August 11, 2015
Tony Gray is one of the longest-tenured Urban radio consultants in the business, having struck out on his own 25 years ago. He's helped steer Urban stations through the consolidation craze, the indecency complaints of rap music, the advent of PPM and most recently, the use and/or potential misuse of Voltair. Here, Gray shares his insight into those issues and more...
After being on the programming side in radio, what made you decide to get into independent consulting?
I worked my way up the gravy train from very small markets to market #1 at WRKS. Once I made it in New York, I looked at what I would do as my next step. I could either go into a management position or do what I do for now for a living. I'm not saying anything negative about working in the day-to day operations and management of a station, but for me, I like this a lot better. I'm never bored when I work with multiple stations at the same time.
Was it difficult to get stations to consult when you started?
No, I was lucky in that I started at the right time. Stations came on board pretty quickly, to be honest with you. This was back in 1990 ... consolidation hadn't set in as deeply as it has now. There were quite a few independent stations out there that needed an independent consultant.
Speaking of the post-'92 consolidation, how did that impact your consultancy in terms of attracting and keeping clients?
Because I was lucky enough to start before that all started, there was minimum negative impact on my business. I brought in a large number of clients before the consolidation craze took hold, and fortunately my clients have largely remained loyal. We've had a pretty good run of success together, which has worked out well for everyone. What I will say is that if I tried strike out on my own five or 10 years after the day I did, I may not have survived.
Another major change since you started is the introduction of the PPM. How has that impacted the stations you consult or the advice you give them on optimizing ratings?
The PPM has made it a little more difficult for not only Urban stations, but other stations with formats that have niche audiences - especially if they are part of a specific ethnic group. It also made it more difficult in terms of programming, I like the technology and the methodology of PPM; my only complaint - and it has been my complaint since day one - is that I don't believe the sample size is adequate enough to deliver a stable picture of a station's performance ... especially in ethnic formats.
The hot issue of the moment is, of course, Voltair and its impact on PPMs. Do any of your stations have experience with Voltair?
Yes sir, they do. I absolutely have experience with stations who use Voltair, and I also took in the Nielsen webinar conference call. I'm not automatically in support of it, but if you're working at a station in a competitive environment - and anyone in a top 50-market is certainly in a competitive environment -- and there is some equipment, a new marketing tactic or a promotional tool that could help stations be more competitive, you almost have to use it. With the ratings being so compressed in PPM markets, anything you can do -- whether it's Voltair or something else -- to give yourself a competitive edge or at least compete with those around you, you do it.
So you think it's worth the $15,000 cost?
Some people complain the $15,000 tag is pricey, but in the top-50 market, you're talking about millions of dollars in advertising revenue annually, so a $15,000 price tag is a drop in the bucket - as long as it allows you to get the competitive edge, which makes the station be at least competitive in reaching its audience.
That seems to be the question, because Randy Kabrich has brought out some data that suggests that Voltair isn't helping stations as much as it claims, if at all - and he complains that stations are incorrectly crediting Voltair when it does well, or use it as a crutch, in blaming the station across the street for having one, for its own ratings problems.
I can tell you that I know some stations specifically that have installed the device and have seen a direct line of ratings improvement over a 60, 90 and 120-day period. I've seen it in black and white. I do understand Randy's point; I read his article in All Access and he brought up some valid points; people can use not having it as a crutch, but I can tell you that I know of a couple stations in top-30 markets that installed those devices - and even though they didn't change the talent, the programming, promotions or marketing -- the first ratings period after they installed the device, it made a positive difference.
Is it that much better than other processors - and doesn't its current cost put smaller-pocketed stations at a disadvantage?
Yes, that's correct. For your standard audio processor, you'd only have to invest $5-6,000; the Voltair can be up to three times more expensive. A lot of smaller companies can't afford to do it.
Let's talk programming. A lot of Urban and especially Hip-Hop records are crossed over into Top 40. Is there anything an Urban can do to "own" its own hit records?
That's just part of radio life. This goes back to the day when I was a PD; there was nothing I could do if the guy across the street started playing the records I played. Whatever he or she did with their signal and programming, there was nothing I could do about that. My job was to make sure whatever was on my frequency was the best, most compelling product for our specific target audience. That goes for Urban programmers today as well.
Could you see Urban stations adding pop hits with Urban artists, such as Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" with Kendrick Lamar?
I don't look at music based on the ethnicity of the artist. Taylor's "Bad Blood" is just not an Urban record. It's nice that she has Kendrick doing that rap on her song, but it doesn't automatically become an Urban record just because she put him on it. It's not an Urban-appealing song.
What's the best way to break in new music on an Urban station these days?
You have to learn to blend it in slowly so it doesn't jar the audience; just make sure it adds a freshness to the station's sound.
With the major labels releasing fewer records than they did in the past, have you recommended that stations look more at indie label records and potential hits off the Net?
In terms of new music, the record industry changes over the last couple decades have certainly impacted the product. Since they are all publicly held companies, more or less, I don't believe there's as much time and energy invested into artist development, especially in terms of long-term artist development. Certainly it's not as big as it was for the labels in the '70s and '80s. To be honest, that's why a lot of music today doesn't have the staying power, in terms of longevity, as hits from the past did.
In terms of playing new music, there's not a heck of a lot we can do because radio stations, regardless of format, are conduits, the middle man between producer and consumer. There's not a heck of a lot we can do. From the time hip-hop blew up, Urban radio would get beat up for the lyrical content of rap records. There are community organizations that protest in front of hip-hop stations in a misguided attempt to blame the stations, which has nothing to do with the production of music and the delivery of music from the labels to us. We do the best we can to play the music that appeals to our consumers, by playing the cleanest versions of the songs we can. We have to keep in mind the license of radio station.
Has Urban and Urban AC's target demos changed over the years?
Not necessarily. It depends on the market and its ethnic demo makeup. Some markets, where the average age of the consumer is older, the Urban stations play more '70s music. In other markets where the average age of the consumer is younger, some Urban stations are centered more on the middle '80s or '90s.
In your eyes, what's the greatest challenge facing Urban radio?
It's the same challenge Urban radio has been facing for years: Converting ratings into revenue remains the biggest challenge. A number of Urban stations do extremely well in the ratings, but that doesn't always translate into an equivalent revenue share.
How are the stations you consult dealing with their digital platforms? Is iHeartRadio the best choice for them?
iHeart has become pretty significant; it's certainly something for stations to consider. I have stations on iHeart, while I also have others go the route of developing their own digital platforms. It depends on how much time, energy and funds they can invest into them.
Considering the way the business is, can you afford to project the business ahead five or 10 years, or is the business so current these days that you can't look ahead more than a year?
I think you can forecast five years down the line, but I agree with you: Today, we're in such an immediate business, you have to focus quarter-to-quarter ... and in PPM markets, month to month. To be honest, we get weeklies and we go over them Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. We're living in an environment where we can make adjustments day-to-day.
How do you envision your career in the future? Can you see a day when you'd want to "hang them up," so to speak?
I enjoy the day-to-day of working with different stations, so I don't really see myself retiring. Not when I see guys like Sumner Redstone, who's over 90, and Rupert Murdoch, who's in his 80s, still working. I think I would get bored just sitting around and relaxing.