10 Questions with ... Tim Roberts
May 8, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
2016 Country Radio Hall of Fame inductee Tim Roberts has been OM for CBS Radio Detroit since 2005, leading WYCD to Station of the Year honors from the ACM, CMA and Marconi Awards. His career started in 1979 and has taken him to cities all over the US, including Cedar Rapids, IA, Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Spokane, and San Francisco. Prior to joining WYCD, Roberts was Cumulus Media Midwest reginal OM, and lead WQXK to CMA Station of the Year honors as well. Roberts has the distinction of having lead two legendary Country brands in Detroit as his resume includes WWWW in the Motor City from 1995-1998.
1. Tim, thanks for taking the time for 10 Questions. Let's start with your thoughts on what induction into the Country radio hall of fame means to you, and what it says about your radio career.
Well, it is the greatest honor that you can get in radio, in the Country radio world for sure. So, it means the world to me that I was not only accepted into the community - the music community, the radio community, the Nashville community, and everything that's involved in Country music. First of all, to be a part of it is an honor. And then second of all, to be recognized for the work that you've done over the years is really the greatest honor and to be part of something bigger than yourself is always amazing and emotional. This is the crown jewel of all of that.
2. And you have a unique perspective on this recognition, in terms of how powerful it is, because you've been on the board for a long time and you've been involved with the Country Radio Hall of Fame selection process . So I just wonder, having observed a lot of these induction ceremonies go down, and now suddenly you're a part of it. So it's kind of like an inside out perspective for you.
Yeah, truly it has been. You see how much it means to all the people that have been nominated and recognized, and all the people that want to be. It makes it that much more powerful from an emotional standpoint, and from the respect that the award deserves and gets in the community. For someone close to it, it means even more. First off, you never even think of yourself in that respect, like, 'Ooh, I'm going to be in it someday.' You think about all the great people that came in before you. I've seen all the plaques and I've heard the speeches, so it really is impressive and truly an honor. It sounds cliché, but that's the truth of it.
3. Let's go back to before you were in radio. What station or personality did you grow up most listening to? And how did either the station or a particular personality influence you in terms of saying, I want to be in radio some day?
Well my dad was a radio freak, so let's just start with that. My dad was a kind of the Mr. Fix-It guy and never hired a repairman for anything, so I assisted him on many tasks. While we did any of those tasks, we had a radio with us at all times. That got me hooked on it, and when I was very small, my dad listened to JP McCarthy on WJR.I didn't really understand that it was more of Talk Radio, but I knew he was obviously important to this community. CKLW certainly was my first huge influence. It was the Top 40 station out of Canada that was 80,000 watts. It was clear channel in the sense of broadcasting to half of the United States and all of Canada. Sitting right across the river from Detroit, it really was a Detroit radio station for all intents and purposes. It was the #1 radio station in Detroit. They played every genre of music, including Country music from whatever was on the Top 40 chart. That's what they were playing, so you would hear Glen Campbell, the Supremes, CCR, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, and then you would hear Johnny Cash. They really played everything in the good old sense of Top 40, but the jocks were great. And there were a couple of them, Ted Richards, Tom Shannon, and Dick Purtan. They were all there. I listened to them as kids and they were tremendous air talents. The style of radio they did had a huge influence on the way I think about radio now.
4. Tell us about your first radio job - and your first-ever live break on the air. Certainly you remember both, right?
It was at the campus radio station which was a college radio station that I guess you could call a Rock station. I became very successful as a programmer (which was my first experience programming), but my first break on there was on Rock Stereo 91, Mt. Pleasant, MI. My sister's roommate was in the radio program and she was doing it, and that got me interested in it. I had DJ'd high school dances and I had a huge interest in music already at that point. I thought, well that sounds like a fun little hobby, and I didn't know my hobby was going to turn out to be my life career.
5. Mentors - everybody has a few of them. Who was it for you that helped you, challenged you, and made you believe you could actually make this a career?
Well, there were a couple of people. There was a guy named Bob Bromlick that was running the campus radio program at Central Michigan University, and he was a tremendous influence. He really instilled in a lot of students the belief that they could make it, and the people that came out of that program had been so successful in that era that I went. Jeff Thomas was there, who is now Vice President of iHeartMedia in Los Angeles. He was a big influence on me there, and a couple of other jocks that were really good on the air, like Danny Clayton, who is in Milwaukee, and was also one of the men in my wedding. He was a big influence. We all kind of collaborated together in the radio program, and it was like a brother and sisterhood. There were so many people that were totally into it, and we all just believed in each other and making a great product, and we did. We took the station to #1 in ratings, and at the time it was 300 watts.
