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The Free Fall of Talk Radio

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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 humorless.

It’s predictable.

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.

THEY DON’T LIKE US, LEYKIS. WHAT THE HECK IS GOING ON?Tom Leykis

Tom Leykis, former radio show host now internet trailblazer at NewNormalNetwork.com, believes he was in the epicenter of the downfall of talk radio.

“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.

BOLD PREDICTION

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.

Radio’s Dashboard Revolution

I’ve recently found myself in a position to take a step back, look at what’s happening in the radio industry and… think. Thinking is not a luxury I’ve had for a while. When you are caught up in the day-to-day operations of radio, you end up reacting, meeting, planning, meeting and meeting all the time, but spend little time just thinking. My latest thoughts have to do with the new car infotainment systems and how radio can capitalize on them.

TALK ABOUT  A REVOLUTION

The North American colonies battled Britain for independence. The French middle-class revolted against Bourbon King Charles X for bankrupting the country and still living a lavish lifestyle, and radio is battling (technology, automakers, the internet, each other, good ol’ days…) over position in the new world of in-car entertainment.

Revolution

Welcome to radio’s dashboard revolution.

When the infotainment systems, like Cadillac’s CUE, were unveiled a couple years ago, I believe we all let out a collective gasp. But, admittedly, I assumed the reality of losing our comfortable front row seat on the dash was downstream a bit and nothing we’d have to wrestle with too soon. I was mistaken.

Here’s the Cadillac Cue.

Last month, Cadillac upgraded the CUE to add more features, more internet connectivity, more iPhone capability, and more stuff that distracts people from the business of listening to the radio. BMW announced this week at the New York International Auto Show that it’s added Rhapsody, TuneIn, Audible, and Glympse to Pandora and MOG in its in-car entertainment system.

And now these kinds of systems are available in cars that cost less than $30,000.

Check themylinkse out.

Chevy Mylink 
MyFord Sync 
Hyundai Blue Link 
Chrysler’s U Connect 
KIA UVO Entertainment 
Toyota’s EnTune

All these systems include some of the following; SiriusXM satellite Radio, WiFi, Pandora, Stitcher, Bluetooth connectivity, CD Player, SD card slot, a USB port, an auxiliary jack for audio or video input, and/or an in-car interface for iPhone users.

Unfortunately, none tout the AM/FM receiver (though Chevy MyLink is now showing AM and FM buttons next to the others).

So, this brings me to some thoughts about how radio stations can seize this as an opportunity.

1. Own more than one button on the dash. Radio folk are all a tizzy wondering how they can get their station on the dash. I believe the question is how does your brand own more than one button on the dash? Let’s take radio station KFI in Los Angeles as an example. The programming and IT teams should be talking about how to set up 24-hour simultaneous streams for KFI Live, KFI News, KFI Traffic, KFI Bill Handel, KFI John & Ken, KFI Weekends, etc. It’s the ESPN model. Create brand extensions so that on the dash, I can sync up KFI News, KFI traffic, and KFI Live on 3 of my 6 to 8 buttons. Stations can then monetize each stream seperately.

2. Teach, Lead, Guide and Produce Content for other brands. I believe every brand is going to want a button in the dash; McDonalds, Nike, USAToday, American Red Cross, etc. It’s a great brand extension and a new way for consumers/fans to experience non-media brands on a “radio” without it being a commercial. As the experts of “ear-entertainment” we should be offering our studios and services to these brands to create streaming audio content that cuts through. We have the equipment, talent, creativity, and a desperate need for a new revenue stream. They have celebrity endorsers, experts in the field, storytellers, fans, the desire and money. It’s a no-brainer.

Bonus: In addition to charging for the studios and services and helping to create compelling content. These brands now have quality creative content that could be customized into short form snippets for 2- or 3-minute sponsor blocks on your radio station as “enhanced commercials.” It’s quality content (you created it) and it’s reflective of the sponsors brand with product placement and tags throughout. This allows you to continue building both tradition and non-traditional revenue streams.

3. Be THAT good. Yeah, radio has had it easy. No matter how much effort or money was invested (or not) into the product, it was always available at every driver’s fingertips. The game is changing. Now you need to create radio that people want to hear, because their options are limitless. Why are they going to pick you? Believe in your product, invest in people, and make your product available however your fans want it. If you’re that good, you’ll find your way onto the dash.

It likely won’t take a miracle to survive the dashboard revolution, just some creative problem solving and opportunity seizing.

Every Moment Matters

Arbitron will tell you, in general, there are listeners coming and going from your radio station every minute. Listeners are dipping in and out of stations searching for a comfortable place to rest. This is either terrific or terrifying news if you are host, producer or programmer. It means you have opportunities to snag new listeners every minute. It also means if you are off topic, too sloppy or boring – you’re going lose some too. 

