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Monthly Archives: September 2008

Talking The Hits In Times Of Trouble

The Stock Market took the biggest drop in history today.

The House voted down the $700 billion bailout.  That’s billion with a B.

In tuning around the dial it is amazing to hear local talk show hosts talking about anything but the economic crisis.

Amazing, no make that stunning.

There’s a guy in Ohio talking about football.  Are the Buckeyes really what listeners want to talk about today?

He’s not alone, I’ve heard others that are way off track too.

Talk radio is about talking the hits.

Today there is only one topic that matters.  That is what the financial crisis means to Main Street.

Talk is a very easy format.  All you have to do is talk about what people care about.

Think about what is on their minds today.  Pick what is most important.  Then talk about it in interesting ways.

Sure local shows must compete with the national guys for content.  Rush, Hannity and the others will be all over this topic.

A local show that continues to bash Presidential candidates when Rush and Sean have that covered is wasting air time.

This topic can be brought right down to street level.  It impacts every neighborhood in your metro.

The local show must focus on how all this will impact the local community.

This is scary stuff and in some ways radio serves the same role as during a hurricane.  Help listeners understand what is happening and hold their hand through it.

Remember people are concerned about their 401K and even keeping their houses.

This is the time to step up and help.

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2008 in Radio programming

 

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The Missing Link

As I listen to radio it bothers me that something is missing.

Now I know that the role of the jock has changed dramatically.

You can blame me as much as anyone for that because of our work with voice tracking at StarSystem.

People, as in normal listeners, try to describe this lack of ‘something’, too.

No one seems able to put their finger on it.

Most listeners  know jocks are voice tracked today.  Even some live talents are accused of being tracked.

That’s a whole different set of problems.

Some of the group heads at the NAB last week said radio has a perception problem.

I agree.

Radio consultants and researchers like to say , ‘perception is reality’.

So I guess the perception that radio has some problems would actually be ‘reality’.

I think.

In any case do some listening and you’ll hear some problems.

This week we had meetings in a major southwestern city.  It’s a ‘dry heat’ there so in my free time I stayed inside and scanned the dial.

Like the non radio types that say something is missing, I could feel it too.  But what?

So I decided to try to figure it out.

Recently I’ve listened to a number of Country stations in several cities.

All were highly rated at one time, but now they’re settling into the middle of the pack in their markets.

First, I’ll tell you that to my ear,  the format has serious music problems.

I wonder do PDs have time to review the music log today or are they so busy they cant take time for  that  attention to detail?

The problems go well beyond how the music is mixed, and deep into what is being selected for the play list.

Enough of that.

We can argue about individual titles and artists all day.  The problem is bigger than music.

Let’s remember that music is only part of the reason people use radio.

The Country format functions a little differently than say, AC might even for people in the same age group.

But music isn’t the sole reason these stations are declining in ratings.

The Country format is more than just music for its listeners.

It’s more than jocks who are able to deliver a nice liner and the weather.

Country is about companionship.

I think that is the key reason the format has thrived over the years.

The lack of companionship on air today is why stations are in decline.

Think about how listeners describe their favorite station and how they respond to the people on air.

There is a very personal connection that bonds a listener like the station is family.

That’s why it can be so hard to beat a heritage station.

They don’t have to be good, or slick.

Folksy and plain beat highly produced almost every time.

Most of the jocks I’ve heard recently are tracked.  Problem is they leave tell tale signs that give them away.

Good tracking requires effort and preparation, and attention to detail.

Let’s face it for most stations it is a business reality.  So there’s no reason to have the, “we need live jocks discussion.

Most listeners can’t tell that a jock is tracked, at least not on a conscience level.  They know it from something deeper and perhaps more dangerous.

It is something you just feel.

Often it comes through when the jock attempts content but misses the mark.

A listener in Phoenix won’t care Craig Morgan is playing a show tonight in Illinois.  So why talk about it?

But do enough of this type of  break and your listeners will feel at arms length from the station.

These little ‘disconnects’ add up, until finally the connection is lost.

Listen to your station with a different set of ears.

Imagine for a moment that you are not in radio.  You live alone and listening to the radio is your only contact with the world for six hours.

Is the jock someone you want to spend time with?

What are you getting from the relationship?

