March 1, 2016
Even in a heavily syndicated and voicetracked world, with a bevy of national Internet radio stations and streaming services, the concept of being "live and local" still means something - something significant - at Greater Media. SVP/Program Development Buzz Knight's main job is to help Greater Media stations develop and optimize its local air personalities to separate itself from the growing number of audio competitors. Here's how he does it...
You've worked for stations owned by CBS Radio, Saga and Great American before joining Greater Media. Was there a business culture difference between radio groups and if so, what makes Greater Media unique?
I've been fortunate to work for some amazing companies; they've all had different cultures, providing me with the opportunity to learn from a lot of really smart people. From the very beginning, at WRKI/Fairfield County, CT, through Great American, Saga, CBS Radio and Greater Media ... all of these companies were extremely brand-centric. Working for Greater Media, we really focus on our brands; they have always been a real important hallmark of the company as we celebrate our 60th anniversary. We try to maintain the same brand focus this company was founded upon, to keep the legacy alive for the Bordes family.
Greater Media is unique in that we trust each local market to carve out its own identity, while we provide support and collaboration in the process. Peter Smyth's leadership allows stations to have their own individual special sauce that enables workplaces in Philadelphia and Detroit to be cited for having the best workplaces in each market. Our corporate culture works really hard to keep employees engaged with their listeners, so they can appreciate the strong internal culture that leads to great products and brands.
How has the keys to successful radio programming changed over the years, or are the fundamentals to successful radio programming essentially unchanged?
The keys to successful programming have changed very little. We still have to execute our brand through quality content with entertainment value that moves the audience. That's vital to what we do; creating content that touches the marketplace is just as special today as it was when we started. What has evolved over time is the audience's shorter attention span. That certainly impacts how to communicate our message to the audience. Our talent needs to know how to best communicate their message; they have to become a master in the art of teasing. They have to know how to engage through all channels of distribution ... especially social media.
Having our talent on the front lines, meeting the audience one-on-one, is more important than ever. They are out campaigning for the listener vote.
Greater Media has a lot of what used to be known as "heritage" stations. Does that designation carry any weight anymore? If it does, how do you use it?
The idea of a heritage station can obviously be a blessing to listeners and advertisers who respect the notion of heritage, but at the same time, they always want to know what we've done for them lately. Today, I'm proud these stations are making great radio because they don't take their heritage for granted. All of our great legacy brands continue to evolve to meet their audiences' needs; that's an important part of the process.
Our Rock stations such as WMMR, WRIF, WDHA and WRAT have amazing connections with their local markets. WMJX (Magic) in Boston has been an AC brand for over 30 years; it has gone through a beautiful evolution to keep up with the times. The same is true of our Magic brand in New Brunswick, NJ.
WROR is the Classic Hits brand in the Boston market led by Loren and Wally in the morning and it has evolved and reinvented, while WBT/Charlotte is over 90 years old. The key is to never take our heritage for granted; every one of our brands works toward carving out a positive place in the minds of our listeners and advertisers.
What kind of mindset do you try to install all of Greater Media's programmers?
We're blessed to have a great stable of programming minds and high-quality people. It's a dream having such people with high integrity who work so passionately at their craft. My job is to be a collaborative resource to help them make their teams more effective. I'm here to instill a reality-check mindset that encourages our people to think big and be creative, to reinforce the importance of maximizing the user experience. Everything starts with brand excellence and we all understand that; we emphasize the importance of coaching our team on the seismic shift to digital and how that we can use that to improve the user experience.
We also want them to be open-minded to innovation and not be afraid to fail; we try to get them talking about what they're curious about and what's going on with the values of their audiences. Finally, we want them to have a high degree of passion about what they do. Every day we're in show business, and we need to show our passion about it and be excited about what we're doing.
Our teams walk that walk!
How much "localism" rope do you give your programmers in terms of music programming, production, etc.?
I would say it's the lifeblood of what we do and how we serve our markets. The responsibility we have as a license holder in each community is what separates us from other forms of audio delivery. We're so proud to represent each local market on multiple platforms. We know how to utilize the "local rope" through our experience in each market. When Hurricane Sandy hit, WRAT/Monmouth-Ocean City, NJ knew how to use both its on-air signal and its digital platform to expand a lifeline to the community, which won the station awards. When the Boston Marathon bombing hit, our stations used instant localism to update and inform audiences. We're also there during happier times, celebrating local team championships and such.
When Detroit native Glenn Frey died, WCSX's response was not just a music tribute; they enlisted their audience to name a street after him to keep his memory alive. Localism continues to be very important; it goes back to what said I earlier about Peter Smyth, who wants every individual station to carve its own unique identity.
You have a lot of popular local personalities. Do you plan on using them in other markets or dayparts?
