Budget Season

I used to dread budget season when I was a RVP of Programming at one of the big companies… mostly because it never made sense to me.

The process would usually start with corporate sending out a spreadsheet asking me to outline the on-air lineup station-by-station, and whether or not the shift was “live” or “voice-tracked”… the sole purpose of which was to determine whether there’s an opportunity to replace a live body with voice-tracking.

Corporate would tell you that they wanted YOUR plan, but the reality is you would go through all of the labor and sweat of building a plan, only to have it completely disregarded. They were going to give YOU the plan… not the other way around, and the rest was just a waste of time. PD’s spent so much time working on this and literally creating charts, graphs, and “cue cards” to use for their budget presentation at the corporate HQ that they forgot this was also in the middle of a very important ratings period. Who has time for the product when corporate wants “your” plan?

I remember a now-former CEO who loved to play “gotcha” in the budget meetings. I’ll never forget one particular exercise where he said “imagine you were building a radio station from scratch, which talent would you want on your station?” The goal of the exercise was to get you to rank who your most valuable players were – and whoever was on the bottom of the list almost certainly was going to be fired. Knowing this, I responded with the question “what kind of format is this theoretical station?”… the CEO said “any format”… to which I responded “well, it would depend on the format… after all, the PMD guy on the sports station is really good, but would be an awful morning guy on the urban station, and vice-versa.” Of course he didn’t appreciate my humor, so he turned to the sales manager who had to do the same exercise with his sales team – and indeed the 2 or 3 on the bottom of his list were let go. Thankfully, he never came back to me for another round of “gotcha”.

Radio is a business, and sometimes tough decisions need to be made. As a station owner, I know firsthand the need to find savings and efficiency to keep operating costs under control. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. Playing budget “gotcha” games, and using asshole intimidation tactics are the game of psychologically-damaged narcissists.  Human beings deserve more dignity than that. And decisions to eliminate people’s jobs simply to save money should be made very sparingly, respectfully, and at least with some regret – and after all other options have been exercised. Believe me, it sends a loud and clear message to those who are staying with the company when they see tough decisions handled correctly… and sends an even louder message when it’s handled poorly.

One of my favorite GM’s, Don Bouloukos, used to say it like this… “if you have to let someone go, you don’t want it to be that you can’t have a beer with them 2 years down the road…” Good advice from one of the best managers I’ve ever worked with. And even better advice for those of you facing tough decisions this budget season.


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