Here’s the truth about these non-P1 listeners:

  • These listeners do not know who you are.
  • These listeners do not know your show.
  • These listeners do not know what your station is all about.
  • These listeners do not know your inside jokes.
  • These listeners want to be included.
  • These listeners want to like you.
  • These listeners want you to be relatable.
  • These listeners want you to be local.

In order to take full advantage of this opportunity, it’s important that you pay attention to all the details. Every moment counts. Are the hosts resetting who they are, what they’re doing and what station they are on often enough? Are bench mark segments being explained and sold to the listener as a benefit? Are you saying the web address, phone number, text, and twitter accounts slowly and clearly so new listeners can play along? Is your board operator paying attention, running a tight board and hitting all the correct audio? Are sound bites edited properly? Are producers carefully screening callers? Are hosts prepared for interviews? Are you playing the hits uniquely  or are you covering the story the same way everyone else is? Are you providing social currency or are you wasting time? Are you letting new listeners play along or are your jokes and references too inside?

 In a PPM world every moment, every word, every piece of audio, every phone call, every interview, everything you do – counts. Make sure everything you do on your station is best serving the fans in your city in that moment or the listeners will keep searching until they find the station that does.

Want more on PPM? Listen to this Larry Gifford Media podcast with Charlie Sislen from Research Director Inc.  Charlie Sislen Interview Podcast

What Sports Talk Hosts Can Learn From Kobe Bryant

When it comes to winning a championship Kobe Bryant knows a thing or two or five. And after listening to him today, on 710 ESPN’s Mason & Ireland Show in Los Angeles, I believe Kobe can help talk show hosts be better too.

Kobe talked about how the basketball season is an evolution.

“It’s about getting better,” said Kobe.

He sees each game as another part of the journey. Tomorrow night, Kobe and the Lakers are in Boston to  see if they can do any better than they did 10 days ago when the Celtics beat them 109-96.

“It’s a gauge; what areas have we improved and what areas have we slipped? It’s always a gauge. You have to check your compass everyone once in a while.”

Kobe is also constantly thinking about the little details. When asked what one thing the team needed to improve on between now and the playoffs, Kobe couldn’t narrow it down.

“There’s like 20 things. All of them are important; defensive rotations, offensive execution, rebounding patterns, the list goes on and on in my head. There are three things; defending, field goal percentage and not turn the ball over. Whoever does that best will be champion.”

What sticks out to me is that at the highest levels of pro sports, players and teams continue to challenge themselves to be great. Kobe Bryant is regularly analyzing his play, focusing on the details and looking to improve every game.

How many radio hosts do this? Are you?

–          When was the last time you gauged your progress or checked your compass?

–          Are you getting critical feedback or conducting critical self evaluations following each show?

–          Are you regularly applying new strategy, skills or techniques when hosting?

–          Do you consider your show a static element or an evolution?

–          Do you recognize and address the details of your show?

I know from experience on both sides of the mic that these things don’t happen nearly as much as they could or should. Kobe is a proven winner; a champion and future hall-of-famer. And he still wants to be better, still gauges his performance from game to game to game, and still sweats the small stuff.

Seems like a good game plan whether you’re on the court or behind the microphone.

Listen to 710 ESPN’s Mason & Ireland with Kobe Bryant here.

Oops. Uh, Wrong Audio.

I live in Los Angeles. There are great radio station here with remarkable talent. There are also bad radio stations and forgettable talent. What drives me crazy when I listen to the radio – regardless of the market size – regardless of talent ability – is when audio mis-fires.

In the past two days I have heard two newscasts; one on KFI and one on KABC. In one case the wrong sound bite played twice in a row and in another there was dead air and the announcer uncomfortably asked out loud, “can you say that again?” In both cases, the talent was awkward and uncertain. It made me question the credibility of them and the stations they work on. I hear this happen at least once a day in this market on a variety of stations (and embarrassing as it is, it happened at KSPN while I was PD). 

What is so frustrating is that it is preventable. Do yourself a favor. Before going on the air; double and triple check your audio, put it in the correct order, make sure it’s cued, be sure the pot is keyed into program and the levels are set. This is radio 101, yet everyday in every market in America these types of mistakes are made. Audio is our life-blood. It’s how we tell stories. It’s supposedly what we do best, though when I hear mistakes like these in a major market like Los Angeles I begin to wonder if we are truly audio experts or if that’s just we have told ourselves.

Playing the Music Hits on Sports Radio

 by Larry Gifford for LarryGifford.com’s “Let’s Talk About It” Newsletter.