Drill down, past all the format rules,  music rotations,  and call letter mentions to really see if your station is doing the one thing that really makes Country such a powerful format.

Think about how important companionship is right now.

We have two wars, massive financial problems, high gas prices,  and people losing their homes. People are looking for a friendly voice, but in a way that connects with them.

Country ratings should be going through the roof right now.  But instead shares are dropping.

Be a good companion first.  Everything else is a distant second.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2008 in Radio programming

 

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“Back In Time You Scratchy Old Record”

All of us that love radio have one station that stands out in our memory.

The station that caught our ear and will forever mean something whenever we hear the call letters mentioned.

For me, that station is WWRL.

In the 1960s and 70s WWRL was as great a station as WABC, CKLW, KHJ, WFIL, and WLS.   Unless you grew up around New York it’s a station you might not know.

WWRL broadcast from Woodside Queens on 1600 with 5,000 watts.  Not exactly prime real estate on the radio band.

I grew up in the suburbs of North Jersey.   Not exactly in the prime coverage area of the station.

It was the first Soul Station I ever heard.  I’m sure it’s the reason The Dells, The Originals and Charles Wright And The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band are still some of my favorites.

In those days, I always had a Motorola AM transistor radio with me.  I do mean always.

It was good enough to pick up the signal until the pattern change at dark.

WWRL had an amazing talent line up in that era.

The morning show was hosted by “The Dixie Drifter”, Enoch Hawthorne Gregory.

Jeff Troy who later worked at WRKS did midday, Jerry B afternoons.

Al G later on WPIX worked there, as did Chuck Leonard of WABC.

One of the most outstanding talents was Gary Byrd.  His ‘Gary Byrd Experience’ or GBE was the first time I  heard someone rap.

Gary did his own rap bits and later recorded an album for RCA.

Then there was “The Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker.

Fast Frankie was one of my early heroes on WMCA, but he had left WWRL by the time I discovered the station.

These guys all had personality.  Frankie needs no introduction.  He was one of a kind.

“If Frankie Crocker’s not on your radio, your radio’s not really on”.

I still have the letter written on WMCA letterhead when he wrote back to me about how to get into radio.

Go to college was his suggestion.

Perhaps my all time favorite on WWRL was Hank Spann, “The Soul Server”.

Hank had a huge voice, I loved how he’d work the records with rhyme.  He was tight too. I never heard him miss a post.

I was thinking about Hank and all of the greats at WWRL today because his son Tone sent an email saying his Dad’s health isn’t so good.

Hank suffered a stroke and congestive heart failure earlier this year.  He struggles with Alzheimer’s now.

Keep him in your prayers.

And as Fast Frankie would say,

Hank

“May you live to be a hundred, and me a hundred minus day.  So I’ll never know that good people like you have passed away.”

“Peace, Love, Truth and Soul.

How I’d love to hear him introduce an oldie right now.

“Back in time you scratchy old record….”

The Soul Server is one of a kind.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2008 in Radio programming

 

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If You’re Within The Sound Of My Voice

The FCC Commissioners are  talking about forcing some sort of localism rules on stations.

It’s hard to tell if we’re talking about a ‘threat’ or ‘promise’ here.

Are they threatening owners with action if more local programming isn’t added?

Is it a promise to listeners or interest groups that radio will provide a better level of service?

No matter what it seems more like a ‘knee jerk’ type of response to special interest groups than a well thought out idea.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin talked about localism at the NAB this week in Austin.

One suggestion is to have stations locate their studios in  the city of license or some such thing.  Thus breaking up the cost efficiency of several stations using a common studio building.

I’m not sure how a studio location  makes a difference in program content.  But that’s government for you.   They’re full of ideas, but usually they aren’t very practical.

FCC Commissioners generally have little or no experience with the realities of operating a radio station.

While working in Australia,  a couple of members of their radio regulatory department visited our stations.  One of the board members (like FCC Commissioner) told me it was the first time she’d ever been inside a radio station.

And we thought the station weekenders are the only ones without experience

But this localism thing sounds good, especially to the types who show up at the FCC pubic hearings.

Those people tend to hate everything about radio.  They represent more of the fringe than the majority.

The FCC meeting I attended in San Antonio in 2003 was more circus than serious discussion.

