Tag Archives: Cumulus

Radio & Traveling – Then & Now

Version 2Sue and I just returned from an eight-week, 11,175-mile cross country road trip across America traveling through 23-states. Seeing America from the car has been a Bucket List item for both of us. Our jobs have had us seeing this great land from the air; mine as a radio manager and educator/consultant, and Sue’s as a flight attendant.

Radio Then

Since my earliest days, traveling anywhere meant an opportunity to hear new sounds emanating from my radio. Every station had its own unique style and programming presentation.

I remember a trip to Millinocket, Maine that got me giggling, hearing the local newscaster struggling to pronounce a foreign country’s name or the names of their leaders. I remember hearing records that I’d never heard played on the radio before. It sounded like Maine.

Years later on a return trip to Millinocket, this radio station now aired mostly syndicated programming. It didn’t sound like Maine anymore.

Radio Now

A road trip Sue & I took to Key West, Florida last fall taught us that finding radio stations we would enjoy listening to was a real challenge. The variety of formats boiled down to mainly, R&B/Hip-Hop, Classic Rock, Country, Religious or Public Radio on FM and Sports or Conservative Talk Radio on AM.

But that wasn’t our biggest problem, cruising down the highway at 65-mph, it was when we found a station we enjoyed, it wouldn’t be more than 5-minutes before we found it being interfered with by another FM radio station making our original station virtually unlistenable.

So, before we drove out of our driveway in Virginia for our two-month long road trip we signed up for the two-month free trial of SiriusXM radio.

Community & Companionship

Dan Mason nailed it when he said radio is all about community and companionship. Take either away and you’ve lost what radio is all about.

Our road trip’s daily drives between destinations took place during the midday. Local radio stations we heard were all in full automation mode. Some were voice-tracked, many were not. They offered no companionship.

Pat St. John

However, when we pushed our SiriusXM button on the dashboard, we would hear the end of the Phlash Phelps morning show and four more hours of Pat St. John; ALL LIVE.Pat_st._john

They talked to us. They shared listener phone calls. We felt part of a large community called the United States. We heard about weather for where we were going next or weather for places we had just visited. We heard about other people’s travels and made notes about places we might want to visit.

We even learned from Pat a function that’s on our iPhones we didn’t know even existed, called “announce” that says the name of the person calling you. We both activated it on our iPhones at the next rest stop.

As a radio jingle lover, Pat St. John has a large variety of jingles he plays during his show. He even had his grandson on the program.

McDonalds or Burger King

Over our many miles, we saw lots of fast-food places. McDonalds and Burger Kings were everywhere. We didn’t need to wonder what the food was like at either of them, we knew. We basically avoided them and opted instead for a local restaurant.

And it made me realize that something similar had happened to radio.

I could turn on a station in any city, in any state, and in short order tell you whether it was iHeart or Cumulus. The Best Practices formatics were served up like fast-food. Consistent, reliable, predictable and automated or syndicated.

We even stopped in to visit some radio friends and their radio stations to take a tour. What we saw were empty studios and computer automation running each station.

Mount Rushmore

We’ve always wanted to see Mount Rushmore. It did not disappoint. But it also made me realize that the reason we both wanted to take this road trip adventure was to visit places, people and things that were one-of-a-kind.IMG_0836

We listened to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City. We rode the Hooterville Cannonball in Jamestown, California. We climbed aboard Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose” in McMinnville, Oregon (still the world’s largest amphibious aircraft). We went to Yellowstone, America’s first national park and walked around Devil’s Tower, America’s first national monument.

Everything on our list was something special, unique and one-of-a-kind.

Innovation

Touring the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, I couldn’t help but note some correlations between cars and radio.

The Ford Model T came along at the same time massive oil strikes were being hit in Texas; cheap cars and abundant cheap energy.

Radio was reborn after the introduction of television due to the invention of the transistor – that made radio very small and very portable – as well as its introduction in the automobile dashboard. It was a time when commuting from the suburbs to the city for work became the rage.

One innovation drives another.

Car Guys & Radio Guys

If you’re a car guy, you most likely want to make your car go faster.

If you’re a radio guy, you want your radio station to have more power.

Crosley got his WLW up to 500,000-watts (from his original 20-watt station) from 1934 to 1939.

