Open letter to TMC attendees

by Russ Hill on October 12, 2010

Dear friends at the 2010 Talk Media Conference,

First, I’m disappointed I can’t be out there in beautiful Marina del Rey with you.  Al Peterson and Erica Farber are the best at putting on events worth sacrificing a little time away from the office and home.  I have some critical business to attend to this week in Arizona, otherwise I’d be there alongside you.

Since I won’t be able to see you at the cocktail parties or in the hallway between sessions, I thought I would use my little corner of the internet to ask you for help.

My experience is that most of those who attend conferences like TMC are station or network managers and consultants.  My audience right now isn’t the rookies.  I realize I’m talking to the veterans of the news, talk, and sports industry.

I’ve got several requests.  This isn’t meant to be a speech as much as a dialogue.  Tell me I’m wrong below.  Afterall, I’m paying for the server this site sits on so you might as well put your opinion on my tab.  Alright, lets dive in.

First, can we get real about the ratings disaster that PPM has been for our format?

I’ve had conversations with many of you privately about the story that’s not being told.  Some in our industry have recently suggested that spoken word stations need to start boasting about the older demos they’re attracting.  I reject the suggestion.  Our format needs younger listeners.  Period.

I’ve seen the numbers.  They aren’t good.  Too many of our great spoken-word radio stations are pulling in audiences where 60% of the listeners are over 55.  Let’s not waste anyone’s time with 12+ numbers.

What we need to do is realize much of the syndicated product out there is niche-oriented.  And, the niche it talks to is white, conservative, politically-obsessed, male, and over 50.  Not only that but much of the syndicated content doesn’t incorporate what successful PPM programmers have learned which is brand means little compared to execution.  The execution on many of our network shows needs work.  We’ve got incredible talent behind the mic, but they need more PPM training.  Local stations and the format are taking a hit on this.

Too many of our syndicated shows are about the hosts.  Not the listeners.  Don’t misread that last statement.  Success in PPM often comes from little to no phone calls and a host who is the center of the show.  But, the host must know how to focus the spotlight on the listeners’ lives while talking about their own.  As I wrote here more than six months ago before, Glenn Beck is the best at this.  At the same time, many of these shows continue to be built around the idea that listeners tune in for all three hours.  Haven’t we shown these hosts the 9 minute bombshell that PPM dropped on us?

We’ve all been at this PPM game long enough to know it rewards broad-based formats.  We have some incredibly talented syndicated and local personalities in our industry, but can we agree that all of us could do a better job making them more broad-based?  The conversation I hear around the watercooler is a whole lot less about politics than the one I hear coming out of my radio.

I know admitting challenges in PPM with the under 50 crowd doesn’t get us raises.  But, we’re in a media revolution here folks and unless we address this issue we aren’t going to be in a growth industry.  And, we all migrated to this industry and format because of its explosive growth.  Growth attracts talent.  Those of us with more than 10 years left in our careers can’t and won’t endure stagnation.

There are some incredible success stories in some of our markets (this where I point over to Farley and others).  We need to stop worrying that some competitor is going to find out our secret and start talking more publicly about what’s working.  There are stations out there that are experiencing what we are in Phoenix too with remarkable P25-44 and P18-49 numbers.  But, too little of these successes are being dissected and shared.

Second, can we finally realize our competitors aren’t each other but rather internet startups and other legacy media?

I spend a lot of time in this space sharing my passion for innovation.  We all know radio’s real revenue and audience growth won’t come because of our over-the-air product.  For our industry to thrive we’ve got to be smarter and faster than the dozens of competitors we’re gaining each day.  We’ve got to claim real estate before our colleagues in TV and print do.

And, yet, I still meet so many in our ranks focused on someone down the dial.  We don’t have time to worry about other radio stations.  We must be obsessed with ourselves and how we’re going to expand our brand in this mobile device age.

Spoken word radio is better positioned than any other industry I know of to succeed in the dawn of social media.  We’ve been doing social media for decades but somehow allowed others to claim that title.  I know we’re all working to do more in this space, but we never share our successes.

Most of us want to expand our brand in this digital age, but I find two major challenges.  First, there is a major shortage of people who know how.  Those who claim to be experts give us such brilliant suggestions as “getting your audio feed on a smartphone app.”  Yes, that’s a start, but that isn’t the kind of transformation we need.  Others tell us to have our producers tweet about what our hosts are going to talk about next.  They don’t seem to realize social media isn’t just some promotional tool but rather a platform where the winners actually deliver content designed for the space.  The successful innovators need to speak up more and get more ink.

The second challenge we face in this area is budgets.  How do we grow in this space and yet keep our jobs?  Collectively, more of us need to join the chorus not only calling for dollars for innovation but also giving ideas to GMs and CEOs on where to spend money and reap returns.  Yes, we’re in a recession.  No, we can’t wait for the “good” years to invest in this space.  You can’t buy a piece of property that’s no longer for sale.

Third, what are we going to do about nights and weekends?

Many of us are doing okay in prime.  But, our nights and weekends are disasters.  Yes, I know we have no money to spend on weekend talent.  And, how do we argue with a brokered colonoscopy show that makes us money?  But, we’ve got to find some answers here and stop losing our entire audience in these dayparts.

I know some of you reading this have found answers.  Will you please share?  Our industry needs these success stories.  I have great respect for those who have tried music and other nontraditional ventures on weekends to generate some sort of audience.  Has any of it worked?  Others of us have play-by-play.  In large and loyal sports markets that appears to be working.  But, the NFL season is only so long.

I wish we had more quality programming from our network friends in this space.  I said quality.

Finally, let’s continue to crusade for FM.

Those of us fortunate enough to work at companies that have put spoken word on FM know its value.  All my friends still on AM, without exception, tell me they dream about and pray for an opportunity to be on FM.  This is a place where our collective and consistent voice will lead to change faster than any advocating done on an individual basis.  This format has the potential to make more money long-term than any music box, especially in a digital and mobile age.

Conclusion

I need to wrap up this blog post/letter.  Forgive me for not editing it down to something shorter.  I am fairly certain that something I said stirred some sort of reaction within you.  I never claim to be right, but I do promise to always have an opinion that’s based on my experience and observations.

One major thing I have learned from my friends in the social media and digital space is that when they find something that works they share it.  There are hundreds of blogs, group sites, tweet-ups, etc where best practices are shared in this new media world.  These people talk nonstop all day to each other through social platforms.  And, yet, those of us in the “old media” keep everything we know to ourselves in fear competitors might learn it.  Again, who are the competitors?

I hope you’ll make a comment below, or drop me an email (russ dot hill at me dot com) and challenge some of my opinions. And I hope that through places like Al’s email newsletter, this blog, your blog, on Twitter and Facebook, and our emails that we can at least open up the dialogue more.

Thanks.  Oh, and I won’t tell your boss you’re reading this while sitting on the beach instead of over at the conference hotel.  It will be our little secret.

All the best…


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