Sunday, July 26, 2009

Radio: Uncoventional

Years ago I was on some long-forgotten panel at a long-forgotten convention just days after the 1996 Telecommunications Bill was signed into law.

At the time, few knew whether their company would be acquiring, be acquired or eventually both.

In radio, we had lived by federally mandated regulations, which limited the number of stations a company could own in a market and in total. Before deregulation, barring a non-compete, one could cross the street to a rival station or move to another market, which could also mean leaving one employer for another. After deregulation, chances are the company you were leaving would end up owning the station across the street.

We were doing our best to feel optimistic about the impending change.

Someone in the audience asked me if I felt it the radio revisions would help or hurt the industry.

I honestly didn’t know, so I quoted Gandhi – “The future depends on what we do in the present.”

Later, I ran into the person who asked the question. She worked at a Triple A station in Vermont. She told me that my answer was a cop out. I told her it was the most honest answer I could offer given the fact that I wasn’t sure about my future or anyone else's.

Well, almost everyone. It was obvious, even back then, that the true winners were the ones unloading their stations for obscene multiples.

It wasn’t long before the radio industry devolved into decadence.

Decadence means losing one’s desire for new quests. It doesn’t mean that you no longer want to survive. You want to – but only by maintaining the status quo with the help of smoke and mirrors.

The small group of surviving CEOs became broadcasting’s boldfacers – the very identity of the companies they ran.

Remember the decadent go-go radio years after deregulation when the surviving CEOs would rush to get their deals together in time to make their latest announcement at one of the NAB convos – and do double-duty as rock star for a day on CNBC?

It was all about who had the biggest and bad-assed deal at the convention. It was sport.

How can I put it politely? The winner was the one that swallowed the most Extenze pills?

And who could forget Randy Michaels, back for that brief microsecond – at least it seems like that in retrospect – when he was CEO of Clear Channel Radio.

He was the guy the wannabees lived through vicariously. He’d get the most expensive suite, hold court with his posse, strippers, and hangers-on and pull the most outrageous stunts and food fights. He was Bluto Blutarsky with Lowry Mays’ credit card.

Remember the 1999 Radio and Records convention in L.A. when he made his grand entrance on a mobile throne, carried by four muscular “slaves?” He was attempting to recreate a Richard Burton scene from Cleopatra – even though he best resembled Elizabeth Taylor after one of her eating binges. Don’t believe me? There’s video. Click here. Or wait. It may be on YouTube in a few days.

(This is not to be confused with another radio convention where Michaels showed up in his boxer shorts, armed with a Super Soaker water gun.)

Last week in Tom Taylor’s Radio-Info, Fig Media president Bill Figinshu suggested rethinking and restructuring future radio conventions. I couldn’t agree more. It was in response to the meager attendance at this year’s Conclave convo in Minneapolis. He said, “The days of PDs, GMs, and high profile personalities jetting into a city for a long weekend of networking, panels, vendor booths, and yes, an occasional cocktail, are over.” Fig cited costs and the lack of available time most in radio have to attend these bloated functions. In their place, Fig suggested regional driving accessible, low-cost confabs in less expensive cities.

Everyone I talked to that attended the Conclave had the same comments. It’s supposed to be about educational training for radio industry, which in these modern times reads like an oxymoron.

What kind of education are we talking about here? How to build the next generation Prophet System? Creative voice-tracking? New opportunities in HD Radio? Come on.

Did you hear the spin Tom Kay, the executive director of the Conclave put on this year’s event?

He told Tom Taylor, “Our mission is education. When we started out 34 years ago, it was our goal to teach any and all who would come to us expecting to learn. Five people. Fifty. Five hundred. It made no difference.”

Well, five, fifty, five hundred – it made no difference? That’s the same kind of math that got the radio industry in the tormented mess they’re in.

The best line that came out of the Conclave was credited to one of the few GMs that attended.

After RAB head Jeff Haley’s stiff upper lip speech that went nowhere, the GM said to those sitting around him, “Radio can’t fold….because, well, it can’t. Can it?”.

Let’s tell it like it is. The Conclave was all fun and games when the labels picked up the tab. They’d even throw in a free Smashing Pumpkins concert or some reasonable facsimile on top of covering most of the costs. Now the long marriage between radio and records is estranged – maybe permanently. And, face it, no one else is going to pick up the tab the way the labels did when radio airplay could be translated into charts its sales people could take to retail outlets.

Like Bob Dylan sang, “when you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose.”

At least the other conventions – whether it was Billboard/Monitor, R&R, Bobby Poe or Jack the Rapper - it was made it brutally clear and honest – we were all in a for-profit business to make money. Period.

Bob Sillerman said it best, “Have fun, make money. Have fun making money.”

The very real problem is that we have legit businesses from radio syndicators to manufacturers who now have to find alternatives to these convos to promote and market their services and wares to decision makers. R&R and most of the tip sheets are gone. The industry can’t afford conventions – and no third party – legit or not - is going to pay anyone’s way.

But I think we need one more big, badass, schmooze-a-thon shebang – and it ought to be this September’s NAB Radio Show.

