Radio Might Just Be Rocket Science

space-shuttle-or-radio-station2Over the course of the last few months, I’ve had the honor and responsibility to help launch new News-Talk radio shows on air in Vancouver and Winnipeg. Not that I’d know, but it seems a bit like launching a space shuttle. A huge team, lots of planning, excitement, adrenaline, nerves, back timing, countdowns, someone  is pushing a bunch of buttons, and there are always small adjustments along the way. (A gross over-generalization to be sure, but go with it.)

Below is a list of some of the adjustments that crept up through these experiences that are good reminders to all radio talent

  • Improvisation rules apply. Don’t kill the premise of a discussion by dismissing it off hand. Add to it. Expand on it. Think “Yes, and…”
  • When co-hosting it is okay to disagree, but it isn’t about “winning at all costs.” Respect each other, establish clear boundaries, and agree on the goal of each segment before diving in.
  • Avoid personal attacks. This applies to co-workers and news makers. Characterize behavior and actions, not people.
  • News is not a break from the show. News is what’s next on your show.
  • Know the clock, respect the clock, and abide by the clock. They’re designed for maximum ratings impact and for clear separation of commercial competitors, repeat commercials and to minimize listener fatigue.
  • Write and plan your teases into break. Avoid words and phrases like “after these commercials”, “we’ll be back”, “time to take a break”, “when we return.” Instead keep forward momentum with something like “coming up next…”
  • Speaking of momentum, find ways to build momentum for each segment, each show and each day on the station. Build on stories, find the arc, explore new angles, and offer different perspectives.
  • Be about something. Don’t just fill time.
  • Avoid signing off at the end of your show as if there is nothing else worth listening to on the station.
  • Root your on-air personality in authenticity, but remember it is show biz, so it should be an enhanced, more dynamic version of you.

If you are lucky enough to have a radio show you have an amazing opportunity. Your voice will travel through air, into ears and across the Milky Way faster than a space shuttle. It is an awesome responsibility to entertain and inform the public. The impact you make is up to you. You’ve been given the keys to high performance machine, what are you going to do with it?

Tuning In To Your Audience

radio-noir-film-tuning-bedroom-search-searching-for-a-station-on-an-old-vintage-radio-sitting-on-a-night-stand-in-a-bedroom-concept-listen-to-the-music-remember-the-past-film-noir-black-and-white-version_n1_mr9xk__S0000I am not a regular church goer. Last Sunday though, in the wake of shootings and protests and chaos in Minnesota, Baton Rouge, Dallas and elsewhere, my family decided maybe we needed a community, some perspective, or maybe we wanted someone, somewhere to tell us everything is going to be okay. Whatever the reason, we researched and found a church that held “social justice” as one of its pillars.

Perfect.

We were present, ready, and waiting.

And we waited.

Not a word was spoken about the senseless shootings, the racial divide, Black Lives Matter or anything. In truth, more was said about it during the MLB All Star Game’s Canadian National Anthem.

This church had a program, a plan, a scheduled service carefully mapped out likely weeks in advance. But they missed an opportunity to connect with the congregation in a moment. It reminded me of a news-talk radio station that fails to “play the hit” when a big story breaks, because guests have been booked and topics have been researched.

When big events happen, the most recent in Nice, France, people seek community, support, context and a sense of security. They seek it out on their radio and if they don’t immediately find what they need, they scan the dial.

Radio plays an important role in informing and connecting our communities, whether it is bad weather in the region or terror around the world. When big stories break, it is our responsibility to report facts, seek the truth, provide context, help when we can, and grieve, rally, and organize when needed. We can be a beacon of hope, a stage for disagreement, and a voice of calm in the face of the inexplicable.

When we fail to recognize that we don’t just lose listeners and revenue, we lose an important connection and leadership role in the community — one I believe we shouldn’t so quick to surrender. Who knows who or what may fill the void.

RTDNA Takeaways

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These are reminders, thoughts, takeaways, interesting observations and things I want to remember from the national RTDNA Canada conference.

Tell Stories…

Great stories are built around moments, take the audience somewhere and decode jargon or spin. Those three areas are what have helped to make CBC journalist Susan Ormiston such an impactful international correspondent. She shared her secrets on storytelling with the crowd at the RTDNA Canada national convention.

