10 Questions with ... Walter Sabo
May 22, 2012
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Walter Sabo has launched more successful FM talk stations than any other radio executive. He is the Chairman of Sabo Media, a company that offers executive-on-demand services. He has worked on-site to build out new digital content platforms such as Sirius/XM. His team was the first to discover the marketing clout of web stars, Internet organic video producers. They founded OMMA award winning HITVIEWS. The company placed brands such as CBS, TiVo and Mountain Dew inside UGC. In FM broadcasting he is a leader in the profitable sector of FM Talk and held executive positions at NBC and ABC Radio.
1. This is sort of an "okay, what happened?" question, but let's go general with it: After your tenure at Merlin, what would you say you took from the experience? What did we learn, if anything?
When presented with a new and exciting prospect, even very secure talent from other companies will sign-up. That's the nature of show business. On and off the air, the Merlin stations (a company I named) have the very best staffs in their cities. I was able to recruit dozens of the very best people in a matter of weeks; It was very satisfying. The job was great.
I had not been an employee for a company since 1984, when I was the Vice President of the ABC Radio Networks, it was a refreshing reminder that I enjoy the daily fun of working for a terrific company.
2. We've spoken before about the fact that there are many more variants of the talk format available than are actually on the air, and while we've seen a few (talk "for women" in Minneapolis, a small resurgence of "guy talk" in Florida), there still seem to be mostly conservative political talk stations and few attempting much else. Are you optimistic, after years of touting alternative talk formats, that the growth of the format on FM will lead to a wider range of talk styles and programming philosophies?
I'm optimistic for the owners of radio stations. My endorsement of the endless format varietions of Talk on FM is a business decision. Talk is radio's best business. Talk has the most engaged audience and therefore the greatest ability to move product, cut advertiser churn and generate predictive cashflow. Through precision programming, Talk can reach any precise demographic all day.
3. The industry's response to the digital age has been mixed. What approach would you tell a GM or PD to take to new media -- should they be treating their streams, websites, and podcasts as separate products or adjuncts to the main product, the on-air signal? Do you see Internet-only streaming stations or podcasts becoming a real business (and/or competitive to terrestrial radio) in the next few years, or ever? Will radio's distribution advantage (in the car, basically) remain or evaporate?
This good question will seem quaint in five years. Today analog based management cannot truly embrace this astonishing sentence: Right now your 8-year-old can record her voice or picture and distribute it to the entire world for free.
Every medium creates its own dynamic with the audience, and, therefore its own stars. Stars drive audiences into the seats. There will be podcast, website, HD stars that will have nothing to do with the FM band. I suggest you polish those stages.
4. We've moved a few years down the road and radio's traditional "farm system" -- the small-market stations where talent used to get its start -- remains mostly in syndication or satellite. And at every talk radio conference or seminar, it's the same people on the panels and the same people in the audience, year after year. So, in 2012, where can a PD, or you, find fresh talent? Where are you looking?
This is a myth. There never was a farm system in radio. Radio is an industry of self-made stars. Radio stars are hell bent on getting a job in radio and learning their craft at any cost. No one has ever held their hand and trained them, they pounded the door and insisted on being taught. The question of where are we going to get the next morning man has led convention talk since Marconi.
5. How does a talk station create a consistent product -- a "more of what you came for" lineup -- while carrying syndication? Can a station with partially, or even entirely, syndicated lineups be consistent?
The deep dive answer is one we must reserve for clients. Our clients place a top priority on this information. Each station is unique, each city has a special history. It is possible, although very challenging, to integrate syndicated programming creatively to come up with a strong, singular, cuming entity. But it can be done. The keys are careful selection of syndicated programs and a very disciplined, skilled approach to overall production values.
6. One of the effects of the Internet is that there's now entertainment and information available that's not just customizable but addresses every possible niche interest. If someone only wants to read or hear or watch things that are specifically relevant to their interests -- maybe they're into reality TV talk, or science, or more wonk-y political talk than "regular" talk radio offers -- they can do that, or they can take just pieces of a station's offerings through a podcast (sans commercials). What can terrestrial radio do to retain its relevancy in that case? Do you think there's any chance that niche offerings will significantly dent the overall audience numbers for talk radio, and is there room for niche broadcast talk formats to compete in that realm?
People have always only read or watched things that are relevant to their interests. If they don't like something, they don't watch it. There has always been vast choice, just in different forms. New York City used to have 10, 10 daily newspapers each with columnists, sections, regional splits. There maybe 1000 channels on your cable but you watch 5-10 shows a week, that's it. More choice doesn't mean you have more time. It means a radio station has to work harder to win the time competition.
7. What are you listening to -- non-clients, please -- these days? What's good radio to you as a listener, not just as a consultant/expert?
Howard Stern. Z-100---a station that is better every day. Hal Jackson on WBLS.
8. How, if at all, has being a father changed your outlook on business or life?
It is stunning how poorly all newsroom operations in every medium cover schools, parenting, and the needs of working families. It's as though what constitutes news was established in 1968 and has never changed. What an opportunity missed.
9. Back in the day, you counseled programmers to "go to the mall" and observe and mingle with "real people" -- the audience -- to better understand what listeners are really concerned about. In 2012, how do you think PDs and hosts should get that connection with their listeners' concerns -- does social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest) play a role in that?
I discovered the phenomenon of online "WebStars" in May 2007 by studying what people watched online. Professional, slick videos generated by media companies and ad agencies were largely not watched. The kid in the basement pouring out his or her heart and talent would get over 1,000,000 views every single time. Wow. The crowd was watching a new group of stars on a new stage. At that time neither the stars nor brands were aware of the phenomenon. It didn't take a rocket scientist to see it; thank God I was an English major.
My investors and I started a company, Hitviews, that placed brand product into user generated video content. Clients included Timberland, Pepsi, CBS Television Network (a genius there named Stephanie Gaines saw the power of this medium immediately while her radio colleagues were all scared), US Government, TiVo and many many others you've heard of. The company generated over 35,000,000 organic views.
Message: Pay attention to where the crowd goes. Respect the crowd online or in the mall.
10. What do you tell hosts who are out of work right now -- what things should an unemployed talent be doing to get work at a time when layoffs are more common than hiring? Is there a future for them in radio?
Do not whine. Do not copy other hosts. Find your own voice and be proud of it.