10 Questions with ... Keven Cohen
October 29, 2013
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Got my start in Gainesville, Florida at WRUF AM/FM doing news and sports. Got to cover great athletics with the arrival of Steve Spurrier at Florida. Decided to leave "the nest" and applied for and was hired by Jim Powell (now voice of the Atlanta Braves) at WVOC in Columbia, South Carolina. Figured I was good for 3-4 years in Columbia and would move... but really loved Columbia and then met my future bride and decided this was where I wanted to stay. Stayed at WVOC for 18-plus years until I was unexpectedly fired on November 1, 2012.
1. First off, after leaving WVOC last year, there were opportunities to leave the market and perhaps move up to a larger market. Why did you decide to remain in Columbia?
I weighed the benefits of moving to a larger market, which allowed me to get back into radio with a fresh start, vs. staying in Columbia where my Mom, brother, in-laws and friends live. When I weighed the two, I decided that even if I had to change careers, I couldn't leave my family behind. I place so much value on family and I wanted to be in Columbia to look after my Mom.
2. How did the opportunity to launch the new station come about? What were the steps, from the beginning, that led you to go the entrepreneurial route?
I had a job all lined up at another station doing morning talk. I was told by the PD it was a done deal and that a job offer was coming the next week. It had gotten as far as talking about our clocks -- where we would place specific elements in each hour, our thoughts on news. The money had already been talked about... he promised he'd call next week with an offer. He never even called. I was discouraged -- this was another huge corporate giant in radio and I was about out of options for this market. It was time to go sell mortgages. I had one other idea... this crazy dream of doing my own station. So I went and found someone to give me a huge chunk of his money to start this. I found someone willing to make the deal on an AM/FM combo and things were in motion. Right before we were going to sign, my friend with the dollars got sick with cancer and had to pull out. I was back to square one -- tried to get a business loan from three banks: rejected. Finally, put my own house on the line as collateral and instead of building new studios from the start, rented space in an existing building with older studios. The real key was once we got our News/Talk lineup set. Once I got signed contracts back from my syndicators, I knew I was good-to-go and the corporate folks wouldn't crush me before I started, and we launched Monday, October 28th. I bought billboards to market our station and have been hammering social media and traditional media with interviews and appearances in front of anyone that will listen to me.
3. In forming the station and lineup, how would you describe your philosophy of programming? What were you looking for in signing up syndicated programming and formulating local content? What makes your operation different, if it is, in philosophy from your former station?
In Columbia, South Carolina -- I'm in a conservative state and in a military city. I've spent 19 years doing talk in this market and know the demo really well. I wanted to stick with a conservative talk lineup but try to bring in hosts that would still be new and fresh to this market. The formula for the national programs was basically fresh, different but still sticking to the conservative values this area demands. I picked Herman Cain, Laura Ingraham and Todd Schnitt to follow my program in the mornings. I did afternoons in Columbia forever, so I was concerned about moving my program to mornings. I couldn't find the right morning show for the station and I got really excited about landing The Schnitt Show, so that made my move to AM drive easier. We are different because we pulled in talent from several network syndicators---nothing was forced down our throat the way you see with a lot of stations owned by Cumulus and Clear Channel. The entire philosophy in getting instant-credibility here to compete is that they're getting something fresh but familiar. Ultimately, it comes down to a good entertaining product, and I get that, but, for starters, people here really want me to succeed because they know my house is on the line and I turned down the sure thing in two other major cities.
4. As you sign on the new station, what, so far, has been the most difficult adjustment you've had to make as the overall boss of the operation? What's surprised you, if anything, about the process? What parts of the job are you looking forward to and which are more daunting?
The most difficult aspect that I've had to adjust to is getting other people to move at my speed. I'm a short fat guy, but I have scary energy and work-ethic. The stream isn't ready on-time. The phone company botched the date I needed lines installed so I'm opening with only one call-in line for local programming. Frustration for me, but a good learning experience, for sure. I am also on the street selling for the first time alone. I used to go out with sales reps to help close deals---but this time, it's me flying solo. Sales calls are taking too long because people want to talk with "Kev the radio guy" instead of "Kev the sales guy". Haven't learned yet how to fix that. I'm excited about selling this station because the more people hear about my commitment to Columbia, SC and hear my mission statement about how this station belongs to the community, the more people I think will climb aboard The Point.
5. How important is the fact that your new station has an FM translator to the prospects for success of the operation? Is it a competitive necessity these days, especially with WVOC also on FM?
