The Day Innovation Stopped

Where were you the day that innovation stopped?

As someone who has been programming radio stations for a long time, I’ve been blessed to work with some of the best talent in the industry. I’ve also witnessed some massive mistakes made by upper management that are the roots of many of the problems we have today.

One of the most memorable mistakes happened when I was working for one of the biggest companies and the former CEO would occasionally schedule “all management” calls that included GM’s, PD’s, and Sales Managers. I dreaded these calls because they were almost always filled with veiled threats, no real solutions, and new initiatives that were obviously aimed at staff reduction and layoffs as the ultimate goals.

But it was one call in particular that forever damaged radio programming innovation in this company, and set the stage for other large conglomerates to do the same. On this call, the CEO declared “we will no longer allow Program Directors to make mistakes.” He then went on to talk about how too many decisions were based on a “PD’s gut” rather than sound research,
and we needed to usher in a new era of “accountability.” Now, let me stop right here and say that #1 – I am a FAN of using research as a tool in the arsenal to make programming decisions… in fact, I believe that research is one of the the most valuable tools at a PD’s disposal…. and #2 – I’ve NEVER had a problem being held accountable for the decisions that I’ve made… in fact, I’ve done my best work in situations where I had lots of autonomy and subsequent accountability for what I do with that autonomy.

But this call was the day that innovation simply stopped in that company. From that moment on, Program Directors were bogged down in paperwork where they had to justify every decision made using data. That sounds great on the surface – after all, PD’s SHOULD be basing their decisions on good data and sound logic. But, on the other hand, creative ideas and innovation never happens in a small box like this…. most great ideas are borne in the part of the mind that I call “educated gut” – where you interpret the data through the lens of your experience and develop a new idea or innovation based on the combination of the two. Your gut can be your mind’s best work!

As things continued to unfold, I started to see a disturbing trend – in the company’s effort to improve the performance of their WORST performing stations, they were stunting the growth of their BEST performing stations. Some of the company’s BEST performing Program Directors stopped innovating because they feared making a mistake. So eventually everybody was following the same corporate template, and it all became so generic and easy to duplicate that the listener was never surprised anymore with standout content. It all became boring and predictable. This was exactly what the company wanted? Why? Because a talented PD or on-air personality is hard to replace. But when everything is following a generic template, everything is equally disposable.

The trend that started back then remains a major issue in the radio industry of today. Thankfully there are still some great companies and innovative programmers left… many have left the big company to join smaller and mid-sized groups that offer more autonomy. And creative PD’s are thriving in those environments because they actually get to use their “educated gut” again.

When you take away the ability of your best performers to perform, you will only be left with mediocre “sameness.” How about instead of saying we no longer allow PD’s to make mistakes, we encourage them to “make NEW mistakes”? You might be surprised at the new ideas and innovations that come from this approach. Every successful new idea has to start somewhere – why not with you?

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A Living, Breathing Thing…

Early into my time in New York, I met someone who would become one of my closest friends. Mike Erickson was the Chief Engineer of WCBS-FM, and quickly impressed me because he’s one of the most passionate people I’ve ever met in radio.

We both share a passion for great audio processing, and one night over a slice of New York pizza, we talked about something that we both recognized about the GREAT radio stations… they become a “person writ large,” or a “living, breathing thing” as I always like to say. Great radio stations have a ‘station-ality’ that cuts through so strongly that a listener immediately knows what station they’re listening to without a jock or a piece of imaging even saying the station’s name. These are the stations with personality oozing out of the speakers – great jocks, well written imaging, a unique format, and a strong brand that stands the test of time. These aren’t just ‘radio stations,’ they are true companions with a genuine relationship to a community of listeners. These are a rare breed these days, but some still exist.

A few weeks after this conversation, Mike invited me to join him on a short road trip out to eastern Long Island to see a radio station that was a great example of the traits we had talked about a few weeks earlier. We arrived at our destination in Sag Harbor, NY… and that was the day that I first encountered the legendary WLNG.

