June 14, 2011
Greg Strassell has basically spent his entire working life in radio. From WROK-WZOK/Rockford, through WLOL/Minneapolis, American Radio Systems, WBMX and WODS/Boston to his current executive programming post at CBS Radio, Strassell has certainly learned the nuts and bolts of programming and the radio business as it rapidly evolved through consolidation, recession and now the digital revolution. Yet Strassell always played the highest value on the one ingredient to success that has stayed the same through the years - the magic of radio. Here's how we continues to cast his spells:
PPM certainly seems to have freaked out many a'programmer, since several consultants (Coleman, Zapoleon) have come out and warned programmers about overreacting to the data. Where do you stand on this?
It's human nature to try to understand new things and possibly overreact to them, but we have moved past that stage. Regardless of the methodology, we have to create good reasons for the audience to come back every day. Of course you should know the ratings system and how to maximize it, but at the end of the day we're in show business. One of my favorite quotes comes from Jerry Clifton, who said, "All the ratings gimmickry in the world can't beat a station that's emotionally connected to its listeners."
We're still learning PPM, trying things and sharing successful practices within the company. We may be able to increase efficiency here and there, but it all gets down to motivating the audience to keep coming back
Have the PPM-influenced programming changes differed by format? If so, how?
It did open up opportunities to bring Top 40 back to where there can be two in a market. The impact on the younger male FM Talk model allowed our company to take advantage and revamp many brands to compete for Women 18-49 for the first time in many markets. Fast forward a few years later, brands like Hot 95.7/Houston, 92-3 Now/New York, 97-1 Amp Radio/L.A., 101.5 Jamz/Phoenix, 99.7 Now/San Francisco, 98-7 Amp Radio/Detroit, are all newer Top 40 products, expedited by the methodology change.
PPM quickly identified that the FM Sports format is a winner for many reasons in the right markets. We have revamped brands that were underperforming in PPM, to go into this high-performance format.
Take a look at The Wave in L.A.. Diary-to-PPM conversion initially was a setback there. Once Jhani Kaye had become Program Director, he adjusted the station but was able to maintain its unique LA vibe. The Wave is thriving again and is consistently a top-5 performer in Women 25-54.
How has the PPM influenced the development and coaching of on-air talent -- at least compared to the diary era?
In the early stages talent were taught the basics about avoiding exit ramps and self-editing, which was helpful. The art of the tease and setting constant appointments are more important now. Again, keep the audience coming back. The audience will leave for lifestyle reasons, but keep the product sticky.
PPM or no PPM, being entertaining between the music is what programmers need to continue to identify, promote and teach. There are two giant buckets of music radio talent breaks -- relevant or irrelevant. Under the relevant breaks you have entertainment, localisms, music info, listener interaction, pop culture or some timely, interesting bit. Under the irrelevant breaks you find generic material or a talent trying to sell something to the audience. We must teach our talent to give us material from bucket one as much as possible.
Listeners come to us for many reasons ... one is companionship and to feel a part of something. The PD must coach and coach and coach to get what's needed for the station and for the audience.
But can you actually develop "star"-quality on-air talent, or is that person "born" with the talents to succeed in this medium?
Good question. Find the people who have "it" and teach them the formatics. That's the easy part. However, there are amazing talents who know how to quarterback a show and make the sidekicks and listeners the stars.
Actually finding tomorrow's talent is not easy, so you start looking in the hallways of your radio station. We look for passion and the ability to be sparkplugs and entertaining. Characters stand out.
The farm team isn't what it used to be, but it's still there. Thanks to digital technology, you don't have to drive through markets to catch emerging talent.
Sports radio has done a great job using newspaper reporters and turning them into radio stars. Music formats have opportunities to find talent from local entertainment reporters, bloggers, columnists and all. Keep your eyes open. Talent is everywhere. It's a must for our business.
Digital and multi-platform/social networks are more buzzwords of the '10s. A slew of consultants and digital experts have called for an aggressive push into this realm in terms of manpower and financial investment, while several big-group executives continue to complain about lackluster ROI. Where do you stand on this?
There is too much growth to come from digital platforms not to embrace it. A winning strategy may not be obvious today, but it requires experimentation and learning everyday. Some successful digital strategies won't even resemble radio as we know it.
The All Access summit last month in L.A. did a nice job bringing digital leaders into the room for attending programmers. It was back-to-school day. Never stop learning.
As a programmer, look for brilliant pieces of audio or video from your station and make it part of your social network to go viral. If your station doesn't have enough brilliant audio moments, you might need to rethink your station because a digital world may not treat it well. It's all about the listener. They have limited time. Give them something great from your content machine to build loyalty.
There are great opportunities for air talent and programmers to grow with the business in digital.
How has the growing number of AM Talk stations migrating to FM impacted the music formats?
There are so many different factors to this discussion.
New York is a healthy market as there is great content available from multiple AM stations there. Listenership levels remain strong there for AM.
In Las Vegas, where we added KXNT FM to a simulcast of the AM, there were several factors, including the challenge that it is a market with many residents who have moved from other cities, who most likely never built a strong allegiance to an AM in Vegas. Also, with so many FM move-ins in that market splitting the music universe, we felt that this station will stand out and be very successful over time.
