April 22, 2014
Anytime there is a change in a morning show, there are lots of ripples. And when radio veteran Todd Pettengill learned that Scott & Todd co-star and leading man Scott Shannon was leaving Cumulus Hot AC WPLJ/New York after 23 years, it was time to make some changes that would put forth a new vision and image for the popular morning show. But the changes needed to retain as much of the existing cume as possibl --and build on it with a new audience. All Access caught up with Todd, new leader of the revamped WPLJ morning show, rebranded The Todd Show, for some insight into how he and his team would handle the transition and build a new morning franchise. Todd has got some great, grassroots ideas to share.
Please give us a short recap on the Scott & Todd era and 23 years together.
It was a great run but I think, like Leno and Letterman, Scott decided it was time to move on and hang up the headphones in the Hot AC format. He's turning 70 this year and God bless him. I only hope to live that long. Doing Oldies is right in his wheelhouse.
So, what's different about The Todd Show now that readily apparent?
It's a faster-paced, more aggressive, audience-first, lifestyle show. It's more visible, topical and local. In the past, Scott would talk about things he called "knuckleheads," which were the weird stories from around the country. Now, we talk about the real stories from our community and the things that directly relate to the target.(L to R) "Meatballs", Cooper Lawrence, Bill Fitzpatrick, Anne Marie Leamy, Joe "Monk" Pardavila, Todd Pettengill, Sheila Watko
Photo credit: Peter Hurley
You play about four songs an hour from 6-10a during the show. Is that more or less music than when Scott was on-board?
When Scott was on the air, he would be doing his True Oldies show at the same time, so many times he would be out of the room that we'd throw in another record. Now, it's all about the content. We play the hottest songs in the morning. When we do artist interviews, we keep it to the major core artists like Bruno Mars and Katy Perry. We keep the talk short and sweet, with strong sound nuggets, and put the rest into our "Toddcasts" and other audio and video offerings.
Clever play on words calling them "Toddcasts." What's the content of these that make them worthy of listening to them?
Most of our Toddcasts feature listener phone calls. People love to be able to hear themselves on the show and share it with their friends.
You are on 6-10a Monday-Saturday. When do you all meet for show prep? What time do you arrive? When do you "call it a day?"
The support staff arrives at 3:30a and we have our first meeting at 5:20. We outline the entire show and then adjust on the fly if something takes off. I arrive between 4 and 4:30 and they leave when the job is done. Some days that's 11a and other days it's 4p. My normal day at the station goes well into the afternoon, since I jump into the sales and promotional end of things after the show prep is done. Saturday is a "best of" show.
You described The Todd Show as having a whole new vibe -- sort of like reality TV on the radio -- how does that work?
It's honest. No one is "playing a role" here. We like to say it's real life, real people, real funny. There's no us and them. If you're trying to be something you're not, people can smell it a mile away. People only get to know you if you're being you.
No defined roles ... explain.
It's the SNL mentality. My team pitches me content and I have the final say as to what goes on. They all know what's expected of them ... which is everything. If you're only worried about what you do, you're not seeing the whole field. Opening it up to make sure everyone knows every job makes it a lot tougher for things to fall through the cracks.
How do you keep from walking all over each other?
We don't worry about it. There's a natural give-and-take that you just feel. The same way you do at a dinner party. The worst thing you can do is hire people and then tell them not to talk till you point at them. Are there occasions when it gets a little loud? Absolutely. But that's when the party gets better.
Okay, let's meet the team which you call the "Core 4" of The Todd Show.
- Todd Pettengill -- My name is on the door which means it's my fault if we're late with spots.
- Joe "Monk" Pardavila -- Exec. Producer and has been there for 16 years. He's our sarcastic, trouble-making exec producer. He's never met an insult he wouldn't use. Monk loves to stir the pot and create drama out of thin air. Hands down, he's the best, most-organized guy I have ever met. He's my right hand and I love him like a brother.
- Cooper Lawrence -- she's in her third year. Cooper is the only team member with a PHD. The rest of us have ph do not's. She's a tough and honest native New Yorker. She brings a wealth of experience to the show and a hefty dose of reason...which I totally ignore.
- Anne Marie Leamy "Annie" is our new regular voice. She is so perfectly balanced -- so honest to a fault and talks about things you'd think of but never say -- she has no filter, which is a challenge for me but I love it. You can't teach this - "just be you" is what I told her. She surprises me everyday with her candor. I look forward to getting her reaction to things on the air; they are always oddly, lovingly, unpredictable.
Other on-air folks include Bill Evans with the weather and Jacquelyn Karl with traffic.
Tell us about the use of social media, the value you place on listener exchange and interaction across social media and what role Social Media Director Sheila Watko plays in the success of The Todd Show.
