The Sad State Of Radio…People

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Judging by the amount of feedback we received from his Thursday column, Walter Sabo struck a nerve yesterday. In his piece entitled “The Sad State of Radio…People,” Sabo stated that nobody has a problem with radio, except radio people. In case you missed it, here’s Sabo’s column again…and your comments about it from Thursday.

(By Walter Sabo) Radio is doing just fine thank you. Every hour Nielsen puts out a surprise announcement that radio is thriving. Nielsen always seems surprised. Radio is the number one medium for music discovery. Sixty-five percent of Americans will listen today. Ninety-two percent this week. More homes have radios than have TVs. Newbies like Spotify and SiriusXM call themselves “radio” because that is what they’d like to be. Radio has been a success for over 100 years because it solves urgent needs today. A proven medium. Not a traditional medium, a proven medium.

It seems that nobody has a problem with the medium of radio except radio people. The handwringing at conventions, conferences, and in the trades is epic. The gap between the reality of radio’s success as a medium and the profound doubts of people in the industry starts and stops in your hallways.

What is the inside-industry problem and how to solve it?

1 – In capitalism, value is determined by price. Suzanne Grimes is damn smart to launch an ROI program at Westwood One. Yes radio works, that’s why it’s been thriving for a century. Suzanne, not a product of the radio industry, has not done something bold. She has done the necessary, obvious thing. Bravo. Want to start feeling good? Act like Suzanne. Raise the rates, guarantee the results.

2 – Change your clothes. Dress like you’re meeting a client CEO because only the CEO is going to give you the big bucks. Top magazine sellers laugh at their radio peers because “they dress lousy.” Although it is not PC to say this, all radio employees need to dress better. WE are the visual in radio. How do we look? Our stations sound sharp and tight and modern. When the public sees a 3-D representation of the medium—you—how does that synch with their audio experience?

3 – Celebrate all wins. Walmart, Home Depot, Verizon are fairly pragmatic companies. They have chosen to be the top radio advertising investors. What have we done for them? Have we invited their CEOs to speak at our conferences or interviewed them on our top morning shows (Radio Ink Note: Home Depot executives were interviewed by RAB CEO Erica Farber at a recent RAB Convention). Have we made them STARS on our medium? Have we brought them into the emotional stream of our work? Have we given them awards, shown them in our trades, toured them through our facilities? Have we asked them to go on record as to WHY they choose radio? Let’s get going on this!

4- Fix the pay. The reason Pandora, a company that loses money, is able to take our top sellers is that they PAY THEM MUCH MORE AND TRAIN THEM TO SUCCEED. Radio’s pay overall is on 1988 scale. That check usually comes with the heartwarming message, “….and you’re lucky to have a job.” Our industry revenue is also 1988. See the connection?

5 – Try Stuff. The formats to which you are clinging were, at one time, experimental and NEW. Make it easy for people to bring you new format ideas and strategies. Make the presenters of new ideas feel good about their thinking and desire to change. Dear NAB: Where is the Marconi for BEST NEW FORMAT? “Best New” awards exist in industry organizations in most other countries.

6 – Uh, Advertise. There was a time when RADIO was the largest advertising category on TV in the month of May. That’s correct. The fastest way to build confidence in advertising investments is to invest in advertising. It is hypocritical to sell advertising without purchasing advertising.

7 – Talent is the medium. No one writes fan letters or goes to events due to the hard work of the sales department. They respond to radio celebrities. Celebrity has great value. The top three paid people in show business are not TV or movie stars, the top three are radio stars. Respect Bob Pittman for understanding that stars like Elvis Duran are the reason radio isn’t a digital song file. ASK your talent what they need to perform. Celebrate their work and reward it, right now. Book that lunch with your talent, right now.

8 – FREE THE FOOD. What do employees see when they come to work? Do they see a morale building tableau? Paint the hall, shampoo the furniture, hire a real receptionist and make all kitchen food free. Bloomberg and Spotify have lush 24/7 food buffets for their workers. When asked how he can afford that, isn’t that a waste of money, Mr. Bloomberg said, “you don’t understand the model.” I’ve been in radio stations that have wasted money on elaborate video security systems for the vending machines. That’s right a video security system to make sure that the employees who are working free overtime don’t steal soup. Unlock the vending machines, provide free beverages, stop being stupid. This matters more than those with an expense account could ever understand. Free the food.

