10 Questions with ... Larry Gifford
October 15, 2013
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
I started working at WTVN-AM (Columbus, OH) while still at Otterbein College. During my time there (1991-1995), I did all I could. I was a producer, board-op, promo guy, weekend host, fill-in host, fill-in traffic reporter and then full-time overnight news anchor and morning drive reporter.
I spent most of 1995 to early 1999 in Dayton, OH as the morning drive news anchor and executive news producer. In 1999, I was hired by WWDB-FM and moved to Philadelphia, PA where I cut my teeth on sports and served as Sports Director and morning news editor.
In 2000, I moved to Los Angeles and filled in on XTRA Sports 1150 before being hired by Fox Sports Radio. I served as the network Sports Director until 2002, when I moved back to Columbus for family health issues.
In 2003, I was hired as the Program Director of WBNS-AM (Columbus, OH). In 2004, I was named program director of the ESPN Radio Network (Mon-Fri 5a-7p). In 2006, ESPN moved me back west to program O&O KSPN-AM (Los Angeles, CA). In 2011, I assumed the PD role at KIRO-FM and KTTH-AM (Seattle, WA).
I launched Larry Gifford Media consultancy after my time at KSPN in 2010 and returned to it this past spring after a great run at KIRO-FM and KTTH-AM.
1. Since we last talked, you've become a consultant and launched a podcast about radio. What led you to do a podcast about radio?
The Radio Stuff podcast was my co-host Deb Slaterâ€™s idea. She reached out while my family was on a big RV trip down the Pacific Coast in April. Sheâ€™s said, â€œIâ€™m not sure what youâ€™re up to, but what do you think about doing a podcast?â€ I had met Deb while at KIRO. She interviewed for on-air work with me and weâ€™d kept in touch. In my time away from day-to-day radio I had been listening to a variety of podcasts to figure out what â€œworkedâ€ and why certain podcasts were resonating with fans, so I was intrigued. We shared some thoughts on possible podcast ideas and realized we both have a passion for radio. After a quick check we realized there wasnâ€™t much out there in terms of podcasts about radio for radio people (other than the UKâ€™s Radio Today podcast), so we picked a day and started it up.
2. What's the goal of doing Radio Stuff? Is it a business in and of itself, is it promotional, is it just for fun? What, ultimately, would you like to see happen with the show?
It started out as a fun, creative outlet for us both. Deb was looking for more on-air reps and feedback and I was looking to experiment with podcasts. Sure, itâ€™s promotional for us both. Weâ€™re always looking for the next great gig or client.
Itâ€™s also been a great learning experience. As topics arise, we follow our curiosities, reach out to industry leaders, talent, consultants, researchers and news makers for interviews and along the way we always learn something new.
Weâ€™d love to see the show continue to gain a following throughout the radio world, be the go-to audio source for radio industry trends and conversation and ultimately secure some sponsors to help support a more robust Radio Stuff experience.
3. The show makes a pronounced effort to cover international radio issues as well as American radio. In interviewing figures from outside the country and traveling to conferences there, what are the most striking similarities and differences you've seen so far?
From the start, we wanted to be sure to be a global resource. Thereâ€™s much to learn from our radio brothers and sisters around the world and with technology weâ€™re only a mouse click away from Skyping with just about anybody. Since we started, Debâ€™s visited a radio station in Amsterdam and I went to the NextRadio conference in London.
Hereâ€™s what Iâ€™ve learned about radio here and abroad.
1. Regardless of who measures it or how it is measured â€“ nobody has found the perfect ratings system.
2. â€œRadioâ€ is a breed of person. These people, regardless of nationality, are passionate, creative, self-starters who are willing to work harder, longer, crappier hours for little money in exchange for the adrenaline of producing remarkable radio.
3. There is a new international radio law â€“ all industry discussions must mention â€œmobileâ€ as part of any discussions regarding the evolution of radio.
4. In its most pure form, radio remains a vital, valuable resource to local communities. From tornado warnings in Oklahoma to health focused programming in third world countries, radio saves lives every day.
5. Radioâ€™s focus â€“ domestically and internationally - is swiftly moving towards serving the fans and â€œthe jobs listenerâ€™s hire radio to do.â€
6. The U.S. trails Europe in the digital radio realm. DAB+ is quickly becoming the industry standard, while HD radio continues to be a punch line for many.
