Tag Archives: computers

Automation Killed the Radio Star

BugglesRemember when the rock group, The Buggles, introduced a new cable TV channel, MTV (Music Television) with the song “Video Killed the Radio Star?” That was August 1, 1981. Here’s how Mark Goodman introduced the channel over 37-years ago. CLICK HERE 

What Killed MTV?

By the early 90s, MTV was looking to boost its audience ratings and introduced a trivia game show called “Remote Control.” It attracted more viewers than its music videos, so MTV created “The Real World” in 1992, television’s first unscripted reality show.

These new programs were attracting a new generation to MTV and also dooming the channel’s original concept of 24/7 music videos.

So, MTV didn’t kill the radio star, but something else did.

Consolidation, Computers and Cash

Ironically, it would be the radio industry itself that would kill the radio stars. Those talented men and women that made a couple of turntables, a few cart machines and a microphone work together and created real magic. What many liked to call radio’s “theater of the mind.”

After the passage of the Telcom Act of 1996, a massive and swift consolidation of the radio industry took place. Radio was very attractive to Wall Street due to its fat bottom line and year-over-year revenue growth.

They say you make money in radio station ownership at the time you buy the station, not when you sell it. In other words, the die is cast at the closing of the purchase. Consolidators were so eager to buy up radio stations, they over-paid. iHeartMedia and Cumulus, two of the country’s largest radio owners are poster children for this practice as they work their way out of bankruptcy.

In an attempt to mitigate this problem, computers and voice tracking were introduced across these radio station empires allowing them to drastically reduce their air staffs. The very people that were the bridge to the listeners and advertisers were the first to go.

All in the name of sending more cash to the bottom line and paying down crippling debt.

What Radio Stations Promoted BEFORE Consolidation

WHDH Radio PersonalitiesRadio used to really promote its greatest asset, its radio talent. WHDH in Boston promoted itself as having “New England’s Finest Radio Entertainment 24 Hours Every Day!” The “Big 5 on 85” print ad featured Jess Cain, Fred B. Cole, Hank Forbes, Bob Clayton and Norm Nathan, as their air staff, and never mentions what kind of music they play, or news they featured or anything else the radio station did. WHDH was not alone in doing this. Every radio station promoted its talent line-up. Radio air talent WAS the reason people listened.

George Johns recently wrote that when he bought his first radio station (K103 in Portland, OR) that he knew he had to have Craig Walker as his morning man. Unfortunately, Craig was already on the air in Portland at the #1 radio station, KGW. Geo pitched Craig a job with K103 for more money and said he was willing to wait out his one-year noncompete contract to get him. George Johns said his financial partners thought the deal was too expensive and so Geo took out a mortgage on his Coronado, California home to guarantee the money personally.

Did George Johns gamble pay off? Yes. On day one. Craig Walker premiered at #1.

Can you feel the love radio once had for its air talent?

Non-Competes

Which brings up another radio industry problem, the non-compete contract. Have they hurt the radio industry’s growth and innovation?

Boston’s Route 128 corridor used to be the center of technology in the 60s and 70s. In the 1990s, California’s Silicon Valley took over that title from Massachusetts.

Why did Boston’s tech companies lose to those in the Silicon Valley?

Boston was a collection of high tech companies, like Wang, DEC and Data General competing against one another. They kept everything in-house and were vertically integrated. They had employee non-compete contracts. If you left your firm, you were looked upon with great disdain.

Silicon Valley, on the other hand, built an ecosystem. They shared everything. People were free to move between companies, and did. And everyone was still considered part of the family.

Value Chains versus Ecosystems

The radio industry operates like a value chain. Radio’s big consolidators are driven by efficiencies.

Accenture Strategy published a study that found that ecosystems are a “cornerstone” of future growth in a 21st Century world, a way to increase revenue. Ecosystem companies thrive on making connections, lots and lots of them.

The broadcast industry has pushed away from so many chances to collaborate and in so doing lost a competitive advantage.

What is Radio’s Most Valuable Asset Feeling?

Don Anthony’s Morning Show Boot Camp (MSBC30) collaborated with Jacobs Media Strategies to produce the first ever “Air Talent Questionnaire: How Radio DJs View Their Industry.” Some of the takeaways were disheartening to hear. Such as:

  • Most of the shifts where DJs got their first jobs are disappearing

  • Many DJs are not air checked and that lack of attention appears to impact attitude

  • Many DJs have feelings of angst & insecurity; many others are struggling financially

If radio connects with listeners through its air talent, then just these three items ought to give every radio station operator pause.

