Radio Show Panel Discusses Task Of Replacing 'Legends'
September 30, 2010 at 12:10 PM (PT)
The difficulty in replacing radio's highest-profile stars served as the topic for a THURSDAY afternoon session moderated by SAGA's STEVE GOLDSTEIN at the NAB/RAB RADIO SHOW in WASHINGTON.
MY DAMN CHANNEL founder ROB BARNETT, who was in charge of CBS RADIO's ill-fated "FREE FM" project in the wake of HOWARD STERN's departure for satellite radio, related the experience of preparing to replace STERN in the 14 months between his announcement about joining SIRIUS SATELLITE RADIO and when STERN actually departed. BARNETT noted that the "legends''" ratings did not happen overnight, and took several years to build, so a station preparing a transition needs to set realistic ratings targets.
Asked about hiring DAVID LEE ROTH, BARNETT said that ROTH was "the 78th choice" and that OPIE AND ANTHONY were considered but he could not hire them at the outset due to the continuing fallout from the "Sex for SAM" incident (they were ultimately hired after ROTH was let go), and BARNETT said that he was turned down by celebrities like JERRY SEINFELD, CHRIS ROCK and LARRY DAVID, but ROTH was the "one guy with the balls to do it." METHENY said that he used ROTH as a fill-in for a week and "he killed," but when he tried another week, it turned out that "he had one good week in him." But WEXLER counseled that programmers should not be "afraid to make mistakes ... (programmers should) not feel so bound by tradition that they're afraid to dream."
Changes At A Heritage Station
TRIBUNE Talk WGN-A/CHICAGO PD KEVIN METHENY discussed the difficulty of making changes at a heritage station with a long, well-documented history, pointing out that the station has been evolving throughout its existence but that "I had to get into the guts of the thing ... start monkeying with the engine to appreciate the inertial momentum it had." He noted the station's high cume and widespread listener product knowledge and said he understood why earlier management would have left things alone thinking that the station would always continue to be a leader.
"It's really weird," METHENY said. "It's really different ... people have liked the IDEA of this WGN that's a little something for everybody," He said that in order to effectively change, "you have to do it respectfully ... no amount of preparation will protect you from people rationally or irrationally criticizing you." Afternoon host GARRY MEIER said METHENY told him that in the space of two years with WGN, he went from listeners being resistant to his joining the lineup to being vehement about MEIER staying put.
JOURNAL EVP STEVE WEXLER said that the time to prepare for a star's departure is before the issue comes up, building a relationship with the talent so that when the time comes, an orderly transition can be accomplished. WEXLER, who is in the process of having to replace 41-year Talk WTMJ-A/MILWAUKEE afternoon host JONATHAN GREEN (for whom WEXLER interned as a teenager), said that the transition is easier when both the station and talent agree that it's time to move on, which he said is the case with GREEN. WEXLER added that determining what the station wants for a replacement, including whether the station wants to take the opportunity to make further changes, is an additional step in the process.
Another issue WEXLER raised was how the on-air transition takes place, whether evolutionary (the "laying of hands," with the exiting talent endorsing or easing the way for the new host) or a sharp break. By keeping communication open on an internal basis but being silent to the rest of the market, WEXLER said that the station is generating interest as the end of GREEN's tenure approaches.
BARNETT asked the audience for experiences doing "AMERICAN IDOL"-like talent contests and whether winners lasted more than a year, and WEXLER responded that his stations' attempts with the idea did not go well. "It sounded good in the room," he said, but the results were not long-lasting.
What About Pay Cuts?
The panel also addressed the difficulty of telling talent that salaries are getting cut, with METHENY saying that a good two-way relationship with talent would help in the situation. "We often shoot ourselves in our own feet ... you can't do this job without having a certain confidence level that can be annoying to other people," METHENY said in explaining the attitude needed to deal with talent. But his history with STERN and DON IMUS, he said, doesn't matter in his dealing with his talent today. "GARRY MEIER doesn't care what I did 20 years ago," he said, "he just wants to know what I'm going to do for him now." BARNETT added that bad news needs to be communicated immediately, a lesson he said he learned from JOHN LYDON ("JOHNNY ROTTEN"), who said that the talent can tell when someone's holding bad news from them.
GOLDSTEIN asked about how radio handles the departure of talent, including immediately wiping evidence of their existence off their websites versus taking longer to make the change. METHENY answered with the example of docking a dog's tail by taking an inch off each month as opposed to doing it all at once. "If you really love working with talent, and I do ... then you like to be the guy or girl who saved this bad actor" rather than fire him or her, said METHENY. WEXLER said he prefers to be open with the public about changes, and noted that the departing talent now has the ability to go directly to the listeners with web pages and streaming.