At first blush, WLNG sounded like a parody of a 1960’s style small market top 40 – complete with a “Swap n’ Shop” show, PAMS jingles, personality jocks, and a long playlist of mostly classic hits. But this was no parody. WLNG just never stopped doing this kind of radio. Not only was it still doing it, it was thriving at it. Many competitors have tried to de-throne WLNG through the years and wrongfully assumed that the audience felt WLNG was “hokey” and old. But WLNG’s loyal listeners and advertisers kept it on top year after year. As the old saying goes, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Touring through the building, I couldn’t help but to notice the storied history of WLNG posted all over the wall in the form of newspaper clippings, community awards, and pictures galore. WLNG’s founder, a legendary Long Island broadcaster by the name of Paul Sidney, was featured in many of the clippings going back to the late 1960’s / early 1970’s. One photo showed Sidney doing a remote from the storefront window of a local furniture store. The story goes that the furniture store owner didn’t believe that radio worked, so Sidney lived in the storefront window to prove him wrong. Sure enough, it worked.

The place sounded and felt like the “living, breathing thing” that I spoke of earlier. It didn’t take long to figure out why WLNG had become such an institution in the Hamptons.

In the years since I’ve left New York, I continued to watch this station because it was such a great example of true community radio. And, as I later learned, I’m not alone – many of the most respected people in our industry are fans of WLNG for the same reason.

But sadly, it seems like the legendary WLNG is on the verge of being dismantled. In spite of the fact that Paul Sidney passed away in 2009, the station has continued to operate with the same general philosophy that he developed – until this month – when WLNG was sold.

What has happened since is the perfect example of my previous article from May, 2015 entitled “Destruction of a Brand.” In that article, I outlined 8 major reasons why long running successful brands die. WLNG is a great example of reason #5 from the article: “CHANGE FOR THE SAKE OF CHANGE. Usually some corporate pencil-pusher comes into town and becomes a self-appointed “expert” on the market within a matter of hours. With total disregard to the nuances of the market, they make arbitrary changes to the successful brand with the thought that they are “improving” it, when in reality they kill it.”

I’m sure the new owners have the best of intentions, but they are eliminating many of the things that made WLNG the unique brand that it was. The jingles are now gone. The talent is only allowed to talk 4x per hour. The playlist has been cut. Many of the community service elements have been eliminated, including far fewer newscasts. It’s starting to sound like just another classic hits station. But WHY?

In their defense, WLNG probably could have used some subtle updating – perhaps tightening up the music, and moving it forward a few years to keep up with changing audience demographics. And some of the PAMS jingles were sounding a bit worn. But simple updating could have been done without extinguishing the soul of WLNG like they have. Unfortunately, it seems like the new owners are being reckless with a beloved brand, and I can almost predict where this going.

I’m only guessing, but I bet the new owners are getting advice from outsiders who, although well-intended, do not know the nuances, history, and unique qualities of WLNG. It’s my hope that they would instead talk to the people who know the brand first hand – the people that currently work there. Find out what works and WHY it works. Certainly the current staff is more than capable of developing an updated WLNG while still preserving those elements that made this unique station so successful all these years. And who better to know what has made that station special than those who have been there all along?

It’s not too late to save WLNG. But if history is any guide, my guess is that the new owners will forge ahead with their plans without regard to the rich heritage and uniqueness of WLNG, and the end will soon be near. And what a tragic end it will be – another one of America’s broadcast treasures unnecessarily transformed into just another radio station.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Radio’s Experimental Roots

Yes, it has been a while since I’ve written anything here. This was partially due to the fact that I feel like I’m preaching to the choir on this platform. Most of the readers here “get it” – but the people who need to hear this message the most – the people in charge – simply weren’t listening, so I stopped.  But I’ve heard from several of you that you actually enjoyed my rants and found them to be a source of inspiration because I’m able to say things here that you wish that you could. But because you’re stuck “in the system,” you are unable to speak up. So if this is serving some type of purpose, I’ll continue to post from time to time.

Amazingly, very little has changed since my last article. With some exceptions, the radio industry continues to make mistakes and inflict wounds upon itself. Large corporations are all busy trying to systemize content as much as possible…. taking mediocre, generic content and distributing it cheaply across as many stations as possible to reduce costs. Never mind that this scheme is making radio less relevant to listeners because the “content” is largely stripped of anything local, compelling, or unique.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to take you on a journey back to the future. Some of you can recall a time when AM radio reigned supreme, and FM stations were basically experimental. The experimental nature of FM at the time led to the innovation of the AOR or “Album Rock” format. The combination of “underground music” and talent who were unusual “characters” curating the experience with a counter-culture approach made for a very authentic experience compared to other commercial radio offerings at the time. These stations developed cult followings, and many eventually became powerhouse brands that still exist today. Ironically, just like many stations today, the experimental FM’s back then didn’t have many resources. The marketing and research dollars that existed back then went to the powerhouse AM stations across the hall. The FM’s had nothing to lose, so they followed their instincts and experimented with concepts that defied conventional thinking at the time. There was nothing to lose, so who cares? Take the risk!

