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Ramble On

Sometimes I grow so tired, but I know I've got one thing I got to do...

Ramble On, And now's the time, the time is now, to sing my song.

– Ramble On by Led Zeppelin

Jimmy Page, Robert Plant

With thanks to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for inspiration, ‘my song’ is this blog and the ‘one thing I got to do’ is get it written and posted. Since I left the Big Apple for ATX, I’ve been doing more production on a daily basis than I ever did at Z100 and KTU combined. One of my BBBs (best broadcast buddies) has a syndicated show that is undergoing a name change and facelift soon. Over the last few weeks I’ve been redoing ALL of the production that has been done for this show over the course of 4 years. This leaves little time for writing, which is paradoxical for me. Writing is pretty much why I made this move!

The upside is I stay busy doing what I love while coming up with a lot of cool topics for the writing side of my life. I hope you’ll pardon a bit of ‘rambling’ for this and the next few posts as I want to cover a lot of ground, and thus, the title.

This week’s topic: One of the best producers in the business went back to work after the holidays, only to be informed that his employer could no longer afford his services. While I am sure this is welcome news for some up and coming, hotshot newbie from market 247, this was bad news for my producer friend and even worse news for the station that, ‘could no longer afford his services.’

The good news for my producer friend is, within a couple of hours his employment situation was rectified in a very positive way. His time ‘on the beach’ was blessedly brief and his (nice sized) family in a major market won’t need to move. He now works from home, doing what he loves most. The only difference the kids will notice is that Daddy is home a lot more.

The real damage from this episode won’t be felt for several months yet, but it won’t be felt by my producer bud, it will be felt by the General Manager who let him go. Sadly, the GM will probably never connect this firing to his declining ratings. A) The firing and the ratings drop will be more than a few seconds apart and B) He truly does not understand the importance of the ‘right’ production. Oh, make no mistake, the ratings will suffer…I can almost guarantee it.

I had a much respected corporate numbers cruncher do some research for me into a radio station in New York, who’s PD had seen the light on the imaging side. For more than a year, this PD had insisted that the imaging be ‘bare bones’ imaging, without any special bells and whistles. No comedy, no lighthearted fun and for GOD’s sake, no lasers, explosions or hype. For that entire year, their ratings were basically in idle, somewhere in the lower middle of the pack of top 20 stations. From one book to the next, they could just never break out of the upper 3 to low 4 range. The imaging guy had been chafing to really go after it, but the PD insisted that that too much hype would hurt more than help.

Finally, after seeing another lackluster ratings period (and probably fearing job security), the PD gave the green light. What a difference one book makes. Jumping from the low 4 range to the upper 7 range was a shock…to everyone. Everyone except the imaging guy, that is. My numbers cruncher came to the conclusion that, ‘without materially changing anything else, getting the right, bright imaging on the air, lifted the station with nearly a 50% swing.’ There other factors of course, a radio station never operates in a vacuum, especially in the number one market, but his conclusion was clear: the right imaging over the wrong imaging could impact the ratings by 25% either way. That is some serious difference!

Knowing my producer friend’s work, I can assure you that anything this station puts on the air will undoubtedly be LESS than what went before. Six months to a year from now, their ratings will drop, probably not the full 25%, but they will go down.

A recent Nielsen study shows that of all the media, radio still has the highest penetration with over 90%. That’s more than television, certainly more than all print combined and WAY more than satellite and internet. So why are so many radio stations hurting right now? This is the first time, in the history of radio, that this business has not been ‘recession-proof.’ In every previous economic downturn, radio stations just kept chugging along, making money like they had a special license to print it. Advertisers knew that radio offered the best CPM (cost per thousand) AND the highest audience penetration, so what little money they had, came OUT of television and print and went directly to their local AM or FM outlet.

So what’s changed? In one word, ownership. By and large, that local AM or FM shop is no longer owned locally. Most stations, especially the ‘heritage’ stations are all owned by big corporations now, and with the new ownership came new rules. The radio business became less about radio and more about business. The bottom line is now the main motivator. Bean counters apply business metrics to everything. It’s a game of mathematics now, not a pursuit of creative communication. Many of the new upper management people think of producers like a cog in their machine and far too many are cutting corners in all the wrong places. They see someone who sits in a studio all day and plays with toys to make noise as an extravagance that they can’t afford. They don’t have a programming background, and by extension, don’t get that magic always comes into play at successful radio stations.

To be fair, I understand that a scorpion is a scorpion and will always be a scorpion. That doesn’t make the scorpion bad, it just makes it dangerous. Please understand that NOTHING I’ve said here is universal. I know a LOT of ‘suits’ who DO come from programming backgrounds and are being fairly successful at turning things around. My old company, iHeart Media, has pushed things back into the black and are really starting to turn up the heat again. But so many of the big companies are not. Every day I hear new rumors of Chapter 11 possibilities.

Sadly, middle-management people are still playing to the business models that were introduced when so many stations were gobbled up by a handful of companies. The result is a LOT of people who are creative and full of possibilities are selling shoes or pressing pants instead of pouring their individual magic into the brand of their radio station. Sure, there were a few people who had no business being in the radio business to start with, but somebody has thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

And so I end as I began...

The mother turned 'round for a soap off the rack.

She was only a moment but when she turned back

Her baby had gone, and in anguish she cried,

"Oh, where 'as my baby gone?" The angels replied:

– Mother’s Lament by Cream

Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker

This is my favorite ‘quirky’ song of all time and is on the Disraeli Gears album by Cream. While that dear old woman’s baby was “naught but an skellington,” who went down the drain, our baby was fat and happy…at least it used to be. Far too many of those babies have gone down the drain. It is time we stop that.


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