January 3, 2012
Mike McVay was practically born in the radio business. Starting his career over 40 years ago as an air personality in Pittsburgh, McVay programmed station from coast to coast before starting his own consultancy in 1984. McVay Media has worked with as many as 200 radio stations at one time - not just in the U.S., but worldwide - and has helped shape the radio careers of personalities such as John Tesh, Donny Osmond, Lou Dobbs, Rick Dees and Charlie Tuna.
Earlier this year, he was offered an opportunity that was new to him -- as SVP/Programming for Cumulus Media, where his insight could be spread to over 500 radio stations and scores of programmers and air personalities. It was an offer he couldn't refuse ...and here, he explains why and how he views the rapidly changing radio world.
Why did you decide to leave your consultancy for the opportunity at Cumulus?
I have a great history with Lew and John Dickey and their family, having worked with their father many years ago. I worked with Lew and John when they had Stratford Research, a company we often used with our consulted clients, and we often asked them to speak at our seminars. We created some great winning radio together in the late '80s and early '90s.
I have a very good personal and professional relationship with them. I am also very close to Co-COO Jon Pinch. He was also one of my earliest clients when he used to be a GM in Milwaukee. That was probably 28 years ago. He hired me to consult him and since then we've become very good friends. I've worked with Pinch not only in the U.S. (Milwaukee and Tampa), but in later years in New Zealand and Australia where he ran large radio groups.
I know and trust these men to be my employers ... to be my bosses. I've got a great personal relationship and great synergy with them all.
I was doing very well with the consultancy, but as a consultant, you can only accomplish so much. You make recommendations to the programmers and management and then you leave the market. Whether those recommendations are executed depends on the client. There's always been a lot of frustration on my part when I'm not able to impact a station. I've always wanted to have an impact on the industry. Working inside of Cumulus, I believe we can make a difference ... and positively impact our industry.
The notion of me joining Cumulus all started when I saw John Dickey speak at the Worldwide Radio Summit last year. I was very impressed with what John had to say about changing the culture of the industry. I watched him speak and realized how much he'd grown in the 15 years that we'd not worked together, and was in awe of how uniquely he thinks. That was what got me excited. So when I met him off stage, we talked and he said, "Maybe we should get the band back together again" ... and that's where the decision to join Cumulus began.
For me to get a chance to work in such a large group -- almost 600 radio stations -- and to work with the Cumulus radio network is an amazing opportunity. I get to work with some very talented programmers. This was something I could not pass up. You know, I'm at a time of my life -- I'm 58 years young -- where I probably should have started to think about approaching the final years of my career, but now Lew, Jon and John have enabled me to take on the biggest job of my life! I am re invigorated.
I was already quite familiar with many of the brightest minds in Cumulus. I know the other corporate programmers in our group; Jan Jeffries, the other SVP/ Programming, and I are good friends and great co-workers. Jan was a consultant prior to joining Stratford (and later Cumulus) and he even worked with Burkhart/Abrams when McVay Media bought that company. Jan and I have worked together as consultants and we've spilled blood together in the radio wars.
The rest of the team is Val Garris, (Rock -- and we also worked together), Jim Mahanay (News), Greg Frey (Country), Maurice DeVoe (Urban), Emily Boldon (AC) and Dick Stadlen (Classic Hits) ... and they all have "big brains."
Do you feel totally comfortable with your new position at Cumulus?
I'm still trying to get up to speed. This game is much faster than I thought it would be. John Dickey told me that I'd be surprised at how fast they move, how many resources are available and how people will react differently to me. I'm still learning, but I have to say our team has been very tolerant of my learning curve. I made a joke on our first groupwide conference call. I told everyone, "I'm going to get a T-shirt made up that says, 'I must hurry to catch up to the others for I am their leader'." If you asked my wife, she'd tell you that I'm always a person looking to learn and grow, and she'd say that I'm OCD, too.
In this new era of radio, with digital, online and multiple platforms, some have said the old standbys on what makes radio great are growing obsolete. Case-in-point: Being "live and local" isn't essential anymore. Live, yes, but not necessarily local. Agree?
What makes radio successful is changing, but the key is to grasp "the absolute" on what makes radio successful -- and that "absolute" is great content. It's not about being "live and local" or any of those myths we once believed. The bottom line was, is and always will be about great content.