Fumbles is now nothing more than a historical asterisk. He’s like that third vocalist in Van Halen. I’m in the business and I can’t even remember him. I hear that no one at the NAB is even allowed to utter David Rehr's name at this year’s event. Even his nickname is prohibited.

Since we don’t have Fumbles to kick around anymore, and no one at the NAB is sure of who's leading what, let’s just go for it.

I think the theme ought to be “Radio - That’s Entertainment!

Instead of nametags, attendees should wear black armbands just like athletes do after a member of the team dies.

I’m sure we can come up with some creative ways to make this NAB Radio Show a standout.

Let’s start with the HD Radio Multicast Award Ceremony. Those duped into HD Radio lost their sense of humor years ago, so a pre-recorded laugh track will be installed via Prophet System to insure that all proper lines get the chortles deserved (like the one about the HD Radio Alliance’s new fall campaign).

The best one will be the group heads panel, featuring the usual cast of radio CEOs. Imagine number one John Hogan (he knows he’s number one – even if he doesn’t know what he’s number one of), Lew Dickey (who watched The Prisoner TV series one too many times as a young lad – and fancies himself as his own number one), and Farid Suleman (who has developed a distaste for anything that ticks – including his Rolex – and he can’t get that “Final Countdown” song out of his head), just to name a few, showing up for a panel discussion – and leaning that it’s not a panel they’re on. It’s a group intervention - and from there, it's straight to radio rehab.

The exhibitor floor should be done in a Euro-Asian theme since they’re the only operators that can afford to buy any audio processing equipment for their stations.

It’s regrettable that no one’s invented a combination robo-engineer and icemaker that can keep the HD Transmitter cooled in time for this year’s NAB Radio Show.

Oh, let’s not forget the coattail riding and self-proclaimed inventor-of-classic-rock-radio Fred Jacobs and his Jacobs Media Summit, which he’s managed to embed in the NAB convo. He likes to call it “a great fit.” Those who know Jacobs rhyme it something slightly different. And those who know the classic rock format are aware that it was Dick Hungate who did the format first - long before Freddie flew to Philly to monitor it.

You have to question why Jacobs wants to be so visible at this time. Is it pure ego? Those interested in kicking tires around the radio industry in advance of the fire sales are already making notes of those who have been controlling the medium for the past decade. Are these the people and organizations you want running the business when it begins its turn around? Just asking.

Maybe Fred’s suffering from the moth-to-a-flame Al Sharpton klieg light disease.

We won’t tell him ahead of time but when we wheel Fred in he'll be hooked up to a lie detector that’ll buzz wildly and deliver a zapping taser shock every time one is told.

Now, that’s entertainment.


Anonymous said...

I remember those days. We used to call it Men behaving. They knew how to spend other people's money better than they knew how to run the radio business. You are right about the smartest ones getting out of the business. They have made money on their money while those investing in the bozos who have run radio for the past decade have lost everything. I cannot wait for the fire sales.

Anonymous said...

I want the pay-per-view rights. This sounds like the best NAB Radio Show ever. Could we feed the CEOs to the lions when it's all over. It's a fitting encore.

Anonymous said...

i remember quite well those years of excess from the big boys. randy may have had the most stations but mel had all the waterfront properties as he liked to call them. randy was never taken as seriously as mel and his childish attitude just made matters worse. mel was the smart one. he made his money, built his influence and left sumner redstone in the lurch. randy got fired & hasnt been the same since.

Anonymous said...

The fire sales cannot happen fast enough. The question is will they happen too late? I think internet radio is in a good position to seize control of listening just like FM overtook AM in the mid seventies. This is forty years later. Time for another medium change. The same holds true for conventional television. HD TV was not the answer. On line is.

Anonymous said...

I want a front row seat for Lew Dickey's demise. Your Prisoner comment makes sense in the way he is monitoring sales offices via Skype. He has turned into a paranoid lunatic. Papa Dickey should have known better than to put the trust of stations under Lew baby's control. Get your auction card ready.

Anonymous said...

Maybe Fred Jacobs can sell us an App to his tasering?

Anonymous said...

I have wondered about the validity of the Conclave for years. The Conclave was originally started as a tie-in to an independent record promotion company and somehow managed to get a non-profit or not for profit status for Conclave. I never really thought about the educational aspect in terms of what money goes to whom and for what. I think an accounting of what the Conclave really does is in order. There are a lot of these little scams throughout the record industry to shield dollars. My brother works for the IRS and specializes in uncovering them.

Anonymous said...

I am old enough to remember those crazy R&R conventions in Dallas and other places where it took a half hour to get an elevator and the record company suites were packed with expensive food and drink. I'm young enough to remember when as one comment person put it "men behaving badly" took over the NAB and its suites. We called those CEOs the swingin' dix because that's how they acted. Your illustration was politically correct. The message got through. The radio CEOs made any PD, MD from those R&R days look like rank amateurs. These guys were just plain showing off and one upping each other from food and drink to call girls and strippers. I agree with you and Fig that the convention days are over. Sorry, kids. You really didn't miss anything from those days except that we did enjoy our jobs back then because we were allowed to be creative.

