election of Barack Obama and a decisive Democrat Congressional majority would, the reasoning went, tune in massively to hear fellow travelers match rants with the right.

As it turns out, progressive talk, like progressive everything else, went AWOL.

Regardless of what has or hasn’t happened in national politics, it’s clear to me that progressive talk radio will forever be a sliver format, sustainable only in the certain large cities and college communities, and a struggle even there.

Maybe it’s because that audience is well served by public radio. (Not just a few radio operators offer a nightly prayer that Arbitron will never list non-coms in its surveys, because they would change the game forever.)

Maybe it’s because as its problems compounded, its talent lineup became more and more insubstantial; founding personalities Al Franken and Janeane Garofolo, along with the likes of Thom Hartmann, Randi Rhodes and Rachel Maddow, found other things to do and/or places to do them.

Maybe it’s because that end of the political spectrum comprises people who can’t agree on anything, thus making the worst kind of radio—not to mention political—constituency. (More than once recently I’ve been reminded of Will Rogers’s quip, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”)

Whatever. Air America is out of business because it didn’t get the votes. The people have spoken. Rush Limbaugh lives to rant another day. Ron Reagan? Not so much.


Legendary WABC programmer Rick Sklar once summed up his programming philosophy by saying, “You can’t get hurt by what you don’t play.” (Fun fact: at one point his entire current playlist was 14 records, which he masked by assigning higher numbers to some songs—“number 18,” “number 27,” etc.)

But I digress. Mr. Sklar seemed to imply that, in general,  you don’t miss what you don’t have. But after twenty-some-odd years of looking forward to the RAB’s first-quarter gathering, I have to admit that I miss it.

It’s mildly depressing to visit the RAB website and not see the trademark ballsy tagline-de-l’annĂ©e. . .to be able to reach RAB staffers relatively easily, because they’re not scurrying around prepping for their show. . .not to be swapping Amfac elevator stories with other MLC veterans.

Ah, but memory plays tricks as well. What began as the anti-convention—limited registration, training-driven, no hoopla, all business—evolved (some would say “devolved”) into another numbers-driven, pack-the-seats, squeeze-the-exhibitors, book-the-noms-du-jour event. (They did it well, but still. . .)

When Fall rolls around, I still feel a little back-to-school tug after all these years. And this year, I’m feeling a little unrequited RAB love. Let’s see if the beefed-up RAB presence at the NAB shows assuages it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Broadcasting's Loss

I first met Paul Hemmer some 25 years ago when I consulted WDBQ and he was its market-dominant morning guy. I’ve been surprised by the caliber of small market talent many times, but Paul was and is a standout. Over the years Paul had chances to go to The Show—which in that part of the country means Chicago—but always opted for the rich, balanced life only small market America can offer.

In addition to his amazing radio career, Paul is blessed with a wonderful wife and two great kids. He’s a world-class musician: a cassette of big-band music by his band—featuring his son, Steve, who also pulls an airshift on KGRR—is among my prized possessions, and he has had at least two of his original musicals performed on local stages.

Above all, Paul and his wife, Jan, have given back to their community in too many ways to enumerate or describe.

Our industry will be diminished by Paul’s departure, but I wish him all the best in his next chapter. No one deserves it more.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Customer Service is Alive

Recently I experienced an example of superior customer service and was told of another. We do so much complaining about bad service, it’s important to recognize the opposite when it occurs. And, as usual, these stories provide valuable lessons we can apply to our own business.

LOOK FOR WAYS TO SERVE. My friend Steve was in an Apple store recently doing some window shopping. He had his iTouch with him, and the earbuds/mic cable set that came with it. In the course of his discussion with one of the geniuses in the store—isn’t that what they’re called?—he mentioned that his mic had stopped working.

Without another word, the genius pulled out a brand new set and swapped it for the defective one. No receipt. No interrogation.

The move was totally unexpected and blew Steve away. Sure, the thing retails for $35, but Apple’s got maybe a buck fifty in it, so if you think about it, it’s a total no-brainer. But how many companies would not only do it, but empower (or, better still, encourage) a local store clerk—excuse me, I mean “genius”—to make the call?

SIX MAGIC WORDS. I’ve been a Verizon customer for years. Love the network. Love the service. Hate the phones. But no phone has pegged the suckometer like the Samsung Omnia.

The phone is so bad that between my wife and me, we’ve replaced it eight times in less than a year.

So I called Verizon and told them I didn’t want to play the replacement game any more, and their stock solutions—a different phone but with lots of contractual strings attached—didn’t work for me.

Then the rep used the six magic words: “What do you want to do?”

The question so took me by surprise that I didn’t have an answer. . .but I promised to call them with one after the weekend.

When I called Monday, I was connected to a guy who listened to my answer and made it happen—and then some. The upshot: my wife and I are getting the phones we want—the Motorola Droid, if you must know—as an even exchange, and we still have the option of upgrading on schedule in August.

I am not happy about this. I am positively giddy.

My friend Warren Lottsberg has a saying: “Today it’s not enough just to satisfy your customers. You have to surprise and delight them.”

What I wanted from Verizon was less generous than what they gave me—I was prepared to pay a discounted price for the phones—hence my giddiness.

The lesson: Listen to the customer and figure out how to trump his/her desired outcome. You’ll have that customer for life.

And with any luck, he’ll tell his story to thousands of readers in his newsletter.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Corporate Culture

With the crap-storm surrounding Arbitron these days—the PPM smack down and the prevaricating CEO have provided a two-course media meal—my faith in the company has never been more pronounced.

Sure, Arbitron is a good friend of my newsletter, but if I didn’t believe what I just said, I would say nothing at all.

While others see a weakened, vulnerable behemoth, I see a company that is growing stronger.


It’s all about the core values. I never had the—whatever—of getting to know Mr. Skarzynski, but I can say without qualification that everyone I know at Arbitron is sincere and honest to a fault. I could not have said that, say, ten or twenty years ago, and I don’t know who gets the credit for the sea change, but my impression is that the people at Arbitron today are decent and real.

In such an environment, the character flaws attributed to Mr. Skarzynski cannot thrive. Whether an interim leader or a more permanent occupant of the office, it is up to Mr. Kerr—who comes from Meredith, another good company—to restore Arbitron’s good name—which, given the company’s traditional flashpoint role, is destined never to be that good anyway.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe the good guys can win. I know that smart, honest ones can.

PS: In my experience, the same good qualities are alive and well at Nielsen and Eastlan. Let the games begin.

The New Emergency Reality

It began, arguably, with the events in China some 18 months ago, where millions of Chinese were joined by citizens of the world in using Twitter and other so-called social media to circumvent that country’s suppression of communication. Now, these new media are vying for hegemony where radio has always dominated: emergency situations.

Once again we lifelong radio people are being given a choice in how we regard our medium: are we a technology or are we a content provider?

If there were ever a clear signal, Haiti is it. In fact, one article we used as a source for our special report on Page 5 did not even mention radio at all in its recounting; it cited the roles of “TV and social networking sites” in helping the Haiti relief effort.

Aside from yet another possible PR nightmare—our rear-guard defensive position has always been our unique ability to render service in emergency situations—we need to embrace any and every technology and platform that not only will increase our power exponentially, but will, more fundamentally, keep us in the game.