April 9, 2013
In a voicetracked and syndicated era, radio personalities have to look at their talent as something far bigger than what he or she puts out on the air each day. To successfully compete in a world of fewer opportunities and air talents with bigger national footprints, it's all about unique content, a strong brand and an aggressive multi-platform strategy. Ed Pearson is doing that for Doug Banks. As President of Doug Banks Media and owner of his own company Esome Media, Pearson balances the creation of compelling radio content while orchestrating a myriad of ways to successfully market it. Here's how he does it...
What made you decide to get into the radio business?
I studied at Fordham University in New York, which is the entertainment media capitol of the world. I knew then I wanted to get into the media business, but to be honest I initially thought only about TV. I did an internship at Arbitron during my senior year, which gave me insight into the radio business. It opened my eyes to radio. With that internship on my resume and with a few good interviews out of college, I got a job at ABC Radio in Sales for WPLJ.
Describe what you learned at ABC Radio Networks and how that influenced your current career.
I started in radio sales at ABC. Then I did sales for TV, starting as a Regional Director and ending up as a VP. Then I left to work at an Internet-based start-up company, before I came back to ABC to head up its Urban Radio division. In that time, I went from sales and distribution to a point where I was also overseeing the talent and content. Basically that's going from selling the value of content to understanding the value of content. It's one thing to make money selling content, but it's a whole other thing to understand the value of content and the unique talent who can deliver it. I was fortunate enough to be on each side; that experience, climbing up through the ranks, helped me learn to identify talent that can best deliver unique content -- and also be comfortable selling it.
When did you decide to go solo, and how did you know you were ready for that career move?
While I was at ABC, heading up its most profitable division back in 2005, I said to myself, "You know, there's going to be time when the talent doesn't need the networks like they had in the past." Because of the changes in the business environment, with all the consolidation and other things, I realized the networks were going to lose some of their leverage. I still appreciated the value of talent and I wanted to continue to be in this business, so I had to cultivate different relationships to be on the side of developing and delivering content. Being on that side of the business would allow me to be in the position of more power, because in 2007-8, when Citadel bought ABC, I saw division heads, one by one, get cut ... I thought I better start executing my plans pretty quickly.
So I put my plan in motion. I developed a lot of relationships and I got closer to talent personally. I started absorbing as much as I could, so when 2009 came, it was time to make my move.
You've worked with some of the best air personalities in radio -- Big Boy, Michael Baisden and Doug Banks. In your eyes, what sets them apart from all the others?
What sets them apart are their natural ability to entertain the airwaves in a way that listeners across the country can relate. That's not an easy thing to do; not everyone can do it. The best personalities in the business are, in real life, essentially what you hear on the air. They're uniquely gifted individuals can succeed to a certain level, but the truly great personalities possess the ability to convey a strong message, via a theatre of the mind, with few words. Only a few air talents have that ability.
Do how much of their successes was developed through the practice of their craft, and how much is just God-given ability to communicate in a unique, compelling way?
I'd say that 80% of the successful air personalities are ones who really work hard and hone their craft. The other 20% have plain old God-given talent. As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, I knew Will Smith through a couple of friends, and the exact guy I met when he was 17-18 years old -- a goofy, funny guy who's always on - was the same guy on TV and in film. That's who he is; he has a God-given gift ability to convey that. Big Boy is another natural talent. Rick Cummings discovered him. He'd come into the studio and hang out -- just a funny kid. Now 15 years later, he's become one of the most successful radio stars in the business because he's naturally gifted.
Can you cite turning points of sorts with any of the air talent you worked with, when you and they realized that they "got it?"
Being at network radio, in all honesty, I was already working with the cream of crop --personalities who already "got it" and were successful on a local level. Then there was a "got it" moment when they actually understood how to get their message across a nationwide audience. That's the tough part. You can't take every good show out of any city and make it work nationally; that's not how it works. It takes a really good ear to understand the differences, and it can take months or even over a year for the talent to understand the work it takes to be successful on a national level.
It has a lot to do with work ethic; they're going to have to change things to go from delivering a message to one particular market to reach different regions. Each locality has its own lingo and characteristics. They have to realize they're talking to the entire country now, so they have to be more general - and still make it work.
There are times when I have created shows with out-of-the-box thinking. For example, The Brian McKnight Show ... the plan was to use his talents as a singer and show host as opposed to a typical air personality... maybe sing a song or two for an on-air dedication. That idea helped him get on 50 stations. It was a unique concept and it worked until I left the Citadel Network.
So what made you decide to become part of Doug's production company?
Doug initially hired my company to build his media company; we consulted him during the entire process and put together everything he needed to go out on his own. There came a time late last year when we were almost done, and Doug tells me, "The crazy thing is I don't trust anyone to run my company. There are a handful of people capable of doing it, who understand my product, syndication and branding, but frankly, you're the guy who I want to do it."
I told him to give me a couple days to think about it. So I did and I realized that in my company, I already look for and cultivate talent, while my work with his company is to develop content and make it work across more media platforms. I concluded that both tasks go hand in hand. Once I realized it was a win-win, that we could create a national footprint for Doug and use my company, Esome Media Group, to develop more content and talent behind him, it was a no-brainer. Last month, I told him, "Let's do it."
How much of your time there will be devoted to expanding Doug's career choices, and how much time will you take to bring in and develop other talents?