The reason that I said “back to the future” earlier is because we need to bring back this “experimental” type of thinking. Let’s face it – many stations are again in the position where they have “nothing to lose,” and trying something completely different or unusual might bring about the next big thing.

You don’t have to look very far. There are plenty of podcasts with large audiences who are experimenting with content that you would never hear or find on commercial radio. But why? Why aren’t we giving creative programmers an opportunity to experiment with actual broadcast stations? There are so many clusters of 5 and 6 stations where only 3 or 4 stations are currently viable. Why not take that 5th or 6th station and try something radical? Are you really any worse off if you tried something and it didn’t work? And what if you stumble onto something big?

You’ll never really know until you actually take a risk.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Killing Radio – In Their Own Words

A friend of mine was being “courted” by one of the big companies, and as is typically the case, he was told that in addition to hosting a show on one station, he would also be voice-tracking several other stations. They proceeded to give him a memo of instructions entitled “Network Talent Guidelines”, which outlined how and what he is supposed to say and do on the voice-tracked shifts.

Here are some of the instructions word-for-word directly from the memo:

“To maintain the veil of you being local, avoid doing these things in network breaks: No time checks on the network. You’re on the air in 4 to 6 time zones. Even dayparts can get in into trouble. Here are some guidelines (except if you have affiliates in Hawaii and/or Alaska):  

  • You can only say “Good Morning” from 7 AM to 10 AM Eastern
  • You can only say “Good Afternoon” from 4 PM to 5 PM Eastern
  • You can only say it’s “Night” from 10 PM to 2 AM Eastern

No weather or current conditions mentions. Saying the lunar eclipse looks beautiful gives you away in areas where it’s cloudy or where it’s not visible. Commenting on the brilliant fall foliage doesn’t work in Bermuda or Hawaii. Avoid all descriptions of the locale. Depending on the context, even words like city, mountains, beach, freeway or mall can give you away. Small communities don’t have freeways, you can’t even be certain they have a Starbucks.  Rather than say the name of a state, opt for the name of a major city in that state. Example: Rather than say “Fleetwood Mac is playing in Englewood, Colorado tonight…” say “Fleetwood Mac is playing in Denver tonight.” Please do not give out local phone numbers on the network, only 800 numbers.

Please do not tease anything coming up outside of the hour you’re in. Network affiliates are always coming and going. When they switch to local programming or a syndicated show it’s always at the top of the hour. Local shows, promotions and features must be teased within produced promos that only play on that specific station.”

The real message here is “keep content as generic and universal as possible”.

The most successful radio stations of all-time have one thing in common: a shared experience with the listener. How can you possibly share an experience with an audience by following THIS plan? This is merely a set of instructions on how to deceive your audience.

In an era where authenticity is critical to the success of every brand, how can you possibly expect to be successful following a set of instructions designed to simply lie to the listener? Generic, cold, and irrelevant content like this is another example of what’s killing radio. And by the way, the company that issued this memo operates some of the lowest-rated stations in nearly every major market. Geez, I wonder why?

Seriously, if this is your idea of “operating” a broadcast property, and spending money on talent and  content is just a nuisance to you, why not just sell the assets to someone who actually WANTS to operate and is willing to fund content without lying to the audience? Then you can invest into a more lucrative business that can generate the huge profits that you seek.

Please don’t misunderstand… I’m not somebody who thinks that “profit” is a bad word. On the contrary, I want radio to be a very robust industry – I just believe we aren’t going to get there by employing these practices. History is proving me right… just take a look at spot rates today versus just a few years ago. We have no pricing power because we de-value content and those that create it.

The pyramid is upside down… the current model places content as the lowest priority, or “necessary evil”… and until we put great content, unique and compelling talent, and a great listener experience back at the top of the priority list, we will continue to lose ground…. and the best ‘sales tactics’ in the world won’t be able to fix it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Beautiful Lobby… Empty Studios

I’ll never forget the day that I first walked into 4002 Gandy in Tampa. This was the home of Jacor Broadcasting at the time, and my first thought was how dated and cheap the lobby appeared to be. You could tell that there had been almost no investment into the lobby since the mid-1980’s.

