10 Questions with ... Mike Brophey
November 17, 2013
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
- Started radio career in 1973 by managing a 60-person college AM/FM staff.
- Has worked every radio format except News/Talk and Classical.
- Country radio since 1984, when he joined WXTU/Philadelphia.
- With WKLB/Boston since 1996.
- 2014 Country Radio Hall of Fame Inductee
1. Mike, thanks for taking the time for 10 Q's! Let's start with congrats on your recent selection for the Country Radio Hall of Fame. Tells us how you heard the news and what this honor means to you.
Ginny Rogers told me about the induction which was really cool. I usually am in the office before she is, so she stopped on the way and got a big cookie with "HOF" on it - and I had no idea what she was talking about. It was a really nice moment. It takes a while for things to sink in for me, sometimes a long time before I get emotionally involved. For the Hall of Fame selection to become reality to me was about three weeks, and I think it was because it was so far out of my wheelhouse - I really never would even allow my mind to go there - I was pretty taken aback. I am still taken aback, really. It is such a huge honor, especially from peers, it's surreal. I'm still absorbing it all. I am shocked, proud, honored, and still in a bit of disbelief.
2. For many Hall of Famers, Country radio was their entire career. Did you start out in radio wanting to be in this format, or did it come to you via a terrific job opportunity?
May I be frank for a moment? The format found me, and it took six years until I think I "got it." My first exposure to country was in about 1970 when "He'll Have to Go" by Jim Reeves came on the radio and the guy I was working with, (not a radio gig), was singing along. That was it until 1984, at which time while in Philly WXTU changed to country. A lot of guys bailed, but I stuck with it. That was the beginning of a wonderful ride of music, relationships, and plain old fun.
3. WKLB has always been a competitive radio station, but in the past two years or so, it's become dominant, with recent #1 market rankings. What has been the tipping point, that has make 'KLB so successful?
As always, there are a variety of ducks that need to line up for everything to come together. First and foremost, the music to my ear is the best it has been since I started in country in 1984. Sonically, you simply cannot get bored with this format. We were getting more and more sampling from younger demos and they were staying. The pop world was a little softer than we are used to, and I think that helped. We have provided a very highly produced, stable radio station since I arrived in 1996. Our personalities have been here as many as twenty years, and we have maintained a very consistent philosophy. But - it is after all it's all about the music, and as I mentioned, it's been great. I would be remiss if I didn't mention social media. I think it has had a huge, positive impact on what we do. We had 59 country concerts in just a few months, and gave away a lot of tickets. People were passionately involved with the format and the station.
4. You've told me before the music is in a great cycle right now. Based on your experience in this format, how long can Country sustain this current rate of growth?
There is a ceiling, although the ceiling moves depending on a lot of variables. Essentially, how much can we grow is one question, and how fast we grow is another. What I like about this cycle is that the music is the driver more so than the "look" of the format. It is not being driven by a movie, or styles of clothes, or lifestyle. It's great music. So - it meets people where they are and they don't have to move in a direction away from their typical daily lifestyle. Having said that though - there is only a certain amount of radio listening that can be given. As we know from PPM there is very little exclusivity in listening even with our most dedicated fans. Certainly the Urban Cowboy era was a fad, and the early 90s was less so. The format's recent rate of growth has become slower and that is good because it is less a fad and that means better staying power. As wonderful as it has been, time spent listening and cume are finite. But the apex of this cycle is higher than others. And we have secured our future with 35+ since the 18-34s are giving us so much time. We can expect a robust future.
5. With the influx of new and different sounds for the format in the past couple of years (Florida Georgia Line, Eric Church, Dan + Shay for example) that have young appeal, do we run the risk of a disconnect with the 35-54 female audience that typically delivers so much listening ?
We have discussions often about this subject. There is nothing wrong - in fact everything right - with playing music by artists that have young appeal. It's all about a balance. A greater concern is allowing our format to become one sided sonically. We are now more aware of new traditional artists singing about drinking beer in trucks. Not exactly those lyrics, but the "feel" of those lyrics. About 15% of our music falls into that category, so we're more careful to keep those titles apart than we were. We are at a point at which we need more females in the format and more female friendly lyrics. It's getting more difficult to rely on oldies to fill that void. Yes we run the risk of a disconnect, but if we manage it properly we can control the risk.
6. Follow up to the previous question: Do you ever see a time when Country will successfully divide into two, targeted formats - one for 18-34s and another for say, 40 and over?
That is more of a market specific question. There are markets offering multiple country stations...each with its own nuance of format. I have always been intrigued with the fact that the country listener has always been very tolerant - in fact accepting and expecting - to welcome new artists in to the format. Playing them side by side with established artists with decades old careers has been the norm. As much great music as there is, there is still a limited amount. The dilemma is finding enough great songs to support either an 18-34 or 40+ audience and be able to sustain it. If a station is targeted too narrowly, the chance of a sustained success is diminished. And 18-34s are the least loyal so throwing all the eggs in one basket may for some create challenges.