Social media is a huge part of our business that's not going away. It's essential to be a multi-platform show and deliver across the board. Sheila posts all of our story content. My goal is to have someone be able to follow our show through pictures, posts and tweets. Clearly we want them to listen, but we realize people have jobs. If they hear us refer to something and then see it on a social media check-in, it reaffirms our content and drives it home.
We all do our own personal tweets and Facebook posts, too. We don't do Snap Chat, but we do everything else. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Pinterest are our primary platforms. The best reaction-getter is Twitter as it's instant but you get more meat and pictures and polls with Facebook.
What platforms do you personally like the best?
The best platform is the radio station, WPLJ. We direct everything to wplj.com and they can follow us from there on their choice of social media, but getting them to get used to going to the radio station first is the goal.
It looks like you are getting some traditional contesting and marketing too.
Yes, every weekday at 7:05a we give the Friends With Benefits Cash Code. Later that morning we ask them to call (95th caller) they win a thousand bucks, then they get one call to a friend and give them an additional 500 bucks! $1,500 a day for 8 weeks!
We've also rebranded all of the station vehicles; we have a very strong showing of digital billboards all over the metro and a number of building banners as well. And there is more to come.
You mentioned that you personally are on the streets all the time -- are we having a radio flashback? Hardly anyone does this to any great degree anymore. Please explain why this is important to you to be at up two or more local fundraisers a weekend.
The listeners have choices -- especially in New York where there are literally hundreds of signals. Wouldn't you rather listen to someone who cares about you and your event? We get too caught up in the feel and not in the real.
You spoke about a voicemail line -- so you encourage the audience to invite you out. Also, explain about wanting to do a WPLJ Summer Tour with the morning show to do the show on remote, and then even attend block parties!
It started as another way for the audience to communicate with us. They have to know we hear them and care what they think -- because we do. They help drive the content on the show. If we get several VMs about the same topic, it tells us we should be devoting more time to it. It's also an amazing way to let people get the word out about charity events and shout-outs. And yes, we're planning to be out and about all summer long. We will solicit listeners to nominate their neighborhoods, to have us come out to visit.
Expound on your feelings about giving back to the public. You commented that "Radio has a responsibility to give back to the public -- not serve our egos, but help the community by showing up to make a difference."
Paying it forward shouldn't be something you say; it should be something you do. I have a responsibility to lead by example. It's how we, collectively, as a show, have decided to say thank you for listening. Getting involved in the community with our listeners is as much for us as it is for them. I learn more from being at those events than I could from reading about it. The thing is ... it has to be genuine. If you're doing it because you think you have to, you've already missed the point. It's a grassroots, small-market approach in works everywhere, even in the world's biggest market, New York City.
Why do you think you have an advantage as a live-and-local show over others?
We can talk about the things that directly impact our listeners. If someone in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut or Long Island cares about it, then we can discuss it. I doubt they care about a woman who made the best bowl of soup in Los Angeles.
You said something earlier: "The days of coasting are over -- time for radio to dig in." Tell me more.
There's never been more competition than right now.
That said, how do you feel about other music services:: Pandora, Spotify, iTunes Radio, iHeart which Cumulus works, with or even Cumulus' own RDIO?
Clearly they have their place but I'm a radio guy and I still believe there's nothing like live-and-local content. I am aware of them and spend some time with them -- and they are great if you want a jukebox, but that's not radio. No local flavor. It's why we have to do a better job of painting the picture filled with local references to local landmarks and local events,
What makes radio the most fun for you?
Radio is still the greatest medium on the planet. There's nothing like "doing it live" and painting a mental picture.
What would you like to change about radio today?
Two things. I'd like to see radio stop attacking itself. Broadcast radio needs to stay united and see the whole field. Second: Develop a farm system again. Syndication has taken the place of cultivating talent. It would be nice for younger broadcasters to have the experience of taking transmitter readings, emptying the garbage pails and turning off the lights after the national anthem. Small-town radio was the absolute best training ground.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Our team is amazing: John Dickey and Lew Dickey have both told me to call them directly with any issues. That's pretty rare in this industry. I love our team ... Kim Bryant our market manager, John Foxx our PD, Mary Jo Vetrano our Sales Manager, Leslie Slender our Promotions Director, and my Exec Producer Joe Pardavila, a.k.a. Monk. He's my right hand and, in my opinion, the best producer in the country. I love all of my morning show peeps and coming to work is fun again. There's no ego! It's about doing the best show for the audience, putting a smile on their faces and letting them know we're here and in it with them. It's the coolest damn way to make a living.
Bonus 1: Peanut Butter -- Chunky or Plain?
Bonus 2: Brussel sprouts or cauliflower?
I prefer M&M's.(L to R) Bill Fitzpatrick, "Meatballs", Anne Marie Leamy, Todd Pettengill, Cooper Lawrence, Joe "Monk" Pardavila and Sheila Watko
Photo credit: Peter Hurley