November 4, 2014
For two decades, Kraig Kitchin headed up the country's biggest and most successful radio network, Premiere. Now, he has altered his focus to a myriad of challenges - to his own air talent management company, Sound Mind, as Pres./Chief Revenue Officer for TheBlaze.com, and as part of the Board of Directors for the National Radio Hall of Fame, which will hold its annual induction ceremonies on the West Coast for the first time on November 9th. Here, Kitchin discusses the Hall of Fame, his desire to give air personalities -- past and present -- their due and his take on Talk and AM radio.
First off, what made you decide to get involved with the National Radio Hall of Fame?
I have been associated with the National Radio Hall Of Fame for 10 years. My association started when I was President of Premiere; we took turns to help produce one of their radio broadcasts. ABC Radio Network, Westwood One and Premiere all rotated responsibilities every three years to help the National Radio Hall Of Fame create a program during the induction ceremonies. I am a big proponent of on-air personalities getting the proper recognition for their efforts -- and the National Radio Hall Of Fame is the natural place to do that.
How has the Hall grown over the past 10 years?
In last decade, the National Radio Hall Of Fame has created a physical place for itself in downtown Chicago; we dedicated a floor inside the Museum of Broadcast Communications -- a special place where consumers and radio lovers can visit every day of the year and actually see the greats who were inducted into the National Radio Hall Of Fame. And not just see their names on plaques, but hear their bodies of work. For visitors, there's a radio studio to see what it's like to be on the air, and another fully functioning studio for use by any station or program seeking a Chicago remote location. The audio elements make it a terrific experience for people, who are also visiting other parts of broadcast museum, such as the TV exhibits. So the biggest change has been its physical manifestation.
The other big backdrop in our world has been the further consolidation of the radio industry. A prevailing question arises on how much talent is getting the chance to develop, both on a local level and a national level. To me, this just underscores how important the relationships are between air personalities and listeners. Over the last 10 years, we've seen the invention of Pandora, iTunesRadio and Spotify. Radio broadcasters have been doing new online experiments with music play, such as iHeartRadio, but all of that only raises the stakes in terms of stickiness between the listener and the station.
It can no longer be how great the music selection is, since everyone essentially has the same music. It's now up to the personalities to guide the music. I can say with all honesty that you can be WXRT/Chicago and play a great selection of acoustic music; or Power 106/Los Angeles and play a great mix of hip-hop; each station is iconically known for its great music selection, but today consumers have the power to make their own music selections, so personalities become all the more important.
But hasn't consolidation -- with its use increased of voicetracking and syndication - and the PPM, which has prompted programmers to force their air talent to be even more succinct - taken a good part of the personalities' clout out of the mix?
That's very true, but that's just starting the point of the conversation. The goal is to have truly great radio personalities who can break through and connect with listeners in such a way that it overrides the barriers - be they PPM or longer music sweeps that lead to less development time. The truly great ones need to be recognized and incentivized, and one of the rewards for them should be industry recognition. That's why we've made a concerted effort to make the National Radio Hall Of Fame more impactful in the years to come.
So what's special about this year's ceremony on November 9th?
For the first time in 26 years, the induction is taking place outside of Chicago - this year in southern California. We feel it's a better way to introduce the Hall to those who work in the Western half of the country, who are not as inclined to travel to Chicago. The 250 people who are coming will be able to see a simulated tour of the Hall of Fame, as well as enjoy the special induction ceremonies. This will be a black-tie event time where both the inductees' family members and people in the radio industry gather together to enjoy special moments with the seven personalities who'll be inducted this year. They represent a diverse range of talent -- Jon Miller, who continues to do play-by-play for the San Francisco Giants; Stan Hubbard, who passed on years ago, was the purveyor of the first commercial radio station in KSTP-A; the man who made more great commercials than anyone, Dick Orkin; a morning team in Charlie and Harrigan that personified all great morning show duos; Barry Farber, who has been involved in radio for something like 50 years; This American Life's Ira Glass, one of the greatest storytellers in radio; and Agnes Moorehead, a legend in the early days of radio drama.
Be it the baseball Hall of Fame or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, every Hall of Fame induction ceremony is greeted with complaints about those who aren't in and should be, as well as those who are in but shouldn't be. Is that just part of the territory? Can you or should you do anything about that?
You can do something about it. You can make the nomination process and the voting process as transparent as possible to the entire industry. In the years to come, I intend to make the nomination process even more open to encourage industry-wide input. Our nominating committee will be larger and more inclusive, ideally with someone from every broadcast company as well as personnel from the radio industry at large. We want these individuals to commit to a two-to-three-year term, so we can create a tradition and a precedent, so someone who misses out one year can be re-nominated and voted in the next - and have them eligible for several years in a row before that expires. Voting is one part of the process that should be open to the public. The nominating committee knows the radio industry well enough to take into account the entire body.