7. Do you worry at all about some songs by superstars that run up and down the chart so quickly that they don't develop reliable, long-term familiarity? Or, has the music era become so densely focused on the last 14 months that it may not matter?
I remember a time when some record labels were releasing songs by their super stars; it seemed, about every ten weeks. You could get four singles by an artist in the same year. That was not good because if you base familiarity of a song - and staying power of the song - on number of total spins, the math doesn't work. I have never seen our charts as slow as they are right now. Personally, I would like to see about 14 weeks for the life of a song...with real, meaningful airplay. I think we owe it to ourselves to commit to a song, and stay with it if music testing, downloading, requests, etc. warrant it. Songs don't seem to move down the chart any more. They move down a week or two and are quickly dropped so you can't see the negative part of the cycle of the song. That part of the cycle, (the downward trend), is as important as the positive side as it grows up the chart when it comes to establishing the songs staying power. At WKLB, we still balance our currents with established songs from the 90s and 2000s so our familiarity quotient as a station is pretty stable. The bulk of our TSL still comes from 40+ so focusing on the last 14 months could erode out TSL base, and that's not what we choose to do.
8. You had a long run at WXTU/Philadelphia before this current, 16-year stay at WKLB. In a business that can be very transient, what's the secret to longevity?
First and foremost, I love what I do. I have said the radio business has to be your vocation, hobby, spouse, pet, etc. It requires a lot of time and dedication to progress. If you don't really love it, you won't give it the time needed. I still consider myself a rookie in a lot of ways. There is so much I don't know, and I love absorbing new things, and love to be around people who have different experiences. I think that shows each day. I have been blessed...and I mean that in the very literal sense. I have worked for wonderful companies with people who have given me time to learn and grow, have appreciated what I have contributed, and have been tolerant of my inexperience at times. I have been, over the years, coached and have worked with people who have mentored me. I think I seized that opportunity, perhaps even unknowingly, because of my love for the business. Conversely, I have had great, dedicated, talented people working for me. I've benefitted from both sides. This has made a pleasant work environment for all of us. Why move? I have worked primarily for two privately held companies and have been fortunate enough to be able to have CEOs and owners who have taken the time to develop a relationship with me, and have allowed me to do the same. Not that that is a guarantee for employment, but, it is nice to be able to approach one's position with the knowledge that the people who have such great responsibility are approachable and helpful in a very direct sense. I owe them a lot. They have my back, and to the best of my ability I have theirs.
9. You also work closely with you wife, Ginny at WKLB and this seems to work quite well. How do you both find the balance in your lives when both worlds are so intertwined?
This was the arrangement that was only supposed to last about three years!! That was an arbitrary timeframe, but neither of us thought we could stand it any longer than that. I was even more pigheaded in 1996 than I am now, and I would say Ginny managed my pigheadedness very well. I have to pull rank at the office, and Ginny has to pull rank at home. Cardinal rule: we don't commute together - ever. The best arguments happen - usually about music -when we are three feet apart in a car with nowhere to go. I hate to admit that I have shortcomings, but Ginny has strengths that I could not even approach. She is adept at using her strengths to cover some of my weaknesses. She approaches what we do artistically, and I am more of a facts and figures guy, so there is a good balance. People are attracted to her personality. When they see me approaching they get out a can of bug spray. So there you have it. We have a decent balance, and she is one of the only people in the world I trust with my radio station. We run into trouble sometimes with childcare. Between school and hockey there isn't a lot of time and often we have to make a choice as to who will go to the concert or help with the homework. Our in office schedule flexes some, and that can happen because we really are working most of the time whether or not we are actually at the station.
10. This may be the biggest brain-teaser: In what is now a Hall of Fame career, can you pick one moment or time that you are most proud of?
Nothing has made me more proud than being inducted into the Hall of Fame as it is an honor I dared not even dream about and I am totally serious about that. Very few events in my life have stopped me in my tracks because I can be a bit dispassionate. But the Hall of Fame honor is overwhelming. Many people in the business - including those who I love very much - have reminded me that I am now officially old. So be it!
1. The Red Sox and Bruins are playing at home on the same day. Which game do you attend?
MY SON'S HOCKEY GAME - and DVR both the Sox and the Bruins
2. I'm in Boston for just 24 hours. Where do you take me to get a true feel for the city?
I take you to several places, but all easy. South Boston, the neighborhoods, the bars. It's cool. Fenway Park, Quincy Market and Faneul Hall, a Bruins game but you sit high up. The Cheers Bar just because; you walk the Freedom Trail and see all the stuff you learned about in grade school. Legal Seafood and sample Sam Adams.
3. True or false: Everybody will know my name the moment I walk into The Bull & Finch Pub.
TRUE - they will know your name and ask you for money.