10 Questions with ... Walter Sabo
March 18, 2014
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Executive Vice Presdent of the NBC owned FM Stations where his team developed his vision for Adult Contemporary Radio. Vice President of the ABC Radio networks in charge of Programming and Affiliate relations. Successful consultant in programming and monetization for companies such as RKO, Clear Channel, Group W, PARADE magazine and National Geographic. He strategized the creation all channels on Sirius Satellite radio, recruited a majority of the programming team and consulted the company on-site for 8 years. As a pioneer in FM Talk he created the most successful FM talk stations in the world.
1. We're a few years down the line from the last time we spoke here, and I'm wondering whether you see the radio business getting any more of a handle on how to deal with the digital age. Do you think the major radio groups are getting things right, are they moving in the right direction, or are they not getting it?
We are at the primordial ooze stage of digital platforms. The Internet is just 25 years old. No one is getting it right, because in 25 years, everything every company is doing will seem quaint. When radio itself was 10 years old there was the strong belief that a benefit of radio was that you could hear the voices of the dead between stations -- really. There is no right way. Try stuff.
The most remarkable fact about the Internet, and the hardest to comprehend, is that for the first time in history, you can create a message, distribute it to the entire world for free without permission from an editor, lawmaker, parent, producer, publisher. THATâ€™S BREATHTAKING.
No, the Internet is not to make radio stations more local. Radio stations are already local by Federal law. The Internet permits a radio station to entertain every human on the planet and to sell that engagement to advertisers. Wow.
2. What's your perception of radio's image with Millenials -- is radio as vulnerable to competition from customized streaming, podcasts, online video, etc. with young audiences as some fear?
This is radio entertainment. Fear is not appropriate. Millenials use radio as their primary source of music discovery. My concern is that what goes between the songs must refresh. If you listen to an aircheck of any format from 30 years ago and one from yesterday they sound too much alike.
3. I asked you last time about talent development, but since then (and in reaction to my own suggestions) I've also gotten feedback from programmers that they're just not impressed with what they hear from Internet video stars and podcasters. Is that a problem with the talent or the programmers? Where would you tell a programmer to look for new talent?
Every medium creates its own stars. Online video stars are in fact stars---online. Podcast stars are podcast stars. TV stars are TV stars. You know how ugly it can be when a radio star tries to do TV or a TV star tries to do movies. Radio stars are, and have always been, self made. Pay attention to whoever draws a crowd, wherever they are---waitress, college teacher (like Dr. Ruth Westheimer), party managers. The morning hosts on WTKS Orlando---Russ Rollins and the Monsters are dominant in the market. But they started by buying weekend time for their party store and brilliant PD Jay Clark knew how to develop them into radio stars.
4. What audience segments are underserved by talk radio as it exists today?
There are three: Women. Women. Women.
5. Between the Internet in general and apps and mobile devices in particular, radio's position as the primary/best/fastest source for information like weather, traffic, and snow closings has been challenged. Does that mean radio stations will be better served dropping those elements as more people use their phones and in-dash GPS for that information? Or is there value in continuing to push that image as the go-to information source?
If a listener seeks a certain type of information every day, then it is foolish for a radio station to not provide that information. Radio stations put up the first traffic helicopters; donâ€™t be in a hurry to take them down.
6. A few years into it, how do you see social media interacting with radio's business? What role, if any, should Twitter and Facebook (or, for that matter, Pinterest) be playing in a radio station's operation, and if they're important, how should they be implemented and who should be in charge of it?
Twitter and Facebook are free distributors for a stationâ€™s marketing message. If your audience is engaged with a product most of the day and your station can share that stage, do it. If a listener FOLLOWS your station or LIKES your station be sure to follow/like them back.
Whoâ€™s in charge? Get over yourself. Everyone at the station could and should use all social media platforms. It is 100% analog thinking that one person or â€œcorporateâ€ should be in charge. Your receptionist, if you are lucky enough to have one, might have the most compelling online persona. If â€œcorporateâ€ is in charge, the companyâ€™s relationship with its audience is frozen in time, it does not evolve, it is not organic and the consumer finds you cold. If someone makes a goof, just hit refresh. Mistakes are wonderful.
7. Last time, I asked you what you were listening to. This time, I'll ask what you're watching, on TV and online, and what you'd recommend a host be watching to stay connected with his or her audience.
On TV I watch "TMZ" every day. The most brilliant use of all media: Online text, online streaming, Mobile, TV and bus. It is brilliant because they make content appropriate to each platform.
Pay very close attention to what your target audience actually reads and watches and not what you wish they would read and watch.
8. I think you and I disagree on HD Radio -- you're bullish on the extra real estate the channels cover, and I think the technology's deeply flawed and the industry's wasting the side channels in any event. So, convince me -- where do you see HD Radio headed, and what will need to happen for the HD2 and HD3 channels to gain audience without an FM translator simulcast?
HD radio has technically improved significantly since it launched about 15 years ago. Bob Struble at iBiquity has earned about 15 million installs in new cars. Nothing is harder than getting a product on the dashboard and Detroit loves HD Radio -- loves it.
HD is sexy to the audience. In cable, it is a fact that if a channel is not in HD, men wonâ€™t watch it. They just wonâ€™t watch it.
There are three things that need to happen for HD Radio to be viable: Content. Content. Content.
FM radios existed in 1948. They werenâ€™t hot until 1968 when stations were forced to produce proprietary exclusive content that drove set sales. Because of content and not fidelity, FM audience share grew from 10 % in 1970 to 50% in 1978.
The right time to invest in unique, proprietary programming for HD stations is the minute the signal is turned on.
9. Give me the one most important reason you see for being positive about radio's future -- what's the medium's biggest advantage, the one thing it has that other media can't match?
Radio is ubiquitous. Its distribution is elegant and envied. Advertisers know what it is which is why newcomers try to call themselves â€œradio.â€
10. Last time, it was advice for unemployed or underemployed radio hosts. This time, I'll ask: What would you advise a young person just starting out about how to, or whether to, get into the business? If you were 18 or 21 now, what would you be doing, career-wise?
Radio people are radio people. 99% of them got their first job in radio when they were 16 and that is still true. Itâ€™s an avocation. Be proud of that. And to the college students I tell them a stunning fact: The top paid people in radio get paid more than their counterparts in TV. A lot more.