For too many years, I've watched radio slowly kill itself. It hurt me. Though I may not work in radio full time, I know many people that do; many more that did, until budget cuts put them on the beach.
On the beach is one of the most feared terms radio people use. It means that you no longer have a job and are looking for a new one. Sometimes a job is because the ratings stink. Sometimes a job is lost corporate bean counters deem it necessary. Necessary, right, no one is essential, except bean counters. Are you kidding me?
Is it necessary to fire an entire staff slowly, over time, because they make too much money? That's exactly what happened to WLTW-FM in New York City. Over two years, the station fired of all its long time air personalities. I'm talking about people who worked there for over twenty years, in some cases.
I mentioned Robin Taylor, in one another column. Robin did overnights at WLTW-F.M. When she passed away, the station did not promote anyone, from within, to replace her. Instead, WLTW-FM hired Victor Sosa from Sirius Satellite Radio; that was 2003.
I speculate that they brought in an outsider to save money. Instead of paying some in excess of $100,000 a year, I guess they started Victor at $60,000. Again, this is only a guess, but at least a savings of $40,000 a year.
The next casualty of budget cuts was Steve Roy. He did PM Drive, but the station released him in December 2005. How lousy is that, not having your contract renewed during the holiday season?
The next year, during November 2006, the contracts of morning host Bill Buchner and "Lite at Nite" host, JJ Kennedy, weren't renewed. Firing before Christmas is "Radio Timing" or, alternatively, "Post Office Timing."
Fast forward to 2007: late morning air personality, Al Bernstein, does not have his contract renewed, again in November. WLTW-FM releases Mid-Day air personality, Valerie Smaldone, in December.
There's an alarming pattern here. WLTW-FM took apart a heritage radio station, slowly, piece by piece, saving around $40,000 per year per person. Again, the amount is reasoned speculation.
Here's the truly sad part. Releasing all those personalities did not make one bit of difference in the stations ratings or advertising revenue, that is, billings. WLTW-FM remains a background music station, which any office can safely play without worrying about offensive songs or language.
The point to this story is simple...air personalities can make a difference if they are allowed to actually perform, and let their personalities come through. Anyone with a voice can read a liner card, tell the time and announce the weather. Most casual listeners don't notice the voice in between the songs or reading the commercials, and that needs to change.
Now, you're asking, "Matt, how can this be changed?"
First, get rid of the highly paid consultants that do nothing other than suggest new music and quote research resullts, which are likely cooked to please the lcient. To me, most consultants are frustrated program directors (PD), who couldn't find a new job. Going forward, we'll call them vampires because they suck the lifeblood out of the Program Directors they work with. Tim Byrd calls a certain consultant "Satan" because of his evil intent.
The vampires "suggest" new music to be played. Isn't that the job of the music director? They help to screen and hire new air talent? Isn't that the PDs job? Wait, the music director (MD) and PD are too busy running multiple stations because of all the budget cuts!
The next problem is corporate bean counters, the accountants in the main office that have never seen the inside of any of the stations they are affecting. I'd like to see them in a studio trying to do a live shift! We'll call them "beanies."
Beanies are more concerned with profit and loss, depreciation and the cost of business than what the actual on air product sounds like. Don't they realize that each part of the equation must work together to equal 100%?
Part of the budget cuts is letting live, on air staff go and replacing them with "voice tracking." For those of you who live in the woods and have no clue what I'm talking about, listen up.
Voice tracking is that dark, little secret radio stations don't want listeners to know about. A DJ from another station in the building, or another city or state records his voice into the computer system, reading from that stations log what he is supposed to do. The clue that a shift is voice tracked is the lack of time checks and weather reports. How is a show, recorded the day before supposed to be current with that kind of information?
These imported DJs usually don't make personal appearance, or get involved with community events. This effects building any sort of relationship with the audience.
