Beautiful Lobby ... Empty Studios
July 28, 2015
I'll never forget the day that I first walked into 4002 Gandy in Tampa. This was the home of Jacor Broadcasting at the time, and my first thought was how dated and cheap the lobby appeared to be. You could tell that there had been almost no investment into the lobby since the mid-1980s.
When I walked back to the studios, I noticed that it was kind of sloppy ... board operators on the Talk station had plastered posters all over the studio wall of the Talk station. Speaking of plaster - there were literally holes in the wall at some points, and discolored ceiling tiles that revealed evidence of a roof leak at one time.
Yes, the building was a bit dumpy, but some of the best radio ever made came out of that place between WFLZ and WFLA. The appearance of the lobby was actually an indication of a company that had the right priorities - hire great talent, and let them do what they do. I did some of the best work of my career in that building ... simply because I had the autonomy to do so.
Recently, I was visiting a good friend at a group of radio stations owned by one of the big companies ... interestingly, the last time I had stepped foot in that very building, I was the "corporate programmer" who oversaw that market, and this was the first time I had seen the place in a few years. The first thing that caught my attention were the lobby upgrades that had taken place since I last visited. The corporate logo beautifully embossed on the elevator doors, and a lit glass sign with the corporate logo, along with the radio station's logos; that must have cost a fortune to create. Brand new furniture ... a spectacular paint job ... very impressive, to say the least.
Then I toured the studios. With the exception of one, every studio was empty. There were no people. It happened to be the middle of the day, and all of the stations had some form of syndication or voicetracking. And the one studio with a person in it was a part-time board op running a syndicated show.
Does anybody else see the irony in all of this? There had been major investments made in the lobby, and no investment made in the product. Anybody see a problem with this?
This is another symptom of the disease that is killing radio. The big companies have their priorities completely backward. Instead of building an empty palace, how about investing into talent and talent development? Maybe skip embossing the elevator doors with the corporate logo, and instead give the station some marketing dollars?
It reminds me of the fake skyline movie set that you see at Universal Studios ... it looks like a real city, but there are no inhabitants. In fact, there are no buildings. Just pictures of buildings being propped up by planks of wood. That's what many radio stations have become -- soul-less, phony, and empty -- even though they "appear" to be something different, at least in the lobby.
My friend Bill Tanner tells me great stories about his time working for broadcast pioneer Cecil Heftel. I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Heftel before he passed away a few years back, but I know that I would have liked him based on the stories Bill has shared. One of my favorites is how Cecil used to say, "I want the talent to drive the really nice cars ... sales people can drive the Buicks." In other words, the "corner offices," big salaries, and perks went to the people who created the product. Heftel built an empire by buying under-performing stations and putting entertaining and compelling products on the air - turning them into big ratings and revenue successes - and eventually selling them for a huge fortune. It's not hard to see why he was such a success. It's amazing what the right priorities will do.
And in another ironic twist, I recently had the opportunity to design the floor plan for a radio station that I own. Can you guess who got the big corner office? The jocks - it's the air studio. And yes, we actually have jocks ... in a small market with few resources. Go figure.
It's amazing what the right priorities can do.
If only one of the big guys had the balls to do what we're doing on a larger scale. We've tried their failed model since 1996 ... how's it working? Radio stocks are in the toilet, new media has captured the young audience while radio gives away its relevance, and there is almost no innovation in radio formats, all while talent are being told to "shut up and play the hits," thus raising a generation of "announcers" who are completely interchangeable and irrelevant, instead of entertaining and meaningful personalities. And how is revenue growth? It's crap. Your model will be 20 years old next year, and it's a colossal failure. Your employees are too afraid to tell you what they really think of you. In fact, many of them thank me (off the record) for saying what they are thinking.
Your model is broken, and if you don't change course, you will be discarded into the trash heap of history, and you're going to suck the entire industry into your vortex.
But at least your lobby looks nice.