7. I find it interesting that the UK listens to primarily music radio and mostly home. The U.S. is much more focused on spoken word programming and most listening happens out-of-home. I donâ€™t know what else to do with that information except point at it and go, â€œneato.â€
4. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about where broadcast radio is headed? Do you expect "plain old radio" to still be the primary audio entertainment and information carrier, will it co-exist with digital and customizable services, or will the transmitters and antennas go dark?
Iâ€™m bullish on audio; radio and otherwise. More audio is being consumed by people than at any other time. I just interviewed the CEO of Turkeyâ€™s Karnaval.com (http://radiostuff.podomatic.com/entry/2013-10-10T12_26_36-07_00). Itâ€™s a radio companyâ€™s answer to declining traditional radio revenues and in one year itâ€™s the 8th largest online streaming service in the World. They get over 21-million unique listeners a month. A radio company in Turkey did that. The sky is the limit for us all. We need to be creative, persistent, and willing to evolve. Radio towers are going to be around for a while. 92% of Americans still listen each week. Iâ€™d say thatâ€™s pretty good penetration. Listeners want options. We have to be everywhere. That means plain old radio too.
5. Let's focus on talk radio for a moment -- how long do you think that heritage political AM talkers can hold on as viable media? Is the end game for the big 50,000 watt boomer AM political talkers near, or can some survive?
Oh, I think some will survive. However, I believe over time all programming needs to evolve and change. Otherwise weâ€™d all still be listening to "Rawhide" and "The Shadow." I think weâ€™ll continue to see the format morph into conservative values instead of politics -- featuring local talkers helping to look at the communityâ€™s top stories through a traditional, conservative family values filter. Youâ€™ll also see more shows flanking conservative talk, like Dave Ramsey â€“ a conservative money talker, not a conservative political talker. Shows like his help to round out stations which are looking to appeal to the conservative lifestyle and not conservative talking points. The stations will only cease to exist when they stop making money.
6. Do you think any radio stations or hosts are doing social media right? In your ideal universe, what would a host do to "do social media right" -- what's the best way to use Facebook or Twitter to interact with the audience?
I see moments of greatness from many like Ryan Seacrest, KROQ, KIRO Radio, Mike Salk at WEEI, Absolute Radio, and ESPNâ€™s Mike Greenberg has recently stepped up his twitter presence in a great way.
Social Media doesnâ€™t have any rules really (much like radio), but hereâ€™s what I have learned. Do not use social media as another broadcast tower simply teasing stories, asking the same questions online as you do on air and pushing links to your hour-long podcast. This is your DVD bonus track with the directorâ€™s commentary. If listeners are following you, they are likely P1s. They want validation from and association with a celebrity (you!), behind-the-scenes scoop, pictures, links to stories youâ€™re talking about, and links to moments on the show that are shareable. Social media is a two-way medium and when hosts favorite, retweet, DM, or reply to listeners messages itâ€™s a valuable impression. Itâ€™s like shaking hands at a remote without the need for Purell. Social Media is about growing your mindshare, not ratings or revenue share -- at least not right away. You want people interacting with, discussing and sharing your brand for the 21 hours youâ€™re not on the air. You want listeners and potential listeners thinking of you so when they do turn the radio on they turn your station or show on, because theyâ€™re curious about you â€“ not your topics, your questions, silly memes, and contests.
For more examples of what not to do check out the Shit Social Media in Radio page on Facebook. We interviewed the anonymous poster about it a couple weeks ago at the end of our show here (http://radiostuff.podomatic.com/entry/2013-10-03T20_22_57-07_00).
7. As a podcaster, how long, if ever, do you think it will be before digital audio streaming or podcasting become competitive on a business level with traditional media? Some are profitable now, but do you see them becoming a business on the revenue level of a typical broadcast model?
TV is figuring it out quicker than we are. I used to be able to watch whole episodes of Top Chef or Glee or clips of Daily Show without commercials or by fast forwarding through them. Now, thereâ€™s a pre-roll and 2 to 4 minutes of commercials at every break that you canâ€™t fast forward through. The inventory is probably more valuable now than TV commercials. Radio needs to find the equivalent. Part of that equation is creating remarkable, unique content that listeners will seek out and stay with through commercials. Podcasting also opens the door for more creative, product-placement. Luke Burbankâ€™s "Too Beautiful to Live" podcast (TBTL) does a good job at this. If I was a betting man, Iâ€™d say yes, podcasting revenues will eventually reach broadcast levels. The key will be finding convenient ways for advertisers to get audience information, rates, and placement on multiple podcasts serving specific targeted audiences â€“ at one time. Instead of each podcaster pitching their show to each buyer one-at-a-time. iHeart radio and KIROradio.com are set up for this kind of treatment.
