September 4, 2012
Few people have witnessed and been part of the past 34 years of network radio as Andy Denemark. Starting in affiliate marketing, Denemark steadily moved up the ladder, working in some of the biggest names in network syndication. He has seen its evolution and more recent explosive growth into today's ultra-competitive battleground. As EVP/Programming for United Stations Radio Network, Denemark offers his insight into what goes on in the trenches.
What made you decide to get into network radio?
I've been in network radio ever since I got into it in the late '70s. What got me in the door was that I was a user of syndicated programming as a PD. When I was in local radio, back in another century, we would subscribe to certain shows like the King Biscuit Flower Hour from DIR Broadcasting. I was doing AOR radio at the time and was a client of DIR's shows, and through those connections, I ended up being affiliate marketing person for them.
That all happened because at the time, DIR was about to hire a new affiliate marketing person, and they were looking at a publicist. I crossed their path, and fortunately they put 2+2 together and figured out that a former PD would be a better person to talk to current PDs than a than publicist who would be more like a telemarketer. So I ended up doing that ... they were a small but influential company, and that led to a job at the NBC Radio Network, which later was acquired by Westwood One. With all of that plus United Stations, I've been doing networking and syndication since the summer of 1978.
Are you at all surprised at the growth and development of network radio?
It's funny. Network radio goes back to the 1920s, when NBC started the business. Among the first things covered were political conventions and the World Series. Both were great examples of how a larger, network company could use its resources to score big national events that local stations didn't really have the resources to do on their own.
Eighty and 90 years later ... that's STILL the principle of network radio. Companies like ours can secure talent and do things on a national level that a single station usually can't do on its own. Of course, over the years and now today, stations have a new and different set of needs, so the field expanded over time; more and more programming was created for each niche format ... Talk radio, Rock radio ... whatever. And it's no longer that network radio just serves weekends; now the business is very focused on Monday-through-Friday programming ... morning, night shows ... there's a tremendous amount of national syndication. And it's advantageous for both the station and the talent. Stations get quality programming and the most in-demand talent can set themselves up on a national scale.
Why has the demand grown for network and syndicated programming? Is it mainly due to consolidation or stations trying to save money on staffing and such?
Obviously, it's both and they're often connected. Recently, stations have been encumbered by economic restraints. The markets have been tightened; advertisers have tightened their budgets. Radio consolidation has also impacted the demand for network and syndicated programming, but I believe it's more due to general market conditions. When resources are tight, a solution is to outsource ... and our programming can be obtained on a barter basis -- which conserves cash. And if you know our business, then you know that it's not just straight-ahead programs that are available; we create and distribute a tremendous amount of morning show prep and comedy. Take a case where a morning shows used to have maybe multiple producers or a large staff to do their work. Then budget constraints come along and eliminate two or three bodies in the morning. Not everyone has enough time to do the homework, prep and comedy you need on a daily basis to run a good morning show, so they come to us.
And further growth for a company like United Stations comes from beyond prep, comedy and syndicated shows; it comes from offering the tools that stations need. We've had a lot of success with recently with a service called Phantom Producer, which enables a station to access imaging through a desktop app that's super-easy to create. That can save a lot of stress and production time, especially in a world where everyone's wearing five or six hats. The fact that Phantom Producer allows a station to solve work/overload and relieve manpower problems is a huge thing -- plus it's a tool that can mean the difference between a great sounding station and a mediocre one.
In a hyper-competitive field such as mornings, where you're up against not only other networks, but radio group in-house efforts such as Premium Choice, how difficult is it to attract and keep affiliates?
It's certainly not a slam dunk, but the key is to offer quality material and great programs that have delivered ratings wherever it's heard, and also offer strong support service. You need a complete package ... soup to nuts. Sure, it's a crowded field out there, but I'd say that one of the challenges isn't necessarily the competitive landscape; it's finding stations that are willing to go for a nationally distributed morning show over a local one. That might be the tougher conversion, trying to win over a station that has never had a syndicated morning show, because those stations might, for example, feel that morning is the last bastion of local programming. They feel that that's the one daypart that has to be local.
