March 12, 2013
Mark Kassof is a champion for "the little guy" in radio ... in a way. While the big three radio conglomerates run their stations through in-house research and top-down programming strategies, Kassof has spent over 25 years consulting and strategizing for the rest of radio - stations he believes are still believers in entertaining their listeners while fostering local engagement and community service. Here's how he helps fashion their success.
When get into consulting ... and why did you want to get into it?
I was at stations for 10 years as a jock, researcher and programmer. My last job was at KDWB/Minneapolis, and I was doing 9p-midnight, which gave me the opportunity to go to grad school. I got an MBA at the University of Minnesota specializing in research, which led to a job at Reymer & Gersin Associates in Southfield, MI. They primarily did local TV news research, but with my background, we got more into radio. I did the "Radio WARS" study for the NAB and got in on the launch of Z100, among others.
During my time there, I realized that I liked researching radio more than TV ... radio was a lot more interesting and fun! Inevitably, when push came to shove at the company, where they wanted me to sign a long-term contract with a no-compete, I decided to move on and start my own radio-focused research business. That was in 1985.
Did it take you a while to build a clientele?
I was fortunate in that I got a couple of clients soon after starting my business. It was slow going at first, but things always seemed to come along. And I have clients I've worked with for 20-plus years. So here we are, 27-plus years later.
Obviously in that time, a tidal wave of change has impacted the radio business. In your mind, what are the biggest changes you've seen, and how has radio reacted to them?
The first big change was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which opened the door for mega-groups owning multiple stations in many markets. That was a huge change -- and not for the better. And a lot of people feel that way. I recently completed a GM survey and one of the things I asked was, "What's the single biggest threat to the future viability of traditional radio?" Top-of-mind, they volunteered "the Internet, smartphones, etc." But #2 was "mega-groups and consolidation." Consolidation led to cost-cutting and programming quality went down. When you're more beholden to stockholders than you are to listeners, the first thing you do is slash investing in programming.
Another big change, of course, was the emergence of Pandora and other forms of Internet entertainment to compete for radio listeners' attention. This was happening at the same time many traditional radio stations were cutting back on talent investment and programming. It's a "perfect storm." Radio is being challenged by more competition than ever, and instead if investing in the things that make it unique and special, it's cutting back on them.
Do you bring that up to clients of yours that happened to be part of the major radio groups?
I don't work with the mega-groups. Clear Channel has its own research arm. Before Cumulus became a radio group, the Dickeys owned their own research company, Stratford Research, and it still does their research. I work with stations owned by groups, just not the "mega" ones.
Have you come up with specific strategies to compete against stations owned by those mega-groups?
It's interesting. One would assume that they have all these resources at hand for each station to use and compete with, and because they have all these resources, they're all doing a fabulous job of programming radio stations. My experience competing against them has been just the opposite. Because they keep cutting back and slashing investment in research and programming, it hasn't been difficult to compete against them.
A number of stations I've worked with have beaten mega-group competition over the years. For just one example, KZIA in Cedar Rapids -- a single FM up against Clear Channel and Cumulus -- has done phenomenally well because the people there put all their energies and creative juice into one great station. It's difficult to create an entertaining and focused radio station unless you have managers who really live and breathe it like they do.
It's true that consolidation has raised the competence level of the radio industry. When I started out, before the Telecom Act hit, there were small and medium-market stations that just flat-out sucked. That also provided the opportunity to take some of those stations and turn them around really quickly, or attack and beat them very quickly. Either way, it was exciting to achieve something big in a short time.
Mega-groups can program great radio when they invest the time, money and energy, but that usually doesn't happen. If a company runs hundreds of stations, the best they can usually do is create competent stations, not inspired ones.
Since you seem to bullish on the local angle, do the stations you consult always have local talent in mornings and other dayparts, or could you recommend syndicated talent in the right situation?
I'm not into "cookie cutter" strategies. Each station and each market situation is unique, so you have to do whatever's right for each station and situation! So if I'm working with a Rock station and our research shows a morning show problem, I wouldn't hesitate recommending a syndicated rock morning show. And have.
How long have you been doing the studies that you're currently posting on your website?
I call the studies "ListenerThink;" I've been doing it for over a year. My initial motivation for them was to have something for the website that would bring people back ... to add "stickiness" to kassof.com. But it's turned out to be great fun to do as well. I'm a naturally curious guy who also wants to research areas my clients don't often ask me to explore, because they have more immediate issues. ListenerThink lets me to research different issues that occur to me to be important, or at least interesting.