I have a friend in Florida. He did voice tracks for a rock radio station and paid $25 per shift. To earn his $25, he had to drive two hours round trip from his home to the station and was expected to attend meetings at the station as well. Are you kidding me? He would cut a week's worth of shows in one day, taking about 1 hour for each 4-5 hour show. That's $125 for a full week's worth of shows. A good full time DJ should make $60K minimum in a major market such as Miami, which is $1153 a week. Again, the beanies win.
The late Jackson Armstrong once told me about when he voice tracked shows for WKBW-AM in Buffalo, New York. He treated it as if he was doing it live. If he didn't like a certain track, if it wasn't perfect, he would do it again. That is the sign of a true professional; make it perfect, make it sound as if you are truly live on the air.
Here are my suggestions to resuscitate radio.
Lock the beanies in a room and play Marcy's Top 10 List of One Hit Wonders, repeatedly, until they agree to re-do the station budgets and include money for live personalities 24/7, contests and events.
Kill the vampires, only kidding, sort of, fire all the consultants and use the money saved there to hire Program and Music Directors for each station in the building. Imagine that, PDs and MDs actually being able to do their jobs without a vampire wanting to bite them all the time.
Open the microphone and let the personalities do what they were hired to do; entertain the audience. Let them build a relationship with them, put the listeners on the air actually making a request that can be played, not a song that is just coming up in the rotation.
Hire a Promotion Director that can build an audience by having the station involved in events. Do live remotes and give out lots of station logo clothing and stickers. People love that stuff! Who doesn't like a free t-shirt or baseball cap? Give them window stickers, and it's like having hundreds, even thousands of station vehicles on the road. That is free advertising!
Give away honest prizes, which people want. Promote a concert coming to the arena near you and give away tickets, meet and greets, and VIP treatment. Oh, and don't forget to give away lots and much cash
Keep the music fresh and relevant. Did you know that supermarkets rotate their products on a daily/weekly basis, moving the older merchandise to the front so it sells out before they put out the new stuff? Do the same with the music. Rotate it more frequently; keep listener fatigue and boredom to a minimum. If you keep playing the same exact 400 songs day after day, month after month, people will get bored and tune out. Even with Selector, it only moves the songs to different times and places in the rotation. Let the MD add, delete and rotate music on a weekly basis. Listen to the audience and play their requests.
Don't ignore new media such as the stations own website, and social networking sites. Embrace them, and encourage listeners and personalities to interact with each other. Offer free station stuff for taking station surveys, trying out new music, and joining a listener club. Most important, keep the website updated, and don't let it get stale. Create a group on Facebook, or the social network site of station choice, and maintain it.
Since the listeners all have music players of some type, partner with a music download site such as Amazon or iTunes and give them special, limited time offers for new music that the format offers. Have a special link that features the station logo as well if possible that goes directly to your download page.
Be involved in the community by sponsoring events that matter. Work with the local blood banks for blood drives, and the US Marines when they do Toys for Tots during the holiday season. If it gives the station good publicity, it pays to be involved.
Go forward by going back. Huh? Some of the best radio happened during the 1970's. Listen to that era, no matter what format and use what worked then, update it and use it again now. Make radio compelling for the listener, make them want to listen to your station all the time, and tell all their friends about it. Don't ignore your station personalities, embrace them and let the audience embrace them as well. Give them a reason for living!
If one General Manager, Operations Manager or Program Director reads this and nod their heads as they read this, I've done my job. If they agree with anything, and change anything, I'd be very happy. If I hear the DJs applaud and get more jobs, I'd be very happy.
The satisfaction in a job well done goes beyond words; now, let's go hunt vampires.
Matt Seinberg lives on Long Island, a few minutes east of New York City. He looks at everything around him and notices much. Somewhat less cynical than dyed in the wool New Yorkers, Seinberg believes those who don't see what he does like reading about what he sees and what it means to him. Seinberg columns revel in the silly little things of life and laughter as well as much well-directed anger at inept, foolish public officials. Mostly, Seinberg writes for those who laugh easily at their own foibles as well as those of others.
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