Thursday, September 23, 2010

Radio's Trump Card

As a career broadcaster, the thought that Radio could be over sends a chill up my spine. Those of us in the USA have, for the better part of a century, enjoyed FREE radio and television.
Now, in a very real way, Radio is the only free media still standing. Think about it...
* Internet Radio, at the very least, requires subscription to a high-speed ISP. Cost: around $60 per month.
* Cell phones with internet access cost about twice that.
* Even before television converted to HDTV, most viewers subscribed to either cable or satellite service. Now, for many to access local channels, they have to subscribe.

Anyone who has ever worked with Cable and Cell Phone providers knows that they understand the absolute basic premise of the media business: Distribution. No matter how great the programming is, if you can't get it to a mass audience, it will fail. And if they control the distribution, they control everything. Steve Jobs understands this.

Cable and Mobile providers have invested hundreds of billions of dollars into developing their distribution platforms -- and they fully intend to see to it that nobody will make more money from the use of their platforms than they do.

As James Carville might say: It's all about distribution, dummy!

The day is quickly arriving when we'll be down to 5 major systems of distribution:
* Internet
* Mobile phones
* Cable
* Small dish networks, such as Direct TV and Dish Network
* Sirius/XM satellite radio, which is now using portions of many of the above

This leaves terrestrial RADIO as the only FREE service left. It seems to me this is something worth fighting for!

Before Radio tries to make 'friends' with the digital world, it should consider what that will mean:
* Radio will be at the mercy of out-sourced distributors.
* Radio will no longer be free, forcing us to compete with all other media, including video, on the same platforms.
* Radio will no longer have the ability to connect advertisers with 240 million American consumers on a free platform, and that will lead to huge losses in ad revenue.

To some degree, this loss of ad revenue is already happening. Don't believe me? Just ask one of your local account execs. Ask who's getting the budget your local station used to get?
You'll discover that cable television offers local insert rates (into FOX, CNN, A & E, and local network television) that are, in many cases, lower than your station can offer, and considerably lower than the local TV stations.

So, what can Radio do to protect its place in this new hyper-competitive media world?
Only one thing: Create programming content that people do not want to live without.

And there is a contemporary example we can emulate: HBO.
About a decade or so ago, HBO realized they had become just another 'movie channel,' and that they were forced to bid higher and higher amounts for the top box office films in order to keep them off competitor channels. HBO was becoming a commodity with ever-increasing product costs that were out of its control. How would they survive and thrive?

HBO began creating original programming. At first, true hit shows were rare, but then The Sopranos hit Sunday evenings. Suddenly, HBO was the "movie channel" everyone had to have, the premium TV they were more than willing to pay for.

You've seen the result. HBO continues to invest in original content, and to pay for quality programming that is not available anywhere else. HBO has increased its value, and its differentiation at the very time network TV is struggling to produce real hit shows, seen by fewer and fewer eyeballs, producing less and less revenue.

If Radio, as the last totally free medium, is to survive and thrive, giving in to cell phone apps and online streaming is not the way. Cutting costs, cutting talent, becoming music services with lots of ads, will only hasten our demise.

It really is All About Distribution, Dummy!

And with a weekly cume of nearly 240 million unique listeners, Radio's distribution far exceeds that of any of our competitors.
We already have the audience on the best platform available, because it's ubiquitous and free. Now we need to invest in original content that cannot be duplicated anywhere else.

It's not the playing field that has to change, it's the plays.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Radio Tale...

It was a sunny day in a safe Midwestern city of about a million residents. The local Country Radio Station, programmed by market veteran P. Dee, had just pulled-down one of the best “books” in the past decade, dominating every major adult demo.

Dee thinks how fortunate he is to have found a great-sounding local country band that people really love. He’d replaced his “street teams” with the local band’s live performances at station and community events. In fact, two of the band’s songs are always amongst the most-requested on the station and rumors persist that a major Nashville Label is interested. Good will has been built in the community and Dee is certain that this part of his branding strategy is producing great returns.

After his daily meeting with the morning show, now with 8-straight #1 books under their belts, he got a call from his market manager, Mr. C. Cluster Flucke, informing him that Mr. S. Vepeigh was at the airport and wanted to meet with him in an hour.

Two hours later, Mr. S. Vepeigh arrives and after a half-hour of hand- shakes around the station, they adjourn to Dee’s office. “Congratulations on the great book,” Vepeigh says. “While the station is doing very well, I’m thinking it could do even better with a few adjustments. For example, I was looking over your Selector database and I don’t recognize a couple songs.”