8. On the show, you've featured several situations in which hosts have gotten themselves into trouble, from drunk hosting to comedy bits gone wrong. In your career as a programmer, did you ever have to deal with hosts running into trouble for what they said on the air, and how, if so, did you handle it? What's the best way to handle a host's controversial comments -- when is it best to unequivocally support the talent and when is it best to apologize or suspend or cut bait and run?
Well, Iâ€™ve encountered quite a few controversial on-air moments from dealing with Rushâ€™s comments on Sandra Fluke to local hosts who get too graphic, push the envelope too far, or fail â€“ offensively â€“ at an attempt at humor. When I was at ESPN, Colin Cowherd used to say his job was to walk so close to the line each day that Iâ€™d be uncomfortable at times. He did his job well.
If I hear it and donâ€™t get any complaints, my main reaction is to pull the audio, listen to it again, pull the offenders into the office, listen to the piece, have a conversation, and explain why I believe it was out of line. I usually offer suggestions on how it could be handled differently.
If youâ€™re dealing with listener complaints itâ€™s tricky. If you apologize too quickly, it shows a lack of faith in the product. If youâ€™re too defensive it appears the station is deaf to criticism. While at KIRO FM, my GM Carl Gardner shared a great document with me on how to deal with listener complaints and I still have it. Here are the main points.
â€¢ Take all calls seriously. Respond to everyone. You may learn something new about your product. â€¢ Donâ€™t exaggerate and donâ€™t let otherâ€™s exaggerate. People like to say, â€œweâ€™re getting TONS of complaintsâ€¦advertisers are cancelling business!!â€ â€“ when, in fact, it maybe a handful of complaints or less. Seek the truth, donâ€™t let people spread myths.
â€¢ Resist the temptation to apologize, argue or debate. Listen carefully with empathy. Most callers just want someone to hear them out.
â€¢ If something was said factually wrong - -own it. If you were wrong â€“ apologize. If someone is offended, explain the nature of some programs is to stimulate debate and discussion.
â€¢ If you havenâ€™t personally heard the remarks at issue, insist on hearing them yourself before responding. Itâ€™s impossible to respond intelligently to something youâ€™ve never heard, in context, yourself. Many times what is â€˜heardâ€™ is taken entirely out of context.
â€¢ Likewise, determine if the person complaining actually heard the comments or are responding to something they were told.
â€¢ Donâ€™t share every complaint with the air staff. Any show working to break through will be noticed and at times disrupt listeners and advertisers. Sharing every bit of feedback can have a negative impact on their confidence.
â€¢ Believe in your product. Even though complaints can be uncomfortable, be confident and positive about your station, while remaining open to constructive feedback.
â€¢ People will tell you theyâ€™re boycotting your customers and writing them letters â€“ they rarely do.
9. What shows, streams, or podcasts do you listen to these days, not for work but for pleasure?
On the radio-- I listen to Brock & Danny on 710 ESPN Seattle, Ron & Don on KIRO Radio when I picking my kid up from preschool. On the weekends, NPRâ€™s "Wait! Wait! Donâ€™t Tell Me." And sometimes Iâ€™ll listen to KISWâ€™s BJ Shea in the Morning or The Menâ€™s Room.
Online â€“ I podcast "TED Radio Hour," "Answer Me This!," "Seattle Kitchen," "Americaâ€™s Test Kitchen," "Star Talk," "Stuff You Should Know," and I just got turned onto "Cracked" and "The Nerdist."
10. What's the most important lesson you've learned in your career?
People are the most valuable resource in radio. We need to do a better job to foster and support creative work spaces, be conscious of little things that impact the daily duties of the people on the front lines. We called it the chair revolution in Seattle. The chairs for hosts and producers were old and broken with ripped cushions and missing wheels. We bought every new chairs. It was like Christmas. Then we bought new work stations and painted some walls, and encouraged collaboration, and the revolution continued. With each little thing, we noticed growing creative, collaborative attitude and energy throughout the building.