When I walked back to the studios, I noticed that it was kind of sloppy… board operators on the talk station had plastered posters all over the studio wall of the talk station. Speaking of plaster – there were literally holes in the wall at some points, and discolored ceiling tiles that revealed evidence of a roof leak at one time.

Yes, the building was a bit dumpy, but some of the best radio ever made came out of that place between WFLZ and WFLA. The appearance of the lobby was actually an indication of a company who had the right priorities – hire great talent, and let them do what they do. I did some of the best work of my career in that building… simply because I had the autonomy to do so.

Recently, I was visiting a good friend at a group of radio stations owned by one of the big companies… interestingly, the last time I had stepped foot in that very building, I was the “corporate programmer” that oversaw that market…. and this was the first time I had seen the place in a few years. The first thing that caught my attention were the lobby upgrades that had taken place since I last visited. The corporate logo beautifully embossed on the elevator doors. A lit glass sign with the corporate logo, along with the radio station’s logos that must have cost a fortune to create. Brand new furniture. A spectacular paint job. Very impressive to say the least.

Then I toured the studios. With the exception of one, every studio was empty. There were no people. It happened to be the middle of the day, and all of the stations had some form of syndication or voice-tracking. And the one studio with a person in it was a part-time board op running a syndicated show.

Does anybody else see the irony in all of this? There had been major investments made in the lobby, and no investment made in the product. Anybody see a problem with this?

This is another symptom of the disease that is killing radio… The big companies have their priorities completely backward. Instead of building an empty palace, how about investing into talent and talent development? Maybe skip embossing the elevator doors with the corporate logo, and instead give the station some marketing dollars?

It reminds me of the fake skyline movie set that you see at Universal Studios…. it looks like a real city, but there are no inhabitants. In fact, there are no buildings. Just pictures of buildings being propped up by planks of wood. That’s what many radio stations have become… soul-less, phony, and empty… even though they “appear” to be something different – at least in the lobby.

My friend Bill Tanner tells me great stories about his time working for broadcast pioneer Cecil Heftel. I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Heftel before he passed away a few years back, but I know that I would have liked him just based on the stories Bill has shared. One of my favorites is how Cecil used to say “I want the talent to drive the really nice cars… sales people can drive the Buicks”… in other words, the “corner offices”, big salaries, and perks went to the people who created the product. Heftel built an empire by buying under-performing stations and putting entertaining and compelling products on the air – turning them into big ratings and revenue successes – and eventually sold them for a huge fortune. It’s not hard to see why he was such a success. It’s amazing what the right priorities will do.

And in another ironic twist – I recently had the opportunity to design the floor plan for a radio station that I own… can you guess who got the big corner office? The jocks – it’s the air studio. And yes, we actually have jocks…. in a small market with few resources. Go figure.

It’s amazing what the right priorities can do.

If only one of the big guys had the balls to do what we’re doing on a larger scale. We’ve tried your failed model since 1996… hows it working? Radio stocks are in the toilet, new media has captured the young audience while radio gives away its relevance, and there is almost no innovation in radio formats – all while talent are being told to “shut up and play the hits” – thus raising a generation of “announcers” that are completely interchangeable and irrelevant, instead of entertaining and meaningful personalities. And how is revenue growth? It’s crap. Your model will be 20 years old next year – and it’s a colossal failure. Your employees are too afraid to tell you what they really think of you – in fact, many of them thank me (off the record) for saying what they are thinking.

Your model is broken, and if you don’t change course, you will be discarded into the trash heap of history, and you’re going to suck the entire industry into your vortex.

But at least your lobby looks nice.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Radio Station or Gas Station?

I was lucky enough to grow up in a town that had an unusual set of characters on the radio. In that era of Detroit radio, I was able to witness first-hand the power of the medium when a compelling, unusual, and entertaining personality had autonomy to actually do a “show” instead of a “shift”.

The passing of former WNIC “Pillowtalk” host Alan Almond last week reminded me of how lucky I was to grow up in that market.  I’ll admit, it was kind of cool to have the chance to work with him years later at WNIC when I oversaw programming for Clear Channel in that market. Yes, Alan was a bit unusual… a perfectionist through-and-through, who took himself and his show VERY seriously. At times it was amusing, but I always appreciated his sense of showmanship. This guy was a master of “one-to-one radio”… he would have a conversation with you every night,  and his words and mellow voice had a seductive quality that made adult women very curious about him… and the fact that he never allowed himself to photographed and never made public appearances only drove the curiosity further.  Men would laugh at his schtick, but who cares… they weren’t the target anyway. And you can bet your life that even if they wouldn’t admit it, they checked him out once in a while. And everybody – and I mean EVERYBODY – knew who he was. To this day, if you mention WNIC to an adult female who grew up there, the first name that comes up is Alan Almond, followed by the legendary former morning host Jim Harper. The whole show was theatre of the mind. It was a world that existed only on the radio.