How expansive are these surveys? Do they carry a significant investment in time and money to do?
I try to do a survey once a month and there is an investment involved, but they're small-focus projects ... not your typical 20-minute strategic survey. I've found that it's a good investment.
Are you surprised with the survey that found radio group owners and management more optimistic about 2013?
At first, I was surprised as to the degree of their optimism. When I thought about it more, though, I realized that it's their business to be optimistic. You have to be somewhat optimistic about the business you're in, or why be in it at all? So in a way, those results were to be expected.
There are folks out there who are very critical of the radio industry and very down on its future prospects. This survey doesn't mean that they're wrong ... just that people who run radio stations don't necessarily feel that way.
What was encouraging, too, is that they're not blindly optimistic. At the same time when more than two-thirds of those surveyed expressed optimism about the future, 83% of them considered Internet accessibility in cars to be a threat in the future. So while they're bullish about the business, they know what challenges they face now and in the near future.
In your mind, how should radio address that challenge of wireless accessibility in cars?
The answer's obvious. We've done quite a bit of research on Pandora as well. By now, people realize the benefits of Pandora, but there are certain benefits that radio has that Pandora and other Net offerings don't ... such as local engagement. It's very important to look at it like anyone involved in marketing a product. You ask yourself what's the essence of the product, what strengths does it have ... and you build on those strengths.
The people who are most optimistic about radio know what their products' strengths are and they know how to build on them. Local engagement is, by far, the #1 thing radio can do and Pandora or SiriusXM can't. Radio can reflect their communities, relate to them and service them like no other. That's what'll help radio continue to be a viable force going forward.
It's all about touching people and connecting with them. We live in a society that's largely disconnected in many ways. Why is Facebook successful? Because it allows people to connect with others instantly and easily. It connects people who are otherwise isolated in our world. Radio's personal connection with the listeners is essential.
The problem is that at the same time listeners have all these other choices of entertainment and information, too many stations are cutting back on the very things that make radio unique. If you think radio's future success comes down to what music you're playing, if that's the game, that's not a battle radio can win. If the game is entertainment and local engagement, that's a battle radio can win.
Unfortunately, I think a lot stations aren't doing that; they're just presenting the same music in the same way to the point where one station sounds indistinguishable from the others. When I was a teen, I used to tune in stations from around the country at night, and back then they all sounded different. KAAY in Little Rock sounded completely different than CKLW in Detroit. And neither of them sounded like WLS and WCFL, which I listened to growing up in Chicago.
Now you go from one market to another and so many stations sounds virtually the same from top to bottom. They're not servicing their communities ... not when so many are running syndicated programming or voicetracking around the clock. Local engagement is more the exception than the rule. Sure, a station may talk about pop culture, whatever band that's coming to town, and even some local event, but one-offs like that aren't enough. You need to share a common bond between the station, its personalities and the community.
Do you counsel your stations to advertise, market or even bring up on-air that they're local and their rivals are not? Should you and/or do you recommend they use it as a wedge issue?
No. It's what you do, not what they don't do, that matters. You have to entertain and connect. People still want a morning show that gets them up with humor and information, and a lot of syndicated morning shows do that. To compete, you have to do that, too! So while the local connection is an edge, it alone is still not enough to win.
So what is radio's future? Do you see two separate and unequal worlds, where the big groups control the major markets and the smaller groups utilize the local touch to maintain a hold everywhere else?
I'm not entirely sure that the big groups will maintain. We've all known about the debt the big groups have - and they can't keep cutting their way out of those holes. We've already seen them divest stations. When companies get trouble, they sell out. The more they do that, the greater the possibility going forward that those stations will return to owners who have a local perspective, who live and believe in the communities they serve. But no one is sure about how all this is going to play out
And what about your future? Will it continue to be in consulting, or could you see yourself owning a station?
Like many who have been involved in this industry for a long time, I've toyed with that idea. But at this point, owning a station is not a goal of mine. What I do now is enjoy a broader experience of having different people, stations and strategies to work with. I'm most interested in listeners, and how we get a better understanding of how they think.
You know how you ask yourself, "If I won the lottery, what would I be doing now?" The really cool thing about my place right now is that if I did win a lottery, I wouldn't work anywhere near as hard as I do now, but I wouldn't give it up completely.