If there is a non-engaging music FM that is weak in the ratings, and it happens to have an AM sister station with great content but a challenging signal issue, then the FM frequency may become home to that AM if the revenue and ratings upside are greater.
Putting a less engaging AM on a better FM signal won't solve the AM issues, either.
It's a case-by-case decision.
In light of the constant management/programming changes going on these days, you've been appointed to oversee new stations multiple times and on the flipside, you were already at CBS when Dan Mason came aboard. Looking at it from both sides, what are the keys to a smooth transition when the executive hierarchy changes?
No matter where or when change occurs, put your blinders on and keep focused. Ultimately a winning product should fit nicely into new management's plans. That is how I dealt with change while programming in various situations. It's all about winning.
Going into a new radio station as a programmer, I have always tried to study the existing team. Those who could embrace and execute the plan were important to hold on to and let them try to grow that vision.
When Infinity purchased American Radio Systems and my home station, WBMX, Dan was running Infinity corporate as President. Eventually he asked me to do a series of one-off projects for him in various markets, so there was some history when he returned in 2007.
My first meeting with Dan in 2007 was over a phone call, shortly after the announcement of his return. He clearly laid out his vision for CBS Radio and there was no guesswork as to what to expect, and to what he expected. We have had tremendous growth since then.
What's your view of programmers overseeing more than one station -- and at times in more than one market?
We do it in a few markets where it makes sense, and dedicate individual programmers to a station where that also makes sense. The needs of an individual station determine whether we are better off sharing a great programmer over two stations, or provide it with a dedicated programmer. We have added more dedicated programmers to the company in the past 12 months because the brands needed the attention.
Dan Mason made headlines recently by advocating a return to more detailed back and/or front-announcing. First off, why hasn't radio been doing this regularly up to now?
It's funny. In some situations it virtually disappeared, but certainly not at all stations. 'XRT in Chicago always put the music front and center. I can point out many other stations that also talked up the music and the artists. As for those that did stop the music talk, it could've been due to many factors. Maybe the stations took a cookie-cutter approach, as in "when it's a new song, just give out the call letters and a 'new music' liner - and not actually identify the song." It could've been their way of clutter reduction, a residue of voicetracking, or a lack of on-air training, or bad training.
Whatever the reason, some stations forgot to treat the music with passion ... and that's what Dan's e-mail was all about. He's challenging our programmers to be leaders, to train our air talent on the importance of telling stories about the music, to put more passion even when they just ID it. He put that challenge out there to our programmers to reflect, and then execute it in a way that fits their brand. Raising the bar, but giving the programmers the latitude to do this in their brand design, is beginning to pay off with some very good creative.
Since we have begun this program, stations are getting very positive responses from listeners. I just read a text message from a listener of Hot 95.7/Houston that was forwarded, liking the increased music identification.
When you set up a song correctly, it makes the listener want to experience that song and hang in there for another three to four minutes. Get them to do that a lot -- and your TSL is bound to go up.
How has Pandora, Net radio and possibly iPods and iPads influenced the way you want CBS stations programmed?
My belief is do what radio is known for, but do it better. Don't retreat into trying to match a music service for non-descript programming. Be bold. Be relevant. Be local. Be topical.
Much of the growth of personalized Net radio is coming from those who listened to their own CDs and iPods. At its best, radio should always be the life of the party.
Any thoughts on HD?
HD continues to show growth naturally with more and more receivers showing up in new vehicles. Our VP of HD Programming, Dave Robbins, has always said this is an evolution, not a revolution. There are some very good products on HD2 and 3 that are just now being discovered. Amp Radio started as an HD2 product two years prior to the debut on 97.1 HD1.
I believe this natural growth will see a second wave of new attention from operators on these side channels.
Do you aggressively promote your HD2 and 3 channels on-air ... and are you worried about losing audience share to them?
We continue to promote it as part of an industry-wide effort. But I don't see a danger of HD siphoning off our terrestrial listeners. If we do our jobs right, more choices create more listening opportunities for more people; we have found that users of new technology -- such as HD -- consume a lot more audio content than the average person. It becomes more of an add-on to our audience base.
How do you judge the success of your efforts - and the success of the PDs under you -- by rankings in the market, rating trends, or revenue?
Sr. VPs of Programming Kevin Weatherly, Chris Oliviero and I track quarterly ratings shares by cluster, and to me the real key is the year-to-year AQH shares for a cluster. CBS Radio has experienced some very strong growth in the past few years, especially in the top-10 markets.
Other than ratings, when our stations are on point, and having fun and being interactive, you can hear it through the speakers. When that occurs, the ratings and then revenue will come around, and radio will continue to dominate in the audio space.
Keep the magic alive.
Do you still enjoy radio as much as when you just programmed WBMX/Boston?
Hitting airports and getting stranded for delayed flights is by far the best part of the job! Working with the brands and programming and air talent that we have, this is a dream position.
Granted, it has become more complicated over the years, but I'm an absolute "lifer." I started when I was 15, part-time on-air in high school. Ultimately, it became almost full-time until one of my teachers knew the program director, and mentioned to him that if he continued to work me that many hours, they would turn us in!
The bottom line is that radio programming is still one of the best jobs in the world.