October 9, 2012
Normally this intro paragraph is used to provide a succinct background sketch of the Power Player interviewee. If you know anything about radio station promotions, you know who Paige Nienaber is. If you don't know who he is, nothing can be written here that can better explain this man's insight than what you are about to read.
The following interview with Paige Nienaber is true. The names have not been changed because no one is innocent.
What was your first promo gig?
I went from getting into college radio because it seemed like a great venue for my stupidity post-high school, to skulking around two Rock stations in Portland ostensibly to answer phones and do callout, but really just to meet girls. When I returned home to Minneapolis, I was Promotion Coordinator for WLOL/Minneapolis from 1983-89 back when Emmis owned it. They did just amazing promotions. The two guys I worked with over that six-year period were Tom Gowan and Dan Seeman, [the latter] who's now at Hubbard in the Twin Cities. They were really two of the brightest marketing minds I've ever met and I was just a sponge.
Is the only constant of your promotions career is the importance of "water cooler" promotions?
Absolutely. No one is ever going to go to work and go, "Ten years ago, I remember a radio station that did 'Secret Song' and had people click-and-register in the VIP Club to win Daughtry tickets!" Being topical is always huge - and the great thing is that Hollywood has been doing all of our research for us. "Survivor" and "American Idol" are examples of Topical + Buzz Programming that we took and bastardized for a million promotions. However, for every station that does it right, there are stations that screw it up because they do it verbatim. "Minneapolis Idol" usually turned out to be a bad karaoke night. "Chainpack Smoker Idol?" Gold. You need to take these things and give them a little three-degree off-center twist to make the message memorable.
In other words, you need to localize the concept...
Yeah, and you need to apply it to the station. We have so many radio stations these days where you wonder what planet they're on. I've gone to station sites and I've had to go to the bottom of the page to click on "Contacts" just to figure out what market they were in. Great radio stations sound like their markets. It just pours from the speakers. Cities 97 in Minneapolis is a great example. KMEL in San Francisco circa 1990 was the same. And they're always relevant. They'll take something like the "Big Bird" brouhaha from the last debate and the next day, have someone out on street corners as Big Bird, holding a sign that reads "Hits 95.7 Likes Me, Too."
Let's talk about another hot "water cooler" topic, "Gangnam Style" parodies. How do you make your parody unique when so many others are doing them, too ...and when do you realize that the subject matter has jumped the shark and anything you do on it would come off stale?
Radio always regurgitates content. We cut and paste. We don't create. So when someone actually DOES make something hot and topical, there's an Oklahoma land rush to replicate it. If someone in Baltimore does something that strikes a chord, 600 stations will do a similar same the next day.
Radio is definitely the "bad self-esteem" medium; we're just so desperate to be liked. There's a guy named Mark Adams, who programs in Houston and is incredibly smart. He told me about YouTube a year before anyone knew about it. He told me about Facebook back when only college students were doing it, and he clued me into Twitter before it broke. He told me that every time one of these new things come along, we're so desperate to be cool, we jump all over something that is already a fundamental in the lives of a 1/3 of our audience and present it as something that we discovered. Cool radio stations don't have to act cool to be cool, and there's nothing sadder than stations that try too hard to be cool - and they just aren't.
With the current election season creating such a polarizing environment, are you at all hesitant about doing politics-based stunts and promotions for fear of alienating a part of your audience?
No, the best way to acknowledge stuff, be it "X Factor" or Honey Boo Boo or Lady Gaga puking on stage or the election, is to parody it or use it as a theme. Of course, you never take political stances, but as I told the stations I consult, between now and Election Day, each candidate will do about 20 stupid things that you can go out and have fun with. That's not taking a political stance, but if they do something stupid, you have to acknowledge it.
I think people are so burned out by the election already that we can acknowledge that and offer a little humor. One of my stations is having all of its election reports done by an Asian woman, who keeps talking about "the big erection." Another station is going to do a "stripper poll," where two strippers perform on poles set up on two street corners - one's a "Republican" stripper, the other is a "Democratic" stripper -- and people drive by and vote by honking at their preferred stripper. That's the most accurate polling method known to man, with a margin of error safely in the 57% range.
A lot of stations are redoing their imaging. One station has created attack ads, where the morning show has slams against the afternoon show, and vice versa. They're ripping off all the verbiage used in the campaign ads. Another station is running attack ads on "the other radio station".... "The other radio station speaks funny. They might be from Algeria. And they want to give crack to five year-olds. Those aren't (market) values. Call the other radio station and tell them to speak normal and stop giving crack to five year-olds."
But isn't it difficult for many stations to push the envelope that way in a corporate climate that doesn't want their stations to make any negative waves?
Absolutely. That's why I like working with Canadian stations (hah), but no, there still are radio stations that totally get it. What would make total sense for The Wolf in Portland would be an absurd concept for 'QYK in Tampa. When you work with 100 stations, like I do, you have to adjust the message for everyone to different degrees.