When you walk into a radio station and see warm food, a knowledgeable receptionist and clean furniture, one becomes happier to come to work.

The gap between the reality of radio’s success as a medium and the profound doubts of people in the industry starts and stops in your hallways.

Walter Sabo is a Westwood One syndicated talk show host. His show, STERLING ON SUNDAY is heard live Sundays at 10 PM Eastern and aired on stations such as KMOX, KDKA, WMAL AMFM, WPHT, and WLS. He can be reached at Waltermsterling@gmail.com

37 COMMENTS

  1. Does radio still work? Ask the client whose spot is last in a nine spot cluster, and whose copy reads nothing more compelling than “Come on down for all of your (fill in the blank) needs.”

    • You are 100% right Ron. And radio people from owners on down, arrogantly refuse to acknowledge radio’s cluster break problem. Caused by GREED, period. Nielsen PPM ratings clearly and factually
      show that the vast majority of a station’s audience TUNES OUT by the 3rd commercial, in these long cluster breaks. So the advertiser who is 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, or more in the break ISN’T EVEN HEARD!! This is radio’s equivalent of junk mail, except it’s audio junk mail. No wonder there is such a huge churn of local advertisers. …While the big national advertisers like Home Depot or Geico or Verizon can’t measure the results…so stations can bury them in the middle of cluster breaks, and not worry about any accountability.

  2. Better find something to do with those licenses because many stations will be out of biz the next 5 years….Local Tv is facing big problems as well but at least they have embraced the digital space and are growing $$ there..Radio is too late to the dance!!!! Too many radio stations doing the same thing…

  3. I always like reading Walter’s stuff. I learned more from him than, well, just about anyone. Even though I’m no longer in the radio “biz” I do keep up with the trades and trends, I guess it’s a habit. I still find myself shaking my head at what I read in the trades and yelling at what I hear on the air. But just as a bystander these days. At my age, no one would hire me anyway. heh. Do clothes make the man (woman)? Maybe. But tell that to the hipster/techies here in Austin. Yea, lousy pay for also-ran talent. “Sure, I wanna’ be in radio, the pay sucks and management whacks talent like a coked out drug lord, what’s not to like!” Radio does try stuff, but it seems like it’s the same ol’ stuff over and over again. Come up with a really creative and new idea and management will more times than not, show you the gallows. Most of the really successful folks I know in radio became successful because the didn’t rock the boat and towed the company line, not because of really great ideas. The ones that we’re really smart, creative, clever…. seems to me they’ve mostly left the fold. Radio is an advertising medium, why the heck would we need to advertise (sarcasm alert). Talent is the medium…. I’ll use some NASA parlance: “There’s no bucks without Buck Rogers.” My stepfather once gave me some of the best advice, “You want someone to remember you and think of you fondly, buy them lunch.” You’re employees may dislike many things about your station, but they will love free snacks and soda. Always good to read your stuff Walter. Kick ass with your show!

  4. Walter is correct. If you look at the evolution of broadcasting you will see that it’s not necessarily the technology that spurs people to warm up to and eventually become loyal to a communication product like radio. It’s primarily the content and the people who present it. Obviously technology plays a big roll and is constantly changing drawing people in, but it’s much more that keeps them over the long run. Advances in technology require adjustments for traditional platforms. You must change with the times, but what that might mean is redefining how and what you do with what you have or may need to get. If you have success and someone else becomes more successful, often times it’s you who have empowered them by not countering or at least being aware. I have spent the last half century working for the largest Radio and TV broadcast companies in America in AM & FM local, national, network, syndication and Satellite, radio as well as cable and network television, (all 3 national TV networks), commercial, educational and public broadcasting as well as a few small market stations. I have found that no matter the size of the available audience, success is determined by relevance, creativity, innovation and uniqueness. What has produced that is talented people doing what they love to do. Quality content, commitment, presentation, image as well as a willingness to try what hasn’t been done before are also what’s needed to be successful on all levels. Sometimes you need to take calculated risks. Other times it’s just a matter of recognizing cycles without needing to reinvent wheel, just present it in a new way. The old saying, “you build your audience one listener at a time” hold true for any platform. Now as you say to yourself “he’s just stated the obvious”, keep what I wrote in mind when reading some of Walter’s specific recommendations.

