Hot and Cold Radio Stations

There’s nothing worse than a “cold” radio station. You know the kind I’m talking about.

Sure, the imaging is super-clean. The music may be good. The jocks are probably tight and do a great job promoting the upcoming contest. The promos are well produced and slick. But the station has no soul. It’s just an appliance… mechanically sound, but doesn’t make you feel anything.

More and more stations have become this way – dare I say that a vast majority in big markets – mostly as an overreaction to the PPM ratings system. Programmers are spending way too much time gaming the system to try to prevent “tune-out,” that we’ve forgotten about creating the magic that causes “tune-in”.

Most of today’s iconic radio brands were created when ratings were diary based and the goal was to get people to remember your station to write it down. Your goal as a programmer should still be the same today – just for different reasons. Hot radio stations have a personality, or as I like to call it “stationality”. They are interactive. You never know what’s going to happen next. The jocks are personalities with a genuine opinion on everyday life. Hot stations are living, breathing things… that make you feel something when you listen. They entertain, make people laugh, capture your emotions, tell a story, or maybe even make you cry. Even the promos are entertaining. They activate the listener’s imagination.  There’s an experience beyond just the music. “Commercial Free” isn’t the ONLY benefit they offer.

Music is a commodity. If I want to hear a Taylor Swift song, oh let me count the ways! I can think of many more immediate ways than radio. But great radio stations offer so much more. There’s a reason to tune in beyond just the music. Even the music offers some depth and discovery on a great radio station.

Radio stations that are just appliances dispensing music are as dead as a coffin. Emotionless, cold and dead. Hot brands are interesting and colorful… with unique content that you can’t get from the other stations.

Turn up the heat!

 

 

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Finding Radio’s “Why?”

I’m a huge fan of Simon Sinek.

In his book “Start With Why,” Sinek proposes that the best and most innovative companies and leaders have a strong sense of purpose, or “why”. And much of the success of the most innovative companies is due to their leaders abilities to inspire through clearly communicating the “why” of the organization.

This inspiration then leads the team to develop systems, products, and processes (the “hows” and “whats”) to grow the company – while always remaining focused on the “why”. I know we reference Steve Jobs a lot here, but after all this page is about “disrupting” an industry, and Jobs is the poster child for disruption over the past several years. Jobs was a “why” guy – his sense of rebellion and desire to build products that empower the individual is what created the cult-like following of Apple.

There are very few broadcast groups today that have a clear sense of “why”. I can tell you that the experience of working at Jacor Broadcasting in Tampa Bay was a perfect example of this principle in action. Our CEO Randy Michaels is a “why” guy, and that kept the entire company motivated to do great radio. What was the “why” at Jacor? Very simple – a creative environment where creative people can create. I remember a line similar to this in the one-page company policy manual. I’m not kidding – it was one page. And it talked about ensuring that we had a playful environment to foster creativity.

And Randy is the perfect leader for a company dedicated to creativity. You actually looked FORWARD to corporate coming into town, because Randy would light the place up. The creative spark inside Jacor is something that I have only rarely seen since, and it’s because most radio companies have lost their “why”.

I don’t know of too many companies in our industry that clearly articulate their “why”. Perhaps its because they don’t really have one. Sinek points out in his book that when once-successful companies go into decline, it’s usually because they lost their original sense of “why” and just focused on the top and bottom line (the “whats” and “hows”), and the slide continues until they either a) recapture their “why”, or b) go away.

I’m concerned that without a clear sense of purpose, most of today’s big operators have already chosen B.

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Your Own Transmitter

According to his employer’s website, Dan Thorn took the path that many others do who want to be on TV. He earned his degree in Broadcast Journalism from Brooklyn College. He interned at a couple of New York City TV stations before landing a starter job in production in upstate New York.

Eventually he was hired for a weekend news anchor position at WVNS-TV in Ghent, WV. He would quickly move up to anchor the 5, 6, 10, and 11pm newscasts at the station.