In an era where almost nobody wants to take any chances, the great radio stations are up there swinging. The best hitters in baseball are those who don't mind striking out, because they can't get hits without swinging. I work with an incredibly cool station, Hot 89.9/Ottawa, and they usually get on CNN three times a year - without killing anybody. They always go for the fences. They may not end up with a 10 promotion every time, but at least they're ending up with 7s or 8s.
Oasis Radio Group in Ft. Wayne is that way. I can call with a stupid idea and an hour later, it's on the air. They're just a blast to work with. I can take the same idea, call 10 stations and get, "Well, uh, we can't just go and..." kinds of excuses. I want to go and tattoo "Sure You Can" backwards on their forehead.
You have so many people who are not operating out of sense of competition to win, as much as they're operating with a sense of fear; ie: they don't care if they win, they just don't want to lose.
There are still promotions that end up essentially exploding in the station's face. Is there an indicator that you can integrate into the planning of a dicey promotion that will alert the station that the stunt isn't going to end well ... before it does?
Yeah. Maybe once or twice a year and seriously, it's usually because they're fucking idiots. We've so child-proofed the medium that the only way to get in trouble is to REALLY go over the line. To be honest, I have enough trouble getting stations to do anything. About once a year someone will bring something up where I'll go, "Ehhh..." And that usually surprises them. If I say it's a bad idea, I think they get that it probably is.
One of the OM's is big on "Well (self-satisfied chortle), that's great ... if you want to lose your license." Let's go and take a gerbil and put him in a gerbil wheel and webcam it and pretend he's powering the station on Earth Day! "Well, sure, if you want to lose your license...."
So I was at one of the stations and the engineer is one of those dudes who, when you name a small AM station in Wyoming, he starts to rattle off tower height and signal and power and ownership changes. So I asked him, "When was the last time a station lost its license?" He got a serious look, leaned back, stared at the ceiling, thought and finally let out a big sigh, "I really couldn't tell ya. But not in years and years."
A station in Sacramento killed a listener. Two guys in South Carolina didn't know they were live and talked for several minutes about (an act so profane that even Joel Denver would blush) (female celebrity) in her (part of the body most commonly thought of as an exit). A guy in Louisville accidentally included "fuck" in his vt shift.
Do we want to kill a listener? No. Do we want to say "fuck" on the air? No. Do we want to (an act so profane that even Joel Denver would blush) (female celebrity) in her (part of the body most commonly thought of as an exit)? Yes. But we don't want to talk about it on the air.
You'll lose your job. You might get find. You'll often get sued. You're not going to lose your license.
But let's take a stunt that does blow up in your face. In the past, Mancow got his haircut on the Bay Bridge to mock Bill Clinton ... Kevin & Bean's caller confession bit drew police heat ... and just a few days ago CKIS/Toronto found out that a caller said she was sexually abused to win a $10,000 prize. How do you avert such instances ... and if or when they do happen, how do you best do damage control?
Well, I'll start with Mancow. Wild beat KMEL in the next book. Kevin and Bean, well, no one ever heard from them again. Killed their career. Killed it dead. Basically, if you fuck up and admit to it. People are forgiving. Admit you screwed up. Self-deprecating humor works, too. But never lie to the listeners after getting busted for lying to the listeners. And never EVER lie to other media. They're just waiting to nail us.
How do you deliver negative input, be it for the station website or anything else, on a customer without losing the business?
Everybody has a different way to deliver bad news, but in reality I'm a really easy guy to work with. I'm 10 times more likely reach out to a station by saying something like, "The way you did the election imaging was awesome." Positive feedback will usually get people to try and replicate the act or event or moment because they like to be told they did well. I rarely go beyond saying things like, "Ehhhh, that's not the best thing you ever did." I'm not doing it to be jerk. And when I tell a station or talent or manager that something was kinda lame, trust me, they know it, too. I'm not that intuitive or bright.
Consultants are like TV weather people. By-in-large, our job is to make the situation always look dire, thus you have to keep us. I've always looked at it the other way.
Every consultant eventually gets fired; what's more, there have been times when I've told stations that they're going great and they don't need me. These are stations I'd love to work with forever, but you know on several occasions, I reach out to people and say that I feel I'm just taking their money, and they don't really need me. And then I go and put my children's corneas back on eBay.
What's your take on cash or gas giveaways?
One time, one of my Canadian guys asked me to come up with a list for what I believe are the 10 Best Promotions ever. I thought about it, wrote something up and looked at the list - and only two of the 10 could even be close to being thought of as a contest. Everything else was stations reacting to stuff. You don't make fans by giving stuff to people. You make fans by being topical, entertaining and part of the community.
It has come to the point where we've desensitized our audience to free money that we can't get more than 3% our audience to play those contests. How embarrassing is that? Great contests are ones that play to the 97%, like "10 Secret Superstars" or "Fugitive" or "Bug'd" or "Live With" which is a great contest that may or may not have been from the addled mind of Steve Jones. Listeners carry around a giant logo of the station for 30 days to earn points. "Live With" would blow the mind of most slide-rule programmers: "I don't understand how it builds the brand while establishing the music position through appointment times and social media." I could see Monty Hall asking that. This is Radio. Not Plasma Physics.