Local music quotas were also mentioned as a possibility.  I guess the Chairman ran into some local Austin musicians on his way into the NAB meeting.

The only people I’ve found that are concerned about local music are the musicians.  We have more than a few really good ones here.   Not every town is as lucky.

Just how would music qualify as ‘local’ to meet proposed percentages?

Certainly Elton John would qualify as a local artist in Atlanta since he has a home in Buckhead.

Would he qualify in Macon or is that too far away to be considered ‘local’?

This brings us to the question of what does ‘local’ mean exactly?

Perhaps it is defined by the number of weather forecasts a station provides.

Or by the number of public service announcements for art shows, PTA meetings and church fundraisers a station broadcasts.

Do traffic reports quality?

How far away from the city of license would something have to be before it’s not considered ‘local’?

Does local have a different meaning for 100KW signals and 500 watters?

Would the localism requirement be counted across a week, month or year?

Do you get more credit by spreading the localism throughout your programming or by having hour blocks of local shows?

Would they create local ‘exempt’ times so stations could not be required to be so local, like during American Top 40?

Or would  Rush Limbaugh be required to include local ‘windows’ each hour?

This localism thing sounds like a bigger threat to talk radio than The Fairness Doctrine.

Who would decide what is local and what is not?

Would the FCC have localism police reviewing airchecks or making surprise station inspections?

Could the FCC deny a license renewal because the station was light on local relatables during their weather forecasts?

Isn’t local an attitude and not something that is quantifiable?

The accountants running the show today need ‘metrics to guide them.  Without a pile of data it is impossible for them to determine who’s local or not.

It’s all really very easy to figure out.

Look at the ratings.

The stations on the top are the most local.

The local people like them the best.

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2008 in Radio programming

 

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Invasion Of The Neck Ties

The Austin Convention Center is a very busy place this week.

There is a gaming convention.  It’s a cross of geeks and nerds talking about video and other types of games.

About a thousand Hurricane Ike evacuees are making their temporary home there.

A  big convention of suit and ties is also in town.

I’m told they’re all radio people.

The NAB and R&R Conventions are here.

It really doesn’t look like a group of radio folks.

The Hilton lobby is filled with people that look like they belong to a bankers meeting.  But upon closer inspection the attendees badges say “NAB”, not Bank Of America.

It is strange to see so many ties being worn in Austin.

In fact there is probably a law on the books that prohibits more than three people wearing ties from being   within a block of each other.

This sort of thing rarely happens here.

Austin police must be looking the other way otherwise  the jails would be full today.

We’re a pretty tolerant bunch here but so many people in ties makes the locals nervous.

What has happened to radio since I left?

All the Program Directors I’ve seen around the Hilton are dressed like CEOs.

In the old days, ten years ago, PDs might wear a sport jacket, but no tie.

Is all this formality part of what makes radio programming seem so stiff at times these days?

PDs are not CEOs.  It is important to have a business sense, but not become all business.

Lose the ties guys and get back to fun again.

Radio could stand being a little more relaxed.

If you’re in the lobby of the Hilton and see a guy without a tie, it’s me.

Stop by and say hi.

I live here and can’t afford to break the city neck tie laws .

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

Radio In A Flat World

If you’ve missing interesting radio, get a WIFI radio.

This thing is amazing.

Instead of being limited to local stations my listening now includes the world.

There’s news on WINS and KFWB.  The Mets pregame is on WFAN.  UK Top 40 is playing on Capital 95.8 London.  Reggae is on WSTX St. Croix. Aussie Classics are on WSFM Sydney.  Hurricane coverage is all over  KILT FM Houston.

That’s just a few of the stations.  There are literally thousands.

So far the biggest disappointment is 93 KHJ in America Samoa sounds like it could be station in Iowa.

They’re good.  Just not what I expected from a station in that part of the world.

Last week I bought a clearance priced HD radio.  It’s been silent since the WIFI arrived.

There is far more variety on WIFI than even XM/Sirius have to offer and it’s free.

HD is a programming wasteland.  Don’t get me started.

WIFI has limitations.   WFAN can’t broadcast the Mets games.

Overall the sound is very good.  I’m not concerned about stereo or amazing audio.  This is a mono radio, that sounds fine to my tin ear.

