He That Can Have Patience Can Have What He Will
August 4, 2016
After a grueling, year-long nationwide search, the usual onslaught of interested candidates, and requisite vetting of legitimate contenders, Scripps Country KFDI/Wichita is finally set to debut its new morning show. And you want ironic? Following the aforementioned gargantuan process, KFDI ultimately hired a guy nicknamed Tiny. He's formally known as Tim Burger - most recently handling mornings at Alpha Media Country WIRK/West Palm Beach, FL - and he'll team with existing KFDI morning teamer JJ Hayes starting Monday, August 8th.
KFDI PD Justin Case calls the lengthy and deliberate quest "self-inflicted." He and Scripps/Wichita VP/GM Beverlee Brannigan made fit their #1 priority with this hire, which needed to end up as comfortable as a pair of custom made Italian loafers. Anything less would be unacceptable for KFDI - a mature, powerful brand, and the #1 radio station in Wichita. "We are increasingly recognizing the value of each hire and taking more time, because unique talent is what drives our business forward," explained Case.
The station has a rich history of nurturing the kind of unique talent Case refers to with that statement. Before he logged an 11-year run of morning success at WIL/St. Louis, Cornbread (who retired from radio last year) dominated Wichita mornings at KFDI and won the 2003 CMA Personality of the Year Award. His successor, Dan Tooker, also took home the 2007 CMA Personality prize while at KFDI. Next, Brian and Kellie helmed wakeups for eight solid years, before announcing their decision to move closer to family in Illinois last summer - a departure which triggered the just-completed morning manhunt. Currently, Case cites MD/midday personality Carol Hughes as another example of the kind of air talent which makes the station special.
Finding A Genuine Quality
"The listeners make it clear that they own the radio station," says Case. "I would agree with you that KFDI is a big stage. The listeners expect the people we hire at KFDI to be a certain way." In seeking Brian and Kellie's successors, he continued, "We were looking first for a talent that speaks like real listeners do and is willing to share their life on the air. I wanted to make sure that I heard that genuine quality; it didn't matter about their voice, I wanted to hear somebody that was connecting with listeners. That is something hard to find."
Especially these days. I've talked to PDs and talent coaches in this space many times over the past few years, who keep warning me the on-air talent pool has never been thinner. Randy Lane, Founder and President of The Randy Lane Company, which specializes in media talent coaching and personal brand development, described the situation to me as, "a crisis that has gotten worse in the last five years."
And that was 18 months ago, when I spoke to him prior to CRS 2015. At the risk of being Mr. Glass-Half-Empty, I don't view the scenario as having improved much since then. Combine the general lack of developing talent available out there with Case's criteria that was so specific and exclusive to KFDI, and you can understand how precisely he was attempting to thread a needle. "It was certainly more deliberate because of the uniqueness of KFDI in the world today. There are fewer stations like this than there used to be. I was looking for individuals who are aligned with our brand; someone you want to spend time with, who is reliable and credible. We have important news and weather images; KFDI is a place where people go when something is happening. I needed someone who could fulfill that expectation, but also find individuals who are aligned with our corporate strategy - we want to be famous for localism. That means a person who wants to invest in the community." As evidenced by the length of his search, Case was not pressured to find his man too quickly and did not feel an imposed sense of urgency - another wonderful and unique benefit of working for a company like Scripps. "I think we are fortunate that Scripps is supportive of what we're trying to do. They are encouraging us to find the right person and not just fill a position."
Finding An Emotional Connection
I naturally assumed that because of the quality of this opening on conceivably every level - Scripps as a company, Brannigan a Country Radio Hall of Fame broadcaster, Case's track record of programming success and leadership in multiple markets, not to mention the aforementioned power of the KFDI brand - that a deluge of applicants would flood Case's office. "We had a lot of interest. I wouldn't call it a ton of applicants. I went out and recruited a lot of people," said Case, again citing fit as his #1 priority. "I received a lot of tapes from DJs, and I had to go out and personally cultivate relationships with some people that I had a connection with when I listened." Case also said instead of showcasing their ability to talk up a song intro, "I would just like to jump into a conversation and see if I could connect with whatever they're talking about. I found a lot of really good talented broadcasters, but I was looking for some component that triggered an emotional response. Not just like fun - while that is an important component - I wanted somebody that was saying something that spoke to me in a deeper way, where I had to stop what I was doing, turn towards the radio or the speakers and say, 'Hey! You've grabbed my attention.'"
The person who did that was Tim Burger. "I feel like we found the right guy," says Case. As he said that, I started assuming once again, thinking there was a grand, master plan ready for kickoff on Monday August 8th to introduce Burger to Wichita. Wrong again. As Case explained, "I don't feel like we have to introduce him. He'll introduce himself, and the listeners are going to get right away what Tim is about. JJ and Carol and [afternoon host] Bobby [Knight] have already signed off on this guy, and the listeners are going to say, 'Okay. If Carol likes him, I'm going to give him a shot.' I think once people hear who he is, and the reasons he wanted to be at KFDI and in this community, they are going to adopt him quite easily. No big campaign. No fan fair."
Now that the KFDI search has ended successfully, I had a few debriefing questions for Case, which might be helpful for other PDs and GMs when they're faced with recruiting their next big radio star. He agrees the talent pool is smaller, and I asked him to tell me what he detected as the common, missing link when evaluating audio samples. Because if we're trying to develop radio talent more effectively, what do we need right now to make that a better product, in terms of the on-air content from a live body?
"I'm not hearing content that starts with the listener first," observed Case. "Comedian Brian Regan does a great bit about the 'Me Monster.' There must be a place for the listener to get in the conversation. I have to paint a picture in my mind, then relate it to a similar or shared experience. You form a connection at that point. If you are just talking, and I can't find a place to insert myself as a listener, you are noise. I don't know how you coach that - people just have that ability."
Case also found generational nuances when reviewing candidates. "The 20-something talent have a completely different view than previous generations of broadcasters. My experience showed they're very connected to home and family, and they want to stay very close to that. Previously, broadcasters jumped at opportunities and would move across the country, maybe fracturing some family ties. It seems like talent now are more risk-adverse. The younger ones are hunkered down. It's easier to stay in their current role than to venture into the unknown. So you're also dealing with a smaller pool of people who are willing to move. As a result they may not be what you're looking for."
Case also talked so much about the importance of live connectivity and real-time emotional response when conducting his search. With social media now being such an important component of a broadcasters skill set - look at any want ad on the All Access job site for proof - I asked Case if he believes we as an industry are perhaps over-focused on that versus a connection via the mic?
"I think it's really important how they deal with social media. I've seen people who - I'll call it broadcast on social media - that are telling you something, and then there are people that are sharing something. Carol Hughes may be one of the best at being playful with listeners on social media. I would definitely look at that skill. You can see how they approach things. You get their sense of humor, what they care about, and you learn a lot about folks on social media. That's important."
And a final post-search thought from Case, as it relates to the listeners and how they own a station:
"They have so many other places where they can go and connect with people and other groups. You can't lead them. They have to find and want to consume you. You need to look for people that are engaging - I know it's an overused word - but you have to find people that the audience connects with. You have to know what you're looking for and go get it."