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.”
This week, Perry Michael Simon at AllAccess.com interviewed me for his “10 Questions with…” feature. One of the questions he asked lead to a more complex answer than I’m sure he was looking for, but it bears repeating.
What’s the best way to handle a host’s controversial comments — when is it best to unequivocally support the talent and when is it best to apologize or suspend or cut bait and run?
Well, I’ve encountered quite a few controversial on-air moments from dealing with Rush’s comments on Sandra Fluke to local hosts who get too graphic, push the envelope too far, or fail – offensively – at an attempt at humor. When I was at ESPN, Colin Cowherd used to say his job was to walk so close to the line each day that I’d be uncomfortable at times. He did his job well.
If I hear it and don’t get any complaints, my main reaction is to pull the audio, listen to it again, pull the offenders into the office, listen to the piece, have a conversation, and explain why I believe it was out of line. I usually offer suggestions on how it could be handled differently.
If you’re dealing with listener complaints it’s tricky. If you apologize too quickly, it shows a lack of faith in the product. If you’re too defensive it appears the station is deaf to criticism. While at KIRO FM, my GM Carl Gardner shared a great document with me on how to deal with listener complaints and I still have it. Here are the main points.
- Take all calls seriously. Respond to everyone. You may learn something new about your product.
- Don’t exaggerate and don’t let others exaggerate. People like to say, “we’re getting TONS of complaints…advertisers are cancelling business!!” – when, in fact, it maybe a handful of complaints or less. Seek the truth, don’t let people spread myths.
- Resist the temptation to apologize, argue or debate. Listen carefully with empathy. Most callers just want someone to hear them out.
- If something was said factually wrong — own it. If you were wrong – apologize. If someone is offended, explain the nature of some programs is to stimulate debate and discussion.
- If you haven’t personally heard the remarks at issue, insist on hearing them yourself before responding. It’s impossible to respond intelligently to something you’ve never heard, in context, yourself. Many times what is ‘heard’ is taken entirely out of context.
- Likewise, determine if the person complaining actually heard the comments or are responding to something they were told.
- Don’t share every complaint with the air staff. Any show working to break through will be noticed and at times disrupt listeners and advertisers. Sharing every bit of feedback can have a negative impact on their confidence.
- Believe in your product. Even though complaints can be uncomfortable, be confident and positive about your station, while remaining open to constructive feedback.
- People will tell you they’re boycotting your customers and writing them letters – they rarely do.
I admit I was reluctant to read The Handoff, because I know how the story ends – with the untimely death of sports radio’s bigger-than-life ambassador, mentor, friend and programmer Andrew Ashwood. However, I am better for having pushed through.
This is a book about brotherhood, determination, vulnerability, passion, certainty, self-confidence, self-awareness, and one guy’s successful rise from high-octane, motivated, passionate stock broker to high-octane, motivated, passionate sports radio host.
Through his journey of excesses, friendships, and passions, we accompany JT (currently a host on Fox Sports Radio from 1a-6a ET, 10p-3a PT) as he comes-of-age over and over again. The reader witnesses his evolution into a man, a husband, a father, a friend and talk show host. We are there as John transforms into JT and we are cheering with his buddies when he earns the name “Brick.” It’s funny, intense, authentic, emotional and ultimately hopeful.
JT rips his heart open for examination allowing the world to peer into his dreams, doubts, passions, and feelings. From being elected president of his fraternity to moving across country away from his boyhood home and then again when he quits his lucrative stock broker job only to pay his way on the radio – you will be rooting for JT.
Somewhat surprising for a sports host known for his scratchy, bullhorn of a voice and for banging the phones, JT is refreshingly self-deprecating, self-aware, and reflective. Even though I knew how it ended, it was a captivating roller coaster of a journey. The book gives an honest behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to succeed in life and radio. You’ll be motivated by JT’s hustle and moxy, and feel the urge to reconnect with friends from the past.
One of the lessons Andrew passed along was to “make someone’s day.”
Reading this has made mine. Thanks JT.
“The first couple days I’m wearing this thing and I’m turning into radio just trying to get these points and then finally I said, ‘Well, f— this.’” - Former PPM panelist
Listen to the comments in context here.