I don't know that I'd have pulled the trigger on this without the FM component. My old friends at WVOC are on FM. Even though the move from a heritage AM to FM didn't do much for them in numbers, it is still FM. By being on FM with a translator that hits the whole market while having an AM that during the day can really bring it, I'm in good shape with signal-strength. I have found a lot of people who are older in the demo still enjoy the sound of talk on AM; the younger demo loves the FM thing. I think the FM translator is what made this deal so attractive to me.
6. With talk radio taking hits in the ratings in many markets and critically from some quarters, are you optimistic or not about where talk radio is going? Do you think that the format can gain traction with younger audiences as they age into the target demos?
The listeners are still out there, but if there is one thing I've really learned in my one year career-interruption, it's that the attention span of people is just so short these days. Clear Channel is good at understanding the importance of social media and iHeartRadio with younger people. From day one, we are streaming and have the station's free app available. Our first night on the air, we had a listener appreciation party that was probably close to having the Fire Marshall out at the restaurant. I plan to be on the street a lot to connect with people. There are things we can control with ratings and things we cannot. In this market, I know they matter, but selling personalities works well too. I plan to really target my local speaking engagements for demos that have a younger crowd. I'll still do the rotary circuit, but want to get in front of college students and even speak to high schools. I want their ideas and want their creativity.
7. You're back to work, but what did you like the most, and dislike the most, about your time between jobs?
I was made to be a daddy, so I loved being able to volunteer for my children at school. I loved being able to pick the kids up every day after school. I loved being able to spend time with Mom... family matters so much to me. Those are memories I will treasure and times my kids will hopefully never forget. I hated the days where I would wake up and not have something productive to accomplish. You can only clean the garage out so many times and you kinda get sick and tired of watching repeats of "Walker, Texas Ranger" every day. I mean, I love Chuck Norris and all, but when you're busting a multi-million dollar drug dealer, don't use karate -- go in with a gun.
8. How do you see the rise of social media as it pertains to talk radio -- how do you plan to use social media like Twitter and Facebook in conjunction with your show and station, if at all? Is it a way to connect with the audience, a show in itself, a show prep source, all of the above, none of the above? How important is it to your job these days?
Absolutely imperative. Like it or not, the future of our station might not be the car radio -- but it is on the smart phone. I feel fortunate to at least be in a format of local talk radio where you can't voice track in another city about the children gunned down by a gang last night on a specific street in your city. I haven't had my regular medium of radio this past year, so I've had to stay connected to both listeners and advertisers with social media. I've used in a very targeted way. Every post I've made on Facebook was from the heart, but was also calculated to keep my name out there and to keep people asking about how/when I was coming back. It was difficult keeping the specifics of my plans a secret, but I gave our listeners on Facebook enough to know something was in the works. I used Twitter and FB to have listener parties during the one hear hiatus even though I wasn't on the air. It was the only means of communication, and the parties were packed with people wanting to hang out. So, I learned the impact of social media. Once I signed the papers to get the stations, the first thing I did was find the right marketing people who understand the web and social media. Our website is gonna rock when it's ready, and we will have a huge presence in social media. Facebook and Twitter may very well be the only medium that's more immediate than radio itself in spreading the word on something.
9. Maybe this is a good time to ask, maybe not, but if talk radio had not been an option going forward, what would you have looked to do? What's your Plan B?
I was thinking about donating plasma as often as possible. I had offers to join firms doing mortgage sales or selling insurance. Nice offers -- sure thing probably with my name in town selling mortgages for good money and no risk -- but I'm in love with radio. I have always been in love with radio. I would have taken any honest and ethical job I needed to in order to put food on the table -- but I am also someone who never wants to wonder "what if?" I had to try everything possible to stay in this. If I fall on my face, I hope the community will appreciate the effort and those same opportunities to sell a mortgage will still be there. I plan to not only succeed -- but to make a significant difference in this community.
10. What's the most important lesson you've learned in your career?
From an on-air standpoint, you have a significant responsibility to try your best to be fair, to be accurate and to realize your words carry a lot of weight with people. Probably, too much weight at times. That said, I am big on sticking to my principles. Now, I face new challenges. What is interesting is I feel like two people at times -- no, not multiple personality disorder. There is on-air Kev -- I am confident and sure of myself. Maybe even bordering on egotistical at times. Then, there is the new Kev -- the one who has to run an AM/FM combo... the one who has to hit the street and sell daily. I'm the guy who has to make daily business decisions while hiring and firing people. I have confidence that I can pull it off -- but there is zero ego here and certainly no arrogance involved. I look for coaching from tons of people I respect on this side of the business.