In the old media world, it would have taken years before anybody would even know this guy’s name. He would have had to land a job in a bigger market, and then an even bigger market, and if he was lucky, he might make it to a big network one day. But even then it would be doubtful that 10 million people would ever see him, muchless learn his name.

But that was old media.

Today, it just takes an idea to get noticed. So one day, presumably during a commercial break in the newscast at WVNS, Dan decided to crank up “Where They At Doe” by T.I. on his computer and started dancing in his chair, much to the annoyance of his co-anchor. I’m sure you’ve seen the video by now.

And guess what?

10 million views on Facebook, 2 million views on YouTube, and everybody from Time to Us Magazine is writing about him.

All because he decided to do something fun and unusual.

I couldn’t tell you the weekly number of viewers on all of the newscasts combined at WVNS-TV, but I can assure you that way more people have seen Dan dancing in his chair than have ever actually watched him read news.

This is another great example of what I’ve said here before…. you don’t need their transmitter anymore. You have your own. And if your content is good enough, people will share it. And if it’s really good they will come back for more. And if it’s really, really good and consistent, you might be able to make a great living off of it.

Stop playing PPM games, and start making the audience laugh. I promise you’ll have better ratings.

If you are one of the few who haven’t seen the video, here it is:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ybcNSoh8vI4

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Your True Calling

I admit it. I’m a sucker for those YouTube clips from shows like America’s Got Talent, X-Factor, etc, where you see an awkward looking misfit who  works the fast-food window as their day job get up on stage and the judges all roll their eyes as if they just KNOW it’s going to suck – then the misfit belts out a tune that takes the entire room by surprise. I’m sure you’ve seen one at some point.

Why are we so taken by those moments?

It’s because deep down, we know that we ARE that person.

No, we are not all capable of belting out a tune and making the room cheer, but I believe everybody – and I mean every single one of us – has something special to offer the world, if we would only be courageous enough to get up on that stage.

I’ve always enjoyed working with talent. Through the years, I’ve discovered many good ones, and helped others that were already discovered get better.  And the secret is really simple – the talent usually knows the answer in their gut and for whatever reason (usually fear) they don’t listen to that internal voice. I simply teach them to listen to that voice and follow that instinct. One of my mentors, BJ Harris, who is a very successful morning host at KALC in Denver, used to say “follow your gut – it’s right 90% of the time, and those are pretty good odds.” And when I worked for him back in the day at WFLZ in Tampa, he actually let me do it. But what made him a great mentor wasn’t the fact that he let me follow my gut… but rather, the 10% of the time that my gut was wrong, he let me learn from it. It was okay to make a mistake and actually learn from it! And he didn’t crucify me for it. It was because of this environment that I took chances and knew that I could get up on that stage and go for it.

You have something special to offer the world. I bet deep down you actually know what it is, but you ignore it or drown it in a sea of excuses. You are scared – worried what your friends might think, worried what your boss might think, or perhaps worried that you’ll fail. Don’t listen to “them”…. Get up on that stage and show the world what you are made of!

Here’s the best part. Technology has given everybody a stage of their own. There are no gatekeepers anymore. You don’t need a transmitter… or a fancy camera… it has never been easier to show the world your gift.

I’m convinced that a lot  of the unhappiness in this world is due to people knowing their true calling deep down, but doubting themselves and accepting “just getting by” as their reality.  Greatness is a decision.

The clock is ticking…. get up on that stage!

 

 

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If Steve Jobs were a Program Director

If Steve Jobs were a Program Director, you can bet that he would pay attention to every detail of his radio station. Every sweeper, every segue, every break would be meticulously designed. He would hire interesting and unusual people that actually had something to say. Not mindless drones that recite contest times and bark for the website, but real communicators who would have a story to tell.

If Steve Jobs were a Program Director, he would protect the product and fight against adding units just to hit budget. He would limit spot loads to a reasonable and tolerable level. And when NBC wants to buy a “jock chatter” break over a song intro forcing the jock to talk about some lame TV show as part of their spot buy, Steve would say no – because  he knows it’s terrible radio and not authentic.