It’s why AM broadcasters fought for and received power increases for their 250-watt Class C AM radio stations to broadcast with 1,000-watts full-time. What ultimately occurred was that the AM radio noise floor increased.

Now we see it happening again on FM with the drumbeat for Class C4 FM radio stations.

This too, won’t end well.

It also misses the point of what makes radio something people want to hear.

The Best Radio

Paul McLane just wrote the forward for latest edition of the textbook “The Radio Station.” In it he said “Radio is best when it engages, provokes, entertains, informs us.”

I quite agree with Paul, adding Dan Mason’s thought that radio is best when it serves a community and provides companionship.

In the end, if you were to ask me, “what does great radio sound like,” I’d have to say, “you know it when you hear it.”

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“Corporate FM”

corporate fmKansas City Filmmaker Kevin McKinney originally released his movie “Corporate FM” in 2012, but unless you lived near a community that was screening the film or attended a film festival where it was being shown, you probably never saw it. Or even heard of it.

Amazon Prime

After re-editing the film in 2015 to reflect updates and changes in commercial radio since 2012, McKinney decided it was time to let more people access the information he covered in the film and just released it on Amazon Prime. (Here’s the LINK ) “Corporate FM” explores the consolidation of radio after the Telcom Act of 1996 and how big corporations with the help of Wall Street and private equity firms swallowed up the radio industry in America.

February 1996

I remember the day that President Bill Clinton signed the Telcom Act of 1996 into law. Clinton signs Telcom Act of 1996It was supposed to provide competition between the phone companies and the cable companies with the goal to increase services and reduce prices to the consumer.

Inserted into the bill at the 11th hour were two paragraphs that would change the radio industry forever.

In the film, Robert McChesney, Professor of Communication Studies, University of Illinois points out that commercial media lobbyists, without a single public hearing or any public debate, would insert these paragraphs and open up the consolidation floodgates for radio/TV. Politicians would later say they didn’t know what they were voting for. Even President Clinton would say that he didn’t know that those two paragraphs had been added before he signed the bill into law.

Cumulus and Clear Channel

As the McKinney film told the story of the rise of Cumulus and Clear Channel, it reminded me of my time with both of those companies.

In Waterloo, Iowa I was running the #1, #2 and #3 radio stations. When Cumulus took them over, John Dickey showed up at the stations and proceeded to tell all of us gathered in the station’s conference room what our new logos would look like, what our new jingle packages would sound like, who our new station voice guys would be, how our playlist would be compiled, who are new consultants were etc. To say we were all stunned would be an understatement.

Then later when I was working for Clear Channel (after the Bain/Lee takeover, but before it became iHeartMedia) in Sussex, New Jersey, we received a survey from corporate asking us how local decisions were made about branding, marketing, promotions, music and the like. I assume a similar survey was sent to every market cluster inside Clear Channel.

When the results were tabulated at HQ, we then received directives that no longer would those types of decisions be made on the local level. Local radio had changed.

Local Bands

Growing up, local radio was a way for local bands to get exposure and grow their audience. “Corporate FM” tells the story of how Jewel became a national artist being discovered by local radio and played on-the-air in San Diego.

In fact, it was seeing a drop in attendance at live shows that got McKinney to wondering what was happening, and giving birth to his movie about the consolidation/corporatization of the radio industry.

I know a local band here in Winchester, Virginia “Sons of Liberty.” They play all over the Shenandoah Valley and beyond. They have a CD that Rob McKenzie of Fireworks Magazine spoke glowingly about. Where you won’t hear the “Sons of Liberty” music is on the radio.

Oh, they’ve been heard on an FM radio station (98 Rock) out of Harrisonburg, Virginia on their Sunday night “Wet Paint” show that starts at 11pm. But as “Corporate FM” points out it takes repetition to have an audience become familiar with anything, and for someone to decide they like it, or don’t. Radio used to provide that type of exposure and then monitor audience reaction to see if the record was a hit or a miss. (Remember features like “Champ & Challenger?”)

Sneak Preview

ABC Radio Networks used to air a feature hosted by WABC’s Chuck Leonard called “Sneak Preview.” The network would call affiliates of the ABC Contemporary Radio Network to get their hottest new song and then play it to a nationwide audience. I remember being at WBEC in Pittsfield, Massachusetts when we told Chuck that our hottest new song was “Tracy by The Cufflinks.” He told us he had a terrible time trying to find a copy of the song in New York City.  But Chuck Leonard did find it and it played over the ABC network to a national audience. That was how radio made the hits.