It is the future.

Whether WIFI radios catch on or a different delivery method arrives, thousands of stations at your fingertips will come to a car or phone near you.

It means the programming challenge becomes tougher for local radio.

The only way to combat the technology is to be as local and connected as possible.  But that is the exact opposite of where local radio appears headed.

Owners better wake up if they want those transmitters to have value.

It’s not the number of songs you play an hour, but how your station connects to the local community that will keep it viable.

Local radio must put more emphasis on product development, not less.

The day is coming that NOVA Sydney will compete for audience in Los Angeles.  Mexico City stations  could dominate the ratings in Phoenix.  1010 WINS becomes a worldwide news brand.

Some internet station without a terrestrial transmitter can become the next big thing.  No rules.  No FCC.  No territorial and signal limits.

Can’t happen?

HBO already blazed that trail in another medium.

Today the lettered TV networks are fighting for their very lives against networks that have no transmitters.

AM is limited by signal coverage and skywave.  FM stops at the horizon.

WIFI goes everywhere in a flat world.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2008 in Uncategorized

 

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The Longest Weekend And Beyond

Hurricane Ike again points out the need for strong radio service.

Power is out for the majority of customers in Houston.  That’s millions of people in the dark, no air conditioning,  no cable TV.

It will be weeks before power is restored in many places.

No power means no gas can be pumped.  A big problem in a mobile city like Houston.

The Houston radio stations are working overtime to keep the city informed.

We can watch the KHOU TV coverage here in Austin.  But if you live in Houston the only way you can get them is via radio simulcast.

Television reporters are risking their lives to get great pictures.  For the most part,  only people outside of town are able to watch.

KTRH, and the CBS stations have fewer people in the field.   They use radio’s number one ally, the telephone to get information on fast.

Actually radio has an advantage over television at times like these.

No pictures.

Radio reporters can just report the story.  They don’t have to find good visuals to entertain the audience.

Perhaps the best service radio provides is opening the phones so listeners can call with questions.

This is what made the WWL coverage of Gustav so good.

Besides the press conferences the phone interaction provides a link to the outside world for people sitting alone in the dark.

KTRH had  a couple of dramatic phone calls from people riding out the storm in Galveston and afraid they would not survive.

Talk about compelling radio.

It will be interesting to see how long KTRH stays with continuous coverage.

WWL programming is locally produced talk making it easy for storm coverage to become the format.

KTRH is local in a couple of dayparts.  The rest is syndicated.  Their bench seems to be much thinner than WWL.

KHOU and WWL dropped their commercials,  KTRH didn’t miss a spot.

It did sound a little strange hearing sponsored traffic reports during hours the city was under curfew.

Television’s coming shift to HD in February makes radio even more valuable during emergencies.

An analogue  television will be worthless at that point.  So if you don’t have cable, a converter or HD TV you couldn’t watch TV if you wanted to.  Electricity helps too.

Radio stations must be strong enough to provide information in emergencies like Ike.  ‘Strong enough’ means having staff and resources available.

The people at these stations need a big pat on the back for their work.  They’ve going on little sleep, no showers, and often don’t even know the condition of their own homes.

Despite the discomfort my guess is not one would miss working it for the world.

This is what being in radio is really all about.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2008 in Radio programming

 

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Houston Take Cover

Hurricane Gustav is fresh in our minds so Ike should get everyone’s serious attention.

The forecast storm track has shifted again this time toward the east bringing it closer to Houston and Galveston.   This is very serious news for people living in that area.

WWL New Orleans set the standard for hurricane coverage.  That bar is very high.

Houston has one major news station KTRH which did a terrible job during the last hurricane.  They stayed with network programming and baseball instead of going into full coverage.

KTRH is handling their coverage pretty well this morning.

Through the miracle of WIFI I’m able to monitor KILT FM.  As expected  the Hudson and Harrigan morning show is all over it.

H&H as they are known have been the morning team on KILT since the top 40 days.  The players changed over the years, the current team has been together for over thirty years.

They know the town very well.

KILT coverage is focused on closings, evacuations and routes.   It will not surprise me to hear KILT rolling through the next few days in full coverage.

They have live coverage of Mayor White’s press conference.  Remember this is a music station.

KTRH is still promoting an Astros game broadcast tonight.

The Houston area could get caught flat footed simply because all models had this storm tracking toward Corpus Christi.   Many people are waking up to a unexpected situation this morning.

There are thousands and thousands of people who have never been through a hurricane.  Houston has been very lucky for a long time.

Radio must do its part to help people get out of harms way.

The storm track is found at the hurricane network. http://hwn.org.  The network is expected to be in action on 14.325 USB shortwave tomorrow morning.  They stream the audio for those without a radio.

KTRH is heard at 740 AM. Check their stream on their website.

KVLI Beaumont which is east of Houston is 560 AM.

KILT FM is streaming on the net and on WIFI.

WWL broadcast every news conference live, and made sure the public was completely informated.

Let’s hope Houstonians get the same support from their local radio.

Oh and not so fast there Corpus, you’re not out of the woods yet.

 
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Posted by on September 11, 2008 in Radio programming

 

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HD You Ain’t No XM, Or FM

The first FM radio that I remember listening to was a Heathkit my Dad built in the mid 60s.

FM was still a novelty then and factory made stereo receivers were very expensive.

The Heathkit was a way to get a good stereo at reasonable cost.

The New York FM stations at that time were an after though to their big AM sisters.

But the programming was interesting.  This was new territory and everyone was experimenting.

The FCC had limits as to how much programming could be simulcast. So FM stations had to offer something different at least part of the day.

While my parents liked the easy listening on WTFM, WRFM and WVNJ, the rock stations caught my ear.

WABC the big top 40 station had a different version of the AM format on FM for a while.  There was even “The Other Dan Ingram Show” which I believe featured jazz.

Ingram was the afternoon drive personality on WABC AM.

WABC FM  later changed to a progressive rock format called “Love’ with Bob Lewis and Brother John.  Lewis   doubled as a weekend jock on WABC AM.  This was the first real attempt at formatting album rock.

WNEW  FM experimented with an ‘all female  talent line-up in the mid 60s with comedian Peggy Cass, Allison Steele and Sally Jesse Raphael  part of it.   WNEW later shifted to a AOR format and certainly was the most popular station in our high school.

Murray the K, Rosko and others did an early progressive rock presentation  on WOR-FM  until it became  the “Big Town Sound” as a Drake formatted Top 40.

WCBS FM tried a few formats including progressive rock with jocks like Bob Lewis, Tom Clay, Bobby “Your Wizard’s Here” Wayne and Gus Gossert until changing to oldies in the early 70s.

Our local FM station WDHA experimented with a mix of jazz, classical and pop.  By the mid 70s they were deep into the quad sound playing several hours of Quadraphonic music each night.

The entire dial was open to experimentation.

There was a time in the early 70s that WLIB FM (now WBLS) signed on at noon and played jazz all day.

WBAI owned by Pacifica was as radical as any station you’ve ever heard.

All of this was so different from the AM band then and today’s FM that it’s hard to even describe now.

FM was the exciting frontier.  AM was establishment.

Many AM operators simply handed their FMs to the kids to program.  The owners didn’t know what to do or didn’t really care.

Looking back, FM had a huge advantage.  It was run by outsiders who didn’t know there were any rules.

This weekend I decided to give HD a fair shot and thorough listening.

I mentioned in this blog Radio Shack is clearing out HD radios for $82 that once sold for $299.  Worst case I’ll finally have a radio for my office at work.  A low risk investment at that price.

There are several $300 radios in my collection, by Sony, Eton and others.  The Boston Acoustics Radio HD Radio is simply not in their league.  No wonder it’s on clearance.

Every radio I own picks up dozens more stations off their whip antennas than this one does with the supplied dipole.  Now I see why they tried to sell me a $30 external antenna.

The AM section is very poor.

WOAI is 50KW and exactly 100 miles from my home.  It fades in and out on this radio.

WOAI puts a  solid signal on the $30 Sony pocket radio I found at Walmart, but not on this $300 marvel.

Please note, the term ‘marvel’ is used with a little sarcasm at this point in the blog.

The poor dear is what DX’ers call, deaf.

Why would someone from the general public buy one especially at full price?

I don’t know.

