For those who may not have been involved at the time, it may come as somewhat of a surprise to learn that radio started down the wrong track as early as the late ‘70s and early ‘80s – years before the consolidating clown-crews floundered in with their big, red noses, fright wigs, floppy shoes, and overwhelming arrogance.
Radio’s under-serviced diesel train, it seems to me, has so many blown gaskets that vital fluids are leaking, sometimes gushing, all over the tracks. Smoke billows off the manifolds. Ratcheting down the bolts puts pressure on the system and stems the flow a bit – short term. In the last 30 years, radio has tossed out the mechanics and thrown away the tools. I believe some really think they will get away with it!
When the formats that represented (essentially) all of Top-40 radio gained the most solid of footings in the industry, the formatic seeds for what was to come were already sown. Ownership and management priorities at the time, during the consolidation periods and now, had everything to do with corporate control. The policies had nothing to do with serving audiences. Plus, the means to meet the needs of local advertisers were trampled into dust and swept under every rug in the industry.
Other stations, particularly those who subscribed to MOR (middle-of-the-road) formats and who had been droning along for years – suffered likewise. Further, when an outfit experienced some form of success, the copycats came out in droves. This not only generated sameness in the industry, it also created a habit, and it was these habits that became the dogmas that plague radio today.
There has been a cliché floating around the business for years that goes like this: “There are no secrets in radio.” This was based on the idea that everything a station was doing was out there for all to hear – right on the radio. There is a presumption that everyone in management had the wherewithal to identify any major differences or subtle nuances the guys down the street were making. Indeed, there were very few subtleties to identify that were having much impact at all. Fewer today.
Still, programmers were fiddling around with music rotations, numbers of cuts, spot loads (stuffed), positioning of jingle elements, jock performances, and formatic consistencies. These included blurting out the calls, first, at the front and back of each tune intro or extro. Nobody has ever come up with an acceptable justification for that innocuous little piece of business, either. At least, not beyond, “It’ll stick in their heads!” Really? How?
Some years later, the avalanche that was “consolidation” crashed off the mountain and buried everything, including the on-air talent and creative departments. The bodies were never found, but we still remember them – sometimes fondly.
It was in such a radio environment that I began to discover, learn, collate, and apply the methodologies and strategies I have been promulgating over the years in this and other spaces. The success I enjoyed on-the-air and in the writing and production of commercial content was staggering – locally and nationally. But, and this is significant, I had read the tealeaves and made the decision not to share these strategies directly with anybody in management or programming. I worked undercover for about 10 years – experimenting with and polishing the model.
The exception was one GM. A standup guy who relished and supported talent. He also had the good sense to keep his mouth shut around ownership and the other executives. His rationale was that since my day-part (PM drive) was dragging in huge numbers and AAA rates from national advertisers, the less said, the better.
Over the next years, the ownership of this killer station gradually succumbed to the “More Tunes – Less Talk” chunk of newly minted dogma that was becoming pervasive. I saw the writing in the sky and hit the trail. So, sometime later, did my allied GM.
After a few months of being “on the beach” while continuing to work with my ad clients, I met with the GM of a station down the street. My long-term rep for pulling in boxcar numbers was already established, so we easily cut a deal for me to do PM drive for his outfit. The challenge, though, was significant. The station was a “lite-rocker” – scued to females 25-54. But they were #8 in that demo. As to men, that was, of course, worse. The station was #12.
So, I went to work plying my majic and runnin’ my mouth – completely out of format compared to the rest of the station. The PD flipped out and complained to management. Dissatisfied with the GM’s response, the guy quit. About six weeks later, a new PD landed – full of piss and vinegar and certainty. After a couple of months (probably sooner), he, too, resented the bulletproof environment I enjoyed.
Before my shift, one Friday, the PD invited me out to lunch. He asked me what I was doing on the air that was so special. So, along with the pasta, I swallowed my better judgment and explained one of the principal posts on which my communications platform is based – that of radio being an indirect medium and how the “one-to-one” principle is self-destructive. We went back to the shop and I pulled my shift.
Maybe his head exploded over the weekend. Monday morning, I got called in to the station. This PD was frothing, and demanded I be fired. The GM — frustrated and oblivious to what was coming — caved. I was gone. The Book, meanwhile and with a horrible irony, was released later that same day. The rest of the station didn’t move off previous positions. Afternoon Drive, however, was different. Women: #1. Men: #1. Elapsed time: 90 days. But, the boys were already on the track that allowed neither right nor left turns or hitting the brakes. They couldn’t recant. There was a lesson available there, but these feckless guys were also asleep at the switch. Help, meanwhile, is still available.