Fifty to Six

“Corporate FM” tells how in the 80s ninety percent of mass media in America was owned and controlled by about fifty different companies, but after the Telcom Act of 1996 it was down to just six corporations.

“Most radio studios are completely empty after 7pm and for the entire weekend.

They set the phone lines to “busy” so callers will believe that someone is there.”

-Slide shown in film

Big N Rich

The popular country recording artists “Big N Rich” addressed the FCC in Memphis, Tennessee. They told the commissioners that one person in a corporate office today can dictate what 35, 55, or 100 stations play.

“Let’s say an artist puts out a song with a political viewpoint and that corporate person says I don’t believe in that position so we’re not going to play that record (Dixie Chicks?). One guy can affect what 30 million people get to hear.

That’s censorship.”

-John Rich

Fatherly Advice

Dick Fatherly says “the broadcasters have become the victims, and the winners are – who do you think? -Goldman Sachs.”

Josh Kosman, who wrote the book “The Buyout of America” put it this way: “Private equity took the radio business that was doing pretty well and gutted it.”

Josh has studied how private equity has impacted all industries in America. He used a simple example to explain the difference between you or I buying a house and a private equity firm buying a business doing a leverage buyout (LBO).

When we buy a house, we put down say 30% as a down payment and then take out a mortgage for the 70% balance.

When private equity buys a radio station, they make a small down payment and then the radio station they’re buying takes on the debt for the balance, leaving the radio station with crushing new debt.

The private equity companies then charge management and other fees, making back their down payment money, and a whole lot more. So, it’s zero risk to them.

It reminds me of the guys on the Atlantic City Boardwalk who used to entice you to let them guess your weight and if they got it wrong you won a prize. The only way those guys lost is if you didn’t pay them to guess your weight. For if they got your weight right, they gave you nothing and if they got your weight wrong, they gave you a prize that was valued less than what you paid them to play the game.

“Financial deals allow the corporate owners to keep their stations after bankruptcy.

This prevents local owners from reviving local radio.”

-Slide shown in the film

For those who hold out hope that if/when the big corporate entities fail, and it will return radio to local operators once more, that slide should send a chill down your spine.

America’s bankruptcy laws now favor the debtor in the corporate world.

Conclusion

This is probably a film that many will miss and that’s unfortunate. It’s only a little over an hour in length. It’s well worth your time.

For this is a film not just about what happened to the radio industry but what is happening to our way of life, in industry after industry. This modus operandi is being repeated today.

The people in the film offer their ideas for making radio great again.

I won’t spoil that for you, so you’ll have to watch the film.

Some of the statements made by various participants have since been proven wrong from the time the film was shot. Some of the statements are also inaccurate in terms of how today’s FCC license renewals can be challenged.

In all fairness, many people are still believing that the way it was, is the way it still is. Only it isn’t. Those laws have been changed by corporate lobbyists too.

I hope you will watch the film “Corporate FM” and then post your comments here on DickTaylorBlog dot com.

Note: Don’t have Amazon Prime, you can rent this movie for $2.99

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The Winner Takes it ALL

108Everything old is new again. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase. “Everything old is new again” was the title of a song in the movie musical “All That Jazz.” Part of the lyrics to this Peter Allen/Carole Bayer Sager song include:

 

Don’t throw the pa-ast away
You might need it some rainy day
Dreams can come true again
When everything old is new again

I might fa-all in love wi-ith you again

VADs

While I haven’t heard anyone call them this yet, I may be the first, I’m sure in time they will be referred to in this way, Voice Activated Devices.

You probably better know them as Amazon’s Echo, Google Home or Apple’s HomePod.

Amazon was first into this territory followed by Google and now Apple (their device will be available later in 2017). Microsoft recently announced they have partnered with Harmon Kardon to put the MS VAD “Cortana” into a smart speaker system. Harmon Kardon is a division of Samsung.

Fred Jacobs blogged about them in a recent article titled “Are Voice Commands the New Hi-Fi?” (Hi-Fi was introduced with the 33-1/3 discs introduced by Columbia 69 years ago this month – June 20, 1948.) In his article, he quoted Spotify’s Ian Geller who said voice commands allow people to “engage with music in ways they haven’t since the Hi-Fi stereo system became available.”

