March 13, 2012
No one ever said, "You can take the local out of radio, but you can't take the radio out of being local," but if anyone did, I might as have been Scott Mahalick. After years successfully programming stations at Citadel and Entercom, Mahalick relished the opportunity to rejoin Larry Wilson at Alpha, where "love and local" is not a cliché, but a reality. Overseeing the programming of all of Alpha's Portland, OR stations, with hands-on PD duties at Country KUPL, Mahalick sheds some insight on how he makes "local" work.
Why did you want to work with Larry Wilson again?
Larry inspires a culture where the people can thrive and survive. He tends to put the same amount of support behind the product as he does the sales effort. When that happens, it's magnificent. It transcends what you do beyond it being just a job; it becomes part of your being -- and I'm too passionate about this business to work in a homogenized cookie-cooker position.
Since you now oversee an entire cluster, as well as be PD of Country KUPL, I would imagine that time management would be an issue...
Usually it would, but we recruited an incredible team of people -- and when you've got great people, it's relatively easy. Surrounding me with smart, creative people makes the job simple to manage. I've spent six years a GM in my career, and I always thought that when I get to a point where everything is running smoothly and I'm bored out of my mind, we'd be very successful because I had the right team that can do the right things. When you're running from fire to fire to put 'em out, that's when you're not managing properly.
How much do you attribute Alpha's success in Portland to a group strategy vs. individual station strategies?
We work together as a team to create compelling, entertaining radio. That is universal to all of our properties; the live-and-local model engaged and busting out is our commonality between all the stations
What's your take on Clear Channel's Bob Pittman equating voicetracking, syndication and Premium Choice to "Leno vs. the local guy?"
On the one hand, you can't have the level of bond and interactivity when you're not live and the personality doesn't live there. There's no way to make as deep a footprint or impression without having that ability to go deep in the local culture, be it a community service or a charity. Our mission is to be as connected on the street as on-air or online. We have some of the strongest, most active social media databases in the country. I'm really proud of that local relationship in the community; it's something that national deals don't have.
I do agree, though, that if the local talent is not compelling, the more entertaining show will win, so we need the local team to be as entertaining as any national show.
What do you attribute KINK's success, not just as a Triple A, but in the market as a whole?
The key is balancing science with art. Chris Mays is an artist and a programmer. Look, we have all the same tools and research as any station in this market, but we understand how this format fits into this market - and that's extraordinarily important. The one thing that's universally true is that no Triple A is the same in every market; you really have to cater to the market's musical taste. KINK has a 40-year history both as an underground Rock station to what it is now. The Minneapolis Triple A, on the other hand, is more Pop Alternative, while the Denver Triple A has a more Classic Rock feel. They key is to be dialed into the market; that's part of being live and local, to build a station that's unique to the market we're in.
How did in-market competition fit into the mix?
KINK has KNRK getting in its face; it's the most Triple A-leaning Alternative; they certainly report themselves as a Triple A. What other market in the country is even close to what we have with KNRK? This is probably the most competitive Triple A market in the country.
We're trying to occupy a certain position and cater to certain musical tastes. In every other aspect, the focus of our brand and our mission is to take a leadership position that's more proactive than reactive.
On the other hand, Country KUPL is currently trailing KWJJ after going back and forth for #1 over the past couple of months. Would you rather be the hunted or the hunter?
We look at ourselves as the underdog who has nothing to lose; a certain camaraderie can be built around that. At the same time, we're able to take a proactive leadership role and blaze our own trail. If you look at the rules of offense and defense, you'll see that JJ tends to roll and copy what we're doing because they have a slight cume advantage, but what's fun for us is to definitely win on a more compelling creative level. We're more adventurous certainly in terms of promotion and creative concepts.
There used to be a concern when Country superstars cross over into pop. With so many acts doing that today, does that concern you?
My opinion is that there a certain badge of pride you can wear when Country becomes more mainstream and accessible for more people. Crossover is an important thing to help get rid of some of the biases toward the format -- and make it larger overall and even more successful. For the first time ever, you're seeing all these pop artists crossing into Country -- Darius, Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow, Aaron Lewis ... these are major artists crossing into Country. Now when has that ever happened in our history?
How different is your challenge at KUPL than what it was in San Francisco and before that, Seattle?
Here, it's all about delivering on brand expectations. We inherited a brand that's been a perennial format leader for many years. If you look at our entire history, KUPL has had a very successful record, by far, as the leader in a market. We only had a temporary depression when JJ re-branded itself as The Wolf, but to come back and win, we have to be very cognizant of delivering brand expectation, focus on what that means and where it ends.
Both Seattle and San Francisco were start-ups with new branding, going against heritage stations. Here, KUPL is reinvigorating its own heritage and enhancing what we do. We're taking some contemporary sensibilities and applying it to the KUPL brand as opposed to starting from scratch. Inevitably, it'll all come back to great, entertaining, compelling radio; over time, that always wins. We'll continue to focus on enhancing the listening ability and entertainment factor. When everyone gets the music right, what will make the difference -- the relationship you build and bond with your audience; that's what we're focusing on with our audience.