How to Win the Triple Crown

Diane Lane with Secretariat

I just watched the movie “Secretariat.” In 1973, Big Red, as he was nick named, became the first Triple Crown winner in 25-years, at a time when many thought there would never be another. “His record-breaking victory in the Belmont Stakes, which he won by 31 lengths, is widely regarded as one of the greatest races of all time,” writes Wikipedia.

What struck me, was what Secretariat had, that the other horses did not, a loving caretaker, a loving trainer, a loving jockey and most of all, a loving owner. Big Red was surrounded by people who genuinely loved and believed in him.

Great radio stations are filled with people like that.

I’ve always believed that what happened in the halls of my radio stations were transmitted out, over-the-air, to the listener. We transmitted so much more than just the music we played, the news we delivered, and the entertainment we provided. We transmitted an intangible spirit that was contagious and attracted loyal listeners.

And we do that when we love, appreciate and take care of our most valuable radio asset, our air talent.

32 Comments

Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio, Sales

Radio is Going to HAL

22You remember HAL? The HAL 9000 is a fictional character from Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series. HAL’s name stood for Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer. HAL was the future of artificial intelligence. HAL always spoke in a soft, calm voice and in a conversational manner. HAL was born in the 90s according to Clarke.

I remember computerizing my radio station’s traffic and billing system around that same time. Computers would quickly invade every part of my radio station operations. It was scary. I remember looking at that computer box and thinking, if that darn thing “dies” there goes the whole enchilada. It wasn’t like losing a phonograph needle or a cart machine or a CD player. Computers changed the game to an all or nothing model. Computers also introduced another concept foreign to radio broadcasters, planned replacement schedules while they were still fully operational. Radio always used to run every piece of equipment until it could run no more. But you couldn’t play that game with computers.

More Dead Air

Programming great, George Johns, recently posted this thought on his blog: “Is it just me or are there a lot more pauses on the radio now than there was when we were using carts.”   And I wrote back to Geo that I noticed the same thing. I figured it was because today, the people charged with running radio stations are not listening to them. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. They are busy – very busy – multi-tasking.

When computers were introduced into radio, I thought it would be great because it would allow air talent to spend more time working on show prep, interacting with the listeners and being focused on their show and not about cuing up records, pulling carts etc. For small market radio stations, it meant that air talent would have an engineer just like the big city radio stations had always had for their air talent. But that’s not what happened.

The radio industry had a different idea in mind. Computers would allow air talent to do more.

After the Telcom Act of 1996, the radio industry began to rapidly consolidate. General Managers became Market Managers. (GMs usually were charged with overseeing an AM/FM broadcast property. MMs would oversee multiple AMs, FMs and in many cases, multiple markets of AMs & FMs.) Computers were quickly seen as a way to do more with less. More work with less people that is.

Multi-tasking Kills Your Brain

Air personalities now could be on multiple radio stations at the same time. They could multi-task. The unfortunate part of this is research now shows that multi-tasking will kill your brain. Turns out our brains were not built to multi-task.

MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller quoted in Inc. magazine says that our brains are “not wired to multi-task well and when people think they are multi-tasking, they are actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.” This constant switching actually produces bad brain habits. Worse, multi-tasking actually lowers your work quality and your efficiency. It actually lowers a person’s IQ like if you were to skip sleeping or use drugs. So if you wonder why today’s air talent isn’t connecting with listeners like they used to, it really isn’t their fault. The deck has been stacked against them by an industry that is using computers and voice tracking to enable their air talent to multi-task. Multi-tasking is not a skill to add to resume. It’s a bad habit to quit doing.

Computers Change College Radio

Erik O’Brien wrote in an article in Radio Survivor about how automation was introduced into his college radio station and how it changed the way college radio was now done and not for the better in his opinion.

KUTE adopted the ENCO DAD radio automation software. What had been a college radio station comprised of student radio enthusiasts, experimenting, having fun – sometimes producing radio greatness and sometimes not – would turn into a more “professional” operation through the use of computerized software. A radio station that had live radio personalities around the clock could now operate without any DJs.