Stories evolve around moments. Ormiston explains, “Creating environments for moments to happen or simply focusing on a moment” is what she attempts in her storytelling. There is a warning, “moments cannot be manufactured, but they can be managed.” For instance, building trust with an interview subject helps create an environment where vulnerable moments are more likely to take place.  “Trust,” she says, “It’s a relationship. Never persuade yourself that someone won’t want to talk about something.”

REMINDER: Don’t Be A TV Anchor…

The TV news anchor is dying.

The head of CTV Wendy Freeman fired the first shot across the bow, “in 5 to 10 years will there even be TV anchors?” Corus/Global VP Troy Reeb added, “The asking price for a good anchor has been in decline and will continue to be, the asking price for a good reporter is expected to climb.” He also noted brands aren’t being built on the shoulders of anchors, but around the credibility of reporting. And then Ali Velshi hit it home, “I don’t think the highly paid TV anchor is a sustainable creature.”

Buzzwords – words and concepts that dominated discussions.

“Multi-platform” – I blogged about that here.

“Mobile” – 94% of millennials have smart phones, mobile first thinking, reporters using phones for everything…

“Monetization” – how do we make money with… native content, snapchat, etc…

“Change” – the industry is changing, technology is changing, audience expectations are changing and if you/we aren’t changing fast enough we will lose.

Apps and Devices Speakers Love…

Twitter – it’s changed the game for distributing and curating content and for live moment-by-moment coverage where microphones aren’t allowed like courtrooms.

iMovie – great for radio reporters also tasked with filming and editing video pieces on the run.

Voddio  – Voddio, is a professional-grade video and audio editor App for mobile journalists and story tellers, that supports rich editing of two tracks of video and up to four tracks of audio.

Amazon Echo – Ali Velshi loves Echo. Watch the video. It is rather awesome.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkOCeAtKHIc

Favorite Quotes of the Conference

“$150 million dollars is what’s going to go to the bureaucratic morass that is the CBC.” – Troy Reeb, Corus/Global

“I bemoan the day when we decide we don’t need context anymore.”  – Susan Ormiston, CBC

“It’s Facebook and the 7 Dwarves.” – on Social Media platforms

“We need to start thinking about big stupid ideas. We’re not an industry that typically thinks up stupid ideas. We need more stupid ideas. Stupid ideas are stupid until they are breakthroughs.” – Ali Velshi, Multi-platform Content Creator

“I’ve never given up the thought of returning home to Canada , but it won’t because of a man named Donald Trump. He can’t bully me.” – Ashleigh Banfield, CNN. She dedicated her entire keynote address to the “human wrecking ball” Trump and trying to explain how he’s in the position he’s in.

Our Multi-Platform World

rtdna-logo-updated-mainIt is certainly not a new idea, but from the first answer of the first session “in the Bear Pit,” at the 2016 RTDNA Canada National convention in Toronto, “multi-platform” was on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

A big priority for Troy Reeb, Corus /Global VP of News, Radio and Station Operations, is to “build out news talk on multi-platforms.” He stressed the importance of following the audience, which he notes “has a good appetite for good storytelling.”

At CTV, President Wendy Freeman is encouraging her team to “do everything” in the ongoing fight for more eyeballs on their content. And she stressed that in this evolving world, “everybody does everything.”

There are even multi-platform content units and assignment editors at CBC now. But GM and Editor in Chief Jennifer McGuire insists the government subsidized digital news teams is just serving the public’s best interest and it’s just how the are connecting to their audience. (Reeb wondered aloud if an 1,100 person digital team wasn’t a bit extreme. McGuire assured him they weren’t all in news.)

At the radio news panel, reporters shared stories of having to carry two cell phones, a Marantz, and a selfie-stick so they can record audio, take videos, pictures, live tweet and record video stand-ups for video packages that are expected after the radio report, web story, and social is complete. All done from their car on an iPhone before being dispatched their next assignment. AM 640 Program Director Nathan Smith added, “Radio isn’t cut any slack on digital, because we are radio. The audience expects multimedia coverage.”

Multi-platform audience measurement was also a topic. The future of measurement is in being able to track users as they transition from device to device throughout each day. A concept which could become too invasive on panelists if not done elegantly. And we’re closer to that reality than we think, according to Numeris EVP Lisa Eaton, “We know, throughout the day, what people are doing.” (Editor’s note: creepy.)

