May 10, 2011
To say the least, Bill Tanner is a radio "lifer." After all, he started in radio 40 years ago and became an instant force in Miami radio in 1974. Plus he's been offering his experienced insight as a consultant to some of the biggest major-market stations from coast to coast for almost 30 years. Tanner has found the perfect balance of integrating timeless radio basics with new programming nuances that work in a consolidated, digital and social media PPM world. Here's how he has adapted - and succeeded - with the times.
You're currently looking for a PD at WPOW (Power 96)/Miami. Are you looking for a different skill set today than you did when you evaluated potential programmers in years past?
I don't think it's that different. Although we're in the era of PPM and the methodology issues it has here and there, it's still about creating a very attractive radio station that stands out, in a competitive sense, locally. It's more a matter of working with every element of a station and less a matter of ratings methodology - and that's always been the case. When I was looking for PDs years ago, back when I was working at Metroplex, Y100, 13Q and Heftel Broadcasting, it was certainly the same thing. The same goes for Spanish in the '90s in the early part of this decade, with Heftel/Hispanic Broadcasting and then SBS. I'm looking for people who are great PDs who can make a radio station amazing.
Isn't that hard to do when many programmers are overseeing more than one station at the same time?
When you do that, you realize you have to make increasingly effective use of your time. Inevitably, you draw time away from a station like Power 96, which needs your full attention. I'm very fortunate to work with the Beasley group ... now in my 25th year there ... and they absolutely believe in the value of having one PD per station, which isn't a widespread thing these days, where many PDs have lots of stations. Trust me; handling Power 96 by itself is a big enough task.
How has Miami as a radio market changed since you first started working there?
I was first in Miami in 1974 at Y100. I did that for nine years, then went to WASH in D.C. for a couple of years, then came back to start Hot 105. A year-and-a-half later I got FIRED, so I went across the street to do Power 96, where I've been since August of 1986.
Miami is always going through changes. One of the key points in radio is change. It's a consistent thing. It certainly helps being out on the streets and having people who have grown up here listening to these stations. They have a unique perspective of the changes unfolding in the South Florida market.
We have people such as mixer Oliver Zogby, who has been here for 15 years and produces our morning show. DJ Laz, our morning show star, has been here longer than that. Luci Rivera has been in afternoons for nine years. It's very common for staff members of Power 96 to have considerably more than 10 years of experience at this one station. In fact, one of the interesting things about Power 96 is that only one person here has any extensive experience anywhere else -- morning co-host Afrika Perry ... and she is wonderful.
To be fair, having such a homegrown staff can be a double-edge sword. On one hand, it's a wonderful strength, but it also deprives us of the many things you learn from working for a variety of radio stations.
I noticed you were more animated when you mentioned the time you got fired. In hindsight, was that beneficial to you in terms of igniting your competitive fire once you landed across the street?
You always have to learn from your mistakes. There are bruises we all take when we get fired -- and it can be awful. I don't like being fired and I don't know anyone who does. But when it does happen, you need to objectively analyze what you did well, what you didn't do well, and how your actions were perceived ... or misperceived. Let's face it, some stations you work for will have people in charge who are just plain crazy, but by and large, people are rational. You can learn something from all of your relationships as long as you remember the best times and get rid of the rest.
As a consultant, what's the biggest challenge radio faces today?
There's not enough focus on the individual stations within market clusters. I've worked with the Cox stations for a long time - specifically their urban stations in Birmingham - and they have some of the best people in the country at each station. The cluster has had only had one manager all this time, David Dubose. The consistency of the staff and management in place at Birmingham is a great strength to have. Their recent coverage of the tornadoes and the ongoing recovery efforts are a perfect example.
How has the introduction of PPM changed your programming strategy?
Of course there are some generalities that everybody knows -- play the hits, lower the clutter, give the station a sense of forward momentum -- but within those general, broad guidelines, there are very specific things that depend on the individual markets. Beasley also has Wired 96.5 in Philadelphia. Like Power 96, it's a Rhythmic Top 40, but it appeals to a completely different ethnic makeup. Power 96 is aimed at Hispanics, but there are not that many Hispanics in Philly.
A common complaint about PPM is how it has damaged some of radio's biggest on-air stars, as it has forced personalities to become virtual liner readers. How do you see PPM's impact on the air personality?
In essence it has been to separate the brilliant from the ordinary. A lot of people who were just talking too much and not entertaining enough found their services not needed. Before, when they were being measured by diarykeepers, they could trade on their reputation and get a lot of phantom TSL. Now your reputation might get you a tune-in, but if the listener doesn't like what they hear, they'll move on.
But look at the big morning shows around country - Ryan Seacrest and Big Boy in L.A., Elvis Duran in New York -- those stations do very well with a whole lot of morning talk. Other personalities have to realize that they ain't Elvis or Seacrest; maybe they have to figure out what to do better, even if it means playing a few more songs. This is a big issue.
Power 96 just renewed our morning star, DJ Laz, for another contract period. He's already super-big in Miami, yet we work every day to improve everything he's doing. That's why we brought in his new partner, Afrika. We're all about entertainment -- but not mediocre entertainment.
Are you satisfied with the efforts Arbitron has made to improve ethnic representation in the PPM?
The biggest thing PPM needs is a whole lot more sample. PPM is a pretty good concept, but I'm especially concerned about the numbers in mornings. I don't think it properly reflects listening in mornings. I'm not sure people are getting up out of bed and carrying the meter around all morning until they're out the door. It can make a big difference in the time people are actually listening to a station. Some of the statistical weekly bounces we see are just a function of small samples. It may help somewhat that Arbitron will select samples by blocks in an address-based effort.
