July 26, 2011
Few, if any, marketing experts carry more radio experience than Dwight Douglas. After earning his stripes as a programmer for stations such as DC101/Washington, D.C. and WDVE/Pittsburgh, Douglas and Kent Burkhart launched a consultancy that ruled rock radio during its heyday. He eventually left the PD gig at WZGC/Atlanta for RCS, where he spreads the word on RCS state-of-the-art technologies such as GSelector and RCSNews. Here, Douglas talks about the new toys and the medium he helped build.
So what made you decide to work at RCS?
My history with RCS goes back to the beginning of the company. In 1979 they started writing software to schedule music. I first had a relationship with them as a consultant for Burkhart/Abrams/Douglas. I met Andrew Economos and demonstrated how programmers scheduled music on radio stations by using index cards. It seemed obvious to us that it would be better to use computers for scheduling, and that was the beginning of relationship.
Later on, I went to work for CBS Z93 in Atlanta; obviously I used Selector there - and we added their automation system Master Control. After I left CBS, I went back to visit RCS -- and I never left. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Andrew sold the company, but most of the key players are still here
Is there anything in music scheduling that people seem to overlook?
This maybe a little philosophical, but the one thing people overlook about Selector is that you really learn a lot of things when you're first using the product. It actually teaches you about radio. A lot of great radio people helped design the product; they asked for things that ended up in Selector. Because of that, I always thought Selector should be taught at universities.
Some programmers overlook going deeper into it. So much of what this business has become -- especially in radio is the result of programmers who have been asked to do so many things and do so much work. There's not the time (especially for young people) to sit down and master the software. Once you learn everything about Selector, you will discover ways to program better. I just wish radio people would spend more time learning how software could improve their performance. Why is "learning" a dirty word?
Are services like Jelli and LDR a new form of competition for Selector?
No, because we work with lot of those companies. One of things about any type of software and business program is that you have to deal with prejudice ... that somehow DJs sitting in a studio can magically put together music in an artful way better than a machine. At the same time, we use electronic airplane tickets and we feel that is better. We have no problem gobbling up new stuff like iPhones.
Part of what technology does is to help us in areas that our brain can't possibly accomplish. Our typical memory lasts no longer than what songs were played in the last hour. Technology can help us figure out where songs should be played; in what dayparts and what are the best songs to be played before and after them.
Early on, when I was a radio listener back in dark ages, I noticed that some songs were played next to each other at the same time each day - and it really bothered me. As I got further and further into radio. I realized reasons why those things were happening. I went to WLS and saw they had carts ... and they played carts down the rack, and when they were finished, they turned the rack upside down played them right side up. They obviously didn't juggle the songs around or swap around positions. The songs ended up playing next to each all the time.
We've come a long way from that. It's more than just the shuffle that's going on here.
By the way, "Shuffle" is one of stupidest terms to come out of new technology because shuffle doesn't necessarily create good radio music scheduling. I'm not even sure what it's doing, because every time I have a new device -- whether it's an Android phone or an iPod - and I put it on shuffle, whatever ends up being played has a weird repetition. I try to avoid that by pressing shuffle again. Our algorithms for shuffle are very sophisticated. Apple, et. al. have no understanding of the concept of rotating a database properly. The only shuffle I've seen work properly outside of RCS is in Vegas -- at the Black Jack table.
There seems to be an eternal debate over programmers using their "gut" vs. relying on research and programming via Selector. Thoughts?
Every programmer programs by gut. Selector is just a tool; it's the palette for people to present their "gut" on the air. They are always in charge in setting up Selector in a way to create the radio station they want. Anyone who programs a station just by having a computer spit out a list shouldn't be in this business. Anybody can do that.
The great radio programmers in America know how to interpret their musical vision through Selector -- and their ideal is more important than the technology that rotates the music. If you simply use Selector to remember what you played and not use your gut, you're not as much a program director than you are a secretary. I guess I am dating myself with that word.
Your old partner, Lee Abrams, recently said that Talk radio is this generation's AOR ...and that Rock music formats are pretty much passé. Agree?
No, I don't agree with that. The problem here is that people are passing judgment on certain formats based on the time and space they are currently in. My experience is that radio formats are always mercurial, ever-changing.
You have to step back and say, "I remember a time when Top 40 was considered to be dead because no one other than teens and younger demos listened to it." The next thing you know, AC-appeal product slowly cuts into the Top 40 market and everybody is trying to make Top 40 sound like Michael Bolton.
I remember a time during the Top 40 purge, when there were some markets without Top 40 stations at all. We went in and put Top 40s on the air ... and they were incredibly successful. Conversely, there was a time when there were no fewer than five Rock stations in Detroit. It has since been whittled down to one Active Rocker and a Classic Rock.
The key to looking at this is ... what's the return? Radio always asks itself, "Am I maximizing the value of this property with this format?" If I have an Urban station in New York City, can I make more money having, say, an Active Rock station? In a medium market in Pennsylvania, on the other hand, the need to have as big a return on your investment isn't as large, so having a Rock station there isn't such a bad idea. In fact, it could be #1 or #2 in some markets. So is Rock dead? No, it's not dead. We just need a way to go program it up and bring it around. Last time I was at a hard rock concert, I couldn't find a seat.
How has PPM impacted the perceived value of certain formats?
I have a comforting feeling with PPM knowing that I'm finding out what someone is actually hearing on the radio, rather what they remembered. This passive/PPM system is still relatively new, so the jury is still out on whether it's good for this or that format. You need to have it in all the markets to see how it's affecting them.
If there's one impact I have seen with the PPM, it deals with talent. I've heard from a lot of PDs that under the diary, a morning show might be #1 25-54 and making millions of dollars. Then the PPM hits and all of a sudden something changes. It seems to be less of a popularity contest and more of what actually people are listening to -- and some of these morning shows stumble a bit under PPM. It seems that the overall content maybe judged differently when you are recording real usage.