Fred feels that these new VAD’s are a “true moment for the radio industry – a chance to bring radio back to homes in a big way.”

The Old That’s New Again Part

As I study these new gadgets, I see a problem for radio of its own making, branding.

The radio I grew up with was very creative and prolific at branding itself with its listeners. It had to be because of the way radio ratings were conducted, either by aided or unaided recall. Billboards, bumper stickers, TV ads, t-shirts, putting your call letters and frequency on just about everything, everywhere it could be seen.

From virtually the beginning burning your call letters into the brains of your listeners was paramount.

Consolidation and PPM (Personal People Meter) would take the need to brand – or so the new Wall Street stakeholders thought – away. Consolidation did this through many signals in the hands of a few operators and the need to cut costs. Arbitron’s (now Nielsen Audio) PPM device did it by recording “listening” even when the listener was totally unaware of where the music or talk programming was coming from.

The new Voice Activated Devices now require a person to KNOW exactly what it is they want to hear when they say the activation words, like “Hey Alexa” or “Hey Google” or “Hey Siri” followed by a specific request.

Unaided recall is back.

Wi-Fi, Hi-Fi & Being Connected

While these new VADs maybe the new “Hi-Fi” for a 21st Century world, they require Wi-Fi to connect to the internet and their respective clouds.

While many of us today take access to a broadband connection for granted as our parents did a landline telephone line, many people in America were not so fortunate. Poor people or people in very rural areas depended on assistance from the Federal government to connect them up to a wired telephone line because private companies found doing so very unprofitable. The Universal Service Fund (USF) was established to provide the funding. Everyone who had a phone would pay a tax to help wire America.

As the need for internet broadband became as necessary in a 21st Century world as a phone line did in the 20th Century, the tax would continue to provide this telecommunications service in the United States.

To read about all of this more detail, click here

Various Ways to Listen

Public Radio in America is leading the way with directing people with the many ways they can be heard. A good example is WBAA AM & FM from Purdue University. Their “How To Listen” tab on their website informs the listener how to listen to their stations over-the-air, streaming online, via their App or via a Voice Activated Device.

This last VAD page also tells listeners how to listen to NPR One using voice commands, such as “Alexa, play NPR One.”

BRANDING Your Radio Station is IMPORTANT

Using a VAD is a return to the days of unaided recall for the radio industry. The need to brand your radio station is critical in a Voice Activated Device world.

How is your KISS, FROG, HOG, JACK etc. different than other such brands all over the world? How will your VAD know which one you want to hear?

Might the return of unique and one-of-a-kind FCC assigned call letters come back into fashion?

Coleman Insights just released a study on Public Radio that shocked programmers with the fact that fewer than one in four radio users can call to mind any Public Radio station.

It’s a Winner Take All World

When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers is an old African proverb. It means that the weak get hurt in conflicts between the powerful.

Today, the powerful are Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple and Samsung. Each one having their own voice assistant it hopes will dominate the field.

Our 21st Century technology is altering the structure of competition in America as never before. It encourages more monopolies, a “Winner Take All” world.

Natural monopolies are not new. Utilities are an example, but they were heavily regulated. The natural monopolies created by the internet crush competition and that could negatively impact the American economy. Internet innovation moves fast, the Federal government moves very slowly and regulation won’t stop them from occurring.

You can’t order from Amazon on Google Home. You can’t access your favorite iTunes podcasts on Amazon’s Echo. Each device requires a subscription to their music library, unless you request over-the-air radio streamed into your VAD.

War Chests

Apple as of May 2017 had cash reserves of $256 BILLION. In fact, Apple, Microsoft and Google own 23% of all U.S. corporate cash outside the finance sector according to Moody’s.

iHeartMedia is still wrestling with over $20 BILLION of debt. And Cumulus maybe even worse off.

Their challenges are not those of the entire radio industry and money is not always the determining factor in innovation. A perfect example is how the Wright brothers beat Samuel Pierpoint Langley in the race to create powered controllable flight. Langley had the financial support of the United States government and failed while the Wright brothers succeeded using their own resources from their bike shop.

Crisis

The Chinese language uses two symbols to represent the word crisis. One symbol means “danger” and the other means “opportunity.” 109Radio has been here many times in it’s almost 100-year history before.

Smart operators are already speeding down the path of opportunity.

Are you one of them?

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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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