    • All the innovations are on Youtube, Bill. Not radio. My 18 year old daughter lives on Youtube and has for years. She could care less about radio. It’s over. You’re old and out of touch.

      • Ray, you’re very dismissive. I may possibly be “old” but hardly “out of touch”. I’m successfully employed and have been for 53 years by America’s most innovative broadcasting companies. BTW I also use YouTube when appropriate for streaming music and for some of its unique visual content. Radio is changing, no doubt, and that’s the whole point. The invocations won’t be technical for AM and FM radio stations. I’m speaking of content and overall management. Radio , as everything, is evolving but will never completely disappear. Yes, its best days are not ahead just as one day you will be “old” but hopefully you won’t be eager to lay down and be covered up. My point is that a significant part of radio’s decline was due to greedy owners and managers who disregarded the need to maintain quality and commitment but instead opted for the short term fast buck. I don’t encourage young people to go into radio because its been structured not to provide opportunities. But I don’t discourage them as long as they understand the culture. You’re right in one respect because the audio field is incredibly crowded only the creative and smart will survive in one form or another.

        • Look Bill it’s people like you that have made it impossible for radio to innovate because it is the young that drive innovation. Your generation greedily hogged all the jobs in radio for so long that younger people were squeezed out and radio generally sucks now when it comes to talent. Once you guys are all gone that will be it for radio. Nobody cares anymore. Don’t you get it? It’s over. There’s too many better things to do now. Radio is not evolving. It’s dead. Not dying. Dead. In the hearts and minds of an entire generation that doesn’t want or need your dusty old technology. Yes, I am a bitter motherfucker because radio became a lying, greedy bitch that caters to old people like you and Walter over the past 30 years. Screw all of the asshole corporations and psychotic owners that run them. Billions wasted on HD radio. What a joke. All the sexual harassment I’ve witnessed against female employees that drove them out of the industry. Not to mention the pay inequity. Your generation fucked it all up for the rest of us with your arrogance and hubris. I hope I live long enough to see radio completely in ashes so it may rise again like the Phoenix. That’s what it will take to make it right again. Burn radio burn.

          • The fact is that there are very few veterans like me (from “my” generation) left performing in the business. Most burned out or were forced out years ago or just chose more lucrative fields. You’re right one does not make much money when starting out. That’s always been the case. I only achieved because of hard work, dedication, talent is a basic must, and ability to adapt. Many people, myself included, at one time or another have been “let go” for one trivial reason or another, often times because of format changes, PD changes, financial cut-backs, sales of property even personality conflicts but I didn’t let that discourage me from reinventing myself or branching out to Television, or commercial production and even video and production of TV programs, but always keeping myself on air in radio in some capacity. I was flexible enough to work in many formats for multiple broadcasting companies. I’m not defending, by any means, management or ownership. I left middle management in my younger years as a PD in major markets, even as a group VP of programming for several stations nationwide because of disenchantment with upper management and or ownership. Apparently, judging by your remarks, on that we do agree. So I quit and started my own production company in my early 30’s which is still in existence. And continued on the air as talent in radio and TV. I currently work on air in Network TV and have done many channels on Satellite radio and still do. I have in fact changed technology with the times. When I decided to be just talent, not management, I adjusted my attitude to convince my employers that not only did I have their experience but I could be successful by following my instincts, so I did and it worked out well. Intelligent management realizes that good talent shouldn’t and can’t be bullied, instead should be creatively encouraged. I found that talented people may not like, but will respect competent management. But being “successful” is much easier said than done. One needs to be willing to sacrifice a lot to get a little. It’s not the “old guys’ hording the jobs (like a fellow performer once said to me …” broadcasting is not the F-ing railroad”) you are only as good as your last performance. One reason the field is crowded is because there’s just too many communications grades than there are jobs. Broadcasting is not for everyone. To bring this back into perspective, Walter was knocking management and ownership for not providing all they should have to the “worker bees” of the industry on all levels to keep radio afloat longer. You’re correct in your assessment that the technology of AM-FM radio isn’t ever going to get better, but that’s no reason to roll over. For talent, yes it will continue to be difficult unless you have someone like Walter in a managerial position (which he was and now seems to have also chosen the on air route) who can tell the difference between mediocre and great ability. Most people get into this industry for fame or fortune. That’s the wrong attitude. If someone is good at what they do eventually they will be recognized by somebody. Then if they’re lucky one might achieve fame or fortune or both. A personally and even financially rewarding long lasting career is the best most could expect. Being a millionaire or household word is afforded to very few in broadcasting. Walter’s just trying to tell management to think out of the box and treat employees fairly, nurture talent and balance sales with programming, or at least that’s my interpretation. The problem with radio’s shortcomings, in addition to an explosion in technology, is nobody has been minding the store at many, not all, radio stations for decades and that has hastened its erosion. He, nor anyone else has the answer as to how to restore AM or FM radio to a position of “king” again, but he has some good suggestions as to how to slow the rapid erosion. There should be a climate where local stations can be incubators for young people to develop. The fact is neophytes are coming right out of college with communications degrees , being hired in more advanced venues and falling on their butts because they are making the big mistakes that should be made were few can hear them, not in the big time. There is no substitute for talent, hard work and experience. Even Stern paid his dues before his “meteoric” rise. Radio’s place in the constellation of communications has undoubtedly changed. But it doesn’t mean the medium is extinct. Even some hundred year old newspapers have found was to evolve and survive. Change is inevitable. How we adapt is the important thing. I’ve ridden the wave of many changes in technology and so have others. There are so many aspects to navigating broadcasting I could and perhaps should, write a book.