If Steve Jobs were a Program Director, he would take risks on songs that he really believed in, while paying careful attention to giving the audience what they want… even if they didn’t know that they wanted it until he made it available to them. He would balance art and science to his liking. And his ratings would be amazing because he wouldn’t stop until he succeeded in building a massive brand.

If Steve Jobs were a Program Director, his SVP of Programming would be constantly pissed that he’s not “following the corporate initiatives”. And his Sales Manager would be constantly complaining about him to the GM that he’s “too difficult to work with”.

If Steve Jobs were a Program Director, his GM – after hearing all of the complaints from the sales manager – and after talking with the SVPP behind closed doors – would fire him, even though the ratings were really good.

If Steve Jobs were a Program Director, he would be quickly fed up with the radio industry because of all of this, and take his genius to new media where it will actually be appreciated.

In other words… if Steve Jobs were a Program Director, radio would quickly do what it has done to so many other creative types… push him out….

 

 

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Announcers versus Personalities

In all the years I’ve programmed radio, I’m not sure that I ever hired an on-air “announcer” – I’m not even sure what that title means or why ANYBODY would have the need for one. I’ve always searched for personalities.

Even when I’ve hired a station imaging voice, I never wanted a professional “announcer” to do it…  I’ve always felt that the image voice should represent the personality of your station. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always been a fan of Dr. Dave Ferguson at Loose Cannon Productions… yes, he voiced our imaging, but he was just as much of a personality on the air as any one of our jocks – in fact, he had quite the following as “Deep Voice Guy” on Channel 955 in Detroit.

One of my favorite moments was in the middle of the text messaging scandal with former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. When some unsavory text messages between the former Mayor and his mistress had surfaced in the local newspaper, we used “Deep Voice Guy” to re-enact the conversations… “Deep Voice Guy” always played the part of Kwame, and everybody from the cleaning lady to one of our engineers played the part of the mistress. We turned these into promos on the air, and people literally REQUESTED the promos. I would challenge my Creative Services guy Chris Cole to write promos just for the purposes of entertainment – and NOT for the purposes of “selling” something. As a creative type, he loved the challenge and always delivered. When was the last time you had a listener request to hear a station promo? It happened all of the time in Detroit. Oh, by the way, that was the book that we went to #1 P 12+, the first FM top 40 to ever do that in Detroit.

My point is, why do promos have to sell something? Why not write a promo that entertains or makes people feel something? If you give listeners a good experience, you in fact ARE selling your product, but you’re doing it in a way that gives the listener an enjoyable experience.

And get rid of “announcers”… they’re just clutter that nobody pays attention to. Hire personalities as jocks and imaging voices.

And listen to your promos… chances are they suck. I predict that they sound like a well-produced list of facts about a contest you’re doing for either cash or concert tickets. (Station) has your chance to win (prize)… lock it on (station) at 7, 11, 1,4, and 7 to win (prize) from (sponsor, sponsor, sponsor, sponsor, sponsor, sponsor) and (station)… Most promos sound like this. It may not sound that way to you, but it probably does to your listener.

Try this – instead of spending 2 minutes writing a list of facts, and 2 hours producing a promo with lots of effects and beds, try spending 2 hours writing a promo using meaningful words that entertain or tell a quick story… then spend 2 minutes producing it with only a little production to compliment the words. You might be surprised. Sometimes the right words with no production cut through much better than useless words with lots of effects.

And stop selling… turn your promos into content instead. You might train listeners to actually enjoy a promo – instead of training them to change the station or go to their iPod when a promo comes on.

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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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True Listener Control

There have been several attempts to do “listener controlled radio” over the past few years. Most have involved using some type of app to vote on what song should be next, and allowing listeners to somewhat program the radio station. Of course, there were always controls put on to prevent too much listener manipulation of the product.

While I applaud the attempt at something new, I don’t believe anybody has the guts to REALLY do it – let the listeners take control of your radio station.

