August 9, 2011
Since taking the helm at Talk Radio Network, Mark Masters has expanded its offerings, complementing TRN's stable of high-profile political talkers with creative lifestyle/entertainment figures such as Phil Hendrie and Mancow Muller to, most recently, offering an unbiased all-News radio block to assuage politically-sensitive advertisers. His efforts, along with the talents of TRN's personalities and sales reps, have made TRN a major player in the spoken-word field. Here, Masters provides a big-picture perspective of TRN and the spoken-word radio field.
What were your goals when you assumed the top post at TRN ... and are you at all surprised at how fast and large the company has grown?
When we re-launched the company in 1998, we saw an opportunity in the marketplace where if we used the old barter model, which had been so successful for us with Art Bell (at a time when the other networks charged supplemental base fees with extra minutes, etc.), we could be successful again.
We realized that if we could again create magnet shows with the ability to go viral -- where we can turn on one listener who can turn on five others and over a one or two-year period -- we can build "tent poles" for our affiliates, who then can build their stations completely around our shows, which turned out to be the case.
The results of our efforts have been extremely successful. For example, between 2002 and 2007, we enjoyed an average of 49% annual compound top-end growth -- year to year for each of those years. I believe this is the highest top-end growth of any network radio programming company in the last 30 years.
We then invested that growth into creating new division after division, which has become five full networks and the largest new business development sales firm for network programming in our industry (National Advertisement Company or N.A.C.). Remember, new business development is very different than what the traditional institutional advertising marketplace rep firms do so well. Four of those networks are personality radio, ranging from Phil Hendrie to Michael Savage, Monica Crowley, Laura Ingraham, Jerry Doyle, Rusty Humphries, Mancow and more - plus a wide spectrum that even includes Science Fantastic with Dr. Michio Kaku and a large variety in-between. All in all, we have currently five of the 10 largest shows in syndicated radio.
Our fifth network is the long form news-only "America's Radio News Network," which is now producing 12 hours a day of live, back-to-back news-only programming ... long-form neutral "news without agenda." This, combined with our venture with The Washington Times on "America's Morning News" (produced through TRN Entertainment) takes us up to 15 hours per day, and in every quarter-hour of those news shows, we deliver 10 to 12 stories, with four to six audio cuts every quarter-hour live -- and the PPM loves it (and advertisers love it even more).
Our news-only programming is politically neutral, offers no opinion or agenda, and creates a safe environment for ad agencies with their clients that want all politics stripped out of the spot load, which adds more pressure on ad rates. Stations can now cherry-pick our opinion talk shows and also air three-hour news block for the agencies with a no-buy dictate on opinion talk, (which becomes a flotation device for cash flow for opinion talk stations), or they can flip an entire format to all-News -- either on the FM or AM band. For this reason and more, our all-News programming through ARNN is highly complementary to our four News/Talk opinion networks.
What's the optimum use of all of your syndicated offerings?
Let's say that the number-two, three or four station in a given format calls us for Talk product. Often, we have already cleared most of the top markets for our Talk programming in such a case (which is more often than not). We might say, "We can't give you most of the talk products because the #1 station in the market already has it ... but why don't you flip to an all-News format using our long-form all-news product, America's Radio News Network (ARNN)?"
If you have an underperforming Jazz station, Talk station or the number-three or four Rock station in town, ARNN is a wonderful revenue solution for the cluster, because all-News is the top revenue format in the U.S.A. Agencies can come right in and place spots on all-News, as well as Conservative or Liberal Talk. Every type of advertiser dollar can find a "safe buy" environment in our all-News products.
What is happening is this: Because of syndication there will be one, two or even three News-only stations in each of the top075 markets (on the AM or FM bands). Thus, Talk stations can then become "the op-ed pages" of current-events radio of each market, while Sports stations can then become "the op-ed page" of national or local Sports news.
Look, clusters are under tremendous pressure nowadays. If a station is underperforming, we can help you design an FM spoken-word station geared for the 18-49/25-54 ADD listeners that the PPM and ad agencies love. In a PPM world, you need to have pacing, warmth, entertainment -- and most importantly, salability. We can deliver the entire solution in an amazing variety of ways through our five unique networks.