6. You've worked different markets during your career, but have been in Detroit for much of it - and, since you are a Michigan guy, I would imagine going in the Hall working at a Detroit station is especially meaningful.
Oh for sure. You know, getting back to the college days, I realized that I could get paid for being on the air at some point. I applied for the position at Mt. Pleasant at WCEN, which is now known as "The Moose," but the tower and the transmitter were all in Mt. Pleasant before they moved everything. That's how I got into the Country radio side of things. I immediately fell in love with the format, while I was also working at the Rock station. People thought I was out of my mind, by the way, for working at the Country radio station, but I loved it. I had a great time doing it. I take great pride in the fact that, first off, Detroit is a very good Country market, which I had been sort of the ambassador saying that for decades now. I think we proved it with the way that WYCD has performed in ratings, and the recognition we've had nationally as being a powerhouse radio station thanks to my great staff. The fans here are great, and the artists notice that when they come here that this is a great Country music community. People are very, very passionate about it at a level that is almost unmatched in the country, so I'm pretty proud of that for sure.
7. I have a programming question for you. Country has traditionally been an adult-targeted format, specifically 25-54. But we seem to have moved more into the 18-34 arena recently. Long-term, will this be the core audience for Country radio, or do you see us shifting in emphasis and appeal, back to mature listeners?
Well, I can tell you in my market 25-54 still is the target demo for this radio station. I think it does matter what market you're in and what your competitors are like. I think the music that has come out of Nashville has driven the audience younger. When Garth came out, he drove all kind of crazy numbers of young people that had never even been thought about being in Country radio. Luke Bryan and some other artists that are popular right now - Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, and others - drive younger people into the format. That has never been a bad thing. At one point, Waylon and Willie drove young people into the format - that's going way back. Randy Travis drove younger people into the format. In the last decade, a lot of new programmers have come into this format out of Top 40 and other music formats, so they were used to targeting younger. I think musically they hear that kind of music being hits. I think Nashville caters to that sometimes in what they produce and who they sign. But then you'll see somebody like Chris Stapleton - who's diametrically opposite and still has young appeal, but just is traditional. To me it's always been cyclical in the format. It always kind of goes up and down. People think it's too Poppy. I remember the whole thing of, "Kenny Rogers is too Poppy," and now people think he's Country as dirt, which is kind of hilarious. If you go back to the 60s, they thought Patsy Cline and Jim Reeves were too Poppy. In the 80s it was the Urban Cowboy thing, and Alabama was too Poppy. Now no one would say that's Poppy. It's kind of funny how that has been sort of a reoccurring theme every decade. And then Shania Twain and Faith Hill were too Poppy, and everyone would call them straight up Country now. I don't think there would be a question about it.
8. To your point - I was going to go there but you mentioned it unsolicited - the influx of programmers from Top 40 into Country - do you think that has made Country radio in general chase after the shiny new object in 18-34 a little too hard? Have we hurt ourselves on the upper end, which is traditionally the area where we get a lot of long-term usage out of those listeners?
That is a very tough question. I don't know if it's the programmers or if it's because we're in the PPM era. In a lot of rated markets which changed radio dramatically forever and the way that we execute on the air and the way that we're judged, on a score card if you will. I think the methodology changed radio more than programmers, who are always trying to chase delivering big numbers for whoever owns their radio station and for themselves too. So I think there are a lot of combined factors. The fact that there are things you've never even heard of before that enter your world like satellite radio, Pandora, and Shazam, and these other digital components that make up people's music choices. There are a lot out there that people are thinking about all the time. Does it skew younger? Probably. But I don't know if it's the programmers that are determining that. I think it's the environment, really, more than anything else.
9. There is also an industry-wide concern about the thin on-air talent pool and its lack of development. How will we get younger talent ready for prime time, and where will we find younger creative types, in a time where radio isn't seen as cool as it once was?