Another interesting and unusual talent was known as “The Electrifying Mojo” (not to be confused with legendary morning host MOJO from WKQI). He would start the first several minutes of his show with spacey sound efx… then would announce that “the mothership has landed”.  And I’ll never forget riding down I-75 one evening when the Electrifying Mojo said something like “if you’re riding down I-75 right now, blink your headlights, and let ’em know you’re listening to the Electrifying Mojo” – and just at that moment, everyone on the road as far as the eye could see started blinking their headlights. It wouldn’t be unusual to hear artists like Prince just stop by and debut his new song on Mojo’s show. He helped to introduce many urban artists of that era to the audience – and because he was ultra-cool, he made the artists ultra-cool just because they were on his show.  In Detroit, he was bigger than the artists  – he was bigger than life on the air. And the artists knew it – which is why they all campaigned to be on his show. Again, it was a world that only existed on the radio.

Creative Program Directors were always on the search for unique and compelling talent. They wanted people who would break the rules – because with so many radio station options, that was really the only way to stand out. You had to have something unusual – maybe even bizarre – in order to capture the audience’s attention.

We now live an an era with vastly more audio entertainment options – in our wildest imaginations, we could not have conceived back then the number of media options we would have today. And what is the radio industry’s response to even more choice? Become more generic. Cut Corners. Minimize talent. Become a commodity. Does that seem like the right answer to you? Is it even logical?

Commodities are not brands. Yes, I like the Marathon gas station up the road, but if the BP station on the corner is a few cents cheaper, I’ll go there.  After all, the product is the same, so who cares? That’s what happening to radio. Station A does 98 minutes commercial free, so Station B does 2 hours commercial free… and that’s the only difference. Station A does a countdown, Station B does a countdown. Station A gives away Taylor Swift tickets, Station B gives away Taylor Swift tickets. The imaging on station A is just an overproduced list of facts – nothing really creative… same goes with station B. Station A plays 85% of station B’s playlist. Station A teases stories on their website twice an hour… station B teases stories on their website twice an hour. Station A is doing the $1,000 a day group contest at 7, 11, 1, 5, and 7, station B is doing the $1,000 a day group contest at 8, noon, 1, 4, and 7. If you’re lucky, you might have a good morning show to differentiate yourself… at least there’s something different – if you’re one of the lucky few. All this while PD’s are busy filling out paperwork and dealing with HR matters… or they’re busy schmoozing record labels to cut deals so they have a good lineup for their station’s NTR concert…. station A gets the same lineup for their Christmas show that station B will get for their Spring show.

You get the picture.

And then we wonder why people are just going away. Could it be that we are boring them to death? Could it be that we have nothing special to offer compared to the thousands of other media choices that they have? Whatever happened to the concept of working to actually ATTRACT an audience? Right now we are simply pacifying the existing audience – and eventually they will be gone too. The people in charge don’t care – after all, they’ll be long gone by the time the whole thing collapses.

There has to be a better way.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Destruction of a Brand

I’ve seen and written many articles through the years about what it takes to make a great radio station. But few have ever taken the time to talk about what drives a station from the top to the bottom.

We’ve all seen the movie… a station is on top for years, and then something happens and poof! The long-time successful brand dies. What can cause this? The first obvious cause is the sign on of a new competitor… but that competitor doesn’t stand a chance to bring down a big brand unless the big brand is vulnerable in some way that can be exploited. Here are the top reasons why big station brands collapse:

1) NEW COMPETITOR EXPLOITS VULNERABILITIES: This is usually because the “big brand” is alone in a format and assumes it will always be this way. Smart operators know that they should be constantly looking at potential weaknesses in their strongest brands, and continue to invest in the brands to keep them strong and shore up vulnerabilities. One of the biggest in this category is the successful stand-alone that runs too many commercials. Just because you have no competition doesn’t mean you can get away with 20 minutes of spots per hour… like Jim Cramer says – “bears make money, bulls make money, pigs get slaughtered”.