I remember a feature that we started in Detroit a few years back called “MyPod” – where listeners would send in their 10 song playlist, and we would play their 10 songs, and let them tell the story of why the song was on their playlist. I thought this was somewhat innovative at the time, and it really stemmed from a book that I was reading at the time called “Lovemarks” by Kevin Roberts. In it, he talked about letting your biggest fans – those who love your product the most – help design the next generation of your product. Traditional radio stations like to THINK that they do this by conducting lots of research and focus groups – but I didn’t think that was unique enough, so we literally let listeners pick 10 songs they wanted to hear in the order that they wanted to hear them.

Now imagine a format that allowed everyday listeners off of the street to do precisely that? And then you let them tell a story about why they like that song… 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. How interesting and diverse would those playlists be? And how interesting would the content be? Listeners sharing their memories of a certain song, or what they were doing when they first heard it, or why it reminds them of a time that they miss.

This may be crazy, but we need a little crazy right now. Broadcast radio is boring listeners to death. It has become predictable and stale at a time when it needs to be a laboratory to try new things. Not everything will work, but you don’t know unless you try. Innovation has to start somewhere – with somebody taking a risk. Will it be you?

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Quality versus Quantity

Money shouldn’t be the goal – money is the reward you get for ACHIEVEMENT OF the goal.

When you stop to think about how many successful companies understand this – big brands like Apple,  Google, Jet Blue, etc, you also quickly recognize how few radio companies understand this principle.  It’s a rare owner that will tell you that their goal is to do great radio, create an environment where creative people can create, positively impact the community that they are licensed to serve, and profit from doing so. Most owners simply want to skip all of that and just get to the money.

And therein lies the problem.

From everything that I can tell based on the books and the movie, Steve Jobs liked money… but he also liked great design even more. It was his insistence on quality design and innovation that  drove Apple’s success. Just good enough was never good enough. Sure they could have shaved a few dollars off the cost of production by using cheaper materials and less aesthetically pleasing designs, but he made the decision to go with better quality, better design, and charge a premium for it.

Radio has lost its pricing power in most of the big markets because it has become a commodity. Station A gets the same music as station B. Someone does 95 minutes commercial free, while the other station does 98 minutes commercial free. If you’re just a utility offering the same experience as another utility, people will always go with the cheapest option. I like the BP gas station up the road, but occasionally the Marathon station across the street is a few cents cheaper, so I’ll go there. It’s just a utility to me – the experience is the same.

But a great radio station breaks beyond utility status. A great radio station can charge more for “Mojo in the Morning” because it’s a great morning show that you can’t get anywhere else. Great radio stations think like Apple – charge a premium for great design and better quality.

It’s the difference between a brand and a commodity. If a commodity goes away, people replace it with another commodity. If a brand goes away, people protest its absence.

So which one are you? A brand? Or a commodity?

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The Fall of the Suits

Even though I’ve had fancy VP titles through the years, I’ve never identified well with the “suits”… you know, the people from the corporate office who think they know your market and your product better than you do.  Even though I was enlisted to be one of them, I was never comfortable with it, because they were really the “best practices squad” – and the problem with “best practices” is that everybody does them.

The term “best practices” should scare you – because it essentially means to do what is safe and proven in other markets. It’s the exact opposite of what radio should be doing today. The safe, proven playbook has been duplicated by nearly every radio station in the country, and that’s why everybody sounds the same.

Welcome to DomTheodore.com. This is the place where we’ll talk about how to disrupt the radio industry.  How do we break the rules and build something unique so that listeners aren’t bored to death? How do we stand out in the sea of other media? How do we use new technology to grow audience? And most importantly, how do we break the model of “best practices” in a way that will likely piss off the suits, but the audience will LOVE it?

These are dangerous thoughts in the current environment. But they are necessary. We need to be thinking dangerously if we want to attract AND entertain listeners so they’ll keep coming back for more. And that means turning the paradigm on it’s head! That means putting talent in the foreground instead of the background. That means taking risks and breaking the accepted practices… and most importantly, it means having guts. Most companies won’t be up to the challenge – but for the precious few that are, big ratings and revenue are in your future.

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