This is a taboo topic of conversation for terrestrial radio and it would disqualify a radio station’s ratings faster than you can push “scan” when the Kars-for-Kids commercial starts up. However, it was the Top Story on Radio Stuff’s podcast. (editor’s note: Arbitron emailed their responses to our questions, so we had a British bloke voice the answers on the podcast. It’s worth a listen for that alone.)
DISCLAIMER: As a programmer, I have praised Arbitron for measuring my genius programming with precision when ratings are high and cursed them when they dropped. (Certainly there must be a sampling error, no?)
Joe v. Arbitronado
So, I sent the audio from “Joe” to Arbitron’s Director of Programming Services Jon Miller and asked him what he thought. He says it sounds like things are working the way they should.
“Arbitron has safeguards in place to help ensure the integrity of our PPM ratings. In this case, the panelist’s comments are a demonstration of some of those safeguards, such as calling households if their compliance in carrying the meter falls off.”
Caller Joe complained to Leykis:
“I started getting all these phone calls. I’m thinking you know who the hell is this calling me? We’ll it’s Arbitron. So apparently this meter has something that can tell when you’re moving and when you’re sitting still. And so when I’m not moving, they’re calling me – pretty much harassing me about why am I not wearing the meter and they can’t get accurate ratings and I need to be wearing my meter. Well, after about two weeks of this, they called me and said, “You’re not wearing the meter!” and I finally said, ‘alright, fuck this. Send me a box and I’m sending all this shit back.’”
Miller wouldn’t go so far as to characterize the company’s behavior as harassment, but the calls are part of the quality control.
“Arbitron monitors compliance with its instructions, contacts households who aren’t complying and works with them to improve their carry habits whether through coaching or other incentives.”
The 2010 Broadcast Architecture study on PPM panelists talked to one woman who clipped her meter to a ceiling fan, Joe plopped it down in front of a radio, and I’ve heard that others have attached them to pets. So, Jon Miller, how do you know when a panelist is cheating.
“The PPM has a motion detector built into it allowing us to capture both the motion records and media exposure from that day. There are thresholds for how many hours of motion a day we require for our panelists to be counted in the days ratings, and the more they wear the meter the more incentives they receive.”
And then there’s sample size. It wasn’t brought up by the caller, but it is commonly heard uttered in anger and echoing through the hallways outside PDs offices.
“PPM’s sample sizes are designed to deliver the same level of statistical reliability as the Diary survey, but with less total sample. We accomplish that by surveying listeners for a much longer period of time (28 days in just one PPM survey month) compared to the one-week diary timeline. This level of detail, thousands and thousands of days of measurement across a single month, allows us to see so many granular things with PPM data that we just can’t with the Diary.”
“If Arbitron is the standard in terms of traditional AM and FM radio then it’s a flawed standard.” -Joe the caller
Joe’s point would be more valid if he wasn’t just complaining that he wanted to earn the money without doing the work.
“One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen over the 5+ years that PPM has been in use is how much and how fast listening habits are evolving and changing. Nothing stays static in PPM, and we’re finding that radio listening is dynamic. This continually motivates broadcasters to continue offering compelling content on stations with clear and strong brand images, so that they can cut through with listeners in an ever more crowded media world.” - Jon Miller, Arbitron VP of Programming Services
Clear. Strong. Brands. Cut Through.
And I would add this:
“PPM isn’t perfect, but it’s all we’ve got.” – Larry Gifford
Upon Further Review
We can’t force our ideal listeners to participate – it’s a roll-of-the-dice and sometimes you roll snake eyes.
Arbitron is weeding out at least some of the cheaters. Good.
We can’t know “true” listening behavior without NSA quality spy equipment and the violation of our listener’s constitutional rights.
Stations and panelists are both trying to game the system. Makes me wonder who Arbitron is gaming.
The sample size is what it is, unless stations want to spend even more ridiculous amounts of money to be told your station is still – awesome, sucky, irrelevant, vital – depending on the time of the month.
The success or failure of your station is in the hands of Caller Joe. Good luck.
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.
“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.