Tag Archives: Advertising Pie

What Do Radio Broadcasters & Almond Farmers Have In Common?

Last week, an article in The Atlantic titled “The Well Fixer’s Warning: The lesson that California never learns,” was a terrifying read about the water supply used to irrigate the almond orchards on the farms of Madera County. So many of the farm’s wells were coming up dry and the farmers were puzzled as to why water flowing out of their wells had been reduced to a trickle and were mostly producing sand.

Matt Angell is not only an almond farmer himself, but owns Madera Pumps, a company that drills wells and repairs well pumps. He knows that droughts, like the California sunshine go hand-in-hand, and as John Steinbeck wrote: “no one (forgets) the last drought faster than the farmer.”

Since the middle 1970s, almond farmers have persevered through at least five droughts and their solution to the problem was always the same – BUILD MORE DAMS.

BUILD MORE DAMS

Those three words stopped me cold. Who else thinks like this? Radio people, that’s who.

Today in America, there are now 26,076 radio stations on the air, 2,500 of these stations are broadcasting in HD which adds another 2,100 multicast radio channels to the mix. That’s about a 93% increase in the number of radio signals from when I started in high school.

The radio industry and almond farmers, have both felt that the way to grow is by adding more and more and more. Almond farmers added more acreage of almond trees and radio owners added more signals.

Aquifers

The dam reality was the San Joaquin River already had a half-a-dozen dams diverting its water, so the next solution to obtaining more water for almond irrigation was to drill down to the aquifers beneath the farmlands. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the farmers of Madera County to pump out the easily available ground water and see their wells coming up dry. As they were drilling deeper and deeper into the earth, a hidden lake beneath the farmlands was discovered in 2014. It was shocking to see it pumped dry in only seven years.

Angell noted that the snow on the mountain had melted two months earlier than “normal,” and the water level of the San Joaquin river was so low, it was now nothing more than a series of unconnected ponds as well as the wells – residential, business and farming – all over the community were running dry.

The reality is, the Madera County underground water table is one of the most over-tapped aquifers in the West, and all those wells had depleted the underground water source, causing the aquifer to collapse.

The Advertising Pie

It was before the COVID19 pandemic gripped our world, Gordon Borrell hosted a webinar back in early 2019 and told of how the media pie (the radio industry’s aquifer, if you will) is over-tapped.

To put things in perspective, Gordon shared how an over-populated media landscape is impacting local advertisers.

  • 1,300 daily newspapers, 6,500 weeklies
  • 4,700 printed directory books
  • 4,665 AM radio stations, 6,757 commercial FM radio stations
  • 1,760 Class A TV stations
  • More than 1,000 cable systems with local sales staffs
  • 660,000 podcasts were actively produced in 2018
  • 495 NEW TV shows were introduced last year in addition to what’s already on
  • PLUS, local ad sales are taking place on Facebook, Google and Amazon

Same Old Answer

Despite the fact that the water from the aquifer and river was being depleted by droughts, climate change and being over-tapped, the almond farmers’ answer was always the same, said Mark Angell, “Plant more almonds and pistachios. Plant more housing tracts on farmland. But the river isn’t the same. The aquifer isn’t the same.”

Listen to radio owners, and they will tell you they too need more and more radio signals in order to stay viable, despite the fact that the advertising pie is finite and media supported by advertising continues to expand exponentially.

“I used to use the word unprecedented to describe what we’re doing to the land,” said Angell, but “now I use the word biblical.” Is it any different for radio broadcasters?

The Solution

For the nut farmers of Madera County, the solution is a hard pill to swallow, it’s “to figure out a way to retire one million acres of the six million farmed, “otherwise, we’re looking at a race to the bottom,” said Angell.

For radio broadcasters, Gordon Borrell said the solution to the future of media expenditures would be a process of “thinning the herd.”

The way advertising buyers are responding to a world of media abundance, Borrell says, is by:

  • Decreasing the number of companies from which they buy advertising from 5 to 3.5, and
  • 90% of their media buys are being made with companies who can bundle traditional and digital advertising.

Killing the Golden Goose

Do you remember the Aesop fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs? Let me refresh your memory of this tale. It’s about a farmer that was poor. One day he makes a startling discovery when he finds a golden egg in the nest of his pet goose. Skeptical at first, he has the egg tested and finds that it is indeed made of pure gold. Even more amazing, each day this farmer awakes to find that his goose has laid another golden egg. In very short order, this poor farmer becomes fabulously wealthy. But then his wealth brings greed and impatience. No longer satisfied with just one golden egg per day, the farmer cuts open his goose to harvest all of its golden eggs at once only to find the goose is empty inside. With a now dead goose, there will be no more golden eggs laid.

In remembering this fable, it sounded so familiar to the world of radio broadcasting and almond farmers. Both possessed a wonderful “goose” that laid daily “golden eggs.”

Unfortunately for almond farmers, in wanting more, they are killing their water supply, and for broadcasters not wishing to wait for each day’s golden egg, cut open their goose beginning with the Telcom Act of 1996, that allowed them to own as many radio stations as they basically wished.

The moral of Aesop’s fable is if you focus only on the golden eggs and neglect the goose that lays them, you will soon be without the very asset that produces the golden eggs.

The radio industry’s quest for short-term returns, or results, took their free FCC licenses and ruined them by not maintaining the balance between the production of desired results and the production capacity of the asset.

Aesop’s fable is the very principle of effectiveness. It’s a natural law. Like gravity, you don’t have to believe in it or understand its principles, but you can never escape its effects.

Radio broadcasters probably saw the moral of the fable being the more geese you own, the more spots you add to the hour, the more effective your R.O.I. (Return On Investment) will be.

Almond farmers saw the moral of the fable as planting more trees, install more powerful pumps to withdraw more water and watch your R.O.I. grow.

But ironically, it is the principle of “Less Is More” that in the end rules the day.

To be truly effective, you need to maintain the balance of what is produced (golden eggs/revenue) and the producing asset (your goose/radio station/almond trees).

Everything in excess

is opposed to nature.

-Hippocrates

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Day of Reckoning

20There’s an old saying “Nothing lasts forever.” Do you remember flying on TWA or Pam Am? How about shopping at Woolworths? Broadcasters will remember names like Group W Westinghouse Broadcasting, or Taft Broadcasting, or Nationwide, or RKO General that would put the successful Bill Drake Top 40 format (with the non-stop innovations & promotions of 93-KHJ’s Ron Jacobs) in major cities across North America. They’re all now a memory.

In a time of limited radio signals, radio could control its inventory and increase stakeholder ROI by raising rates as it increased the size of its audience. That’s now a memory.

Next came the Local Marketing Agreement (LMA) to soak up all those Docket 80-90 FM signals that were squeezed into the FM band but found themselves economically challenged. More signals meant a new way to make more money. That’s now a memory.

LMAs were “training pants” for the Telcom Act of 1996 that would unleash a consolidation of radio and television ownership like the world had never seen. Companies would rush to acquire as many radio signals as they could as fast as they could. And do what with them? They would figure that out later was the common response. Owning more stations was a way to make more money, until it wasn’t. That’s now a memory.

You might have thought that would have sent a message that there are limits. It didn’t.

Today the game is translators. And the number of radio signals continues to grow, all seeking funding through advertising, just like every other form of media out there today.

So is the ad pie growing? Not according to Adam Levy at Motley Fool who saw advertising drop nearly 4 percent in the second quarter of 2015.

When the advertising pie isn’t getting bigger, two things usually happen: 1) budgets get cut and people lose their jobs and 2) more spots are added to the hour. Unfortunately, all through consolidation and the Great Recession radio companies have been doing both. They are like the Federal Reserve wondering what you do when you already have cut the interest rate to zero to stimulate the economy. Not a fun place to be.

Suggested Solutions

 Not to be all doom and gloom on you, I think there are some things that can be done to turn things around. The first thing is to focus on something and own it. Steve Jobs would put it this way “Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff.” The way Jobs took Apple from near extinction to the world’s most valuable company was by his relentless focus on creating a small number of simple and elegant products.

Seth Godin calls it finding and serving your tribe. Radio needs to give up the quest to be all things to all people and learn to be something some people can’t live without.

Some stations can be the national brand in town, but everyone can’t. Likewise if people can get what you do someplace else, then why do they need you? This is the secret of “less is more.”

Radio stations need to have the agility to make decisions on the front line. Top down management is out, front line management is in. Mary Berner, the new CEO of Cumulus gets it. She has been reported in the trades saying “Cumulus will rely less on top-down management and more on letting managers do the job they were hired for.”  She also understands that while IoT (Internet of Things) is the future, it’s not the place Cumulus needs to focus on today. It’s about changing the culture and the way the company operates first. Getting the programming right and improving sales of those radio programs next.

I remember when I starting working for Clear Channel and hired to turn things around in my market, the company had a big push on selling the web and developing that component. I told my sales manager after the conference call ended that was not going to be the case for us. First we needed to get the programming and radio sales on fire and then – and only then – would we begin tackling our web based program. It worked too.

The hardest thing sometimes is not doing things, but figuring out what to stop doing. Jobs was good at this at Apple. You need to invest some serious thought about what you need to stop doing in your radio property. Again, less IS more if done right.

And the last suggestion I have is directed at colleges and universities. We need to be focused on the business model of radio and putting more of a focus on the business side of radio and radio sales. Radio owners and operators I talk with aren’t clamoring for more DJs or news people like they are for more sales people and innovators that will create the next revenue stream for their property.

In the end, your audience size won’t matter if you don’t have a business model to monetize it.

 

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