Mary Beth Garber
June 21, 2011
Think Jack Webb as Joe Friday, interested in "just the facts, ma'am..." or Cher in the film, Moonlighting, slapping insecure radio types, in the form of Nic Cage, to "snap out of it!" Either analogy speaks for what Mary Beth Garber did as head of the Southern California Broadcasters Association - and what she does now on a national scale for the Katz Radio Group. Armed with research studies, facts and figures, Garber offers proof to ad agencies, their clients, radio executives and the media that radio isn't on the downside, but on the upswing - especially compared to whatever the New Media du jour may be. Here, she states her case....
What made you decide to take the Katz job?
I got a phone call from Katz and they said, "We have created this position for you ... you don't have to leave L.A. ... and you get to do what you love." I was President of the Southern California Broadcasters Association at the time. In that position, I was able to champion radio and educate people about radio for the Southern California region, although I eventually wound up doing some things about radio in general.
What I do here at the Katz Radio Group is both necessary and unusual. I'm an advocate for radio; I'm also an ambassador for radio ... an analyst for radio ... and a defender of radio. My job is to position and promote radio. It's also to provide a positive, factual perception of the medium and to counter those who convey negative messages -- or have negative perceptions -- that aren't based on reality.
Why do perceptions often overrule reality ... especially when it comes to radio?
There are times when people have the wrong facts, or they cherry-pick the ones that serve their purpose, or they work from what someone has told them, or from "mother-in-law surveys."
They look at themselves, their immediate colleagues, their kids and their immediate circle of friends and then assume the entire world behaves in the same way. A lot of times, this isn't true. For instance, look what happened when Arbitron created the PPM, which introduced passive, electronic ratings as opposed to diary-based perception of actions. Before PPM, the diary and most of the early studies out there asked people what they thought. Only a couple of research projects had people actually follow consumers around and write down what they actually did.
Now, with a passive measurement device, PPM reports not what people think or say they listen to, but what they actually heard. It's been great news for radio.
Yet there was a knee-jerk reaction to PPM by more than a few programmers, in terms of, for example, eliminating almost all talk outside of liners...
There is a knee-jerk reaction whenever you have a game-changing new measurement system. People tended to react when the first numbers came out by doing what produced the most immediate jumps in ratings. As time went on, stations began to understand that by taking away their DJs' "talk" they were taking away their personalities. And this was a very big mistake.
People want to have relationships and emotional connections in their lives. And when it comes to their radio listening, they're looking for the same things. This is what psychologists call a "para-social interaction," essentially a one-way friendship -- but still a very real emotional connection. People feel like they know these radio personalities; they run into them on the street and speak to them as if they've been friends for years. They actually care about these personalities.
This kind of relationship brings people to the station and keeps people coming back, as the station begins to take on the personality of its personalities. It's what I call a "virtual neighborhood." It's what some people call a tribe; there are many different names for it. Basically what a good PD creates is a place where listeners want to return. Listeners need to have a good sense of what's in that neighborhood, but they're always going to be surprised, too. The content is fresh ... and the people there are entertaining or informative.
Who are you spending most of your energy defending radio with - the ad agencies, the public, or the radio industry itself?
All of the above. Advertisers and their agencies are the primary targets, but it's also important to let people in the radio industry know the truth about their own business.
Radio has an inferiority complex; we've been the "poor relative" for a very long time. We've gotten accustomed to not defending ourselves by challenging the misperceptions that are out there. Very few people in radio were willing to speak out. I just couldn't take it anymore, so a number of years ago I began writing rebuttals and digging out facts, saying this is wrong ... radio is not dying, radio is actually thriving. Fortunately, Mark Gray felt the same way I did. So when he offered me the opportunity to say what needed to be said on a national platform, I knew I'd found a home.
It's been said that "a good offense can be a good defense." Is that why you and many others in radio have spent so much time attacking other media rivals, be it satellite radio or, most recently, Pandora?
I wouldn't being doing my job if I didn't try to clear up several misperceptions. First, telling the truth about our industry is not an attack on another. And second, telling the truth about a media rival is also not an attack.
When an argument is based on facts there's very little room for debate.
That's why it's important to get out in front of these issues and highlight why these new media don't stack up to radio: different people react differently and there are those who initially get scared when they go up against anything new -- particularly when they have to generate advertising agency business.
When Sirius and XM first came out, I would sit in meetings at Chiat Day, for example, and everyone there would say that satellite radio was the death knell for our industry. That within five years there would be no more over-the-air radio. That satellite radio would replace it. And you know what; everyone in the room did have satellite radio, at a point when less than 3% of the country had satellite radio.
So I looked around the room and asked, "How many of you have iPods, satellite radio and DVRs?" Most of the hands went up. I then said, "Okay, only 3% of the country has satellite, less than 30% have iPods (at that time) and less than 14% have DVRs. You don't look like everybody else out there. You are not the typical person and you have to think about how typical people live their lives. They get busy; they don't have time sit down and program things, nor are they necessarily good at it anyway."