Miller Kaplan now says News stations have a power ratio of 2.0, which is up from 1.78 in 2009; News is the #1 revenue-generating format in the country. WTOP/Washington made $57.2 million as an FM News-only station, making it the #1 billing station in the country. In fact, in the top-10 markets, spoken-word stations are the #1 billers in seven of those, with News radio representing five of the top-10 billers.
Right now, Randy Michaels is flipping FMs to all-News in the top markets. CBS Radio is simulcasting WBBM-AM on FM. Flipping to News-only is the smartest thing Randy can do in the world. There are four times more listeners on the FM dial. What's more, the PPM loves FM News ... and advertisers love it too.
How has PPM impacted News and Talk programming?
Unlike the diary method, the PPM gives credit for a quarter-hour for just a little more than five minutes of listening. The dilemma is in finding the best way to adjust from the from diary method -- and that's to make sure you grab the audience in the first 30 seconds coming out of the break.
We have come up with several methodologies to do that and they're proprietary to us. What I can say is that on the News side, we make sure to immediately forward-pitch the top-three or four stories in the first 15-30 seconds. People tend to wait for one of those stories and sit though the two or three less-interesting stories to get to the one "forward pitch" that interested them. But you have to deliver on that to make sure listeners keep coming back, in very smart and entertaining ways.
How is an FM News or Talk station different from its AM brethren?
FM is faster paced and designed for the PPM to be America's first choice of radio in younger demos. If you watch what TV does ... it constantly spends time promoting its upcoming content to get you to stick around. Radio has to be able to adjust in that way.
Do you have to overcome time management issues when you have so many top-flight shows to oversee and place in available openings?
Not really, because you cannot call up somebody with five to ten million listeners and tell them what to do. You have to treat them with a great deal of respect and deference when you offer them suggestions.
Staying in touch with affiliates is the important thing; getting and giving feedback from and to them is very important. We care about their profit margin as much as we care about our own ... and they sense that care.
Phil Hendrie seemed to veer more into hardcore political talk for a while, before returning to his unique, character-laden style, while Mancow has veered from morning show cutting edge to politics and now to entertainment. Were you involved in their transformations?
With Hendrie and Mancow, there were suggestions that they tweak their shows. They initially agreed because the truth is they're both entertainers and entertainment is the key to their success. Entertainment talk is a big growth sector -- and Mancow and Phil are brilliant performance artists. They're also great interviewers who know how to tease the best "Theatre of The Mind" out of celebrities or pop culture as a rule. They create unique content every day that TV personalities can't do with a staff of 15 people. It takes an incredible level of skill.
They also have an intuitive keen sense of knowing when to kill a bit. It's as if they have a "boring" light that starts blinking in their heads; when they sense the conversation stalling, they shift or change the subject.
What about finding new talent ... what does an up-and-comer need to do or be to generate interest from TRN?
We receive a lot of resumes every day from former music jocks who want to transition to Talk. A lot of guys come out of radio after seeing things such as Pandora growing and think they've got to get into Talk. The problem is that Talk is undergoing its own transition, so I have to ask those folks what life experiences they've had. Because when you look into their backgrounds, over 70% of the top talkers had a full life in another arena before radio. Most were either lawyers or teachers, so they are well-rounded, know how to create an entertaining narrative and bring people back each day. So what do they all have in common? A broad life experience ... and the ability to communicate to very broad and different audiences.
Plus, when they talk, their riffs have an opening ... a beginning, a middle and an end in their thought process that brings you to a logical, smart conclusion, which will either make you laugh, or stun you by taking a "foggy" subject and bringing it to jaw-dropping clarity through analysis or brilliant story telling.
Rusty Humphries is a world traveler who creates experiences for himself on over 200 stations. I once asked him why he's going here or there, and he'd say, "I want real experiences in my life, I don't want to talk about hypothetical." He has met with terrorists on the West Bank. They blindfolded him before they took him to the interview; he was recently detained on the Egyptian border.