      • There is a remarkable amount of talent in online video. I was the first to recognize and monetize them in 2007 and married major brands with online video stars through my company HITVIEWS. We got them paid and out of their parent’s basements. RADIO INK ran a cover story about it. Online video stars also run their own boards! I also learned that like most radio stars, their talent shines on only one stage.

    • Bill has the distinction of being the first person to let me inside a radio station==-=WSOU. I’ve hired him at least twice and it is always a great decision. More importantly he used to run JEAN SHEPHERD’S board

      • That and a half century of working in one capacity or another for, or contributing content to ,virtually every major broadcast company in America mostly in the center of the broadcasting world , New York. Walter also has a unique sense of humor.

  5. Radio Publications and Senior Level Executive Management are constantly assuring industry readers of radio’s strengths. This article seems to say, on the outside, everything is fine because more households have radios. More households have Home phones too but that is changing and not for the better. The list put forth will improve the morale of those that remain employed but the Magic is gone on two levels. 1) Executive level management does not care about the employees PERIOD. Radio/Tv is the only business I know that terminates employees with such regularity and without apology. 2) The listeners know how far Radio has declined. Radio is delivering less so other services don’t need to perform at a higher level. They just need to perform long enough for radio to underperform itself right out of relevance, just like the home phone.

  6. Lots of truth in what Walter is saying, but his examples of Great Radio Advertisers are primarily barter buyers. List in this is the HUGE over-supply of inventory. Radio does dominate in reach and selectivity….but we let advertisers and agencies play us against each other and depress rates. Free food in the lunch room isn’t going to do it alone – but really creative people enjoying what they do can!

  7. While Walter is making big points and pointing out much of what is obvious, but only to those who are paying attention, one major, two-part factor is missing in his comments.
    On-air talent and the creative departments must, repeat: must become far more effective in holding and influencing audiences to a.) maintain listenership to the station and, b.) produce commercials that are far more influential.
    Anything else, by comparison, and although important, will only become worthwhile but unsatisfactory exercises.

  8. The points made by Ray captures what’s wrong. He paints radio owners with a broad brush. They are all bad he says. So let’s just give up. Fact is there are many many many many great operators out there who still get it and are doing it right. But even right isn’t good enough today. Read what Walter says. It is simple. The bad guys will fall. The great guys will innovate. And succeed. My friend an ex boss at Emmis, Jeff Smulyan has 12 Commandments for employees. Read them at Emmis.com. Among them “take risks,don’t be afraid;” “admit your mistakes, it’s OK,but learn from them;” “And have fun.” Where has the fun gone? Bring it back. Vending machines w free stuff is a good idea by Walter. But you miss the point if you don’t get that it’s a symbolic gesture. Do more. Work at it. And yes where IS the Marconi for best new format? The NAB needs to do more to bring the creative spirit alive again. We just lost Dick Orkin. Some of the “experts” out there probably doesn’t even know who he was. Well listen to his stuff. It’s imagiation. Creative production of theatre of the mind. Where is the next Dick Orkin? He (or she) is out there somewhere. We need you. And by the way re the next big format. Let’s go back to Smulyan for a second. A couple or three decades ago this crazy visionary created a new format. All sports radio. They thought he was nuts. Send him to a home. They snickered. Never work. Nope. Never. But,alas, take a look at one of the hottest formats in radio today. Hmmm. I’d say we also need more nuts like Smulyan out there. I’d put Sabo in the same category. Thank God they are still around. Maybe it’s time to quit scoffing and start listening.

