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.”
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.
Everyone: Hi Larry!
I am a recovering high school drama geek. I was in the plays and musicals, auditioned for and was accepted into a collegiate theater program, I wore a dance belt and tights (a few times), I took piano lessons, learned how to breath “properly,” explored the history of theater and more. (Lucky for me, the radio station was housed in the basement of the theater – thus, avoiding a career as a New York City waiter.) Of all my theater experiences, the one that comes in handy in every job I have is improv.
On the air or off – improv skills have served me well. Let me just say upfront, if you are a producer, a host, an anchor, a reporter, or a programmer – invest in some improv classes for yourself – it will make you better at your job. It teaches you how to be in present in the moment and hones your ability to listen, react, adapt, create, innovate, play, contribute, and actively engage with the people you work with. Who doesn’t want that?
I was reminded of this while watching Tina Fey discuss the rules of improv while on Inside The Actors Studio this week. (A show that I unabashedly enjoy and one that I’ve paid homage to in my Inside The Bonneville Studios interviews – here with Luke Burbank, Linda Thomas, Brock & Salk and Dori Monson). Tina Fey honed her skills at Second City in Chicago before going to Saturday Night Live. In her book, “Bossypants,” she wrote down the rules of improv that she’s adapted as a world view and she claims they’ve changed her life.
“The Rules of Improvisation that will change your life and Reduce Belly Fat” (p84-85)
- AGREE – always agree & SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun” and you say, “That’s not a gun, it’s your finger” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if you instead say “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is a Christmas gun. In real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. but the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open minded place. Start with YES and see where that takes you.
- Not only say yes, but say YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here” and you say “Yeah…” we are at a stand-still, but if you say “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures” now we’re getting somewhere. YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.
- MAKE STATEMENTS – Don’t ask questions all the time. If I ask continuous questions I am putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers. Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. Make statements with your actions and your voice. For instance, instead of saying “Where are we?”, make a statement like “Here we are in Spain”.
- THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bike, but you think I’m a hamster in a wheel, then now I’m a hamster in a wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discovered have been by accident. For instance, Reese’s PB Cup & Botox.
So, how many times do you or your on-air partners disagree with, disregard or discredit something the other said so you can one-up them, make a better point, or deliver a pithier punch line? Or you’re not sure what to say about a topic or how to move it forward, so you continually just ask questions of your co-host or the audience? Or a sound-byte doesn’t fire and you feel a need to explain to listeners it was supposed to be there – maybe even through your board op or producer under the bus – when in reality the audience had no clue it was coming? All of these are violations of improv.
Other improvisionalists have other rules. For instance, at TEDxVictoria, David Morris offered seven rules. (10 minute Ted Talk here)
- Play. The idea of engaging in something just because you like it.
- Let Yourself Fail. LET is the key. Failing is easy. The hard part is being okay with it. As soon as you start fearing failure you get trapped in your head. Failing does not make you a failure. Just fail, improvise and start again.
- Listen. Listen with all your being. Most people listen just enough to be able to respond. True listening is the willingness to change. If you are not willing to change based on what someone is saying, you are not listening. You are just letting them talk, before you respond.
- Say YES. A series of YES’s will take us somewhere. A single NO shuts down the entire journey.
- Say AND. YES-men are great. AND-men are people we want to work with. They say, “Yes, I like your idea!” AND they add to the creation.
- Play the Game. Anything that has rules is a game whether that’s playing Monopoly or filling out a job application. Rules free us up to improvise. Restrictions funnel our creative process to a create a product.
- Relax and have fun. It will lead to a more enjoyable life.
Improv isn’t about comedy. As David Morris’ pointed out in his Ted talk, MacGyver is one of the great improvisers of our time and he dealt in explosives. Whether you’re trying to save the World, save your ratings or save a segment; learn to improvise.
Talk show hosts, news anchors, editors, producers, production staff, and programmers need to always know and remember who is consuming the content they are creating. What is your target demo? What news, events, and entertainment were influential and formative in their lives?
If you focus your programming towards a 40-year-old woman or man remember that they were 18 in 1989. That was the same year George Bush Sr. became President, Ted Bundy was executed in Florida, and the Exxon-Valdez spilled 240,000 barrels of oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. That was the year Microsoft released its first version of “Office” and Fox debuted a little cartoon show called “The Simpsons.” At the movies, When Harry Met Sally was released along with Back to the Future II, Driving Miss Daisy, Parenthood, and The Little Mermaid. On the radio, these high school seniors were listening to Bobby Brown‘s “My Prerogative,” Paul Abdul’s “Straight Up,” Mike and the Mechanics “The Living Years,” and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.”
Yet, listen to some news-talk and music radio stations trying to cater to these listeners and the references are still off. I still hear mentions of the Mary Tyler Moore, The Odd Couple and Abbott & Costello. Mary Tyler Moore’s Show was off the air in 1977. It was formative for women who are now in their late 50′s and early 60′s. The Odd Couple came out in 1968. Which means you’re targeting a 61-year-old. Bud Abbott was born in 1897. 114 years ago. Hello radio, it’s time for everyone to update our reference points.
Try this exercise. Let me know how it goes.
Sometimes you have to ask for what you want.
Sometimes you have to ask what your employees CAN do.
Sometimes you have to ask what your boss expects from you.
Sometimes you have to ask how to be better.
Sometimes you have to ask permission.
Sometimes you have to ask for forgiveness.
Sometimes you have to ask how you can improve.
Sometimes you have to ask how to do it differently.
Sometimes you have to ask for help.
Sometimes you have to ask, “How can I help?”
Sometimes you have to ask, “What’s missing?”
Sometimes you have to ask a stranger for a favor.
Sometimes you have to ask someone their name.
Sometimes you have to ask, “What do you do?”
Sometimes you have to ask for feedback.
Sometimes you have to ask, “What’s next?”
Sometimes you have to ask, “Is this the best way?”
Sometimes you have to ask for someone’s attention.
Sometimes you have to ask, “What if…”
Sometimes you to ask. And that’s okay.