Former Al Jazeera America TV anchor Ali Velshi sobered up the room with a reality check. He preached about how radio and TV have enjoyed perpetuating a good thing, but despite continued monetization we have a false belief that radio and TV are still relevant and we are on a road to oblivion. The newly monikered “Multimedia content creator” dreams of a virtual reality world where he reads the news to each person personally in the form of an avatar. Velshi also insists operations like VICE News have an edge because they aren’t having to defend legacy systems and processes and can go straight to innovation and experimentation. He added, “I’ve come to believe we need to embrace digital NOT as an adjunct, but to fully replace radio and TV.” He was passionate that our digital plans should be completely disrupting our traditional platforms and should be capable of destroying the current radio and TV models.

It’s certainly food for thought. The world is changing fast and we need to more than keep up, we need to be on the front lines trailblazing and creating the future.

Missed Opportunities

In the past week I have offered part-time work to interns. They both declined the offer choosing instead to pursue opportunities that are more aligned with their career goals. I wondered aloud on twitter if this is the new reality for radio and it seemed to strike a nerve.

 

Some offered to take the jobs on their behalf including a couple peers from their school and one woman who has no broadcast training at all.

I am not pointing fingers at all millennials suggesting this is a generation of slackers. I know that’s not the case, because many of the millennials I’ve had the pleasure to work with are dogged, creative, hard-working and very talented. I am suggesting some inexperienced broadcasters are undervaluing actual experience. Perhaps it’s a false confidence created by the internet where anyone can become a broadcaster through their personal computer. Why work odd hours or off-air “button pushing” jobs to climb the ladder when I can create “radio” in my dorm room?

I am suggesting some broadcast students aren’t considering the power of relationships and networking. Every job I’ve been offered started with an introduction from a friend or colleague. I have never been hired by someone who I wasn’t within three degrees of separation. I have blanketed North American with resumes though my career and not one resume I sent to a total stranger lead to anything more than a “thank you for applying.”

New broadcasters may also be dismissing the value of gaining experience on a live broadcast where there are standards, expectations, and big dollars on the line. Talking into a microphone and recording a podcast is one thing, having the responsibility to deliver news or traffic information or be responsible for airing thousands of dollars’ worth of commercials is another.

I appreciate candor, bold decisions and determination. The interns that rejected my overture for part time work have that. I wish them well. I will only offer this. As a broadcast student I reluctantly interned in the news department of a radio station. I had no interest in news. It wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a host. But, I was good at news, discovered I loved it, and it lead to my first real radio job and a career I am proud of. You never know where opportunities, connections and experience will take you.

Oh, Canada!

Larry in VancouverI am moving to Canada. (This is me and the view from my new office.) —>

Let’s get the two most popular questions out of the way first.

No, I’m not hightailing north of the border in anticipation of a Trump presidency.

Yes, you can crash on my couch when YOU want to escape Trump’s empire.

Why Canada?

I have been consulting Corus Radio in Vancouver since January 2014. I’ve had the pleasure of coaching and strategizing alongside some brilliant radio leaders. I have worked closely with and been inspired by dedicated, committed and talented radio staffs. And have I rediscovered the excitement that radio can deliver when a company commits to success, invests in its future and wants to make a difference in people’s lives.

Last August, I was asked to serve as interim Program Director of News-Talk 980 CKNW and AM 730 All Traffic, All the Time. So, for 9-months I have been commuting between my family in California and my work in Canada. Three weeks a month or so in Vancouver with a weekend home and then one full week with the family each month. It wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t always easy. It took patience, sacrifice, and an exceeding amount of trust from all involved.

Now the “interim” has been removed from my title and my family is moving to British Columbia. I will continue to write blogs and create Radio Stuff Podcasts as time permits.

Radio is Radio, Right?

Sort of.

Radio is different in Canada than the U.S. though not so insanely so. Here are some of the nuances.

Language | Bottom line you will hear more adult language on radio in Canada. From bullshit to asshole and the treasure trove of curses in between. Not fuck. But most anything else. In the U.S. that sort of language is prohibited by the FCC from 6am to 10pm and most companies avoid it all together.