I can't say enough about Jerry Doyle, who was a top player on Wall Street for 11 years. He retired in his early 30s, and then became the #2 guy on the Emmy-winning TV series Babylon 5 for six years -- and he did all this without an agent.
Michael Savage was an expert in health and nutrition and was a school teacher and has two PhDs and a Masters Degree - he did all of this prior to entering radio.
Laura Ingraham was an attorney and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas before radio - the list goes on and on ...
How competitive is it between TRN, Premier and Westwood One, all vying to get their product on the top Talk stations in the country?
The competition is fierce, but the truth is there's now an FM News or News/Talker in 50 of the top-100 markets -- that's the last time I checked -- so more spoken-word product is needed for FM stations, and we have been leading the charge for expanding the distribution footprint for spoken-word formats there. There are four times more listeners on the FM dial than there are on the AM band; spoken word is positioned to save underperforming FM stations the same way it saved AM radio in the late '80s, starting with Rush -- with great News/Talk, News-only or Sports Talk formats.
Looking way down the road, if spoken-word formats continue to take FM spots, are AM Talkers' days numbered?
FM Talkers won't threaten AM because they're not cannibalizing each other. People who listen to FM rarely, if ever, listen to AM. Until recently NPR was the main source for FM Talk. I happen to think NPR is in a lot of trouble; there are a lot of good people there, but upper management has made several big mistakes of late.
I think there's more than enough room for three, four or five FM Talk, News-only or Sports stations in each decent-sized market. They will nicely co-exist alongside the Talk and News stations currently on the AM band.
Remember, back in 1970, FM stations were virtually worthless, then people soon realized that music sounded so much better on FM ... and over time AM music stations became practically nonexistent. In '87, Rush comes along and saves AM radio. Now music -- which migrated to FM 40 years ago -- has already and will continue to migrate to the Internet and cell phones in Pandora-like formats, with News, News/Talk and Sports stations saving the day for FM.
The amazing thing about radio today is when you analyze it, there are a LOT of AM stations today that are the top billers in many of the top-100 markets, all because of spoken-word programming. Spoken-word formats may not lead in the ratings rankings, but they are leading in the revenue rankings. News and Talk stations are obliterating music stations in revenue efficiency. Why? Because their 25-54 listeners are far more actively engaged than those listeners to music stations, whose listeners in that demo are far more passive.
Over the past eight years, I have been championing spoken-word flips on the FM band and we've enjoyed wonderful success. The only thing stopping spoken-word formats is the power of the signal. You cannot fight the power of signal physics. You can't reach enough of your core audience with a 50,000-watt signal that's shooting out to sea and not inland. You can't blame that on programming.
Besides a strong signal, what else is essential for spoken-word success?
To win with personality radio, you need a uniformly strong lineup. You can't be inconsistent and go from great talent to weak talent; that produces nothing but tune-out. You have to be like a freight train, go from one consistently strong show to another, as in Laura Ingraham to Rush Limbaugh to Jerry Doyle then to Michael Savage and onto Rusty Humphries and so on.... You can't have an infomercial stuck between them; it corrupts the flow for the audience. If strong Talk shows are not available in your market, you can air a solid block of news-only programming, like we offer through ARNN (and America's Morning News), which many GMs are now using as a flotation device for revenue.
Finally, you have to recruit the right sales people. Most managers do not spend enough time recruiting good sales people. Instead they waste time trying to manage weak sales people who don't have the motivation to improve.
We're looking for those sales people who believe in News, Sports and Talk radio -- people who have a commanding voice to sell for stations. People who have been in law enforcement, education and nursing are usually great, because they have high ethics, know how to present a narrative and are not afraid to make cold calls. Good sales reps are the linchpin to everything, and we help with lead generation on a local level as well for our affiliates at no charge to them.
To learn more about Talk Radio Network's four opinion Talk networks and America's Morning News, go to www.trn1.com
To listen to America's Radio News Network's long-form news product, go to www.americasradionewsnetwork.com and stream it live.