Everything that goes on the air goes through DAD (Digital Audio Delivery). If it’s not in the computer, it won’t go on-the-air. This standardization now allowed for KUTE to begin monetizing their programming. KUTE had an AM signal, licensed by the FCC, but when the transmitter broke down and there was no money to repair it, it became an online only station. Now it was not subject to FCC rules that embraced a community-driven model of radio. It also could now support advertising that could be scheduled and aired that its non-commercial FCC license did not allow.

The new computerized system meant the station was now stable and standardized and predictable. Except when the computer loaded programs didn’t air and other operator errors would plague the station’s on-air sound. What used to be a fun college experience now was a stressful chore.

The Bottom Line

What it all comes down to, whether we’re talking about college radio or commercial radio, is what value are we offering to our listeners by the technology we employ? What do we want the listener experience to be? If we use technology to allow our air talent to be more focused on the station’s mission, radio will be great but if we use it in other ways, probably not.

8 Comments

Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio, Sales, Uncategorized

The Limitations of a Spreadsheet

This is probably going to make me sound ancient, but I remember doing my radio station budget with a calculator, a #2 pencil and a Big Pink eraser. I wasn’t alone; everyone did their budgets this way once upon a time.

In those early days of computers entering the radio station, the first department I remember computerizing was the traffic department. Oh, I so remember our doing that transition.

We were going into our first holiday weekend, that time when traffic needs to prepare five traffic logs for each radio station to get through a three-day weekend. What was supposed to make us fast and efficient saw us spending time going into Saturday to get the logs done. I remember the look on my traffic director’s face. It was one of those “are you going to make me do this again” kinds of looks. (I did)

Computers weren’t really all that fast in those early days, but the promise was clearly there that this would be a better way over time.

Seeing budget time coming up, I said to my business manager, let’s take a course at the local community college in Excel and do our budget this year on a computer. She loved the idea and the two of us went back to school to learn how to use Excel spreadsheets.

We cranked out our first budget and it was amazing. It was clean, easily read and best of all it showed that we were going to have a great year for the company.

Everything was great, until my boss, one of the two owners of the group showed up to review my budget. He was NOT impressed that we had computerized the process. He basically said I don’t care how it looks or what it says, but is it right. He then proceeded to take a calculator out of his pocket and crunch the numbers. Very quickly he found all kinds of errors.

Color me embarrassed.

The bad news was we hadn’t mastered the Excel spreadsheet in our first attempt doing our station budget on this computer program. The good news was we were able to fix all the problems and hand my boss a revised budget for him to take back on the plane to the home office.

The following year, the home office announced that all radio stations in the group were to do their station budget on Excel.

Spreadsheet programs, as it turns out, can allow us to manage a lot of numbers and monitor what’s going on in our businesses. They are invaluable, but not omniscient.

Results can’t be engineered. Just simply knowing the inputs doesn’t allow one to always accurately predict the outputs.

It was Benoit Mandelbrot who first said that economic analysts were too dependent on “Joseph effects” which means things happen in a continuous and predictable model and turning a blind eye to “Noah effects” which creates chaos and completely destroys those same models.

Another way of saying it is that when something doesn’t fit your nice little model, just ignore it. That’s never been a solid plan. It’s why people don’t often see stock market crashes coming or innovations like the iPhone, the Internet and WiFi, but these things always happen and when they do they steer the course of history.

Remember the financial crisis of 2008? Mandelbrot understood how things like this happened. (Noah effects)

In the world of radio today, we have BEATS 1, Pandora, Spotify and others. Over-the-air broadcasters did not see these “Noah effects” on their data driven and ROI focused spreadsheets. They were living in “Joseph world.”

In his new book “Team of Teams” General Stanley McChrystal tells the story of when he took over Special Forces in Iraq. Specials Forces was winning every battle but America was losing the war. McChrystal learned that the problem wasn’t that his teams weren’t doing their jobs right but that they weren’t doing the right jobs.

McChrystal says “In complex environments, resilience often spells success, while even the most brilliantly engineered fixed solutions are often insufficient or counterproductive.” For many radio companies the problem isn’t that they’re not performing to plan, but that the plan itself is flawed. It often is based on assumptions that don’t hold true in every radio market the company operates in.

The answer to this problem is to hire great leaders and let them lead.

3 Comments

Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio