July 17, 2012
Be it formats, management, programming or on-air personnel, the one constant in radio -- especially these days -- is change. So it's somewhat surprising that Emmis VP/Programming and Digital PD Jimmy Steal has been programming KPWR (Power 106)/Los Angeles for 13 years, overseeing a format that is hardly PPM-friendly ... a youth-oriented ethnic-appeal Rhythmic Top 40. While not dominating like it did during the diary era, Power 106 is still hitting its targets as it expands its brand to multiple channels. Here, Steal explains how he has learned to win the hard way.
How long have you been at Power ... and what has been the key to Power success over the years and your longevity?
It's been 13 years, and if there's a key to success, to use your term, it's in surrounding yourself with motivated, passionate, intense people who are open to change ... and that seems to be some pretty good building blocks for paving a road for success.
How did you and Power handle the transition to the PPM era?
When PPM first debuted, we took almost a 30% hit in our target demo. We had been used to being #1 in our target demo for years under the diary system, so we got very spoiled. Then we discovered, much like the rest of radio, that PPM isn't quite as friendly to younger ethnically-targeted radio stations. We learned a lot in the process; we re-tooled, and we became a much better station in the process.
Without divulging proprietary info, just how did you re-tool to make the station more PPM-friendly?
I'd love to tell you it was one or two key things, but what it taught us is this ... we always believed that diarykeepers had a short attention span, and that they were time-starved. With the advent of PPM (which captures actual end user behavior instead of recall), we saw all of our cumes increase mightily, while we saw TSL go down accordingly. Obviously, the diary was a medium where people weren't actually recording every time they changed the station, so a lot of stations never got the cume they deserved in the old diary system (at the time it was referred to as phantom cume by the ratings theorists). Diarykeepers just wrote down long lines down the diary pages for what stations they could remember listening to...
That recall was replaced by the PPM reality, and the meter showed more people listening to more stations with the listening occurring in the same amount of time. So PPM cume went up ... and TSL went down. It stands to reason that you have to make each tune in experience seamless to the listener to maximize each occasion of listening. So at Power 106 we put a fine tooth comb through the radio station -- through every element of our presentation and our music. My amazing programming team consisting of E Man, Jeff G, Felli Fell, Yesi Ortiz, Juice and Vinny leave no stone unturned, and I drive them crazy daily reminding them that no detail was or is too small...
Considering the drop in TSL, did you have to adjust the way you programmed your mix shows?
To be honest with you, I thought our mix shows were incredibly well run prior to the meter system -- and there has been no reason since to change it up. Credit has to go to APD/MD E-Man and Mix Show Coordinator Felli Fel, because regardless of who's doing the mixing and in what daypart it occurs, they've helped each mixer craft a delicate balance of both the science and the art. We have so many world-class mixers with great ears, I hate to start the shout-outs, but DJ Reflex, DJ Carisma, video mixer DJ Icy Ice, and so many more totally get it and rock the turntables every time they grace our airwaves. What makes mixing break through is a mixers' artistry and a complete understanding that the artistry sits in the middle of a familiarity sandwich ... how's that for technical programming talk! Maintaining that balance requires a yin-and-yang execution strategy ... and with the team I have here, there are enough people on both sides of the yin and the yang to get it just right!
There are those who in analyzing the current ratings numbers and proclaim that the PPM is really benefiting Top 40 and Hot AC at the expense of ethnic formats such as Rhythmic Top 40, which explains why so many markets are seeing a second and maybe a third Top 40 or Hot AC. Do you agree with that assessment, or do you feel format flipping is more of a bandwagon trend?
I kinda agree with both ends of that statement. Any ethnic-targeted station is more of a challenge in PPM. If you look at all formats that target older and not ethnic audiences, they've done pretty darn well in PPM. Then you look at the formats that are struggling or have gone away completely, many of them are ethnic-targeted, so there is something to being as broad as you can -- and Top 40 programming is pretty broad -- but whether a market can sustain two or three Top 40s at the same time? Then it comes down, as it always does, to who and what you're putting in between the songs. I'm very proud of Power 106 in that it has always set the bar really high for its amazing personalities and innovative imaging that does not sound unimaginative, like so many other stations, I'm sorry to say...
Has your target demo remained the same over the years? You see many Top 40s making major inroads into 25-54; do you see Power evolving in that way as well? Has it gotten any older?