Let's get to your own air talent management company, Sound Mind. What made you decide to go on your own?
I got into the business of Sound Mind because I love working with individual radio personalities and the best production companies in the world. After serving the radio industry for 20 fantastic years at Premiere, I felt the time was right for new leadership to take the company in a new direction to continue its greatness, while I chose to focus on fewer personalities to make sure their careers are maximized in terms of relating to their audience, station affiliation and their advertiser relationship. Sound Mind is the place where I can continue to do work with radio personalities and production companies to make sure they have every opportunity to reach their potential.
With fewer and fewer true radio superstars, I would imagine it must be very difficult to find and recruit talent to your company.
It's very hard; the competition to earn their trust can be very heated. But there are a number of places you can go to find really talented individuals who make a difference on radio and are just as plentiful as ever before.
Will you also be working with your air talent on opportunities outside of radio?
Radio comes first in my mind, but a great personality has the unique ability to reach a significant audience. I have the most passion for personalities who are interesting just by being themselves; they have the ability to create a large social media following. Like great writers, they're visionaries who can be successful on all kinds of visual media, including channels on YouTube and other 24-hour media worlds such as social media. A personality who can do more than one thing really well becomes that much more interesting.
At the same time as you're working with the National Radio Hall Of Fame and running your own company, Sound Mind, you're also Pres./Chief Revenue Officer of The Blaze. How can you devote enough time for all of your responsibilities?
I have a unique capacity to do a high threshold of work. A lot of that is because I don't consider what I do as work. I love what I do; I'm blessed to be in this industry and not digging ditches. I'm not doing any heavy lifting; I'm actually doing something to bring entertainment to other people, which can be monetized by advertisers. It doesn't feel like work whether I'm running TheBlaze.com or working with radio personalities.
As someone who has worked in the network radio business for 20 years, do you agree with those who feel that the sagging ratings for political Talk personalities and the eroding popularity of AM radio illustrates a format in trouble?
No, for a couple reasons. One, the ratings methodology the industry uses is inferior and isn't able to measure an adequate number of people, nor adequately show how often they use radio. The sample sizes are too small for both AM and FM stations. The second thing is that every station in America encourages their listeners to listen online, to use the station websites as a way to connect. Yet the radio industry has no legitimate audience measurement ability for the percentage of listeners who follow their suggestions. We tell people 50 times a week to listen to the station online or through their phones - and what we're doing is sending them to a place where there's no adequate measurement to present to the advertisers and/or media in a way that marries together the on-air and online audience. As a result, when the ratings come out, stations will have 10-15% listening attrition of people who likely migrated to the digital platforms we tell them to use 50 times a week!
As an industry, we have to make sure to work with our ratings providers to present a unified number on what the sum total of our listenership really is. In the meantime, we can't allow ourselves, for a lack of better word, to put out bad news that lowers the industry's true value. Advertisers have to consider the fact that nobody really knows where all the listeners are. We have no accurate scorecard of how many of them are still listening to Talk stations and AM ... and how many have actually left.
So you don't agree with the assessment that the Talk radio is offering listeners too much of the same thing - polarized politics?
No, I don't buy that argument for a minute. I think Talk voices are really diverse, when you include shows that deal with sports, government, and finance. Listener interest in those subjects is as high as ever. The only differentiation is that people are getting their listening entertainment from a variety of devices - and we do not have an accurate measurement tool to track them. You can't make an argument that people are less interested in their finances or their favorite sports teams. There's no apathy of that in America. In reality, we're not benefiting ourselves in the ways that we should.
Finally, on a real and perceptual level, what must radio do to get its mojo back?
Radio has to present a unified answer to where all our listening occasions occur, to paint a picture of just how just impactful our medium is - period, end of story. iHeartMedia's leadership today does an excellent job of that; so does the leadership of Entercom, Greater Media and CBS Radio, just to name a few. They have to make sure to convey straightforward observations, such as more people tuning in to listen to their favorite stations out of habit than they do to the number of websites they log onto, or the number of videos or TV shows they view.
Not only do they have to tell that story, but they need data that's more credible and believable. And that will take more investment on radio's part to support a more creative vehicle to foster a healthy competition between ratings companies. They have to properly fund radio research companies that will also accurately monitor secondary listening platforms, to help show advertisers how we offer a high rate of return. The online medium can offer advertisers click-through data that determines the performance of those delivery services. The radio industry needs better models to show advertisers how we, too, help sell product and services both on-air and online.