When Howard Stern first launched on WNCX/Cleveland, I was consulting cross-town WMJI. I remember everyone saying that our being local will beat his "out of town" show. That certainly wasn't true. He became a serious contender in most markets and he did become #1 in several.
Look at the best talk shows today -- Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, John Batchelor and others. The great ones post huge ratings ... and they are syndicated.
So when you say the industry changed because being "live and local used to win, but it doesn't now," that misses the point. I disagree with your statement. Smart broadcasters grasp what does win and what doesn't win -- and they can't win without great content.
But is "great content" in Los Angeles the same as "great content" in, say, Omaha?
I'm not saying "one size fits all." The fact is that there will likely be differences in what makes great content "great" in those two markets. And yet the biggest national events can be the most locally relevant. The key is CONNECTIVITY.
Because of that, we have to be "hands on," as programmers, in order to be sure that the station connects. We need our PDs to communicate to the syndicated talent on their stations. Talent wants your input and info.
We have to make sure every property gets attended to, serves its listeners and works at peak performance.
The corporate programming team and I are visiting big and small markets, based on what their necessities are at that moment, and working as their partners. This is not a situation where you have some children who need love and some who deserve it. All of our children deserve love because our shareholders deserve love.
You create a great structure, rules and guidelines -- then allow your people to execute. It's not as if Starbucks became successful by allowing their stores to stray from the strategy. However, there are market nuances that their stores take advantage of. We want to pick up on the necessary differences between markets. We want to implement the strategies and tactics that work everywhere -- and add the Cumulus "secret sauce" to them.
Aren't there situations when more than one station in a market has great content? What determines the winner then?
Whichever one is best at connecting to its audience with the most memorable content will edge the other. However, people don't listen to one station; PPM has shown that they listen to multiple stations. If you have two great radio stations, with great content, both of those stations will win. Everyone else loses. There's a saying from the book, "Art Of War," which says, "When the elephants fight, the ants take a beating." If you can be one of the stations that have great content, the other stations will take a beating. Our goal is to make sure all the elements of great content are consistently inside our building. Be an elephant!
Do you feel that Pandora is a legitimate competitor to Cumulus stations?
As a programmer, I don't feel we're programmatically competing directly with Pandora. I do feel we're both competing for a share of the listeners' time. I'm focused on snaring the lowest hanging fruit from the tree by taking listeners from other stations. My job is focused solely on winning the radio-to-radio battle.
Do you view your competition on a station-to-station level in the individual markets, cluster vs. cluster, or has it become group vs. group? And has the fact that Cumulus is part of Clear Channel's iHeartradio platform change the competitive paradigm at all?
Cumulus is definitely fighting tooth and nail against Clear Channel ... and everyone else ... on a national level and an individual market level. The fact that Cumulus is now on Clear Channel's iHeart digital platform doesn't change my responsibilities at all. Honestly, iHeartradio is an amazing platform; we're thrilled to have access to this app, which provides us with greater reach. It's a great thing that we can turn a cellphone into a radio; I absolutely love that ... but we're still going to program our stations to beat all of our competitors.
Clear Channel has been aggressive in its use of voicetracking and syndication of its talent with Premium Choice. Will Cumulus do the same?
That's really a question for my bosses. We don't have "Premium Choice," as that's a Clear Channel initiative. We believe that our first mission is to get our own house in order. Most broadcasters can't get out of way of themselves in competing with others. If we are going to voicetrack a daypart -- and we do have some voicetracked dayparts -- it has to be the best possible voicetracker for that station. We don't look at voicetracking as a throwaway. Anyone who's voicetracking a station has to put into it a maximum effort. That means show prep to sound "local and live" and to sound a part of the station. Better production. Being unique and natural sounding. I can show you some great voicetrackers who do a superb job of that.
Do you agree that PPM favors certain formats over others, and if so, how has that changed your programming strategy?
PPM certainly favors mass-appeal formats. Niche formats don't do very well PPM markets. The bigger your cume, the easier it is to overcome an inadequate sample size. The more mass appeal the format, the more likely it is to have a big cume. Bigger is better. And our goal is to have the most listeners possible and that means being mass appeal.
So if the major groups concentrate on mass-appeal formats, who will provide the variety format-wise to radio?
First off, radio users create "variety" by punching the buttons on their radio. You'll always see broadcasters on the periphery continually change formats on their stations. These are the "niche" people. Every market has a couple of stations that never seem to settle on a format. You're gong to see niche formats be relegated to the smaller-powered frequencies, online and possibly back on the AM band. Some of those AM stations are eligible for translators that give them a low-powered FM frequency.
