Sunday, July 26, 2009
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.