There's no question about that. I think you're right on. There's a couple of things that I think; obviously the voice tracking era and doing more with less has certainly thinned out the talent pool. Nobody can argue that point. I think though that the people of my era and the people that are in charge of radio stations need to develop talent straight up, and it should be one of your big initiatives. And how will you do it? You have to sometimes go out and find people. You have to proactively search for them as opposed to sitting in your office thinking resumes are going to come in and you're going to find the next big thing randomly. There are a lot of schools that still have the programs, but are they being trained correctly and can you help shape that? I'm more than happy to talk at any college or university, and I do whenever asked - and high schools for that matter. We have tours here, and I actively train people off the air all the time that have expressed an interest; it might be in promotions or something else, and I give them a shot at it behind the scenes - obviously not just putting them on the air. So you have to put effort into it and I think you also have to have a creative environment that allows them to be creative. So if you want someone to come in and read liner cards, which is really not that fun and they quickly realize that there's nothing to it. I think people get into radio because they want to express their personality, and you have to allow them to do that. With everything, keeping in mind of the formatics of radio and the science of it and all that, but you still have to have a creative environment. You have to invest time and effort into training people or, you're right, the talent pool then becomes so thin that we'll be in trouble. But the good news is there still are people out there that want to do it, and to me it seems like the people that are winning are the people that have personalities and are putting something into it. I'm a big advocate for local programming - I have been my whole life - and I think that great local programming cannot be duplicated, so I think that is the future of success in radio. We have to invest into young people and we have to work with schools and we have to work with our internship programs and every other method we can to find the next people, and spend time with these young people and not just blow by them and expect them to get it.
10. Having been in the format for a while now - let's talk about where Country radio is going. You programmed during the 90s boom and are still at it now, when Country is just huge. What direction do you see it heading -are the Pop, Hip-Hop, and Rock influences here to stay?
I think the artists themselves have some say in it. They have to write the music and record the music that they think speaks to them and their music soul. Hopefully they're not just making music that they think will get played on the radio. They're making music that has substance and some kind of lasting impact. You would hope that is the goal of most of them, and I think that is a factor. Every genre sort of sees some degree of - I don't know if it's copycat - a smear of influence. When you get an artist -and I'll use Taylor Swift as an example -this woman had a tremendous effect on the format. Then other females were influenced by her and came into our format, and then people will say, 'Oh that girl sounds like Taylor Swift.' Well I don't know if that's true. I think that she influenced them just the way that Randy Travis influenced countless others. I think that happens a lot in the format. I also find it interesting you'll see a different kind of sound coming out of a certain artist that is a brand new signed act, and you'll say, 'Wow that guy sounds different than everyone else,' and then all of the sudden, three other people pop up at the same time that clearly were signed before the other person came out. It seems coincidental, 'Well that guy sounds like that guy and they were signed by different record companies almost at the same time,' but I think it relates to the idea that certain types of sounds that the format has consistently over a long period of time. For example, the power vocal group. It was the Oak Ridge Boys, the Gatlin Brothers, and then it was Alabama. Then it became Rascal Flatts, and obviously they're still making great music now, but you see Zac Brown come up. And then on the traditional side you have Randy Travis and Alan Jackson and I guess you could argue that Tim McGraw kind of took over that, and Kenny Chesney too. I feel like those lanes get filled one way or the other as time goes on. As someone becomes outdated, another person comes into that lane that was missing for a while. I feel like that continues to go on through the years.
What has been your proudest moment in radio - could be an off-air or on-air moment?
It's hard to identify a single moment, but in the general sense, I think it's anytime that we can actually make a difference in someone's life. You certainly look at things like, a million dollar St. Jude Radiothon that you know directly affects people. It's when you use the power of radio to do good - and there are so many other examples besides raising funds. It's publicly recognizing and helping local police or fire when we've had to. It's being on the air in emergency weather situations or in the Detroit blackout. We became an emergency operator, and life became real -- it wasn't just about entertainment anymore. With all the patriotism that emanates from Country radio, it's also supporting soldiers, the Wounded Warrior Project, and local veterans. I think those are the things that you remember the most, and I've been blessed to have thousands of them happen to me. On the other side of it, it's being involved in so many careers at the very beginning and being able to recognize the talent and just be a part of that. With our Downtown Hoedown, I always try to pick 10 or 15 upcoming bands that I think are going to have an impact in the format. To see it come to fruition is also what I think of on the music side of it.