Governing Body | The governing body over radio in the U.S. is the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). Listeners can complain about stations to the FCC, but unless there is a deluge of complaints about a certain broadcast the complaint falls on deaf ears. In Canada, the governing body is the CRTC (Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission) and the broadcasters created a coalition called the CSBC (Canadian Standards Broadcast Council) which fields each listener complaint. The complaints are formally delivered the radio station and stations have a finite period of time to respond to each complaint. If the listener remains unsatisfied by the response, the CRTC can make a ruling on the matter.

PPM | People meters in large markets is the standard in both the U.S. and Canada. Three distinct differences though. 1) Nielsen (in the U.S.) is a private, for-profit company that monopolizes broadcast ratings data. Numeris (in Canada) is a not-for-profit, member-owned tripartite industry organization. If you want ratings, you become a member.  If you are a member, you’re part owner. 2) In the U.S., radio stations are battling for quarter-hours. If a listener tunes in for five minutes in a quarter-hour it counts as 15 minutes of listening. In Canada, it’s minute-by-minute. Five minutes of listening is worth five minutes. 3) We also recently began receiving overnight ratings in Canada. So day-to-day you get a snap shot of listening patterns in the market. It was terrifying at first, but really quite useful. Knowledge is power.

Media Companies | In a very broad stroke, based on my observations and experience, media companies in the U.S. are grossly over-leveraged, cost-cutting from the front lines of content creation, investing in upper-management and are more fiscally focused than audience focused. Contrarily, in Canada, I see more fiscally responsible companies seeking strategic acquisitions, cost-cutting and efficiencies at senior management levels, investment in talent and technology and a stronger focus on the consumer experience. Extreme generalizations, I know, but it is my experience.

Listeners | Listeners to radio in Canada are different. The connection to the stations seems stronger and more personal, which means they feel like owners of the stations they listen to. That leads to lots of calls and emails for minor errors and great outrages each demanding returned phone calls, retractions, apologies, and retribution. It also leads to more passionate, dedicated listeners. I know listeners in the U.S. call stations too, but in my experience, for every call I received from a listener as a PD in the states, I get 10 in Canada.

Those are the main differences that come to mind today, I’ll add more over time.

Now off to get a Tim Horton’s coffee and a maple donut.

Navigating Change

Change is scary and uncomfortable for most people.

It just is.

Humans like to know they are safe and secure. We want to know we have enough money for food and someplace hospitable to rest our head at night. So, when pink slips start flying like they did at KGO last week in San Francisco or organizations are merged and realigned like Corus Entertainment last week in Canada, fear takes hold. It’s instinctual.

But resisting change is actually more lethal for entertainment and information industries like radio (see: music industry, Blockbuster Video, newspapers). There is hope and opportunity in change. You just have to be willing to see it and seize it.

Yes, what happened in San Francisco to KGO is tragic. It was a juggernaut of a radio station that has slowly and systematically been starved of resources and been a victim of benign neglect. The dedicated staffers who were sent packing after years of pouring their heart into a product deserve better. They tried to find a small part of a corporate beast they could love and quickly realized the beast was indscriminate. But now they are free. Unschackled. No longer beholden to a dream of yesterday’s KGO. There is life after KGO right Gil Gross??

Gil Gross Facebook

Right Claudia Lamb?  (Article: KGO and the Death of Radio)

In Canada, a completely different scenario. Not one of downsizing and cost-cutting but of investing and growing. Eerily, employees feel similar. Corus just completed a $2.6B acquisition of Shaw Media and new corporate structures were unveiled. The questions came fast and furious; Why? Where’s this worked before? What’s it mean for me? How can this possibly work? When are they going to fire me? Don’t they know we’ve never done it this way before?

Fear. It’s contagious.

differentKeep in mind, change isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s just different. When companies change it often creates opportunities. New managers, new faces, new processes and procedures and fresh eyes on old problems. It doesn’t have to be scary. It should be exciting. Anytime you get to work for a leader who has bold vision and a sense of purpose and direction embrace it, champion it, and rejoice. The opposite is stagnation. The opposite is KGO.

It reminds me of a phrase I quickly learned while working at ESPN; “evolve or face extinction.” In the past week, we’ve seen this played out in both directions in dramatic fashion.