September 24, 2013
For over 40 years, John Sebastian has successfully programmed and consulted some of the nation's most influential stations in a bevy of formats, from KDWB/Minneapolis and WCOZ/Boston to KTWV/Los Angeles, KSLX/Phoenix and WSM/Nashville. While radio has gone from mom-and-pops and the consolidation era to the PPM/corporate world, Sebastian today finds himself overseeing a half-dozen stations for an independent owner in Roswell, New Mexico. What keeps Sebastian going? Here, he answers that in his own words...
You've been a programmer and a consultant - often in the nation's largest markets - for upwards of four decades now. Today, you're VP/Dir. Operations for six stations in two New Mexico markets. What about this business keeps you going?
At my core, I'm an athlete. I was a jock before a DJ. What drives me is excellence -- winning and a passion for the music. That's what keeps me going today. I feel fresher and better than I have in years. I run six miles, three times a week, as well as do weight training. I'm as driven as ever, which comes from the competitiveness of being an athlete.
What are your keys to survival in an industry that has gone through dramatic changes over the years?
In some ways, I've been really lucky compared to a lot of my peers. Right up to this job, I've always been able to concentrate on one station at a time, which as you know, is rare in this day and age. Most of my radio friends have been wearing 15 hats for years, but my current job is the first time I've had to oversee multiple stations. I'm now doing six stations as a GM and PD.
Even though I'm a perfectionist, I still believe in the importance of balancing your time and distributing the workload effectively. I still try to program each station like it's the only one I have, which pretty much drives me crazy, but that keeps me happy. I'm currently working with two Country stations, two Top 40s, a Classic Rock and Classic Hits - all formats I know intimately and with which I've succeeded mightily. I feel really comfortable here.
Have you had to downsize your expectations and goals in a smaller market, compared to your years in L.A. and New York?
In a way, but overall I program these stations - and you can check them all out online -- just like I did for stations in L.A., Chicago, Boston, Dallas, New York or anyplace else I programmed or consulted in my career. I do them exactly the same way; obviously the talent level is different, as are the resources we have - and there are idiosyncrasies in every market.
But whether it was Spokane or New York, I'd advise staff in exactly the same way. When we're on the air, we're talking to one person at a time. Good radio should be an intimate experience, where it seems like you're talking to one epitome listener; whether your audience is 500 people or five million. It's the same thought process wherever I've programmed in my career.
You're currently in diary markets. Have you discarded the programming changes of the PPM era, or does what works in a PPM market, work in a diary market?
The PPM process really just supports the way I've programmed my whole career, so it hasn't changed what I do. The things I've "learned" from PPM just reinforced the things I have done forever. It's all about what's happening right now ... what's timely. You don't BS; you get right to the point. Everything has got to be great or it has to be deleted. Every song must be a hit and mass appeal. Those ideas aren't that new; it's just that some radio people didn't totally buy into them, too often programming for other radio people instead of the listener. The diary process had allowed certain niche formats to survive based on their perceived popularity as opposed to the reality.
Today, many in radio consider the competitive arena not just the station and/or cluster across the street, but satellite radio, Pandora, iPods and iPads. Does that hold true for your stations?
I don't consider Pandora to be a competitor. I still base everything upon my competitors in terrestrial radio. I don't think about satellite radio; I look at the numbers and radio is still cuming the same. TSL is down, but the cume's the same. We still have the potential to be just as successful as before as long as we do the right things - on and off the radio.
That brings me to an important point: I believe some of the corporate companies no longer do radio in a way that I think is as effective as we still can be. They're hastening our demise by not doing the things that are necessary to win and win against significant competition. The reverse of that is true here in Roswell, NM. If you put our stations up against those in major markets and we had equally strong signals, I think we'd beat them almost every time. Smaller indie stations kick butt big-time by doing radio creatively, as well as using key resources like market research and marketing to support the programming.
I can cite great examples of more independent stations beating corporate radio stations. WBEB/Philadelphia consistently beats everyone there, and WJXA/Nashville doubles the ratings of its closest competitor. Those are two very competitive markets, and I submit that, done correctly, smaller more indie companies can win in any market - be it major or medium market. Any station can dominate - if you do radio the way we all know it should be done. And I'm able to do that here.
I'm going to beat you to the punch of asking why I'm in Roswell. Just prior, I was in Scottsdale; I love Phoenix and I worked at many stations there over the years. It's my favorite place to live. I was doing consulting when out of the blue; I got a call from a new owner, Jim Matteucci, who had just purchased six radio stations. He asked me if I would consult there; I said I was open to consulting anywhere, anytime. He convinced me to fly in to talk with him face to face. We hit it off right away. After much discussion, Mr. Matteucci asked what it would take for me to move to Roswell and run his stations. I hadn't given that idea any thought, so I told him I'd think about it. I put together a list of things I would need to take the gig -- which I thought he would never go for -- but he looked at the list and simply said, "Done."
He called my bluff and gave me an offer I couldn't refuse. He gave me complete carte blanche to do what I do with support you don't get in a lot of major markets anymore. I got brand new vans, billboards and research; that sounds like radio being run and programmed the way many of us used to do years ago. Consequently, we've gone from a combined 29 share in Roswell before our changes to a 51 share in just the short time I've been here. My forte is turning around stations quickly. Indeed this sort of transformation can be done all over the country, particularly if smaller more independent companies do radio the right way, a better way and put some pressure on big mega-corporation stations.
There's an old saying that it's harder to stay #1 than get to #1. Are you at all worried about taking the foot off the pedal?
