10 Questions with ... Mike Stern
April 1, 2014
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
It's been an interesting ride. Before this I was working for myself as a Consultant for the Nielsen Audio Programming Team, the Editor of Billboard's Top 40 Update and founder of my own radio talent coaching business, Talent Mechanic. I was also the News/Talk/Sports Editor for Radio & Records.
My programming career includes Q101 and The Loop in Chicago, Lazer 103 in Milwaukee, several stations in Denver, a short stop in Detroit, KXTE in Las Vegas and The Edge in Dayton.
And before all that I worked at... wait for it... Jacobs Media. Apparently my entire career is just a big circle.
1. What led you back to Jacobs Media?
Fred called and said we need to talk.... But what really led me to want the job is the chance to do everything I love about radio: working with talent, generating creative ideas, and helping craft great content.
2. What are you most proud of from the past 20 years as a programmer, editor at two trade publications, and talent coach?
I'm most proud of the talent I've worked with, either as the PD or coach, who have gone on to great careers. Watching them grow and learn to be better communicators and entertainers is very gratifying to me.
Right behind that would be making the transition from daily programming to making a living as a writer, something I'd never done before, and opening my own business. Both of those were terrifying, wonderful experiences.
3. How different is your job as a consultant today?
The level of resources available to stations is so different than it was. Less people, less marketing, less research forces us to be more creative in coming up with new ideas and ways to analyze situations. Quite often our clients need options that are easy to execute without utilizing staff or budgets. That's a very different challenge.
4. How important is personality and the music for Alternative stations?
What else is there? We have to play great music and augment it with interesting and compelling personalities. Otherwise the iPods and streaming sites win.
5. What can Alternative stations do better to appeal to the younger/hipster music fans?
There are two different questions there. Hipster music fans have never been the core of the format. When I think hipsters we are talking about people who are way ahead of the curve musically. We can never be "new" enough for them and, even if we did deliver a product they liked, there just aren't enough people like this to drive ratings. It's always been a challenge at the format to blend edgy and mainstream into an audience friendly station.
Appealing to younger music fans, on the other hand, is vital to our future. We need to make our product available on the platforms they are using and that user experience has to be as good as the one on the FM dial. We need to communicate with them in the way they want to be reached. And, most importantly, we need to deliver an interesting compelling product, not just another jukebox.
6. What can the Alternative format do better to localize and engage listeners in today's competitive environment?
Be a larger part of your community. Being local isn't just about concert announcements and weather. Our listeners are young and active yet our stations are rarely a source of information about what is happening in our markets. We should be the station that is the conduit for information on new restaurants, co-ed kickball leagues, Tough Mudder 5k races, unique products from local businesses, and anything else of interest going on in your town.
7. What is one piece of advice you can share from your tenure at Arbitron (now Nielsen Audio) about maximizing ratings data?
Occasions are what matter. More often than not when people tune out it has nothing to do with the song we played or what the host said. Life happens - the baby cries, the meeting starts, the commute ends - and there's nothing you can do that will keep them tuned in. So it's incredibly important to develop programming that will cause listeners to come back to your station when they turn the radio back on. And once you have that programming, it's important to tease to it consistently and creatively to plant that seed in the listener's mind.
8. Can you give us a little slice of the Alternative format from Jacobs Media's TechSurvey 10 study? What is the biggest format trend?
The biggest finding and this is something we are seeing in other forms of research as well is that Alternative listeners are coming to the format in search of new music. Discovery is a driving force for the format and we need to find ways to deliver for them that Pandora or iTunes can't. The most obvious is having great curators the listener can trust to turn them on to great new music.
9. What stands out the most from the glory days of helping launch all The Edge Alternative stations in the early '90s?
Aside from how much fun it was to sign on all those stations what stands out is what fueled the format at the time, Grunge, which was mass-appeal music. Remember, Eddie Vedder was on the cover of Time magazine. Fast forward to today and part of what's fueling the format right now is that we have a great body of very mass-appeal music.
It's a great reminder that the format is at its best when our music isn't insular and crosses boundaries beyond just "Alternative" fans. There's also an important lesson there in the value of brand depth and talent development. When the music cooled down stations that hadn't developed their brand or didn't have great hosts who do compelling radio struggled. Alternative music is hot right now but that won't last forever. For anyone who is a Game Of Thrones fan (and you should be, best show on television) think of me as the House Stark of alternative radio; Winter is coming, make sure your station is prepared.
10. What would surprise people most about you?
A lot of people are surprised that I was willing to move from Detroit to Anchorage, Alaska for my first radio job. I've also had my three turtles, Sarah, Spider and Freak for 15 years. They were a gift from my General Manager in Denver Bob Visotcky. And if that doesn't do it I also have a collection of Sci-Fi and Superhero-themed Mr. Potato Heads. Darth Tater, Mashter Yoda, Tony Starch (Iron Man) and Indiana Jones (Taters of the Lost Ark) are just a few.
Your bio mentions you are doing stand-up comedy. What motivated you to become a comedian? Can you share a joke with us?
First, doing stand-up comedy and becoming a comedian are two very different things. I tried the former, not sure about the latter. The reason I tried stand-up and did several years of improv training and performing is that those skills directly relate to being a host. Writing comedy, performing jokes and improvising is part of what great hosts do every day and I wanted to learn more about the process.
And as for sharing a joke you'll have to call my agent. I don't work for free.
I know you are a big college basketball fan. Tell us about your bracket this year?
My bracket is a mess but as of this writing I am two points ahead of my wife in our friends-and-family pool which is very important for bragging rights.