Dee explained about his discovery of this great local band and how people in the market responded positively to their music. “Get ‘em off the air,” Vepeigh said. “We only play the hits.”

Reluctantly, Dee deleted the band’s songs from the database as S. Vepeigh left town.

Two weeks later, Vepeigh returns, eager to spend some quality time with “his” top performing station. Upon his arrival, he immediately goes to P. Dee’s office.

“I listened to your morning show on the way in,” Vepeigh says, “and I didn’t hear them talking about pop culture. Not a word about Simon or Brittany or Brad and Anjolina. And, where was the 5-minute discussion about last night’s American Idol?”

Dee attempts to explain that his morning show, the longest-running— and most successful in the market, is known for their topical bits about local people and local events.

“We’re in a global marketplace now,” Vepeigh says. “We’re competing with the world-wide-web! If we’re going to grow this station, we need to expand our scope. Make sure your morning show understands this.”

A half-hour later, after a round of howdys and shakes, Vepeigh leaves town.

With a feeling of despair, Dee decides to return that phone call he’d received a few weeks back from a well-funded internet radio start-up that said it was impressed with Dee’s keen sense of music and content.

Meanwhile, Mr. C. Cluster Flucke gets a call from his boss, Mr. Siegh Eeoe, who’s flying in on the corporate jet tomorrow and wants to have dinner. “Bring your budgets,” he says.

At a nearby restaurant, P. Dee is being recruited hard and he decides it’s time to make his move to New Media. He accepts a generous offer to leave the market and become VP/Programming of the start-up company that appreciates his years of success and his great ears. He informs Mr. Cluster Flucke at their staff meeting the next morning, from which Dee is immediately escorted by Security to the station’s front door.

Cluster knows his meeting that night with Mr. Siegh Eeoe is going to be brutal, so he spends the day sequestered in his office planning his strategy.

That night, after enjoying steaks the size of Philadelphia and 2 martinis each, the two senior managers get down to the budget. Cluster explains that, just this morning, his veteran country programmer, P. Dee, had resigned and with that, a large salary could be eliminated and with his proposed realignment plan, he could see a great future of growth for the stations.

You see, C. Cluster Flucke is a wizard with numbers, which is why Siegh Eeoe identified him as a leader in the company shortly after he hired him as Director Of Sales 6-months ago. Having been recruited from a business that imported, marketed and distributed an ointment that worked very much like KY Jelly, Cluster Flucke had Siegh Eeoe undivided attention.

Flucke’s plan was to promote Ms. I. Duhoe, who currently programs their Urban-leaning CHR, to Operations Manager and extend her responsibilities to oversee the country station. “She doesn’t like country music at all,” Flucke says, “so she’ll follow S. Vepeigh’s approved Selector Database to the letter.”

“Great plan! Make it happen! I’ll meet with our P-R Department in the morning and get a positive spin going for the trades,” says, Mr. Siegh Eeoe, who excuses himself because he needs to fly home right away.

At the staff meeting, Flucke announces the appointment of Ms. I. Duhoe as Operations Manager. She says she’s “fine with it, as long as she doesn’t have to listen to country music.” Laughter erupts around the room.

At the same time, Mr. C. Cluster Flucke lets his staff know that he’ll be in Las Vegas for the semi-annual Market Managers’ Meetings all next week. He expects some wonderful new ideas and opportunities to “pop out of those meetings”.

As the staff readjusts to the new management alignment, Flucke settles into his hotel suite in Las Vegas and dresses for the Black Tie Cocktail Reception and private concert that officially kicks off the sessions.

At the first session, Mr. Siegh Eeoe introduces the keynote speaker, the renowned “media guru” Mr. Con Sultant, who gives a fiery speech on the threat of Internet Radio, Social Networking and mobile phones. He tells the assembled Market Managers that BMW is offering a device that will, when hooked up by a cable to a Smartphone, allow drivers to surf the internet instead of listening to AM/FM Radio and talking and texting on a mobile phone. And he foresees millions of Americans heading straight to their BMW dealers to purchase the $75,000 automobiles. “Radio, as we know it, is on its deathbed,” he announces to the shocked red faces staring blankly back at him. “Millions have already signed long term contracts for Smartphones for over $200 per month.

“Radio is in deep trouble…unless…we do something NOW! Begin by streaming all of your stations on the internet. We must extend our brands immediately and differentiate ourselves with great content!”

The Denver Market Manager, Mr. S. Martass, rises and asks, “How are we going to create great content now that we’ve eliminated our most talented air personalities and programmers?”

Mr. S. Martass was last seen boarding a cab for the airport as the group broke for lunch.