What we have to convey is our understanding for their desire to offer a heavy local feel to mornings, not to mention other dayparts. So what we do is create enough windows in these shows for cutaways, whether for local news, traffic, spots or other local content. Our Dave and Jimmy show doesn't even program music ... just blocks of talk and blocks for local content. That offers stations plenty of time to cut away to local content including music. Another one of our morning shows, Lex and Terry, is all-talk, BUT there's a "music clock" for stations that want to play several songs an hour.
The bottom line is that all of our shows have to be designed to make our stations feel that they are unique to their respective markets. Again, it might be a tough conversion getting a PD, GM or owner who has a local morning show that's somewhat entrenched ... maybe they feel they can send them out to do remotes for clients and things like that and they're reluctant to give up that local ability.
One way to combat that is to have talent travel. Lex &Terry will be in Pensacola this month for a big annual event; Tony & Kris travel with their Country morning show; that's part of the service aspect of what has to happen. We try to enhance the local aspect of what we do at the same time that we're providing the advantages of a higher quality show than what many smaller-market stations can do these days.
And with that in mind, where do the small-market stations get their talent pool -- where are their "minor leagues"? When a local station has a choice of moving up someone doing another shift to mornings versus airing an established national-quality show, more and more of them are going for the latter.
Because of the popularity of syndication and voicetracking, many believe it has usurped the talent pool. So where does USRN find its new talent -- from radio or from other forms of entertainment be it stand-up comedy or reality TV?
They're all worth considering. There's more than one prototype for success, but several ingredients go into the recipe. Obviously, the talent has to have a strong personality, with an appeal and an ability to cut through everything else that's out there. You need to tell a good story. Those are the basics of radio that has never changed.
There's a lot of great talent out there, but when evaluating prospective talent, you have to remember that there's a certain recipe that affiliates are looking for in a network show. They look for experience - a show that has had ratings success stories in either one or a number of markets. When you talk about Rush Limbaugh and others like him, they became popular by kicking butt everywhere they were heard.
For us, there are similar but different examples ... for instance, our hardDrive show with Lou Brutus had been a successful weekend fixture for a long time, so a few years ago we expanded that brand with a weeknight show. Lou may not be a household name in the traditional sense, but he's well known and respected in rock circles -- AND he's shown that he knows what it takes to move the needle at night, delivering lots of #1 ratings.
It can help a lot to have some quotient of celebrity, like we have with Alice Cooper, who does a Classic Rock nights show. John Tesh, who's built his own network, also has that celebrity quotient. These guys bring a ton of media experience and star quality to the table.
Because USRN offers a slew of product in multiple formats -- for instance, Country - do you ever find yourself offering stations more than one of your shows at the same time?
Not really, because our shows are very specific and not that similar to each other. We may have a lot for Country programmers, but we only do ONE countdown show, ONE totally Classic Country show, ONE live concert show, a NASCAR show, and so on. We may offer seven or eight Country programs, but none are so similar that our marketing people are offering programmers a choice of the same thing.
Among the daypart options, Dave & Jimmy's morning show is for Hot AC and Top 40s, while Tom Kent's show is geared for Classic Hits stations. We want our talent to appeal to different formats. We're not going to put our marketing folks in the position of having to promote two competitive shows that work the same audience; that can be a problem and create a conflict of interest for the affiliation team ... we wouldn't want that.
How can USRN get its product on stations that have been dominated by long-running fixtures such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Michael Savage, etc.?
Premiere, TRN and now Cumulus offer very strong lineups of full-time talks shows -- Rush, Hannity, Beck, Savage, Ingraham and so on. And even though we can't expect to replace successful shows, we can still go to Talk radio with tools, not shows. We market Accuweather's forecasts, as well Bloomberg's financial services and market reports, so we can do business with the same stations that have a full-time lineup of another network's shows by offering features and other programming elements, or even production services that can be used between those other shows.