We've always been an 18-34 top ranker ... usually #1(as we are this week) ... and that drives our 18-49 adult numbers. We've managing to do very well in 25-54; pretty much top 10, occasionally top 5 in a competitive market like this, which is pretty amazing for a hip-hop station. This success is due to our great brand, and in addition to our talented programming team, our outstanding promotions and marketing team led by Dianna Jason and Fernando Lujan; they are second to none! But the bottom line in the ratings is we target 18-34 and then get strong spillover 35-49, too, since we are so well focused.
Has the fact that PPM captures 6+ help your young and teen numbers?
I'm fine with the teen numbers, but to be honest, PPM methodology has also reaffirmed that Mainstream Top 40 is inherently a mother/daughter experience. Plus, if you remember an old-school format positioning statement, you can safely say that Power is NOT the station that everyone can agree on at work! That's also true in a car full of people. In those cases you go for the most inoffensive, blandest easiest choice; Power never wins based on that criteria! That's why a lot of Classic Hits and ACs do so well.
Power, on the other hand, is a very passionately executed format that's very specific in its content, vibe and its lifestyle content. We are impossible to ignore and damn proud of that!
Power does cater to the most multicultural audience, reaching blacks, Hispanics and whites, as well as Asians. How do you handle the challenge of appealing to all of them simultaneously?
If you try to appeal to every ethnicity equally, that's a pretty steep incline in any competitive/crowded market ... and obviously not a recipe for success. Power does have a multicultural focus, primarily targeting English-speaking Hispanics, but considering the ethnic makeup of this town, you could say we're more mass appeal for our city. As the ethnicity of America continues to evolve, and more and more kids coming up are raised on hip-hop that they hear from their parents, that bodes very well for our format.
I've been here in L.A. long enough to remember when our primary competitors would make fun of hip-hop and consider us to be a narrow-niche station (and we were called a lot worse than that!), so now we get quite a big kick out of the last several years, when our competition started replicating more and more of our playlist. You really had to hear it when the Mainstream Top 40 jocks tried to start sounding street/hip-hop ... HI-LARIOUS!
Considering your audience composition, how do you balance or prioritize your competitors, be they KIIS, Spanish stations or even KROQ?
There will be those who think I have an inherent bias in thinking this, but I really believe Power 106 is the most competed-against station in the market. On one end are the Mainstream Top 40s; on the other end you have the Spanish-language stations, and then there's even Rock stations trying to reach our same target demo of young male Hispanics. On top of all that are all these low-power ethnic-targeted stations, too. Our competitive landscape is constantly changing. People are always trying to get a piece of Power 106; we never get bored here defending our brand daily!
So how do you make the station sound unique and stand out when so many others are trying to siphon off at least a part of your music and/or audience?
That's the most fun part of the job. That's the art. As Emmis' VP/Programming and Digital Program Director, I stare at as many spreadsheets as anyone else, but what's really fun for me is being down the hall -- in the control room or the production room, helping jocks improve the way their product is presented so it drives ratings by making our content easier to consume across all our platforms.
As much time as we spend on understanding the methodology, the real reason we get better is that we have great a team that's open to input and wants to kick everyone's ass as much as I do! From Big Boy, our incredible morning leader, who is a pleasure to work with everyday, right down to our newest addition, night jock J Cruz, who is crushing it in the ratings, everyone here loves to work and win. We understand that it is a privilege to do well for our owners and make a difference in our listeners lives, too. A station can only improve when its crew truly understands the importance of continually updating their game (kaizen = constant improvement). Our GM Val Maki understands all of this and gives us the tools to help everyone be the best they can be...
Do you see Power incorporating the current electronic dance trend?
Power 106 has had a dance music show on that features House and Electronica for longer than I've been here. It's called Power Tools, and one of its hosts Richard Vission, is a major selling recording artist, producer and Grammy-nominated mixer. On a regular rotation level, it's like anything else. If a particular song gets big enough via online buzz, or breaks out of the clubs or our mix shows and really is a hit, and it has some degree of compatibility to what we do daily musically, we'll play it.
The thing that sets Power apart from its competitors is that Power is the real deal, a genuine Hip-Hop radio station that doesn't cater to whatever the flavor of the month might be. If a couple of songs cross over from a compatible musical genre and become big enough to where it makes sense for us, we'll absolutely be there. People trust Power; they have an expectation in how they want to be entertained ... and we do not ever take that likely.
On top of overseeing Power and serving as VP/Programming for Emmis, you're now involved in its digital efforts. First off, where do you find the time for that?
