New Programming Gig?
August 23, 2016
Programming in a new situation is a lot like changing schools as a kid; a chance to start over. However, in school you were trying to fit in, in radio a PD is the new principal. The new person with the task of forging ahead for ratings and playing a big part in keeping the cash register overflowing. I have had several fresh programming opportunities during my career and I learned a thing or two about how to approach these situations. What approach to use depends on several factors; if the station is at rock bottom, it's an easy do-over because there is nowhere to go but up. On the other hand, if a station has been fairly successful, a different strategy needs to be applied, especially if your predecessor was well liked.
Here is my exchange with a PD heading into a new programming position.
PD: This will be my third station to program and this is a pretty sweet deal. I want to make sure I don't have any problems, so I am reaching out to you for some guidance.
Coach: Well, I don't know everything, but I have had a lot of experience with this sort of thing. And what I don't know, I can put you in touch with those who do.
PD: I have finally come to realize that maybe someone who has had more experience with this sort of thing could help me break this pattern of automatically messing up as soon as I step in the door of a new set of call letters. Don't get me wrong, I have had VPs of Programming hire me and fly in for my first few days at a new place. But they are not there every day and some daily programming stuff is outside their reality.
Coach: Before I make any suggestions, tell me what you do when you get to a new station.
PD: I meet the jocks, the sales department, and office staff. The times I had a Music Director I got with him and got familiar with categories and the station music. I always make any changes I think need to be changed.
Coach: Well, what you told me sounds pretty standard. On the changes, how quickly did you do make them?
Coach: Sometimes we can be right and wrong at the same time. When it comes to being the new sheriff in town, I always suggest you make changes if necessary and only after settling in for a couple of months. When it comes to other annoyances or things that need tweaking; implement those at times which would meet with the least internal resistance, like a down trend in a Diary market or PPM monthly. Timing is everything. I was once programming a station with a grandfathered Sunday program anchored by a personality who sounded as if he had been stuck in a radio time tunnel. He sounded like that imitation of a DJ people do when they find out you're in radio. Seriously, the first time I heard him was during a live brunch remote and he sounded as if he had drunk every Bloody Mary within a five-mile radius. It was painful to listen to.
Before I picked up the phone on Monday to invite him in for a meeting, I took a look at the weekend ratings and Sundays in particular. To my shock, over a three-year period this jock not only was #1 in his time slot 18-34 on Sunday but the man also consistently out-performed the rest of the station by a share-and-a-half.
Everyone assumed I was going to dump him because of his outdated sound, but instead I gave him a Saturday shift, got the owner to give him a bump on his hourly, and a bonus plan incentive. I privately talked to him about his conduct at live remotes and he continued to kick ass. Incidentally, although he was weekends, he was the most sought-after for remotes by clients.
Never make any changes when you begin programming a station until you get the full picture.
PD: That jock sounds like he was pretty amazing. I have to admit, I usually make changes ASAP based on what upper management lets me do and my gut.
Coach: My friend, sometimes there is more to it than that. I recommend to any PD going into a situation to find someone who can give a historical perspective on the station and the market. This is important only if the station has always done well, there is nothing you could screw up if the opposite is true.
PD: Who would you recommend I talk to?
Coach: Everyone from the owner to the cleaning people. Also create some casual settings in which you can find out if sales and programming have had a good relationship. Don't do this at work, but at a lunch or dinner and do most of the listening and not the talking. There are always those one or two people who have good grasp on what is going on around the station.
PD: How do I find these people?
Coach: At every station the unofficial welcome wagon greets and overwhelms you with words of well wishes and offers to help in any way they can. Sometimes one of these people might be your source or it might be the one person who keeps to themselves. Just try and pay attention to see who is sincere and avoid too much contact with the extremely curious. Regardless, you need to identify the person or persons and learn the landscape before you do anything at your new station.
PD: I have never had anyone tell me anything like this. You must have dealt with some interesting situations.
Coach: I always tried to be aware of everything around me and not just the music, jocks, promotion and production. It's like a pick-up basketball game; you always want to know who can shoot and who can't.
Inside the walls of the station it's the office politics that will make or break you. Therefore, during the first few months avoid any in-house confrontational group meeting situations. Smile a lot, then after a meeting, find your go-to person and address the issue with them for a better understanding. This will help you learn your co-workers and the best way to do things.
PD: So what sort of changes can I make going in?
Coach: I recommend the ones no one can argue with. There are several services today that any programmer can use to help make more informed music decisions. For example, Shazam's explorer function, Pro-Play's digital music integration program (iHeartMedia has its own), or BuzzAngle Music, which uses weighted information to determine digital sales. Any one or all of these could make a good impression if a station does not already use any of them.
PD: Okay, how much should I rely on staff for connections in town?
Coach: You need to become acquainted quickly with local politicians, civic leaders, local concert venders, and promoters. Get out in the community and observe the people. Every station has one or more hometown local involvement types who belong to various organizations, use them as your GPS to learn the movers and shakers.
Jock: Anything else?
PD: There is a bunch, but as you pick up on what I have told you I know you will be calling to ask me a lot of things. I can't predict each situation, but I can advise you as things arise. I will finish by telling you one more thing; avoid office politics and be an observer of all things good or bad. It is the best way I know how to keep anything from coming back to bite you in the butt.
PD: Man, I could have used you two stations ago!
I once worked at a station where all the personalities (me included) would take bets on how long some new PDs would last. The point is, you do not want to be the sure bet to lose before you even get to the post.