On the other hand, some morning shows do even better under PPM. My thinking is that there may be a shift going on and that diaries are very slow to pick up on audience shift. Conversely, PPM is very quick to register such a shift. But there's no going back to the diary. We've got to be able to use this technology to make our lives better.
You know how you can tell which baseball teams are losers? The ones that move the fence back to cover for a bad pitching staff. Stations used to do their version of enhancing hype-steroids to pump up their numbers in the four-week diary; now they actually have to program a radio station every day of the year.
Speaking of morning personalities, can there be on-air stars the caliber of a Howard Stern in a PPM world?
Yeah, I think so, as long as that talent is really engaging. Howard is an exceptional talent who is totally engrossing - and if your on-air talent can be that much of an absorbing force in a market, they'll do well. There's nothing that has changed about the human need for entertainment. There will always be a human desire to wake up and hear someone funny or topical.
To people who wonder if there's anyone out there who can do that today, I say well, if your morning talent isn't doing it, there are 180,000 people who currently work in radio - and out of that 180,000, there has got to be some great undiscovered talent ... and if you're lucky to find that talent in the right place and develop it at the right time, it will be amazing. What if Bob and Tom were still in Ypsilanti, MI ... and they didn't ever get to Indianapolis? No one would've known how good they were, but they were in the right place at the right time in a market that was starved for their kind of entertainment. Hoosiers love to laugh.
It seems as if you're still quite bullish about radio. True?
Radio is everywhere. Walter Sabo made a great point at the Arbitron conference a few years ago that a lot of other media has yet to reach more than 92% of the U.S. population. We have radio in cars and kitchens and bedrooms. Radio is everywhere. I don't think radio has a problem with being where it needs to be. After all, even when the electricity goes out, the first thing you do is grab a battery-powered radio.
Obviously, all radio needs to do is create more good quality programming. We have to be able to step up to the plate when the audience punches the button. They tune in to hear something great. There will always be people to point out what's wrong with radio, but I'm bullish on its future.
From all appearances, it looks like Randy Michaels is about to go head-to-head with FM News or Talk stations in Chicago and/or New York. Are direct-format rivalries, including the Top 40 battles we now see in several major markets, good for radio?
That kind of thing makes radio better on a couple of levels. The first level is having more people trying to attract a certain audience, and that will bring more people back to the dial. There is truth to the idea that all boats rise with the tide. A buzz about one station can help other-like stations.
And next, creating a competitive environment can create talk. We just saw a very interesting thing happen in the Casey Anthony trial. Before that trial, the HLN network was not a big thing on cable, then all of a sudden it became a big thing and Nancy Grace was there and they capitalized on it. When media gets hot, people come back.
There are still certain things about the power of radio. In the past, events were often motivated by who got this artist or concert first. That's not as big a deal today, when all the stations in the market that are interested in a particular concert are often owned by the same company. In that case, the "presents" situation is more of a strategic decision than competitive coup.
On other side of the coin, if all the stations are owned by the same owner, you still have to create an excitement about what you're doing on-air. In the old days, when a jock moved across the street to a rival station, it was a big deal. I've been involved in some of the non-compete lawsuits; they can provide very colorful commentary and in a sense, create a vibrant radio market.
But aren't the Merlin/CBS goings-on more of an exception than a rule? How many personalities have that non-compete issue when so many slots are filled with syndication and voicetracking?
Sure, it can happen again. It's shifting a bit. As you mentioned, you're seeing Randy Michaels come into the radio biz again in a big way; he'll do some radical things that will be cutting edge - and the things that he does will create the kind of buzz that will get people talking about radio.
Maybe I'm thinking too crystal ball here, but the fact is that whatever he does will create competition within a radio format, be it News/Talk or AC -- and how he and Walt reinvent the News format ... may be an electronic Huffington Post, for example -- if done well, can make a lot of money for not just Merlin, but radio as a whole ... at the expense of other media.
Unfortunately, it may be the final nail in the coffin for newspapers. I don't think they can take another hit.
What kind of new technical innovations do you see happening in RCS' future?
We have RCSnews, a program that gives a news staff the ability to have a virtual newsroom anywhere in the world. You can be totally tied into the news room, no matter where you are.
It has a teleprompter module so you can use your laptop as if you were on TV reading the news. We have a new automation playout program called Zetta. It's has a real cockpit-like interface and backend-engineering that's totally cutting-edge and flexible. Imagine being able to see and control what is on dozens of stations on one screen.
We're also working on something that's going to be the basis of how automation will interface with different areas of a music station. If you're using GSelector (the latest version of Selector) and you would like to instantly see the Mscore from Media Monitors for a song, bang, it's there. And you can download this information and use it to shape the way that song is rotated. It eliminates some of the middle steps between the programmer and the person listening to the station.
We are building software and services that talk to each other.
Nothing is flat about anything we do; everything has a dynamic dimension to it. We expect three or four different dimensions being used in the future. You have to be able to publish to a website, upload to a phone, deliver the playlist to a cable channel and transmit the audio from a tower. We are in the content business now.
You can't stay in the past. You've got to get off this flat concept and get into realm of knowing that radio content is going to be consumed anywhere on any kind of device ... that's the future.
Ands what of your future?
Personally, I'm very happy here doing the marketing for all our different companies, RCS, Mediabase and Media Monitors. I'm also highly involved with the design and graphics of our user interface. It's very exciting to be running 35 websites around the world that I helped design and edit. I also have a comedy website, whackotv.com, where I write and produce stupid videos and have some fun when I am not "working." That's how I stay off the street. I'm just going to do everything I'm doing now until I cash my ticket.