One presumes that having engaging DJs will help you reach that goal. In general, are great DJs born, or are they the product of hard work and determination?
Some of it is instinctual, like how a great artist can sing naturally. There has to be a certain amount of talent you're born with - and from that you hone your craft. The same thing applies with radio talent; there's a different between an announcer DJ and a storyteller DJ. What we're trying to do is get more of the storytellers and less of the announcers
How has the PPM impacted storyteller DJs?
What the PPM does is force the talent to put filters on. I actually think the PPM is great in the sense that it's a more immediate filter for what's great in radio. In a sense, nothing has changed for air; you do great compelling radio and you win. All the meter does is force the talent to really hyper-focus on truly compelling and entertaining radio. In essence, the PPM holds us to a higher level of accountability in that it forces you to be more compelling and great - if you want to have a brand that truly entertains your audience.
Granted, you can go down two roads with the PPM. One road embraces the entertainment side by delivering a product that matters to people. The other road is simply a scientist side, where you simply adhere to the sterile science of music scheduling. Those who take that road leave themselves vulnerable to other media and in time, will fall apart. You can't replicate entertainment simply through research, but you can create an entertaining brand that bonds with the audience. There are already a million sources to find music, but there's no warmth anywhere else; there's no companionship. That's radio's great upper hand. If we don't embrace that and focus on it to make that difference, we will be in long-term trouble.
What's the Alpha view on social media?
Since social media seems to change minute by minute or on an hourly basis, you have to make sure you have your finger on its pulse and be headed to the forefront of that. Basically social media is an advanced form of word-of-mouth; it's a new way people can find out about your radio station, but I don't believe in using social as a pure endorsement medium, to say how great we are. I'd much rather have a bunch of fans tell friends about us through social media, just to accelerate what used to exist in neighborhood communications. I like having the ability to get a lot of friends to sell and help me carry our team message. To me, that's 1,000 times more powerful than something your voice talent says or a TV commercial, because the message is being received at a different level, as a shared experience from friend to friend. And I don't think we've fully tapped where we can go yet.
Does each station use social media differently because their respective audiences use it differently?
Yes to both questions. For example, a website for a Hot AC is more interactive because more of its target audience has grown up with social media. On the other hand, listeners to our more adult-leaning stations check in less frequency, and use it more for entertainment as opposed direct communication. We use the digital and online platforms for our News and information stations more as a brand extension. It's certainly not one-size-fits-all, but in each case, we want to get our audience closer to brand - and to do that successfully, we have to know why each audience comes to their particular radio station for.
How do you strategically use your AM News and Talk stations to maximize separate audiences?
KUFO is truly a Talk station with Hannity, Levin and other conservative national talents; that's Freedom 970. FM NEWS 101 KXL is more of a News brand, with two live news blocks and 24/7 traffic. It does have some talk product in middays and the evening; for instance, Lars Larson is a local talent who happens to be syndicated.
With a conservative Talk competitor in the market, I would imagine that it's even more important find the right syndicated conservative talkers out there.
It's more a matter of delivering on brand expectations and finding talent that's most closely aligned itself with the brand. At Freedom 970, we try to put hosts together who can all appeal to those who come for conservative talk. It's a matter of finding highest performing brands and orchestrating them in way that they can still offer you the ability to be local promotionally. If you bring in the right speaker series, people will pay attention to what your brand is, so you're appealing to them both socially and promotionally.
KXTG-A has come from behind to be locked in a tight Sports Talk battle with a rival Sports outlet. What's the key to eventually becoming the premier Sports station in town?
We have all the big local sports franchises. We're home of the Portland Trailblazers, Oregon Ducks and Seattle Seahawks, so everything that happens in the Northwest lives on the 750 The Game. So while the other station is talking about it, we're reporting it and carrying the play-by-play for it.
Some stations have dropped play-by-play broadcasts because they don't feel the coverage attracts enough advertisers to justify the cost. How do you make it work?
It comes down to knowing how to work with reasonable partners, so you can you create a win-win for both sides. We have been really fortunate to have really smart and good relationships with our teams.
The NFL is the nation's #1 sport, but Portland doesn't have a franchise - and you're offering the play-by-play of the Seahawks. How does that work?
The NFL is #1 here as it is everywhere else. Seattle is two-and-a-half hours away... and while it's true that further you get away from the epicenter of Sports team's home base, the less passion there is for the team. Yet the Northwest has a certain feel to it; Seattle and Portland are right in this corridor, where the Seahawks are the #1 NFL brand in this market.
So what of Alpha's future ... do you see the radio group growing? And where do you see your own career evolving?
I'd love to see Alpha grow; I wouldn't be surprised if you'll eventually see us in six or seven West Coast markets, as long as they're the right types of places. For me, I love Portland; it's a beautiful, great city ... very dynamic with smart, well-educated people. I personally love it here ... and could see myself living here for years to come. I do realize that sometimes you have to go to grow. It's more about the people you're with than where you are.