Great contests play to a majority of the people who are sitting in their cars and are following along vicariously and hopefully get sucked in. Great promotions have stories behind them, or elements like "Beat The Bomb." People love "Beat The Bomb" because people want to hear people lose.
Only radio can take a gas giveaway and dumb it down to the point where it means simply giving away gas cards. Are you kidding me? We're in the communication industry, yet we're making $50 gas cards sound like they're White Castle gift certificates. You got to have fun with them. It's not the prize; it's how you give it away.
KDWB has done better promotions than pretty much anyone else, sometimes on a pretty historic scale. The best thing they've probably done in the last five years was in January, when they changed the name of the station for a day to honor a local kid who was paralyzed while playing hockey. They changed the name of the station, added a profile and picture of him on the website and did stuff to raise money for his long-term health care, which will cost millions.
That became the #1 story in the state of Minnesota. You had to be in Minnesota to understand how huge it was. It was arguably the biggest thing Dave Ryan and the station had done in years; it didn't involve giving money to people. It was the station just being real. Of course, soon afterwards a half-dozen stations tried to replicate that. Their efforts didn't necessarily fail, but they were never as huge.
I've always said that money is a great excuse for doing bad promotions.
I'm sure there are gut-wrenching stories like that in countless markets. How do you find them and make sure they work?
Again, it's all about being tapped into your market. Stuff like that does happen every day, but in the case of KDWB, it was just gut instinct: "This is it." Two days into the story it just wasn't going away, in fact it was just growing and getting bigger. We traded e-mails over a weekend, deciding on what to do and they hit with it Tuesday. It was a home run effort from everyone at the station. The morning show. Lucas, Wazz, the digital and design people, Barb in Promotions, Rich Davis. Everyone was a part of it.
The key again is to know the market. Know the hot buttons. If you have to try to force something ... don't.
Earlier in this interview, you mentioned that a lot of station websites are "lacking." Where are they lacking?
I like websites because now we finally have a visual for all cool stuff we do. What has happened is that a lot of stations' sites have become what the station van used to be - a place put all the crap they don't want to give away on-air. Unfortunately with a lot of the bigger radio groups, there's no local control. My thing with websites is if I go to your site more than two times and it hasn't changed, it'll be hard to get me, let alone the listeners to come back.
I'm really big on the term "Google-izing." I'm still on the fence regarding Google; I'm not sure it will ever be successful ... ahem ... but since even Google can, on a moment's notice, change its design, we should be able to do it, too.
We're radio, the "irresponsible" medium, so when the swine flu was big two years ago, a bunch of savvy radio stations put surgical masks on all of the artists on their mastheads. Why not?
Then there was the time I was working with one station literally on Halloween day - and any reference to Halloween was nonexistent on its website. I e-mailed them and suggested they dot the "I" with a jack o'lantern - and I heard back from the IT person who said, "It seems like a lot of effort for very little payoff. "So I designed it myself in five minutes and sent it back to them. "Yup, that was a lot of work..."
We're, again, the Great Re-poster of content. Which is why a photo of Kanye with a sore on his lip will end up on 8,000 stations.
Michael Martin has interns whose only gig is to troll for the stuff that everyone else misses. The Australian girl with the dancing eyebrows? Huge. Made radio sites all over the world ... except here where Michael's station in San Francisco was one of three that caught it.
In terms of contesting, we get an "F" for web promotions. We pretty much suck. "Go and click on the Meineke logo for a chance at a discount on a muffler." Wow. That is Show Business.
Go and sign up for e-blasts from The Travel Channel and American Airlines. They'll send you occasional links to web contesting for trips and stuff. It's fun, it's interactive, you learn about their products and services while going through a series of challenges or exercises. I've never deleted one of these things. They're ... shudder ... fun.
Fly-in Albany had a client who wanted to give away a house full of furniture and being a client with no radio experience, offered up his suggestion: Call in and tell your furniture shopping stories.
We changed it into a mystery of who stole a trophy from the morning guy's house. It was like Clue. It was actually entertaining and the response was huge and the client was thrilled. If we'd done it verbatim, it would have sucked.
You've been in radio for over 30 years and this gig for 20 years. You have 100-ish clients. Considering how busy you must be, do you ever have the time to set long-term plans? Can you see yourself calling this a career somewhere on the horizon?
Oh God, no! I have the greatest job in the world. And when enough people tell you that you have the greatest job in the world, you probably better listen to them. I'm going to do this until die ... and probably for three years afterwards.
Paige Nienaber is VP/Fun 'N Games for Clifton Radio & CPR. He promotionally consults over 100 stations around the world. Info on Paige and his new ebook can be found at http//encyclopediaofradiopromotions.com