So what can a programmer do to optimize PPM under the current conditions?
There's no single answer to that question. It's nice that Arbitron has decided put a little more sample in its surveys, but we don't need just a small sample increase. We need a lot more. I don't think a 10% sample increase will make much difference. To make a real difference, I feel Arbitron needs to garner a lot more sample, but I don't see that on the economic horizon. I don't think Arbitron is going to pay for it ... and I highly doubt radio will pay more for enough extra sample to make a difference.
My concerns with the PPM are less with the overall methodology and more with the insufficient sample. To a certain extent, radio was "had" by Arbitron's initial PPM hype. Cox Radio President Bob Neil was right. We didn't pay enough attention to that in the beginning; it just became an issue later on -- and even now they still haven't gotten over all the sample-related issues.
So, again, you're forced to rely on a less-than-optimal sample...
In the short term, you have to live with it. It goes without saying that you need to make your station stand out and be as attractive a product as it can be. The best way to get attention, no matter what ratings methodology you use, is to create something really flashy, to be really warm and friendly, and to be distinctive. Something that is bright and beautiful stands out when most people are wrestling with average. I try to instill that in people I work with; I don't want to settle for a B ... I want an A.
When overseeing a station such as Power 96/Miami, how do you balance the station's heritage advantage with the demands to change with the times?
After I was Y100 for about three years in the late '70s, an interviewer asked me same question. I said it would be easy enough to come in and throw a lot of money in contests, as Y100 had, and play 10,000 songs in a row, but what do you do when you've been doing those same things at stations for years? I'm at year 25 in Miami and I started working with Cox/Birmingham in 1997; I have to set up and invent my day ... every day. Put a different spin on the basics and find a different way to celebrate each day.
The enemy is a mentality of, "Okay, here we are ... another day, another dollar ... not too much new here ... let's do what we did yesterday." That attitude can slip through a station, particularly when the PD is not focused because he's spread out over a number of stations.
You have to magnify the moment; I've always preached "predictable unpredictability." On-air, we want the DJ to project the feel of being in control of the station, while respecting music. Instead of jabbering on over listeners' favorite songs, a good intro requires a lot of planning and thought. You don't just turn the mic on and talk about whatever comes into your brain for 20 seconds. That's a tune-out.
What's a good example of planning for your on-air breaks?
That begins by knowing exactly with what's going on in your market ... if there's anything unique going on during a certain day. For instance, in Miami there's the Calle Ocho Festival, one of the biggest street festivals in the country and a huge party time in Miami. The Cox Birmingham stations are weaving information about the storm recovery efforts into their music formats. When you start thinking about what's going on in the market and become aware of what your listeners are into, you're then able to focus on what DJs say and what their attitude is. It's something I stress with all the stations I work with. Live and local is a great stage, but what's important is the play your put on that stage. Content breaks should have a beginning, middle and end.
Who do you view as competition these days ... primarily rival radio stations, or equal amount of radio stations, Net interests such as Pandora and online radio stations ...and toys like iPods and social media?
I don't think there's too much you can do about the technological issues; people can consume music and other forms of entertainment in an ever-evolving number of different ways. The best thing a programmer can do is to offer a compelling, locally based, entertaining radio station. What we offer is different from what the consumers get with Pandora. You're never going to beat Pandora by playing an individual's favorite songs, but Pandora is not going to provide companionship or a sense of what's happening in your community.
In the sense of radio competition, there's nothing like head-to-head competition, like we used to have with Y100 and WMYQ in Miami and various rivalries held around the country. But that kind of head-to-head, day-to-day competition was more prevalent before consolidation and before clusters had stations that were more niche.
Has the "niche-ing" of radio stations been a plus or minus for radio and its listeners?
Both good and bad. Listeners have more choices when you don't have two stations doing the same thing, head to head, but that competition -- which was pretty brutal -- often produced some brilliant radio stations ... KHJ and KFWB in the '60s, for example; some of the greatest radio I've ever heard. Certainly lot of the KHJ style made its way into
Y100 back in the '70s and '80s, and it was successful for a number of years.
Musically, when the consumer has more options to be exposed to new music, does that force your programmers to be more adventurous with new music ... or should they play it safe more often?
In general, more safe, but specifically you can still take chances. There's a Spanish Dance record here called "Danza Kuduro." We saw it was doing really well on Miami's Spanish stations, so we tried it on Power 96 and it has been a huge record. Now should we do that in Birmingham? No, but Jamz in Birmingham has always broken a number of hip-hop and R&B hits. They are not driven by what's going on in Miami or New York.
You need to certainly have an ear for what your audience likes and have good systems to evaluate a song once gets on the station. We now have new, different tools that you didn't have before, such as MScore. Callout is still an issue, so yes, you should be safe most of the time, but once in while you'll find a record everyone believes in - and you can do very well with it.
Have all the new and extra outlets and platforms that play hit music caused those records to burn faster on your stations?
No. I find big hit records come and stay -- particularly when you're looking at passive research -- for a long time. There's room to add new stuff but you have to be very careful about how you do it. New songs serve a completely different taste; it's an intellectual thing where listeners make their own decision on the quality or the song. Then at some point the emotional response kicks in and suddenly you are singing the song all of the time. Make time to let the music grow with the audience. However, as important as it is to give new songs a shot, if you do it too many times it becomes too much for the public to digest.
Bottom line ... after so many years as a programmer and a consultant, you still have the energy and desire for the medium...
Being a program director is one of the best jobs in world. Granted, some people have too much to do trying to program too many stations at the same time. It's difficult, if not impossible, to give each station the TLC they really deserve. But I can only hope everyone enjoys their work as much as I do.