Back home, Mr. C. Cluster Flucke announced his exciting “New Media Strategy”. Immediately, he is hiring two IT professionals to design and develop their new websites, including all facets of social networking. “Unfortunately, this necessitates the elimination of Afternoon Drive Personalities on each of our stations, but we can’t wait! We’re fighting for Radio’s survival!”

“And”, he says, “We need younger listeners to our country station. So, Ms. I Duhoe will be the new morning show host, effective immediately.” Then, he’s off for the Sales Department to offer big incentives for selling digital ads.

Now, in a big city far away, P. Dee, who’s now programming the Internet Station Slam-Decker, is entangled in an endless string of meetings on “philosophies” and “strategies” that seem to change daily. At today’s meeting, Company President P. Dorrah introduces the renowned media guru, Mr. Con Sultant, who explains the necessity of branding through music and that only those songs that effectively brand Slam-Decker should be available for play. Each music genre should have 5 Core Artists only.

Furthermore, persons over 24 are of no importance to Slam Decker because the members of this demographic have already made their brand choices and will never adopt internet radio. “Get to your databases and eliminate all songs that aren’t testing as favorites among persons 12-24,” he tells them.

At almost that same moment, in the same city, the famous singer, R. Teeste, who heads a coalition favoring the Performance Rights Act, tells an incredulous press conference that the coalition has disbanded and that PRA Legislation is no longer a priority.

“Radio stations”, she explains, “are quickly moving their music programs to the digital realm where the rights of artists and musicians are already protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which provides for performance fees and limits the number of times songs from one album may be played. Checks will soon be arriving from the RIAA.”

Note: with apologies to Dr Laurence Peter, author of The Peter Principle

Sunday, February 7, 2010

It's Different This Time...

There’s no question that Country Radio has a vested interest in the health of the Country Music Industry. When that industry is healthy and creating, producing and marketing exceptional music, Country Radio wins, too.

Lately however, the health of the Country Music Industry has come into question. The transition from albums to digital downloads of singles is creating cutbacks in staff and artist rosters leading many to wonder just how healthy our partners are.

Add to that the financial predicament of most Country Radio Stations, who have cut-back staff, personalities and almost all music and perceptual research, and one would be led to believe there's a storm brewing.

Looking at the Nielsen Soundscan Country Top 75 this past week is particularly revealing. Those Country projects that are getting Pop airplay are obviously out-selling everything else. Taylor Swift’s Fearless, Carrie Underwood’s Play On, Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now and Lady A’s debut album accounted for close to 90% of the total Top 10 Country album sales last week.

We’ve seen the lifespan of these albums extended dramatically, too. With nearly 200-weeks in release, Taylor Swift’s debut album is still moving over 20,000 units per week. Lady A’s debut album took a sharp upturn in sales as their single, Need You Now moved into prime rotations at pop radio.

We’re told this is a “fairly normal” occurrence in Country music. We’ve had pop crossover projects for half-a-century now. They point to Eddy Arnold, Don Gibson, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Anne Murray, Ronnie Milsap, Glenn Campbell, Kenny Rogers and even Johnny Cash as prime examples. Some of their songs—certainly not all of them, moved to the larger mass-appeal audiences and made Music Row a pile of money.

So what’s different this time? Several things.
  1. The music has been modified for other radio formats. This is something that would have been considered artistically dishonest just a decade ago. Today, it’s simply the way to get into the mainstream.
  2. Labels are actively pursuing younger artists who create more music that can reach out beyond the confines of “Country”.
  3. Country Radio now actively seeks out a demographic that is not historically prone to even liking Country Music.
Ray Price has always been a country artist. But when Bill Drake began playing For the Good Times on KHJ/Los Angeles, not one note was changed. That larger pop audience embraced the music for what it was exactly as it was. What’s equally interesting is that Ray Price never attempted to create pop record and never had another one.

Even the young country artists of the past didn’t aim to reach other girls their age. Tanya Tucker’s music was embraced by adults because it was great country music—not because she was a teenager. Same for Brenda Lee and, in more recent times, LeAnn Rimes. To my knowledge, none of these teenaged artists music was ever created for teenagers.

And Country Radio’s Programmers, under intense pressure to reach the younger demographics the major advertisers want, welcomes music that’s intended to reach beyond the core country audience. Country Radio’s CHR-type presentation, with younger, CHR-experienced jocks and CHR-type imaging is setting the stage of a virtual take-over of youth-oriented artists and music.
There are those who say that Country Radio must “change with the times” or the older audience will die out and there’ll be no more country music. It could also be pointed out that this warning has been around since the 1950’s when artists like Elvis were invited to play the Grand Ole Opry. But Country Music and Country Radio survived and prospered anyway.

Most parents of teenaged girls say that their kids don’t listen to or seek out a Country Radio Station in order to hear their favorite Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Hannah Montana songs. So, if Country Radio is expecting these youth-driven artists’ music to drive the younger demos to them, their efforts may well be in vain.

No matter how you slice it, teenaged girls are buying records from artists whose Label homes are on Music Row in Nashville. But is this music bringing youth to Country Radio? Perhaps we should find out…and soon!

Garth Brooks will proudly tell you that his music was never actively promoted to non-Country Radio. His position is that "we created so much noise and excitement, they HAD to come to us. We didn't have to go to them."

See? It is different this time.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Filling In The Blanks…

A PD’s Guide To Creative Voice Tracking

Boiled down to its simplest terms, Voice Tracking is “Filling in the Blanks”. The music is scheduled, edited and set in stone. The imaging is done, scheduled and set in stone. The commercial breaks are scheduled and ready for the merge. Here are some actionable items to consider in making voice tracks one of the most-effective elements on the station.

  • Rule #1 - The Jock must take control of his/her show. On most stations, it sounds like the jock is just along for the ride, just like the listener.
    Your jocks are your market’s Tastemakers. “I heard (insert jock’s name) play the new song from George Strait yesterday.” So, why fight it? Take a tip from hip-hop: their dj’s, in the creation of their “mix-tapes”, are the tastemakers of their genre.
    Many programmers are so focused on their station’s brand that they forget that, for most of Country Radio’s P1’s, it’s personal. Coach your jocks to take ownership of their shows and the music they play. Use the word “I” instead of “We”.
    Be local…REALLY local. Coach your jocks to insert one of the 3-L’s (local names, local places, local events) into every break. Nothing generic, please! Not city names, but locations, place names. Help them find ways to insert local celebrities, community leaders and businesses into their bits.
    Slow Down! The most-common give-away that a station is voice-tracked is that the jock appears to be in a hurry. Consider requiring your jocks to put an allotted time into each show. And don’t allow them to track more than one show at a time.
    Sound LIVE! Here’s a thought: if you’re going to voice track, do it from your main studio instead from a production room. If you can’t do that, select one production studio for voice-tracking and try to create the look and feel of an on-air studio. So much of what we sound like is colored by our environment.

    Rule #2 – Make the show the priority
    At the legendary KOL/Seattle, there was a sign on the main studio door that read: The Most Important Thing Happening in the Station Right Now Is Happening in This Room
    For many PD’s and APD/MD’s, being overwhelmed is a part of the Job Description. The show somehow gets pushed down to the lowest priority—and it sounds like it on your air.
    Have Your Jocks Do Their Shows first…before their day has pushed them into a near-panic state. Try prepping over that first cup of coffee, then into the studio for a great show with no distractions, no holdover emotions from meetings, phone calls and other interactions of the day.
    Make It The “Fun” Part Of The Day! Being on the air should be the most-enjoyable part of working in Radio. Nothing any of us does dictates the success of the station more than our time with our listeners. Make it fun! Make it carefree!

    Rule #3: It Ain’t Final Till It’s On-The-Air!
    In the recording studios in Nashville, there was a saying, “It Ain’t Final Till It’s On Vinyl”, meaning that the song could (and should) be modified and improved upon until the master is pressed to vinyl and it’s in the store. Same for voice tracks.
    Any track can and should be updated in the light of current information. Yes, you may have to re-merge a few times, but making sure your station always sounds “live” and “today” should take the highest priority. For example
    Changes in weather – even if the difference is between “warm” and “hot”.
    Emergencies – major traffic incidents – severe weather conditions –power outages
    Special events happening in the community
    If, for example, some local event is receiving abnormal television coverage, the station should respond—with something! Perhaps playing a special song or at the very least, some involvement by the air personality. Continuing to play music and ignore what’s happening is a sure sign the station in is voice-tracking.

    Rule #4: Don’t Hesitate To Go Live!
    When severe weather strikes the area, things get jammed up quickly. Travelers need information – make sure they get it, even if it’s late night or overnights. The service will be noticed! Better yet, pre-sell it to one of your station’s valued clients. Have commercial copy ready to go and be ready with on-call personalities…just in case. Being able to react to special circumstances is what has made radio the choice of local and traveling listeners.

    With a little creative thought and a great deal of flexibility, your voice-tracked station doesn’t have to sound like somebody is just “filling in the blanks”.