2) OWNERSHIP CHANGE: This is a biggie. Many times new owners take over a big brand and the first thing they do is go looking for “efficiencies” (i.e. budget cuts). OK, if the station has it’s own private employee spa – that’s one thing. But most of the time it’s things like “do we REALLY need a morning show producer?” or “can’t we just use someone else at one of the other stations to produce the imaging?” – and before you know it, the station sounds different.

3) RESOURCE CUTS: Taking away tools that the PD uses just because the GM doesn’t understand the value of the tool.  Budget items like marketing and research are essential. You don’t just decide that a big brand no longer needs these. If anything, you need them MORE just to occasionally take the temperature of the brand and make sure it’s still as bullet-proof as you think it is.

4) LOSS OF A BIG TALENT: Usually a big AM show talent. As large corporations continue to kill off big morning shows because they don’t want to pay the large salaries, and those that are left are told to “shut up and play more music,” this is becoming less of a risk. But this is the type of thinking that puts radio in a downward spiral because a great morning show is one of the few EXCLUSIVE content generators on your station…. your competitors get the same songs that you get – but only you have the big morning show – so you win. This still holds true today, regardless of what the big companies believe.

5) CHANGE FOR THE SAKE OF CHANGE: Usually some corporate pencil-pusher comes into town and becomes a self-appointed “expert” on the market within a matter of hours. With total disregard to the nuances of the market, they make arbitrary changes to the successful brand with the thought that they are “improving” it, when in reality they kill it. Then try to blame the PD who never wanted the arbitrary changes in the first place.  As a corporate VP, and now a consultant, I am always careful not to mess with what was working, but rather understand WHY it works… and then deal with the things that were truly broken. As the old saying goes “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

6) CHANGES IN TECHNOLOGY: This is what did in the big AM stations that old-timers in radio look back with such fondness. WABC, WLS, CKLW, etc… all done in by the shift from AM to FM. Interestingly, each of these that I’ve mentioned had FM signals as well… and I’ve always wondered if they simply would have moved those brands over to FM – would they still be around as music brands today? (I know some half-heartedly tried, but it was too late and not done correctly).  Take note, the wifi dashboard is coming – that will be another technological challenge – at least for those who fail to establish brands that users are passionate about so they follow the brand to whatever technology emerges.

7) BAD SALES MANAGEMENT: I love it when sometime tells me “we used to have a rhythmic CHR here, it was #1 in almost every demo, but we simply couldn’t sell it.” Some version of this has been told to me at least a thousand times in my life. My response is always the same – “then get better sales people”. If you have a number one product with consumers, and you can’t sell it, you have the wrong sales force. At WKQI, I had a great Sales Manager, Allyson Hillman, who basically got rid of excuse-making sellers who said that CHR was “too hard to sell”, and instead found sellers who actually loved the station personally and because they were personally fans of the product, it wasn’t hard at all for them to sell. Rebecca Falk, my Promotions and Marketing director, was great at literally teaching the sellers why we could put our name on some things and not others – she and I would work together on a unified message, and between Rebecca, Allyson, and I, we developed a protective wall around the brand that allowed business to get done without putting our name on bad agency ideas. As a side note – some of the added value requests from major agencies were amusing. I could write a whole book on the bad ideas that I can’t imagine ANY station agreeing to. (“Battery trivia” on the morning show for a spot buy from Duracell – huh? Who comes up with this crap? Makes me want to start an ad agency with real ideas – but I digress…) If you are a PD that allowed  “battery trivia” on the air,  you are a whore that should be strung between two cars going in opposite directions and have your insides pulled out (now I really digress…)

8) FAILURE TO EVOLVE WITH THE LISTENER: This one is slow and painful, and sometimes creeps up on you without you knowing. For example, I recently heard a big market  heritage CHR using “listen for the touch-tones” as a cue to call mechanism. I wonder if millennials have any idea what “touch-tones” are or why a station would use them as a cue to call. Dated. Dumb. This is where the “power of precedent” can kill a brand… or as I like to call it – “but we’ve always done it this way!” syndrome. You have to know where to draw the line with change. If you change too much of a big, heritage product, you will kill the brand… but… failure to keep up with contemporary tastes also can kill you. The key is knowing WHAT to change, and WHY… without “fixing” what isn’t broken.

If you have a strong heritage brand, congratulations! Now the hard part begins – keeping it strong. By paying attention to the items above, you will have years and years of success – as long as you don’t become a pig – because “pigs get slaughtered”.





Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Disease Killing Radio

The moment that I heard the answer, I knew we were doomed.

I remember asking a GM at a brand new CHR station that I was working with to define what ratings success looked like… what would be a good rank P 18-34 to define success. The GM said “I’d be happy if the station got into the top 5.” Top 5? Really?

Part of the problem in our business today is this attitude that “top 5” can define success. Perhaps I’m just a type ‘A’ personality, but I never wanted to be anything but #1 in my target demo, and would certainly never define success at “top 5”.

So when the same station attains “top 5,” the promotional and marketing funding and resources are cut. That’s it. We’ve arrived. Whoo hoo, throw a party. Then it stops growing, but that’s ok because top 5 is good enough.

The would-be #1 station is stalled at #5 because somebody thought that was “good enough”. It became even more humorous when I was told that I didn’t need to be so aggressive. Huh? Because I was top 5 and wanted to be #1, I was too aggressive. The real issue was that the GM and the company were not nearly aggressive enough.

Needless to say, this wasn’t going to work out, and I eventually left. The same station today is typically #13 or 14 P 18-34. And they seem perfectly content with it. I guess it’s cheap to operate so it likely generates a little cash flow, and somehow that’s ok. Sadly, they left millions in potential on the table.

There is a disease that infects the entire industry… this disease is the reason why so many mistakes have been made, and why the radio industry struggles to produce 2% revenue gains at best… it’s the same disease that’s caused younger demos to migrate to new platforms and just turn radio off. That disease is called RISK ADVERSITY. We’ve stopped taking risks. We would rather settle for being #5 because #1 is too expensive. We would rather give up millions in potential revenue just to avoid taking a risk, and instead settle for 2-3% revenue growth. We would rather be the 3rd station in a format than try a new format. Risk adversity is killing radio.

As a programmer, I could never look in the mirror and be satisfied with defining success as top 5. If you strive to be anything less than #1 in your target demo, you will never succeed in a competitive environment. My friend Gene Romano used to say that great programmers are 50% confident and 50% paranoid… and it’s absolutely true, but in that formula there is no room for settling. When our team went from 14th to 1st in Detroit at WKQI, I knew it was going to happen. We hired the best talent in the country at the time… we had the best morning show, the best midday show, the best PMD show, the best Night show, the best Promotions Director, the best imaging, a playlist that sounded just like the market, and we held high standards on what we allowed our name to be put on. If it didn’t fit the brand, we didn’t allow our name to be on it. Period. Yes, there were occasional internal fights because of this, but we would win those battles, and eventually built a massive brand by holding to those standards. This was the same formula we used a few years earlier at WFLZ in Tampa. Both of these brands thrive even today because of the strong brand foundation and standards that have been held.

If you are a GM and your PD is super-aggressive, you should THANK them being so… since there are only a few left in the industry. Your goal should be to hire the most aggressive PD that you can find, arm them with the tools they need, and get out of their way so they have the freedom and space to perform.

If your station is in need of a turnaround, hire someone who comes in and challenges the current system. You will never grow by doing subtle variations of what you’ve always done, listeners don’t notice nor do they care. Get a renegade and let them do what they do. I guarantee your ratings will improve… and so will your revenues!

And if you define success as “top 5,” you’re part of the problem. Get out of the way.


Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

What makes you special?

One of my favorite questions to ask a talent in an interview is “what makes your show special?”

This is a basic question that shouldn’t catch talent off-guard, but nine times out of ten, it does. Then I watch them reach for the “stock” answers – “I work really hard every day”, or “I’m real….”


The sad truth is – if you are honest with yourself – you probably aren’t “special” enough.  Most jock content today falls into a few different buckets: 1) Contesting: Either teasing a contest coming up, or actually executing a contest, 2) Pop Culture News: Reading stories about celebrities that listeners can just as easily find on,  3) Selling something – whether it’s a client live read masquerading as content, or selling music quantity, or pushing people to the station website, or asking them to go to your Facebook page or follow you on social media…. Try listening to a full day of your show, and count how many breaks fall into these buckets…. for most jocks, it’s in the area of 95-100%.

There’s one big problem with this type of  “content” – almost anybody can do it, and it’s  all disposable – you hear it, and you forget about it. Nobody cares. If you think that’s enough to make your show special, you’re part of the reason terrestrial radio is in trouble.

So how do you “do it differently?”