To make matters worse, there’s nothing for them to listen to here in Austin.

KUT has two HD channels but either they don’t reach my home,  nineteen miles from Austin or the HD is off.

There are a handful of HD-2 music formats on the air.  All sound like little effort has gone into them.

I didn’t need a whole weekend of listening to figure that out.

HD seems to be run by people who know too much about radio or worse, the accounting department.

They are applying a business model and ‘metrics’ before the art has taken hold.

Sadly, the HD channels sound more stale than the main channels.

The HD oldies channel uses the liner “Good Times and Great Oldies” .

Talk about fifteen years behind the curve.

HD needs the same kind of free thinking FM had it the early days.  Give it over to people who aren’t  locked into traditional business models, and outdated research methods.

Here are my suggestions for programming HD.

Ban sweepers, station image voices and all liners that were ever used on FM.

Think talent.

Start fresh.

Hand a channel over to a group of teens or twenty somethings.   Let them figure it out.

No rules.

Just tell them to make something happen.

Wait five years and see what develops.

Give HD the chance to be the creative playground that allowed FM to develop.

What happened to those stations?

  • WCBS FM became a great oldies station partly because of the success Gus Gossert had with his weekend show.
  • WABC FM became a solid progressive rock station, later known as WPLJ.
  • WNEW FM became a legend.   Then a big company killed the golden goose.
  • WOR FM, went from Top 40 format under Drake, to WXLO, 99X, and eventually KISS adult urban contemporary.
  • WLIB became WBLS  with Frankie Crocker’s “Black Experience In Sound” format and a market leader for years.
  • WDHA became more AC then rock in the late 70s and continues today.
  • WBAI.  Radical as ever.

Not bad for a little experimentation.

Remember FM was the 25 year overnight success.

You’ll never get people to want it by giving them a watered down version of the same old stuff.

Think fresh.

And get out of the way.

Oh, and one more thing.

Build some radios that work, at a good price.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2008 in Radio programming

 

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We Like Austin Weird

The NAB is coming to Austin.

Let me warn you folks from normal towns like LA, New York and San Francisco that Austin is not like most other places.

It’s a great choice for a convention.

We rank number one or two in beer consumption.

Sixth Street is busy seven nights a week.

Austin is the ‘Live Music Capital Of The World’.  You won’t have a problem finding great music in any number of locations.

The most popular T-shirt you’ll see in town says, “Keep Austin Weird”.

We certainly have our share of ‘weird’, by most standards.

There’s Leslie, who is a 50ish bearded male usually seen around town in a bikini and heels.

Only tourists pay much attention.  He’s pretty normal to us.

Leslie has after all run for mayor at least once.

Occasionally they’ll be a group of street corner preachers at Sixth and Congress hoping to save you from who knows what.

We had pink hair and tattoos here before most of the rest of the  world.  So if we don’t seem  shocked by a pretty blond covered in body tattoos, you shouldn’t be either.

Around here that’s considered art.

You can have the same thing done at a couple of places in South Austin just on the other side of the Ann Richards Bridge.

Austin is a college town.

There are several schools here including the main University of Texas campus with 50,000 students.

We have a ton of old hippies who came to UT and somehow never left mixed with lawmakers, bankers and other business people.

The rich guys are hard to pick out.   Generally they drive the oldest pick up trucks and wear jeans and old boots.

Austin is the Capital of Texas.  You won’t want to miss a look at our beautiful Capitol building on Congress Avenue.

Leave your ties at home.  We’re very casual.

The weather will be warm, some will even think it’s down right hot, even in September.

There is one radio station you should check out while in town that is truly Austin.

KUT 90.5 is the University of Texas station.

It is an NPR affiliate with the usual network shows like Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

In the midday they turn to music and play an eclectic mix of Austin music, some of which is recorded in their studios.

John Aielli hosts a program called Elickikos which is a well thought out free form mix of everything.  Aielli has been on KUT since 1966 and is somewhat of a throwback to radio’s early AOR days.

There’s something very fresh about him though and the more you listen the more you want to hear.

Listen to Aielli right after Morning Edition 9-12.

KUT will give you the true flavor of Austin, its culture and music.

Choosing Austin for the NAB is one of the smartest things they’ve done in years.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2008 in Radio programming

 

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