Listen to the entire LarryGifford.com podcast with Rita Wilde here

 

Programmers are quick to parrot the music radio philosophy of “play the hits” when it comes to choosing topics each day, but that doesn’t extend to the bumper music being played into and out of breaks. Classic rock thrives in the PPM world and caters directly to M25-54, yet sports talk stations seem to have abandoned it. 

Rita Wilde

“I don’t hear anything that’s really compelling to be honest.” That’s Rita Wilde talking about sports radio’s use of music. For 26 years, as a jock and programmer she really did play the hits at the legendary KLOS-FM in Los Angeles. “I love sports talk radio. I love sports. I’m a P1 of the format. From a classic rock standpoint, I’m not hearing that incorporated at all. I hear people just trying to be cool playing rap and hip-hop. That doesn’t necessarily connect with who they’re trying to reach.”

Wilde cautions sports talkers to not become a classic rock bumper station. You still have to be current by incorporating new acts or mass appeal acts like Black Eyed Peas and Bruno Mars.

So what’s the best way to figure out what to play? Wilde suggests you consult a classic rock station in your cluster if you have one. But there are other ways.

“One thing that I always remember: The music you like when you’re 18 years old will resonate with you for the rest of your life.” Wilde continues, “Classic rock is incorporating 80s and songs from 20 years ago like Nirvana’s Nevermind (released in September 1991) and Pearl Jam’s Ten (released in August 1991). Those people are 20 years older now, so if they were 18 then, their 38 now and right smack in your demo.”

Wilde also suggests you watch crowds at sporting events and see how they react to the music. She thinks hockey is the best at really getting the crowd rockin’. She emphasizes that the music you choose should be familiar – stuff everyone knows. Why?

“The biggest complaints I’d hear from jocks when I’d take them to a concert was, ‘well, they just played all the hits,’ but what’s interesting to note is that when they played the newer stuff off the album people would head to the bathroom.”

Bottom line: Playing the hits is a great philosophy for sports talk radio; just don’t forget its origins or you risk losing your listeners to a potty break. 

Rita Wilde is currently looking for something in “jock and roll” – working in the sports or rock formats. She can be contacted at ritawilde@verizon.net

Five Tips for Executing Contests

I have created, executed and heard a lot bad contests on the air. Also, some good ones. What makes one contest work and another not? There are infinite factors, but I’ve identified a few things that do influence the success or failure of contests on the radio. You might have more – please share them in the comments section.

1. The Prize. It can’t be lame. When I was a PD, I instituted a policy that all prizes had to be at least $25 in value. In reality, it needs to be something that your fans value. Would you want it? If not, don’t bother. For example;  tire patch kits, 2 for 1 coupons, a chance to stand in line to maybe see a movie premiere and loafs of bread. These are horrible, yet inexplicably all actual prizes that I’ve helped to giveaway in my career.  I’m sorry to everyone who won.

2. The Prize – part 2. It’s important that you, as the host, believe the prize is of value or at least treat it as such. If you aren’t a fan of UCLA basketball, but have to give away tickets, you need to sell it to the listeners as if the tickets are at least as valuable as they are. I’ve heard hosts apologize for the quality of the prize. For example, “I’m sorry they aren’t Lakers tickets” or “we have UCLA tickets for this weekend, if you’re in to that sort of thing,” or “we have UCLA vs Cal tickets, sorry it’s not a better match up.” If you’re downplaying, downgrading or devaluing the prize – you are destroying the whole concept of the contest. Stop being so honest and sell the giveaway. Otherwise you end up wasting everyone’s time.

3. Let the Listener Play Along. If you announce the contest on the air and then don’t say anything else about it, the listener doesn’t know what happened. It’s like a black hole. If it’s trivia…play it out on air. Make it a game. If you can’t execute the contest on air, at least acknowledge who won and how they won.

4. Don’t Make it Too Complicated. If you have to go on the website to register, listen at a specific time in the day for five straight days to hear a key words and then text them in at a certain times to win, no one will play. Keep it simple. Text to win. Enter to win. Listen to win. One or two steps only. Much more than that and most won’t bother to participate. The one’s who do make the effort aren’t typically listeners, they are the professional contest winners (a.k.a. prize pigs).

5. Promote the Contest in Advance. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth telling people in advance that you’re doing it. Give people a specific time to listen for their chance to win the prize. If you don’t tell people you are doing a contest, they won’t know.

BONUS: Why are you doing the contest? Increase TSL? Cume? Sales initiative? Know why you are doing the contest and make sure it accomplishes the goal. Everything you do on air and on-line needs to have a purpose.