July 31, 2012
In the two decades since CBS Radio VP/Hot AC Format Steve Salhany started programming WTIC/Hartford, we've seen vinyl begat cassettes begat CDs begat mp3s ... new adult and classic hits formats ... satellite radio ... Internet radio stations ... online music radio services such as Pandora and Spotify. Yet through it all, Salhany has kept 'TIC (and more recently WBMX/Boston) relevant and integral to Hartford and Boston, female radio audience, respectively. What are the keys to Hot AC success over the years ... and especially today? Here are his answers:
What attributes have kept you afloat over the years as radio has evolved?
You have to have an open mind. Things change all the time. More than anything, folks in radio should be much more adaptable. Here at CBS Radio, we've always had to be very nimble on our feet. We're really right on the ground level, always having to make sure we're street fighters. The best radio people have always been street fighters.
How has the Hot AC/Modern AC formats evolved over the years?
Hot AC has always been one of most difficult formats to program, be it 1997 or 2012, because each Hot AC station is different. There's no single formula for winning. The recipe to succeed is based on where the station stands in marketplace; the right music mix that fits our target demo in the market; and a variety of other things that impact it. Getting the right music mix is even more difficult musically because we play music from several different formats. There really isn't a core Hot AC sound; it doesn't own its own hill. And that was the case 15 years ago, as it is today.
So how have you developed your own winning formulas for Mix in Boston and 'TIC in Hartford?
It's not something that comes to you, but it's something you gradually realize over the years. The longer you do it, the more you realize how difficult it is. The more you get comfortable with it, the more you need to make things happen. Hot AC is very susceptible to music cycles and you need to be able to adjust and adapt to that - on top of all the different changes in the marketplace.
Yet today, analysts are saying PPM favors Top 40 and Hot AC -- thus, more stations are flipping to some form of Top 40, Hot AC/or Adult Hits. What's the best way to deal with all this new competition?
You have to really work at it. A great Hot AC station doesn't just need to have great music to be successful; it needs to have personality -- a personality to the station -- a great anchor in the morning show, as well as an afternoon show that acts like a great morning show. It also needs to be involved in the community and have lots of bigger-than-life promotions. It's more than just music that appeals to 25-49 women.
Do you spent much time checking out what your rivals are doing, be they Top 40, other ACs or even Adult Hits, or do you primarily focus on your station?
Doing what you do for your station is the most important. That's not to say that you should ignore what the competition is doing and how they're positioning themselves. That's important for any business or any brand. But in order to be what you are, the most important thing is to focus on who you are by creating a vibe, a feeling for your brand that actually goes beyond the Hot AC format, but would work for any great radio station.
Do you view Pandora, Net radio and the like as legitimate competitive rivals, something you need to counter-program against?
It goes back to what I said when you first asked about competition in the market. In both cases, obviously I want to know what's going on, so I'll never say, "They're not worth our time to check out," but at the end of the day, local radio does something totally different than the other mediums do -- communicate one-on-one with people in local markets. As long as radio continues to do those types of things and continues to be relevant, there's no real competition.
There's nothing like hearing a story from your favorite personality about something that happened in their life that you can relate to. Being able to relate to people on a station who are talking about things happening in their town -- not just news, traffic and weather, but all of those other things come along with it, including where local sales are, what shows are coming to town, what things are going on in the area -- is something that will pay off in the end..
Another way to engage your audience is through Facebook and Twitter. Do you oversee what the station and your talent does on those platforms, or do you let them build their own following in their own way?
We have a digital department at each one of our stations. I work with the PDs on our digital strategy and they work with their on-air talent to make sure we are on point -- that our brand is out there in as many different platforms as possible -- so when our consumers are out there on these different platforms, we can use our branding in different ways.
Our company has tremendous resources and has made a big commitment to be in the digital space. They've done an incredible, job, and I'm sure that as time goes on, we'll get even better.
What are the similarities and differences in programming Hot ACs in Boston and Hartford?
We play essentially the same music, but bottom line: WBMX has to be the best it can be for Boston, while WTIC has to be the very best it can be for Hartford, and while I'm sure one can hear similarities in the music and overall style, each station needs to be programmed specifically for their respective markets.
I'm programming two of the most legendary Hot ACs in the country that essentially have been around since the birth of the format, but their market conditions are significantly different and their brands are different, so they cannot be programmed the same way.
It wasn't that long ago that the term "brand" used to be called "heritage" in radio - and the one worry about programming heritage stations is complacency, relying too much on its history and not changing enough with the times. Do you have that concern at 'TIC?
No, because we never rely on our heritage and our brand. We rely on each station's strengths and focus on how to engage the listener. You can never get complacent when you're constantly looking for new ways and ideas to keep the station relevant, exciting and to do new things. That's why I got in this business; those things excite me.
Granted, I'm sure that there are situations where a successful long-running station can be tempted to sit back and live on its heritage - and you can get away with it for a while, but not if you want to be successful on a consistent basis.
What changes have you needed to make to keep your Hot ACs successful?
I don't know if anything needs to be reinvented. At any point, a station can stay extremely relevant to its market by always knowing what's going on and reflecting that. The most vital way to do that is by having great people on your station. Be it your morning show, your midday personality or your afternoon person, everyone has to be constantly involved in everything important that's going on in the community. That's the most challenging and exciting part of what we do.
What's your opinion of the quality of music for Hot AC right now?
Right now, the music is really, really good for our format. There's a good cross-section of great music from all different formats, whether it be pop, pop rock, alternative or crossover country -- and that's when Hot AC is at its very best ... when it's playing the biggest and best records from all different formats
Could Hot AC accept crossover hits coming from Urban or Rhythmic Top 40?
There could be. You could have some of that coming from Rhianna and Usher; not that long ago, some of the Ne Yo records crossed. At end of the day, the hits are the hits a great record is a great record, no matter what genre it comes out of.
Has Hot AC's target demo changed over the years, not just in terms of musical tastes, but in lifestyle?
Sure, everyone's lifestyle has changed a bit with all the technology out there, but their basic needs haven't really changed. They want to a have sense of community; they want to know what's going on in their town, and they want to be able to relate to the personalities on the air - and that's what radio does at its very best.
Speaking of lifestyle interests, in this election year, how much do your music stations deal with politics? Do you monitor jock talk to ensure they don't say anything too polarizing?
If that's what everyone in the community is talking about, we have to talk about it in some way. Obviously, the music stations won't get nearly as involved as our News/Talk stations; the people who want in-depth coverage of that will go to our sister stations. But our personalities will definitely talk about that because they want to be involved in things that are happening and are relevant.
When you have strong brands, heritage stations if you will, playing a well-established format, how much growth do you foresee, given all the new media and interests that are taking up your listeners' time?
I still think there's room for growth at both stations. 'TIC is a bit more mature than Mix at this particular point, but I do think we can still grow our audience there. One way we can do that is through the growth of our personalities and the personality of the station. There are still lots and lots of people we can attract and get them to listen more often.
What of your future? Do you have a five-year plan, or are you too involved in the day-to-day to think about that?
Every day, I realize that I love my job. So to me, it's not really a job. I'm enjoying what I do in Hartford with one of the most successful radio brands in the country - as well as what I'm doing at The Mix in Boston -- and being able to build those brands over the last 20 years has been an incredible thing, even though staying on top is even more difficult than building from the ground up. What CBS Radio has allowed me to do in my role as VP/Hot AC and also PD at WBMX has just been so rewarding, I really can't even explain it to you.