    • I paint with the brush of my experience. Yes, this has been at market 48 or so stations so of course it applies best to that scenario, but I have many colleagues in various situations that have similar thoughts. This article isn’t about the good bosses anyway, so try again Jon.

  9. I hope you realize that nothing you wrote here actually matters. The “people” that own radio stations don’t give a rat’s hairy ass about the peons that do the dirty work. Cashing checks and cutting jobs is what they know and love. Your article at first made me sad because I considered the possibilities, then I just laughed because I quickly remembered how fucked up radio is now as it continues on an unstoppable collision course with extinction. Radio employees are miserable and all the free vending machine food in the world won’t fix that. What a waste of your time to write this and mine to respond. Burn radio burn. Bring on the new messiah because this one is toast.

  10. Some good points! Macro market owner here. If my salespeople wore suites, they would be thrown out of most of their clients businesses. I did it and it happened to me! I would love to have Walmart, Home Depot, and Dollar General advertise on my station’s. They won’t talk to us unless they want something for free! That being said, we do very well without the monster advertisers. We take care of our sponsors and we give them results and yes, we raise our rates yearly and we have had revenue increases year for 20 years except for one year….when a major regional advertiser hired an ‘expert’ agency in NYC who decided to put local radio money in Pandora and Spotify! We have since made the money up. Sorry for that client!

  11. As a owner of two small market stations I say great comments for major market stations and many good points for the programming side. The problem for medium and small markets is revenue. Quote: “Walmart, Home Depot, Verizon are fairly pragmatic companies. They have chosen to be the top radio advertising investors. What have we done for them?” Answer: In small markets? We give them free advertising!! Need a jingle package ….barter… need giveaways….barter. Need voice talent…barter. Need programming…barter. Dollar General will come into a small market and take the revenue. Don’t give me the argument that I’m in an unrated market or don’t have numbers, but yet you will place an ad in the local paper with a falling subscriber base. Mr. Sabo how do we get Home Depot and Wal-Mart to spend money in markets that bring money to their bottom line, but they won’t spend a dollar with local media. Just a thought. On a lighter note: Yes, a sharp dressed salesperson does make a difference.

  12. As always, Walter, your comments are spot on. For decades I would preach that radio was a visual medium and we needed to look like we were number one, whether we were or not. I would always get a strange look from several people when I made that statement. I would also try to keep each facility in the best looking shape possible, but again, not always possible. Some facilities are just beyond fixing up. The places look like a trash dump and the manager wonders why morale is low. I just finished a book on the demise of Circuit City. Their biggest issue was the focus on Wall Street and not on Main Street. Radio travels the same route. Focus on the people working for you. If you do that, most other problems will be fixed.

  13. Hey John – thanks for insulting all of us hard-working, educated, and non – pedaling radio sales people. Like me. Oh and by the way, the words “people” and “media” don’t need to be capitalized. Sounds like somebody missed out on part of their education.

  14. Absolute, if painful truth. I left the business, on my terms, the end of 2005, after being in radio since age 15 and spending the next 40 years watching the industry erode.
    You have to GIVE PEOPLE A REASON TO LISTEN.
    What do the most successful radio groups do that the big guys don’t? Be part of their communities EVERY DAY with talent that knows which community group should be spotlighted, and really, really, selling the sponsors.

    I have been a media and journalism instructor at a college over the past decade. Kids are locked into Spotify and Pandora and iTunes to be sure, but, surprise, they do listen to terrestrial radio, more than we give them credit, when they find what they like and, yeah, when mom and dad at carting them around. They HAVE A REASON TO LISTEN.

  15. Radio People are the lowest form of Media sales people..Lazy, uneducated and a bunch of Peddlers!! There is a group of them working for A 5 station radio group in Palm Coast Florida…Should sell the stations!!!

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