No, because I don't know how to kick back. There's always more to gain; if we have a 50 share, there's no reason we can't get a 60 share. There's always a million ways to improve; we're nowhere near perfection in my mind. This challenge for perfection, which I push for all day, can drive everyone crazy, but we all need to challenge ourselves. It's very analogous to a great sports team or a Michael Jordan, who was always saying, "How can I get better during the off season"" - right after he won the championship. My mantra for years has been, "Good is the enemy of Great!"
Is it tougher nowadays to balance the demands of sales with programming?
It really is a balancing act, especially for someone who has been almost exclusively programming for as long as I have. I've also been a GM and part owner before - 23 years ago at KLSK/Albuquerque. But it's true; the vast majority of my experience has been as a PD or programming consultant.
I do have to really watch myself and keep the priorities right. We are a business and we need to make profit. We've made great gains here, breaking our monthly revenue high almost every month, yet we have not risen in profits as fast as our ratings have. I think we sound great and obviously, our sales are improving, but we need more emphasis on that side of things. Luckily, I have great people running our sales department.
How invested are your stations in digital?
We definitely dove in big-time; we've got good websites; we're all over Facebook and Twitter, etc. Yes, the revenue questions are still out there -- how to really make money from it. We haven't seen too many people making good revenues from digital, but the potential is there. As a way to relate to the social network audience, it's essential.
Is the Top 40 audience the same in Roswell as the Top 40 audience in major markets?
They're very much the same, but the markets are not. Their tastes are pretty similar, but what is different from market to market -- and where the cookie-cutter approach gets it wrong - are the histories of each market. There are different psychographics and demographics that are relevant. Some songs were hits in one market and not another. Certain personalities can be legends in one market and less successful in another. That's why, given the chance, we prefer to use local personalities. Indeed, all our on-air people live right here in Roswell.
Speaking of personalities, due to voicetracking, syndication and corporate radio expense cutting, a plethora of major and medium-market air talent is on the beach. Have they approached you about work at your stations?
You would think there would be lot of that, considering the good professional people who are out of work and looking for radio jobs. But I haven't found that to be the case. However, we are in such an isolated place, basically three hours from everybody, there hasn't been a line out the door of people wanting to work here.
Still, that has kind of surprised me; I thought more people would say, "I'll move anywhere just to stay in radio," but for the most part, almost all the people we have on-air have grown up here. They may not have experience in major markets, but they really know the area and how to relate to our listeners. Our top DJs are Ron Stevens, Helen Bertrand, Sean Smallz, Tony Clayton and JR Law. They've all thrived in this new environment and I'm very proud of them!
I should mention that I do have several really great experienced people on the Majestic sales team. Roger Morgan, our Director of Sales, was a talented major-market jock, and was PD at KYA/San Francisco 20 years ago. He's been in sales now for years and is one of the best in the nation! Our Local Sales Manager Bob Entrop is a highly experienced advertising executive who grew up and has lived in Roswell all his life. He's invaluable to our efforts.
Speaking of "area," what's the relationship between Roswell, NM and Area 51, alien-wise?
Actually, Area 51 is outside of Las Vegas. Roswell is famous for the 1947 incident that got worldwide attention. Apparently, something landed here and The Roswell Daily Record - a newspaper that's still here -- headlined a story that a craft with aliens in it landed. The next day, the government got to that paper and supposedly made it change the story. That incident has been debated ever since, so there's been a lot of popularity around UFOs here. People from all over the world visit Roswell to see where the aliens landed and visit our UFO Museum. We do relate to that; all four of our logos here have alien themes to them. These representations of our radio stations make for pretty cool looking websites. www.Q971FM.com, www.1047KMOU.com, www.1005KSFX.com, www.925KBCQ.com.
After programming and consulting all over the country, is Roswell a place where you can see yourself settling down?
I'm very happy here, but I would never say never. I have so much energy; I'm open to all possibilities in the foreseeable future, but here and now, I've got a job to do and that's to dominate this market. I want to see our team maximize its potential here.
Considering what you previously said about corporate radio, could you ever see yourself taking a corporate radio opportunity?
I think I could help them; I've worked for Cumulus several times; I was successful and I had a good time. They treated me well and I won for them, every time. I know many of the Clear Channel head honchos very well. Ironically, while the good thing about having a reputation is that people know who you are, the bad thing about a reputation is that they know how you operate. If a corporate group wanted me for what I believe in, I'd be interested. That may not be the case now, but their needs might change three to five years from now. They might decide to utilize, not just me, but lots of other radio pros just waiting for another opportunity to do radio really well again.
However, there are lots of other small and mid-level companies that already understand the potential of what I do, and what many others can do, so I'm not going to close any door down the road. For now, I'm completely focused on what we're doing here with Majestic Communications - and I'm having a blast. There's nothing like having creative freedom and the support to maximize the potential of your radio stations. Not too many of my radio buddies have this kind of freedom, and I certainly don't want to give it up.
Bottom line: Are you bullish on radio's future?
I'm more bullish than many are, in that I really think things come in waves and cycles. It seems that the major companies, to some degree, have created a pyramid scheme of sorts to deal with their debt load. Historically most of these situations eventually fall flat, and when that happens, you're going to see some of their stations sold off at pennies on the dollar. So instead of so many stations essentially being run by Wall Street, they'll be, once again, run by people who really have a passion for radio. Some of those companies are already out there - Alpha and Hubbard, to name just a couple stalwarts, and others have been taking advantage of the most recent sell-offs. These are real radio people who can bring back the magic to radio. Yeah, they want to make a profit, but their way to become profitable is to create great radio first, as opposed to making a profit "come hell or high water" by cutting expenses and "efficiencies." There's a real distinction there. I'm enough of a realist to know how this business operates, but I'm also an optimist who believes we can cure our ills and perpetuate the kind of success I'm confident is still possible.