What are the most mass appeal formats?
Top 40/Pop, Country, News/Talk, AC and Sports/Talk. You could argue Classic Hits and/or Classic Rock in a few select markets, too.
What's your take on the AM Talk, News and Sports stations migrating to FM -- and how will that impact the FM music stations?
Talk on FM makes sense because it's "fishing where the fish are." I don't expect Talk to have much of an impact on music stations; perhaps it will be a plus for radio overall, because what we're seeing in most markets is that the FM Talk stations will drive the cume up in a market. There's a greater radio usage with Talk stations.
Considering how many Sports and Talk stations there are -- and many of them don't dominate ratings -- do ratings always equal revenue?
We ARE seeing N/T win in the ratings. You cannot say that it isn't winning. I do believe there's a direct link between ratings and revenue. A highly-rated station that's not generating revenue is a problem. There's a reason to have great ratings and a reason to do great radio -- and that's to serve a community well. If you serve your community well, you'll get bigger ratings ... and bigger ratings generate more revenue.
I've seen the reverse where stations do not have great ratings but still do well on revenue. Someone may point at that example and say I'm wrong. I look at those stations and think, "Wow, imagine what they could do with great ratings."
Has the importance of creating and possessing major radio personalities on radio lessened with the rise of syndication, voicetracking and PPM methodology?
We don't have a blanket policy in that regard. We do believe in quality personalities. It really comes down to what's needed in each market. Are you the personality station or are you the "more music" station? It's all about finding the right programming lane for each station. We don't have a "one size fits all" policy dictated from above. We love personality in some situations (and we have some amazing talent in the company) ... and in some situations we go in the other direction.
Again, it's all about great content, which we combine with amazing talent.
I always chuckle when I hear people claim that our company cuts personalities out of the mix. We're purveyors of personality, because great personalities and great content take the ratings to the next level, which in turn takes revenue to the next level.
Yet there is a perception that larger groups such as Clear Channel and Cumulus manage their stations from the top down -- and that the individual station or market programmers have to accept voicetracking and syndication as a way to help their bottom lines.
I have not seen that problem here. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist, but to anyone who says the rank-and-file here are afraid to come to corporate, I will tell them that it's just not true. We have eight corporate programmers who have regular weekly conference calls. We have created an online digital distribution service with its own programming, music and promotion arenas, as well as a digital training program for PDs. The digital service serves as another tool that allows PDs to have more weapons available to them.
We do use our network shows where it makes sense, if we can improve the product, but not to cut costs at the expense of the product. Our own radio network programs are hosted by highly talented personalities, some who have come from within our ranks, so we're strong believers in talent who can create entertain and inform. .
I have yet to meet local PDs who believe they're muzzled. Our programmers who reach out to me have been able to talk with me. We can work through any problems they may have. Remember, they're our feet on the street in their markets; we need to know what's in their heads to help make their stations (our stations) successful. This is why we have an open line of communication with all of our employees via One Cumulus. This initiative, right from our CEO, enables any employee to communicate with us. I see every programming comment that is made and every programming suggestion offered.
Finally, would it be correct to assume that taking this job has altered the way you see your future in this business?
I have absolutely altered my plans and my vision of working in radio. Suddenly I feel reinvigorated; I'm excited about the opportunity to work with such amazing people and brilliant programmers. We have tools available that I've never had available before.
The people I now work for are great people; I really love the fact that Lew Dickey, John Dickey, and Jon Pinch, all grew up in the business and have had extensive careers. People look at Lew and think, "He's a Harvard MBA and banker," but I remember when he and John were young, when they were washing station vans in the parking lot of their father's radio station in Toledo. They're radio people who know how to make the business grow. That's very exciting to me. These three all ran successful businesses before they joined Cumulus. They created what Cumulus has become.
The greatest frustration I have is with the people who say radio ain't what it used to be, and complain that our industry has fewer people listening or is not what it once was. You know what? We at Cumulus are a group of individuals who are working to change things. Those who complain should come up with a better solution, and if they don't have a solution, then don't complain.
I am a strong believer in the old adage that those who complain accomplish nothing.
We're only 90 days into this new enlarged company and we've already made so many changes in our platforms ... not many multi-billion-dollar corporations can be that mobile and flexible -- and it's just not our company that's being flexible, but the radio business.
We're changing radio.