The way the business plan is laid out, first and foremost it's about making Doug's company solid in terms of the partnerships we develop. In order to have a successful company, you have to have the right alliances and partnerships in terms of syndication and distribution. Also, you have to take the time to make sure the on-air staff is solid and clicking on all cylinders.
That's where I'm going to spend the lion's share of my time for the rest of this year, and once I'm comfortable with where the company is ... we're solid and rolling; we've broadened the affiliate base for a larger national footprint ... at that point we will spend more time finding and developing new talent, programs and platforms that fit into the show. That's when we'll branch off the show and spin off into other media. My primary responsibility this year is to broaden his footprint. Eventually; it will be more of a 50/50 time dedication.
What kind of new content do you hope to create as part of this company?
This is my vision of the industry: Right now, I see radio as big and as strong as it has always been, but it's becoming a bit tighter and smaller, in terms of its ability to grow. It's still an effective medium; it's a place that people will continue to go to and get what they need -- if the medium continues to deliver content and builds relationships that people can depend on.
In my space and time, I have to make sure I develop programs and content that creates and enhances relationships with listeners. Yet there's another side to this -- which is big -- branching out into digital and satellite to turn all so-called competitors into friends. Media partner alliances are important, so we'll be able to deliver content on cross-media platforms. So many things can live in digital space; a lot of that is in organic development. I'm a believer that radio should embrace the digital world - not look at it as a competitor, but as a content delivery partner. And you can do that without cannibalizing your product.
Describe the market for radio product and talent. Is it more competitive, or are there more opportunities?
Due to the lack of available opportunities, it's more competitive. Because fewer groups own more radio stations and companies own their own networks, naturally it's more competitive. It's a good thing Doug doesn't have to prove himself as a new talent would; all he has to do is continue to improve his product to stay successful.
I started Doug in morning drive, and while it's tough to make a move to a new daypart, a few years ago we made the decision to move to afternoons, so we could put Big Boy in the mornings. We didn't want to lose affiliates in today's open competition. I had a lot of success with Baisden in pm drive, so I launched a second show to monopolize the market. As I have consulted Doug Banks, I explained that there will be an opportunity for him to grow in time. "I put money on the last man standing -- and that will be you." Recent events have proven that to be true!
What we have learned in the past couple of weeks, with Cumulus dropping Michael, is that's exactly where we are. We have the opportunity to acquire more affiliates due to what went down. So it's about perseverance, as well as putting out a good product. If you have the heart of a lion and you work hard, everything can fall into place if you grow and stay consistent.
How has the PPM impacted how radio talent develops or tweaks their craft?
A lot of people have come up with different theories and tried a lot of different things, but ultimately we've come to the belief that the best way to deal with PPM is that you've got to keep them listening across the breaks - but that's nothing new. What PPM has magnified, in my eyes at least, is that it still comes down to the best talent. Sure, you've got to program hit music ... no mistake about that ... but music is something we can get anywhere we want -- iPod, iPhones, online, Pandora - however and whenever we want it. That's why the difference comes down to having the best air talent delivering unique content.
Unfortunately, there are some people in our business who have gone away from that. They're not taking the time and effort to develop that kind of talent and programming. But we'll do that, because we feel having unique talent delivering more compelling content persuades people to listen longer. And that works whether it's under the PPM or the diary.
Do you recommend that Doug and any of the other air talents you've worked with compare what they do against the talent across the street or other syndicated radio stars, or do they solely focus on their own shows?
I don't encourage any of my talent to listen to the guy across street ever - just focus on what makes you good and unique. Howard Stern became Howard Stern because he wasn't afraid to say things other people were afraid to say; that made him different and unique ... and he owns that to this day. I would never tell someone else to be like that. You've got to create your own thing and own it. I would listen to a Michael Baisden podcast on my computer, and I would honestly forget that I was listening to a recording. He came off live ... and that's what good, unique, compelling content can do. Michael was being Michael; he has never been anybody but himself. The same goes with Doug. He's going to continue to be Doug Banks, who's funny and entertaining, who makes people smile and laugh, and gives them reasons to keep listening to him.
Where do you prioritize your efforts - get more affiliates and expand Doug's brand ... expand the digital platform access for his show ... TV and/or film opportunities?
Number one is to expand the affiliates and give Doug a larger footprint nationally. The more people we get as listeners, the more people we can direct to other areas of his brand. Which brings up number two, expand the offerings on our digital platform. We've already done a lot of work on it, but there's so much more we can do. TV has done a better job of using digital platforms than radio, so we need to be more productive in that space. If we want to get people to spend a lot of time with our medium, we have to give them really interesting things to get involved with. Those are the main two things; TV and film opportunities are well beyond that, and our ventures into those areas will depend on our success in the first two areas.
What about your future? Currently you're Pres. of Doug Banks Media and you still work with Esome Media. How do you balance and/or prioritize the two...and what other plans do you have for your career?
Of course, I'm going to get a lot busier, but I feel I can do Doug Banks Media and Esome simultaneously without spreading myself too thin because they work hand in hand. We can develop talent and create new programs to put on new platforms. I enjoy the challenge, even if it keeps me up late. As Doug's business grows, I get a real satisfaction in building it and making it more profitable. Hopefully, I can do the same with my media group until I make it big enough that someone will buy it from me. But right now, I'm focusing on building this business, getting more affiliates and attracting bigger clients. I love being in the media business in the entertainment space. This is right where I want to be.