From our vantage point, you have to look at radio stations like General Mills looks at the shelf space battle in the supermarket. Over-the-air, terrestrial radio is our shelf space; there are only so many County, Talk and Rock stations, which are our shelf space. If we go into a crowded market, we know we're going to have to deal with that, but if you have quality products offering everything from long-form to short-form features to production tools, we're more like a service business. We can help our clients in a number of ways - and when you're talking about 2,200 Country stations, 1,000 Talk or 1,000 AC stations, even if a lot of that programming space is taken, we can still claim some shelf space in other parts of that market AND help stations out in the process.
It also helps that USRN is an independent company; we're not owned by anyone who also owns radio stations, so we're free of competitive group politics. As an independent, we're completely neutral.
Yet isn't it more difficult to get your products into large-group stations -- if that large group is also offering network programming and group-wide production and imaging services?
Of course ... if we try and do the same thing as a group that has its own network and its own stations, and they do, for example, a Country music countdown show over the weekend, yes, it's unlikely that we'll get used there. But when there are 2,200 Country stations, there are still a lot of places to go. The other thing is that all countdown shows are not the same. Some skew younger; others skew older. There are some differences regionally, too, so there are a lot of different angles to make it work.
In my 34 years of doing syndicated work, the number of people and companies who do what we do has exploded, but the survivors are the ones who do quality programming, deliver it on time and have the good support service to get it done right.
Have you looked outside terrestrial radio to offer you programming and services, such as Internet radio and may be even Pandora?
We're exploring a lot of things, but we've stayed pretty concerned about the exclusivity we promise to our affiliates. We've always been sensitive to not step on the toes of the over-the-air operators we work with. They value what we do by subscribing to what we provide and giving us that shelf space. If they "pay" for our programs and services with barter advertising, they shouldn't have to compete with other outlets where the same thing can be heard.
Certainly we share some of our talent with other media outlets -- and our talent wants to be as multi-platform as possible and be everywhere. Yet when we're in a network partnership with them, it can get tricky. But there are ways get around that, too, and we have explored other opportunities like delaying certain broadcasts in other media like online; the key is to protect exclusivity
Yet how can you maintain that exclusivity in an Internet and app world, where someone in one market can hear your countdown show on another station in another market using an app?
Just because a show can be heard on the Net or iHeartradio doesn't means it's easy to find. If you're a Country fan who lives in Michigan and the countdown show you want to hear is heard locally, I'm not sure you need to or have the energy or patience to look for it somewhere else. Sure, you might stumble upon it through iHeart and all the other platforms that stream it, but I don't think that's as likely as it seems.
That said, we do have a deal in place to guard against one of our shows that is popular in England, Alice Cooper's show. Part of our deal with our partner in the U.K. is that they block the stream outside of U.K. IP addresses, so someone in New York won't be able to hear Alice Cooper's show in England five hours before it's broadcast on the East Coast. Those are the little things you can do to protect the exclusivity of your product.
Finally, after 30-odd years in network radio, what kind of future do you see for yourself?
You know what? When I was 12 years old, I wanted to be a DJ. I couldn't believe that that was a job where you could get paid to play music and be on the radio. It was magic watching all the knobs and buttons, and hearing the disembodied voice in dark rooms. Radio always had that magic to me - and it still has that magic. You can still affect people; we do a Led Zeppelin show called Get The Led Out, and recently we played live tracks from a live BBC album. We got excited fan mail from people asking where the music came from. It's still fun to move people that way.
And it's certainly been a fun career. I've met a ton of talented and famous people ... most of them have been really great and nice. It's been a lot of fun, and it continues to be a lot of fun.
One sad note this year was the loss of Dick Clark back in April; he was an original partner in this company. I started here in '94, and I was fortunate enough to work closely with like him for the last 18 years ... got to witness how his mind worked and learned his philosophy on business. It was an honor and a thrill to work with him. It's why I love working in radio ... and until that magic goes away, I'm in there.