I have a very understanding wife! Honestly, you have to look at Emmis VP/Digital Angie May; it's really her show. She's truly amazing, and I happen to be one member of her team. I'm involved in the implementation of digital strategies across the chain, and along with Rick Cummings and our Austin Programming VP Chase Rupe, we also assess any new potential digital partnerships that might make sense for Emmis.
It is a very exciting time because many of us in radio have the privilege of stewarding some amazing brands to other digital platforms, and launching portals of original content to deepen our users' overall brand experiences. This new digital role is a lot of fun for me because it lies right at the heart of my personal interests. I'm thrilled to have a hand in helping our PDs get as strategic about our websites as they are about our terrestrial signals. There is a lot of work to be done on our mobile sites, our online research, our streaming and a lot more. We're in a constant quest to get our product across as many platforms, as possible ... which should be the goal of all broadcasters.
There are those who are still concerned about a lack of ROI when it comes to the digital arena. Are you?
No. Our business model is geared to the audience's consumption behavior, which is changing at a pretty rapid rate. Obviously at this point, digital generates just a small percentage of our cash flow, but when you look at the trajectory of mobile consumption and ad spending over the next five to 10 years, you'll see a ridiculous growth curve.
We'd be crazy as broadcasters not to get established there now, because we own amazing brands with amazing personalities who are unique and unduplicitable. Our job is to put these entertainment products on as many platforms as we can to make consumption as easy as possible. During this migration of distribution, you see a lot of digital start-ups that have engineering talent, ideas, and money from venture capitalists, but absolutely no brand distribution. I believe the smart ones come to radio and strike partnerships with us because we already have trusted relationships with huge, loyal audiences.
Should your digital efforts closely complement your on-air offerings, or as others argue, you should create unique content to extend your brand?
In perfect world, I'd say both. But in a world where you do have budgets to adhere to, you have to make difficult choices. I realize it's not easy for us or anyone else to have both, where you create deeper and richer versions of everything you push out over the air -- and you have a bunch of exclusive online-only, line-extended content that complements the lifestyle of your listeners and target demo. We're making some big strides in that direction, but there's only so much on-air programming inventory you can push out, let alone pushing out long-form stories of what Kanye did with Kim the night before...
The new digital portals of our brands allow us to tell deeper and more specific multimedia stories that reel our audiences in when they have an appetite (and the time) to consume more media. The people who are clicking on it are a captive audience; they're asking for the infotainment. It's a very daunting and exciting time for us. Today's PDs now additionally oversee videographers, web designers, on demand audio and video content, mobile engagement, and are trying to understand what the changes HTML5 will bring us all very soon in the way web content is consumed. We have to initiate and inspire our crews to transition their thinking and content creation across all of these channels.
Our audiences are also living on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and more ... it is a very daunting thing, but as content creators and curators it is also a very exciting thing. I'm very pleased with how our staff has responded to this digital revolution, they all have adapted and excelled, our all-nighter Mando Fresko is an excellent example of a very talented cross-platform personality who really gets it!
Emmis is now part of iHeartradio. How has the experience gone ...and are you concerned that as iHeart adds more and more stations, your stations will become veritable needles in a nationally competitive haystack?
We have signed an agreement to be on iHeart, but we're not up and running yet. That takes a while. But I can tell you that Power is not afraid of any competition. You can put us up against any station in the world, delivered through any portal ... and we're good. My team and I live for that!
Speaking of competition, there are those in radio who continue to pitch comparative battles against the likes of Pandora, satellite radio and Net radio. Do you share their view that those interests are rivals to be fought?
Of course, anytime you fragment a finite pie into more segments, it's a concern. No doubt about that, but I do wish that programmers would focus as much energy into improving their own products instead of focusing on other portals that we have no control over. We have a proven successful business model, we have amazing brands, we have large loyal audiences, and we are free to the public ... so let's focus on our own innovation.
Finally, do you set long-term goals for yourself? Can you ever see yourself doing anything else, or the next job you plan to get is cashing your retirement checks?
Ha ... I often tell my wife that I'm still not sure what I want to be when I grow up! Digital immersion was my latest goal, since I saw it as a way to formalize my personal interest into a professional discipline.
Looking at my current situation, thanks to the Emmis brain trust of Rick Cummings, Pat Walsh, and Jeff Smulyan, Emmis - from a financial debt standpoint -- is in the best place it has been in sometime. That means the company will have some new opportunities to grow. If I have even a tiny hand in helping Emmis chart some new directions, well, how fun and exciting is that? And most importantly, when you're around people who think like you and work like you, where everyone is having fun doing what they're doing ... you already have too many blessings to count.