Bob Lassiter was one of the best story tellers I’ve ever heard on the radio at WFLA in Tampa. While I didn’t always agree with his positions, I credit him for having an amazing ability to capture the audience and draw them into a story.  He once said something that summed up why he was such a success – “face it, you know more about me than you do about your spouse… unless you have a better-than-average marriage. You know my hopes, my fears, my failures and my triumphs. And you know these things because I have the guts to share it with you.”  He was right. Listeners knew a lot about him personally, because he shared it on the air.

Start by being human… talk about something that helps me get to know you better. I should know more about you as a person from the time I start listening till the time I stop. If you do a pop culture story, how do YOU feel about it? Tell me about something you did that I might enjoy too.  Have a headache? Talk about why you do.  Looking forward to your sister’s birthday party this weekend? Why? Great, share that. You’ll be surprised at how simple, relatable moments generate response.  Talk one-to-one with the listener…. its ok to be vulnerable! Don’t give them every detail in one sitting – just reveal more about you over time. Master the art of story-telling. Capture listener’s imaginations!

The only way to develop a relationship with somebody is to share life with them…. so why not do this on the radio? Share your life with your listeners, and let them share theirs with you. This is what separates announcers from personalities. Be a personality…. there’s no future in being an announcer.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Lesson of Bill Bonds

I may live somewhere else now, but make no mistake, I’m still an “East-Sider” from Detroit. Those that know me personally certainly can attest to that. And when “East-Side Detroit Dom” comes out, it’s usually because I’m seeing the big guy beat up on the little guy… something that us East-Siders would never tolerate. We still know how to open up a can of whoop-ass on somebody when needed.

The East Side of Detroit is comprised mostly of working-class people like my father who worked at the Ford plant for 38 years. I will always cherish the values of hard work, integrity, authenticity, and spirit of the underdog that defined growing up there.

One of the staples of my childhood was a news anchor on the local ABC station named Bill Bonds. The man was literally walking history. He interviewed presidents from the Johnson days all the way to now. He covered the Detroit riots in the late 60’s that literally started in the neighborhood where Bill grew up on 12th street. Bill Bonds was literally a part of my memory for every major news event that I saw growing up.

But Bill Bonds wasn’t just a reporter – he was one of us – a real Detroiter – and everything he did was through that lens.

When he interviewed someone of authority, he would speak as one of us. He would ask “why should we believe you…?” and “how can we trust you?” – the “we” being us – Detroit. And whenever he saw the little guy getting beat up by the big guy, he would call the big guy out on TV.  You didn’t watch Bill Bonds to get the news… you watched Bill Bonds to get his take on the news.

It was this combination of brilliant journalism combined with authenticity that led Bill to massive ratings success. He knew how to connect. Working class people in Detroit had a voice, and we would sit at home and watch Billy give-it to authority when they were out of line, literally to the point where people would talk to the TV “go get ’em Billy…”

This wasn’t an act of his. Every bit of it was real.

One of the thrills of my life was to get to know Bill and his wife Karen over the past 10 years. Bill and I would have lunch regularly and talk about broadcasting, life, politics, and such. I learned something new with each conversation. Well into his 70’s, Bill was as sharp as a tack, witty, humorous, and a brilliant story-teller. And I was always captivated by his answers to my questions about what made him tick – and why he thought he connected so well with the audience.

The formula was simple. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said. And his manager throughout most of his career was another brilliant lady named Jeanne Findlater (who I also had the pleasure of speaking with on occasion through the years), and she would protect Bill from the corporate types who wanted to mess with his formula. She literally would tell the ABC bosses “don’t mess with the franchise…” when Bill would write promos about the resilience of Detroit, when corporate would rather have him talk about how “action news has you covered”. Bill wrote and performed brilliant promos… he wrote and performed brilliant news. But the key is his “performance” was authenticity. And his manager protected the environment around him so that he could do what he did so well.

Sadly, we lost Billy today. He passed away this afternoon from a heart attack in his home.

The lessons he taught us run deep, and are especially applicable to radio. Be your authentic self on the air. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Have a genuine and real point of view. And if you’re a manager of a true talent like this, don’t let corporate mess with the franchise – protect real talent like this so they are free to perform and succeed.

This is the stuff that legends like Bill Bonds are made of.

My thoughts and prayers go out to Karen and his family. I feel like a part of my childhood passed away today with Bill. How many people could say that about ANY radio or TV talent today?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
%d bloggers like this: