There have been so many great radio conferences this year focusing on the future of our industry; Dash, Hivio and NextRadio to name a few. (Both Hivio and NextRadio have free videos of sessions to watch and share if interested.) The future – the idea of what’s next? and what’s to come? – is a fascinating topic to me. Which is why a speech by Oscar winner Kevin Spacey at the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival caught my eye and ear. Use your imagination and watch this speech replacing references to television with radio.
“Kids aren’t growing up that TV (radio) is the aspirational place to be.”
“Culture is not a luxury item, it’s a necessity”
(consumers want) “…a multi-layer story with complex characters that plays out over the course of time.”
“The audience wants the control. The freedom. They want to binge.”
“Give people what they want, when they want it, how they want it, at a reasonable price.”
We all want the same things…“Quality, artistic freedom, to be innovative, to make money.”
“Challenge: Can we create an environment where executives are emboldened and empowered to support the creative.”
“We need to surprise. Break boundaries. Take viewers to new places.”
“Put talent at the center of everything we do.”
“Patience. A much overlooked quality.”
“Shows should be treated as assets and protected.”
“It requires guts to stick with a show when the numbers don’t come.”
“The more we try things the more we learn. The more doors open creativity and business wise”
“Myth: Nobody knows anything…that making good programming is just a crap shoot. Frankly, that’s just Bullshit! We do know how this works. And it’s always been about empowering artists. It’s always been about total abandon. The only thing we don’t know is why it’s so hard to find the executives with the fortitude, the wisdom and the balls to do it.”
From New York to Los Angeles, in Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, and D.C. at big stations and small there is an alarming story unfolding in talk radio. Talk stations are tumbling in the ratings and no one knows why, though there are many theories.
It’s political fatigue.
It’s too repetitive.
It’s too depressing.
It’s too angry.
It’s too boring.
It’s not entertaining.
It’s all commercials.
The list of once great stations that have dropped out of the top ten reads like a radio station all-star line-up: KFI, WABC, WLS, WMAL, KABC, KIRO, WBAP. And it’s not a fluke (pardon the pun.) This is real. Arbitron is noticing it too.
“…for the first time since we began keeping our format records, it (news-talk) recorded two consecutive books below a 9 share, finishing at an 8.7 in July. Now summer is historically the lowest time of the year for News/Talk listening, and we will be keeping a close eye on the results as August and September approach, but it’s worth noting that the format’s summer shares have declined about 10% since 2011.”
– Tony Hereau, Arbitron Media Insights Manager
Down 10% in two years as a format in the 48 PPM markets?!
Editor’s note: I’m sure radio ownership groups understand and have lowered revenue projections accordingly.
“It was in 1994.”
Leykis was a guest on Episode 13 of the Radio Stuff podcast (listen). He recalled broadcasting from the NAB the year his show was launching into syndication and everyone kept talking about a panel featuring talk radio consultant Ed Shane. As Leykis recalls, this was Shane’s message:
“It’s important, for your talk radio station to be successful, that everyone have the same opinion as Rush.”
Leykis takes it a step further.
“So in other words, the secret to Rush Limbaugh’s success was not his years of experience or his time as a DJ or the fact that he had great timing or was a good comedian, that he made good use of sound, but no, no, no – the reason for his success was that he was a political conservative.”
From there after, every station Leykis approached to syndicate his show would ask what his politics were. It wasn’t always like that, “Previously, they only cared, ‘do I get ratings? Will I help the station make money? Will I make noise?’ Suddenly I was being asked, ‘Are you a conservative?’”
Leykis believes that was the moment talk radio went from being a mass appeal format to being a niche format. And the problems with talk radio today stem directly from a consultant misreading the tea leaves.
“Talk radio went from Rush Limbaugh’s bells, whistles, jingles and parody songs and everything to a line up of people reading bill numbers.” He went on, “It’s devoid of humor, entertainment value or mirth. These are not radio personalities.”
He wonders aloud if anyone in the radio business getting the message?
And he cautions up and coming talkers, “Don’t go to a radio station, because you’ll never be allowed to develop your talent. Develop a podcast, develop a streaming live show, develop your own product, and learn how to sell it and become an entrepreneur.”
OKAY, SO NOW WHAT?
Maybe it is political talk’s fault. I happen to believe it’s likely a perfect storm of new media, new listener expectations, new social and political attitudes, and a general fear in radio of taking risks and being wrong – in every department.
Here are a couple of steps I believe are necessary for talk radio to attract new listeners and remain relevant.
1. DEMAND SHOWMANSHIP
Talk radio needs more storytellers and fewer alarmists. Talent need to entertain, emote and put on a show, as much as they provide insight, deliver information and add context. Radio station leaders must support talent and encourage them to be amusing, insightful, emotional, apolitical, curious, experimental, and positive while giving them permission to fail. And fail hard sometimes — without fear of being fired.
2. FIND ANOTHER REVENUE STREAM
Radio stations need to stop abusing the listeners. The quality and quantity of radio’s commercials is appalling. I mean holy smokes gang have you tried to listen to an hour of radio recently? Effective immediately commercials that don’t meet your standards or match your brand should be rejected. Be the first guy in the room to say, “Hold up! That spot sucks. It’s not going on our air.” Be bold.
And – this will be even less popular – reduce spot loads. It’s time. Thanks to DVR, podcasts, Netflix, on-demand audio, and satellite radio spot loads seem to be worse than ever. Until recently people were accustomed to sitting through commercials or flipping back and forth between stations, because it was the penance you had to pay to watch your favorite TV show or listen to a kooky talk show host. Now radio is the last place on earth (with the exception of movie theaters) where consumers are forced to sit there while commercials are crammed down their throat.
No fast forward.
No more patience.
No more listening.
Just look at the growth of online radio, on-demand audio and NPR. So what’s that mean? Radio needs to figure out a dual revenue stream. The future of financing big radio is commercials and__________. You fill in the blank.
Editor’s note: If you say commercials and banner ads, I will scream.
Talk radio isn’t going to die, but it is definitely going through a mid-life crisis. The next 18-months the entire format will be redefined, programmers will be less focused on gaming PPM and more focused on listeners, commercials will sadly still suck, and Rush Limbaugh will be replaced by someone else as the face of the format.
As “radio” attempts to “be everywhere” on all platforms, it is curious that internet radio is embracing the local brands and local content to reach the local listeners.
I saw this bus board while driving around the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle. While non-radio folk may not realize it, this is a TuneIn ad campaign. The ad is selling TuneIn ”The world’s radio from Seattle to Sydney” to Seattle residents by promoting the fact that you can listen to Seattle’s heritage news-talker KIRO Radio through TuneIn – presumably instead of on your terrestrial radio. Not of little significance, KIRO Radio fans are likely in their cars listening to the station or experiencing the station’s very cool app, while being told there’s a new? better? different? way to consume it.
It’s a smart play by TuneIn who can actually afford to buy outdoor campaigns unlike most radio stations not owned by Clear Channel these days. Leveraging the exposure of the local station’s logo is very important for TuneIn and very appealing to the station – it’s not unlike giving candy to a baby. Radio stations just need to understand a stomach ache may soon follow.
Radio stations do not underestimate the value of your brand!
In my opinion, this definitely reinforces the power of the local brands in local communities. Services like TuneIn need these station’s dedicated, loyal, local listeners to build credibility, listening occasions, and drive awareness. Instantly, the association with stations like KIRO gives TuneIn a connection to a community and access to the trust and equity earned by the radio station which can be used to leverage the fan base into the digital platform to explore new, more, and different audio experiences. (Where do you supposed the time for all those new listening experiences comes from?)
Digital Platforms do not overestimate your relevance!
This is KJR-FM‘s billboard a couple blocks away from where I saw the TuneIn bus board. Notice the bottom right corner tags iHeart RADIO and assumes people will know what that means. This is the equivalent of a “blink” in radio and is typically used for iconic brands. No offense, but iHeart RADIO doesn’t quite meet that threshold.
Don’t over-analyze, don’t close your eyes.
Internet radio services are quickly and intentionally blurring the lines between old and new radio and it’s to their advantage to do so. Radio is sexy. Audio is stale. So, providers are trying to convince listeners that audio, regardless of how they consume it is “radio.” And it appears the radio industry is allowing these companies to leverage their heritage brands to do just that. Bully for them.
The radio landscape is evolving and changing each day. Many experts advise you to “be everywhere.” It’s not bad advice, just keep your eyes wide open, be intentional with your decisions to digitally distribute content, respect your listeners, and value the brand you’ve work so hard to build.
“I just thought it was sick.”
“First off, I didn’t think it was funny at all. Sometimes you can maybe, maybe in my opinion, get away with some of that stuff if the bit is at least funny — but wrong. But, the thing I thought was it sucked. It was just a terrible, terrible bit. It wasn’t funny. I thought it was just disgraceful.”
He’s talking about the attempt at humor this week on a sports talk radio station in Atlanta. The three morning guys – all fired now – executed a bit about Steve Gleason, the former NFL player suffering from ALS.
Deb Slater and I talked to Shan in Episode 6 of the Radio Stuff Podcast (listen here). We also talked to Bean of Kevin and Bean from the “World Famous” KROQ in Los Angeles, Terry Jaymes of the nationally syndicated Lex & Terry Show and Terry Jaymes Alive podcast, and Fred Jacobs, President of Jacobs Media.
We all agree the bit crossed a line.
Ah, “the line.” Every talent deals with it. What is it? Where is it? How do you find it?
Shan can sense when he’s approaching it, “My show overall definitely flirts with the line a lot.”
“No one knows what the line is. The FCC doesn’t know what the line is.” Gene Bean Baxter has no doubt he’s crossed it –where ever IT is, “Well, of course, I mean I think something on our show crosses someone’s line every day.”
Terry just got off an apology tour, “I didn’t even know what the situation was. We had to go back and listen to it. When I heard it, I said, ‘oh, this is not good.’” It was a fleeting, over-the-line remark from Lex about a murdered transvestite. It was unplanned, unfunny, inappropriate, and, “It sounded very hateful.”
Enter Fred Jacobs, President of Jacobs Media.
“What is offensive is a moving target over time.”
Oh, isn’t that special? Imagine being a blindfolded tight rope walker, but every night as the blindfold is put over your eyes, they move the guide wire.
Even so, Fred believes talent should know where it’s moved to.
“Air personalities need to have a basic understanding of where the lines are, again with the proviso that the lines are often gray or even blurry.”
So, how do personalities deal with this blurry, gray, moving line of what’s acceptable?
“I think the lesson is that if you have a job like mine, or like the guys on the show in Atlanta, you are taking your livelihood in your hands – in my case 22½ hours per week, every time the mic is open – it’s possible that you might say something that will get you fired. That is the hard reality of the truth.”
It’s also a sad reality for a guy like Bean who has been on the air for 24 years. And not a reality that is necessarily fair in his opinion,
“There aren’t a lot of occupations where you get fired for making a mistake. Think about it, a doctor can misdiagnose someone, a mailman can deliver a wrong letter every once-in-a-while, a policeman can shoot someone by accident – they don’t always lose their jobs over it.”
Shan tries to avoid being the edgy comedian, “I don’t make cancer jokes. I don’t make AIDS jokes. I don’t make tornado jokes. I don’t do that stuff.”
On the Lex & Terry Show it boils down to their intentions behind a bit, “We never set out, in our entire 20-years, to hurt anybody, to say anything wrong, or anything like that. We don’t want to be controversial. We never fight with other morning shows. All the regular schticky things they do…we’ve never done that.”
TIMES, THEY ARE A CHANGING.
Terry has seen a sea change over the past 20 years of hosting Lex & Terry, “It used to be you could say whatever you want, got fired and ended up making more money somewhere else. You don’t anymore.”
Fred Jacobs senses a change too.
“I wonder, given the point and time that we’re at societally and culturally, whether this kind of radio – the Howard Stern, Mancow stuff and how that proliferated even into smaller markets – if that hasn’t maybe totally run its course.”
“Maybe people are just getting tired of the anger and tired of the humiliation. You know it even kind of rolls into the whole bullying conversation. You know whether it’s Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut or these guys making fun of a former athlete who has ALS, I just kind of wonder if that kind of bullying and humiliation, perhaps, hasn’t just run out of gas. And if that’s the case, maybe that’s a good thing.”
SO, NOW WHAT?
The responsibility for what radio is and how it evolves falls on everyone’s shoulders; talent, programmers, companies AND listeners.
Shan knows as a talent he is responsible, “I did send a warning to my producer, to my co-host, and our call screener. I just said, ‘look, let’s continue to push the envelope, be edgy, but let’s use this as a warning. I think it’s really good to have warnings that scare the hell out of you. And that one should scare the heck out of any single person that works in our industry.”
Bean dreams of a day when companies step up to support talent more in these situations. He doesn’t think the guys in Atlanta should have been fired.
“I was very disappointed a couple years ago when my own company fired Don Imus over his remarks. That remark was consistent with the show they had been paying him to do for years and years and years on that station. But, just because enough people got upset they fired him for that. I think they should have stood by him and said, ‘ look, this is the kind of show Don Imus does. If people stop listening to it then we’ll fire him, because it won’t be profitable for us anymore.’”
Bean also believes listeners play a role.
“If I tune into a show and I’m offended by something that I hear on that station, so what?”
He believes shows can have momentary lapses of judgment and still recover.
“If they have a good relationship with their listeners – they are going to forgive them for a misstep , are going to say, ‘Wow, that was out of line dude, but I know you because I’ve been listening to you for a long time, so come back tomorrow and do something better.’
Fred Jacobs is pointing to talent and PDs. He writes about is passionately and eloquently in his blog post, “Stupid DJ Tricks.”
“I think when you communicate well with talent – they understand you and you understand them – the likelihood of this kind of thing happening lessens a great deal.”
Based on these conversations and my observations, radio is going through some growing pains as it evolves and redefines itself. The line is moving. It’s moving away from sophomoric humor, on-air bullying and sidekicks running around with underwear on their heads. It’s moving towards something that’s enriching, entertaining, enlightening, and empowering. And it’s moving, because listeners expect more, companies expect more and hopefully we expect more from ourselves.
Before we get into this, I’d encourage everyone to read Steve Gleason’s guest column as Monday Morning Quarterback on SI.com and support the Gleason Initiative Foundation’s efforts to find a cure for ALS, if you’re so inclined.
THE LEAD IN
When I was PD at ESPN radio, Colin Cowherd would tell me his that his job is make me nervous at least once a day and my job is to trust that he knows where the line is. That works most of the time. But, as demonstrated by the guys in Atlanta, it just takes 2:10 to erase everything you’ve done up until that moment.
I get it, PDs ask a ton from talent: be funny, relevant, insightful, entertaining, credible, unique, distinctive, opinionated, memorable, edgy, but not offensive, and appealing to a younger audience — for four hours, live, every weekday. And don’t say “uh.” And break on time. And promote the ticket giveaway. And tease better. And…
Talent will cross the line. It happens (see: Lex & Terry) . In most cases, I’ll defend the talent and I have in many cases. The Atlanta case is indefensible. It’s making fun of a guy who is dying a horrible death from an even worse disease.
RADIO SPITS THE BIT
update: Nick Cellini has deleted his twitter account.
Nick Cellini has changed his twitter bio to read “short order cook.” Nick was one-third of the Morning Mayhem on 790 The Zone, all of whom were fired yesterday for…this (Audio, transcript). Go ahead listen and read it before we dive in — context helps.
It’s a “stupid” gag they did about Steve Gleason, the former Saints player suffering from ALS. All three broadcasters; Nick Cellini, Chris Dimino and Steak Shapiro have apologized. Too little, too late.
Cellini tells AccessAtlanta.com that the dismissal is “a relief, really. The station is a sinking ship.”
Shapiro, who once co-owned the station under Big League Broadcasting also spoke out, “The ironic thing for me is that I’m an aficionado of the Saints and Steve Gleason. The bit was ill-advised.” He added the bit was not representative of the work they had done four hours a day for 16 years.
Dimino posted a long apology on facebook and realized, “how quickly a stupid and worse than that non thinking moment can change all of it (19 years in broadcasting, 30 years as a grown man, and 10 years of being a father.)”
HOSTS ALL A TWITTER
The bit had broadcasters across the country abuzz.
Rich Eisen (@richeisen) from NFL Network tweeted,
“I just heard the stupid ass Steve Gleason “bit” on the Atlanta radio station and it’s beyond appalling. Those guys deserved what they got.”
Mitch Levy (@kjrmitch), the morning guy on 570 KJR in Seattle had a string of tweets late in the day,
“While I’m sure that I’ve been over the line too many times to count, that’s about as mean-spirited & tasteless bit I’ve ever heard in radio. We all do and say things on-air at the spur of the “live” moment that we’d like to have back. But, this was a premeditated, thought out, pre-produced attack on a good man who’s losing his battle with perhaps the most vicious & senseless disease. Really had to image that someone at that station who was aware of the “bit,” didn’t say “stop” before it aired.”
Heath Cline (@heathradio) is the afternoon host at 107.5 The Game in Columbia, SC,
“How could anyone have thought this was going to be funny. Thing is, I know those guys are capable of much better. I’ve heard them do it. Baffled how they misjudged things so badly today.” This is a spattering sample of the reactions. There were also a lot of “OMGs.”
Another interesting perspective on the mishap comes from Chadd Scott, APD and host at 1010 XL Sports in Jacksonville who was fired from an Atlanta sports station in 2011 for tweets. He claims his negative tweets about Delta Airlines, a major station sponsor, lead to his dismissal. He tweeted when he heard the news yesterday,
“Feel bad for friends @NickCellini & @chrisdimino. I’ve been in their shoes & know what today feels like.” “I only ever “wanted” to work at 1 station & it wasn’t ESPN, it was 790 the Zone years ago & I did. That WAS such a good station.” “All 3 made big $ for failing station & bit gave 790 a reason 2 dump salary.”
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS?
“What lessons are to be learned from this?” I asked on Twitter. Bean, from KROQ’s Kevin & Bean (@clydetombaugh) tweeted back at me,
“Morning show host truth: Your company has no opinion of anything on your show and probably doesn’t even listen. But, if somebody ELSE complains then it is easy for them to say it’s obvious what you did was wrong and stupid.”
How do you know when a bit has gone too far? Shan Shariff (@newschoolSS), the host of “New School” on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas, responded.
“Larry, as you know, TOUGH question. Best answer I have is feel. If I wouldn’t even make the joke off-air to my buddies, I DEFINITELY wouldn’t say it on-air. What these guys in Atlanta did was just sick. Interesting side note: I actually sent this to my guys this afternoon as a warning to watch the line. We tend to flirt with it.”
The reality of the situation is, regardless of ratings or talent, most radio hosts walk up to around the “line” everyday. They are the stunt actors of radio willing to dive off the top of a building, walk through fire, or wreck a motorcycle to get a laugh, to get some ink, and to increase ratings. And we love them for it. From time to time, they’re going to cross the line. It’s going to happen. PDs need to be there more of than not. Truth is some will lose their job (See: Dan Sileo) and some won’t (See: Rush Limbaugh).
I’ve had to deal with many obscene, indecent, and profane incidents with varying degrees of controversy over the years. The hosts who I had to terminate are the ones who wander into at least two of these four areas: personal attacks, lack of filter, off-brand remarks, and negative intentions. Here are some ways to avoid your own “instant unemployment” in the future.
- Don’t Get Personal. Being edgy is okay (depending on your station brand), but know your target. Keep your sights on actions, decisions and behaviors and avoid getting personal. Nobody likes a bully. Attacking people’s traits, conditions, impediments, handicaps, etc. is just mean, not humorous. While there are some exceptions, people generally do not respond well when you ridicule or are disrespectful to someone who has been touched by misfortune.
- Appoint someone the “content filter.” One person on the show has to have 51% control and veto power on all content. If you don’t, no one on the team has the authority to kill a bit. If that person doesn’t green light the proposed piece, then re-edit, re-write and/or re-record it or trash the bit. Get it right before you air it.
- Be Consistent. Make sure the bit is reflective of your show and station’s brand. The Atlanta guys say this bit wasn’t what they typically do – so why do it? Be authentic to yourself and serve the expectations of the listeners.
- Have pure intentions. If your intentions are to honor someone with a parody, are all in jest, and in the spirit of camaraderie — listeners will pick up on that. If you’re vengeful, spiteful and trying to tear someone down – that too will come across. If you find yourself preparing a bit with a negative intention, might I suggest canning the bit? Otherwise, it’s likely to cost you your job.
Pandora is buying a real radio station (article here); 102.7 The Hits in South Dakota. They have a theory that this puts them in the same category as iHeartRadio as it relates to affordable music rights fees. It may work. But, it got me thinking, what if Pandora started to act like a radio station?
Eight Things Pandora Will Do Now That It Bought The Radio Station 102.7 The Hits
7. Update the logo. Keep it familiar, but leverage the Pandora name, but make it more “radio-y.” (notice no mention of the website)
6. Buy more banner roll. One sad logo isn’t going to cut it anymore.
5. New Slogan:
OLD “Today’s Best Hits Without The Rap” (seriously, that’s the slogan. I didn’t realize my Mom was writing radio slogans. She’s always going on about “the rap” music.)
NEW: “If you like Nickelback….we are playing songs that are similar to them”
4. New 10×10 tent for the grocery store remotes. No radio station is complete without one.
3. Understand Added Value. Give clients spots on Pandora.com at no charge in exchange for paying for terrestrial radio buys. This works, trust us Pandora, we know radio.
2. Update the Bieber cutout. He’s much cooler these days.
1. Use streaming audio for promotion! Make sure the web stream pushes terrestrial listening, otherwise it doesn’t count!
Okay, I’m cheeky and sarcastic. I know. But, it does make you stop think about why radio does some of the things it does. Evolution involves change and change is uncomfortable. To adapt and survive, radio is going to have to get pretty uncomfortable, pretty quickly.