So where is Sirius XM now, 10 years later? What kind of market penetration does it have? Fewer than 10% ... but, boy, when you walked around the radio world during its first three to four years, all you had were people calling them "radio killers." The radio industry was running scared when, if you just looked at the facts, they certainly didn't need to.
I get the impression that considering its reaction to everything from satellite radio 10 years ago to Pandora now, that radio continues to have a fairly significant inferiority complex.
It absolutely does, as well as a lack of understanding of what business we're really in. We're in the business of creating and monetizing relationships between our stations and the listeners. The primary driver of that is our personalities, whether the personalities are the "Jack's" attitude or live-and-local air personalities relating to what's going on in their markets. It's up to the station PD to decide how to meld the personalities with the format and what kind of entertainment the station wants to impart.
Doesn't the fact that you have to battle these misconceptions to attract advertisers belie the notion that if a station produces results for the client, all is well?
My job is to make the agencies and their clients willing to take a chance to see whether or not it works, then publicize the fact that it does. There are DJs all over country who say they've created millionaires by endorsing local companies and businesspeople. We have an endless number of case studies that shows how radio can dramatically improve a multimedia campaign; it just changes things. Arbitron recently presented a paper to the Advertising Research Federation showing how using radio and TV together in a campaign can give advertisers prime time rating levels all day long. We have studies that show the difference in brand awareness, in engagement and caring about the brand when radio is part of the campaign.
In digital, how difficult is it to lobby the ad agencies to spend their ad dollars where it counts - over-the-air and not so much on the Net?
It's not an easy sell. This goes back to the same thing -- people do strange things when they're frightened. The minute the Internet passed critical mass, advertisers and their agencies knew they had to be up with all of the new media; they had to be part of it -- even though today Net radio reaches only about a third of the people that terrestrial radio reaches in a month. Only one out of five people listen to radio on the Net in the course of a week - and that includes Pandora.
So if that's your universe ... and you're selling tires or soft drinks and relying solely on Internet radio, including Pandora, you'll be out of business pretty soon. Ad agencies need to realize this but at the same time we need to acknowledge that agencies are running scared if they're not involved in New Media.
We also need to remember that New Media is also a form of radio. Radio is very heavily invested in the digital space; almost every station we rep has a website. Not all of them stream, but the website and our social media entities wind up being digital doors into our neighborhood ... and it's a way that stations and personalities let listeners come even closer and feel more a part of that neighborhood.
Our digital connections empower listeners to give them an additional voice, be it a texting thing or a contest on the website, or requesting songs or taking part in a music test.
A few years back, I sat in a room full of college students at USC; this was when iPods had been around for just four or five years. Still, at USC, everyone had one. I was with a PD in there, talking about iPods and radio and we asked how many songs the students had on their iPods. It was anywhere from 300-1,000. We asked if they sat down every day to program it so they could listen to it the next day. Nearly all of them said they spent between one and two hours doing just that. Then one student admitted she used to do that, but stopped when she got a job. Now she mostly listens to radio.
Why? There's only so much time in a day, and working trumps programming an iPod. And because the iPod can get boring. There are times when you go back to it when you want to listen to your favorite songs, but after a while you start to know what the next song is going to be even when it's on Shuffle. There are no surprises there. One thing we know about the human brain is that it needs to be surprised ... every day. Radio does that for our listeners.
Bottom line: What's the most common, yet pertinent advice you would give radio stations to optimize their success and overshadow competitive media?
There are two things they can do. One is to listen to their station and make sure it's entertaining. If it's entertaining and the people on the air sound like they really enjoy being there, that's great. Because then listeners want to be there with them and you're doing just fine.
The second thing is just keep finding ways to let the listener participate. Ask them, "Are there songs you'd like us to play that we don't play?" Or "Are there subjects we're not talking about that you'd like us to talk about?" Then take the feedback and make it obvious you're listening to them ... and that they matter.
Even though an overwhelming majority of listeners don't really want to participate -- they still want to be entertained and have a para-social relationship, a one-way friendship - reach out to those who want the feeling of a two-way friendship. The Jacobs Tech 7 study that just came out showed that a very large percentage of Rock and Triple-A listeners really wanted to participate with stations and wanted their voices heard. So give them that voice.
Is the challenge you're currently undertaking - rebutting negative misconceptions about radio and promoting the positive facts - something akin to (and pardon the melodramatic characterization) a "never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way?"
Thank you - I think - for the compliment. But I'm no Superwoman. Just a professional with a medium I believe in.
I don't think a day goes by where I've opened my e-mail and didn't find something that I had to respond to. There's always some misperception someplace, but at same time I'm also going out and looking for the most common misperceptions to investigate. Then I come back to find out what's real.
For example, there's the misperception that people spend much less time with radio; that simply is not the case. We asked Arbitron to do a custom breakout all of the PPM numbers they've accrued over three years, then we measured and matched the data in six different demos for weekly cume TSL and AQH ... and there was not a single case of more than a 3-4% difference, plus or minus.
A great majority of people like their relationship with radio; there's nothing else out there that can do what radio does. In that sense, radio is thriving because of its connection to listeners that no other media can match. But there are always people who are going to need to be reminded of that fact.