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How to Prevent a Charlie Sheen Catastrophe

March 8, 2011

BRANDWIDTH by Kipper McGee

The GOOD news for radio:   By all accounts, the entire Charlie Sheen multi-media meltdown was started during a series of Mr. Sheens call-in rants to radio. (Among those most prominently noted: the Alex Jones show, the Loose Cannons, Kent & Allen and Howard Stern).  The BAD news: one or more of your talents could create the same havoc for you.

No question, that rare mixture of Tigers blood and Adonis DNA was able to rack up 400,000 Twitter followers within the first 24 hours, and over 2 million as of this writing. It was also fodder for the usual radio stuntage, including offering Mr. Sheen his own show, naming a station after him (Sirius/XM actually did this), and the requisite airplane banner or two.   But it also caused cancellation of one of network TVs top rated shows, along with devastating financial impact to the network, cast and most likely, the crew as well.

The following are some tips for avoiding a similar situation at your radio station, and minimizing the impact if you find yourself confronted with the unthinkable. 

1.)    Hire carefully.
The best time to determine if a host or team is a fit for your station is before an offer is extended.   I subscribe to the 3 x 3 approach: three different face-to-face meetings in three different settings, including an after-work cocktail.   This exercise will reveal a lot about how well your candidate(s) will react with listeners, high-power clients and co-workers.   One colleague was astonished when a morning candidate kept asking about good porno shops in the market.  Needless to say, that was a very brief interviewing process.   The same is true if the candidate insists it has to been noon somewhere or keeps disappearing for brief periods of time.    While one mentor has always advised me if youre not living at least a little on the edge, youre probably taking up too much space, the way any talent chooses their artistic inspiration and outlets can put you on the front page for the wrong reasons.  If you can get real references (the off-the-record kind), from someone you know and trust, all the better.

2.)    Make sure your brands are compatible with each other.
This goes back to basic positioning and marketing, but if a candidates values, attitudes and lifestyle are not in synch with the stations core essence, how can you hope to expect long term success?   One GM in a Top 10 market could not understand why the new morning show wasnt connecting with the stations 35-54 target.     After one listen, I asked why this show was hired.    Because they were #1 in their previous market was the reply.   Further probing revealed that the show had some from a much smaller market where their CHR was indeed #1 across the board in all dayparts, but was focused on 18-34 year old women.  No thought was given how this show might fit in to a major market Oldies format.

3)     Know and communicate your stations policy on Alcohol, Drugs and other abuses and conditions.
Many leading companies have some sort of Employee Assistance Program designed to help struggling staffers with a variety of issues.   Although wed hope that part of your station culture is the consistent care and feeding of all staffers, such is not always the case.  At the first sign of erratic behavior, have a conversation with the staffer(s) in question, and see if you can find out whats going on.   It may be nothing serious, or the tip of an iceberg.  Be sure to document any such instances (for your own files, if not for further dissemination).  If a situation seems severe enough to warrant, action,  or constitutes a clear-cut violation of station policy, notify your supervisor and/or HR staff immediately.

4.)    Get ahead of the story.   
While volumes have been written on PR and damage control, here are some key points to remember.  In the event of news, good or bad, make sure that the station is always the primary source for the facts.     Remember that even in our 24/7 news cycle, most journalists love to tell a story.  Drama needs conflict and a surprising twist or two followed by a satisfying resolution.  This may not all happen in one news cycle.  If a disgruntled staffer starts making outlandish claims, make sure that your rapid response team has a counter to every charge even if only to repeat a previous statement.   And dont underestimate the power of social media, especially as it regards the satisfying resolution.     Consumers are talking to you (and each other) directly.   Are you engaged in the dialogue?

5.)   Always have a Plan B.
Both producer Chuck Lorre and CBS have other shows in development.   Do you?    One of the weaknesses caused by recent revenue realities has been radios tendency to trim the bench.   Weakening any stations depth chart limits options in the event that a key personality cannot perform.     While most stations have some sort of plan for vacations and sick days, it is always a good idea to have a virtual bench, with candidates who are pre-screened, and available (not under contract) for EVERY position should the need arise.   Early in my programming career, I once lost 9 players to larger markets within a 10-week period.    Luckily, I was able to replace all 9 with very little down time, and the happy resolution was that we went UP significantly in the next book.  Is your station in the same position?

Kipper McGee is an RAB Certified Digital Marketing Consultant, recognized as a leading media strategist and brand manager.   He has lead successful station re-launches, format changes and/or web turnarounds in highly competitive markets, serving such legendary media brands as WLS/Chicago, WDBO/Orlando and KBEST 95 /San Diego.

Now as Chief Media Brandwidth Specialist at Kipper McGee LLC his primary focus is helping define and monetize the next generation of branded media content.   In this capacity he has served on-air and online clients ranging from radio stations and network providers to Fortune 500 companies. Kipper can be reached at 312-402-4667 or

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