Anonymous said...

These jokers lived high off the hog on shareholder's money. Overpaid by multimillions for stations. Then when the bottom fell out they cut costs, cut people and destroyed the very element that brings listeners to radio. They are not any different than AIG and all those other banks and insurance companies that put our economy in a tailspin. Someone should investigate the radio industry.

Anonymous said...

John: You should have brought up Jeff Haley's comments about iPhone apps as radio's saving grace. He feels that just by putting a station's app on an iPhone it will bring back the industry. First: is he in cahoots with Fred Jacobs who is selling apps to radio. Second: Does Haley not understand that it is CONTENT CONTENT CONTENT and radio has NONE. You put a piece of crap v.t.ed station on an iPhone and it still is crap. Just because a station has an app does not mean it will be added or used.

Anonymous said...

You did not have to insult Elizabeth Taylor. You should have said that Randy Michaels looks like the horse in National Velvet.

Anonymous said...

John, We need more like you and Fig. You are direct and honest and don't play the wrong person's game.

First and foremost this industry has to get back on track and understand that it must share itself with streaming and other on line activities. An app alone does not cut it no matter what Fred Jacobs or Jeff Haley say. Until the content which is our product is straightened out and programmed for today's audience we will have nothing to offer anyone. It almost scares me to hear how good some of these internet radio stations sound.

Anonymous said...

The Conclave was just another reason to get the party started. It was your typical radio and records and syndicators and consultants smoozefest. Anyone can find an excuse to call themselves non profit or not for profit. I think the Conclave did some good things like offering PDs to critique new talent but that does not make you "educational"!

I hope people like you and Fig are around when this industry bounces back. We need fresh creative ideas and the freedom to implement them. You two get it.

Anonymous said...

Fred has a LOS you wouldnt believe. He missed his calling. He could sell more refrigerators to more eskimoes than Dan Mason did at Cook Inlet. If you have not seen one of his "events" he does lay it on with surprise guests, a free item, Usually a legal pad holder. I saw his app pitch and it works. He had a room eating out of his hand. He is convincing and unless you know his other side he is hard not to believe. It is true what they say. Who can sell a salesman better than another salesman and most market managers have a sales background and Fred takes advantage of that .

Anonymous said...

I am surprised that Jeff Haley is still around. He is a nice guy and all of that but not a leader in the sense of having a vision on how to sell radio in the twenty first century. He uses the same old cliches and relies on other 'experts' to quote from. Both the NAB and RAB need to reinvent themselevs. I am not even sure the NAB should represent radio. It should be a TV only group. They have enough problems without sharing ours. We need a radio group again with some fresh visionary leadership.

Anonymous said...

Gorman, your liberal attitude blinds you from the fact that it was the Democrats esp. Clinton & Gore that rammed the Telecommunications act through Congress not the Republicans. Before you get on your high horse about Lowry Mays and all the Bush Republicans keep in mind it was your own liberal kind that "sold you out".

Anonymous said...

Hey conservative man. Go back and read Gormans blog and tell me he did not address the issue of Clinton and the telecomm bill. You neglect to mention that it was Bob Dole who added the radio revisions on to the bill after it was introduced in congress. Get your facts straight. Both the Dems and Republicans gave this one away. No one is doubting that just like no one will doubt that most station owners are Republican supporters.

Anonymous said...

The Conclave was a cash cow for Tom Kay for many years. Just like the radio industry in general Kay did not see how fast the business was deteriorating and did not take into account that the move toward digital downloads instead of retail store purchases would render radio and their related conventions obsolete. Regarding the educational aspect of it. The only education anyone got came from the bar where most of the deals were struck. Fred Jacobs and Mike McVay know that. Now there are no PDs that make decisions on their own and even the consultants are going the way of dinosaur. The Conclave was no different than any other convention except that it had a laid back upper midwest attitude and did not have as many hookers as the conventions held on either coast.

Anonymous said...

You were firing with all cylinders on this one. I am cutting and pasting and sending this one around to colleagues and friends in the business. I agree with what you and Fig say about conventions. It is time to get back to business. The people who were supposed to be setting an example made the radio business look bush league and its CEOs thieves. No wonder why Wall Street and P.E. wants nothing to do with the radio industry. You are right on with your prediction on fire sales as well.

Anonymous said...

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After nearly four years - first as the Local Sales Manager of WNCX, then as the General Sales Manager of 92.3 K-Rock and most recently as the Local Sales Manager of WNCX and Radio 92.3 - I have resigned my position with CBS Radio. Today (August 4, 2009) was my last day.
I have decided to look for a new challenge and may be reaching out to you for suggestions, contacts or references.
For those of you who have been customers or business associates, thank you for your business and for your partnership throughout the years. I hope to work with you again on behalf of your businesses and/or your clients. In the meantime, you should hear from your new Account Executive from WNCX and Radio 92.3 soon or you can call Linda Rodriguez at 216.861.0100.
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T. Berk
Restricted Free Agent
216.965.4448 (CELL)

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