We're fortunate to continue to invest in successful local talent, such as Ramiro, who we recently hired at Hot 96.9/Boston, and Anthony Gargano some months ago in mornings at the Fanatic in Philly. We've just announced hiring Jeff Miles for mornings at WKLB, our Country station in Boston, along with Renee Castle for nights. The great talent in each market makes us successful, yet we have no immediate plans to utilize the talent across multiple markets.
Having said that, if there are places in our markets that would have an interest in our personalities elsewhere, we would pursue that discussion internally.
In your eyes, what's the best way to compete against big-name syndicated or voicetracked personalities?
Simple -- always be great, be fresh and have compelling content about the local community. We set precedents; when Preston & Steve camp out for hunger in Philadelphia, it's impossible not to believe in the power of live and local. This truly shows the power of personalities and localism.
When you sit in with a WMMR listener focus group and ask them what they think about Pierre Robert, our midday host ... it's staggering what an impact he makes. Whenever we can be living and breathing entities, we have a better chance at standing out.
How has social media impacted your views on programming strategy?
It has become a hot priority when comes to daily programming tactics. The strategy is to be everywhere the potential audience is. We monitor our work to maximize social engagement on all levels. That's the one change in our strategy over the past few years ... how social media came into the discussion. Now it's part of everything we talk about. Our digital platforms and how we use them to engage our listeners is critical today.
You're also heavily involved with Nielsen in several initiatives. What are they?
I'm fortunate to be involved in three Nielsen-related initiatives. I'm part of the Nielsen Advisory Council, and a byproduct of that is a policy guidelines committee. There's also a technical subcommittee. I also do some audience measurement work with a committee called COLRAM (which is the NAB's Committee on Local Audience Radio measurement), and a Nielsen-funded initiative called The Council for Research Excellence (CRE) where I chair an audio committee.
I'm fascinated by audience measurement. Obviously, it's an important part of my job and an important part of this industry. I've spent a lot of time in the process of audience measurement, with a goal of trying to be a good and honest collaborator with other broadcasters on the challenges we are facing in generating total measurement and optimizing encoding. I've been involved with my CRE work, piloting a combined radio and TV, small and medium-market project; I'm grateful to have a part in that process. I'd much rather have a seat at the table to learn more about it and be helpful in improving it.
With the connected car in the offing, some observers tell radio that it should put more of its programming energy into the digital side in terms of websites, podcasts and mobile availability. Agree?
Completely agree. The world's changing faster than ever. I was fortunate to attend the Consumer Electronics Show and one reason I really love going there is that it sharpens my sense of what's going on around audio consumption and the way we think about it - especially in terms of our future within the dashboard, which is obviously of long-term importance. The battle for the dashboard has raised the stakes regarding the importance of compelling personalities. If we're going to be top-of-mind in the audience's in-car choices, having engaged personalities will be a vital component to our success.
We do have to take the concept of a connected car more seriously. We're proud to take it seriously at Greater Media. Our brand-centric approach will help us in the battle of the dashboard. That's why protecting and investing in our brands is the most important starting point, and from that our goal is to develop more quality content and further the consumers' ease of use to access it.
Speaking of "ease of use," what's your take on NextRadio, and do you think you should alter your programming for mobile listeners?
In general, when it comes to the user experience on the different platforms, we try to take an open-minded approach to innovation. That's a critical path to success. In our changing world, we have to take steps to embrace innovation, and NextRadio and HD are great examples of that. Greater Media continues be supportive of those initiatives, which makes us more available to the consumer. As the number of platforms that reach the consumer continue to grow, it's critical for your brands to be available on all of them.
Do you consider Pandora, Apple Music, Spotify and even YouTube as competitors of some sort? If so, what's the best way to compete against them?
There has never been a more robust time for those in the audio business, when you consider the audio battle in all its forms as a competition for ears. Pandora, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube ... the battle for personal choice raises the stakes for our own brands. I love what Edison just said in its Share of Ears study when they used the term "FOMO" ... for "fear of missing out." It's a great line that illustrates that battleground, which is another reason why we're investing in great personalities in every one of our clusters. We treat this as a point of difference - especially in morning drive, where we have John DeBella at WMGK, Preston & Steve at WMMR, and Dave & Chuck the Freak at WRIF. They separate themselves from other choices because no one can "out-localize" them. That's the best way to compete and highlight our service to the community -- by highlighting our personality difference and emphasizing the importance of local content and engagement.
Describe your outlook for the future, not just for Greater Media but for radio in general.
I basically started this year at the CES for purposes of being appropriately frightened by what's happening. I also went there to be inspired and motivated, and I tried to carry that back to our stations. What you see in the future is obviously where mobility is a greater part of everybody's life and connectivity is a greater part of everybody's life. The car companies out there no longer thinking of themselves as car makers, but as manufacturers of mobile technology. We need to always be honest with ourselves and look at what's happening in terms of our future, as well as be appropriately scared. Then when were able to digest all that, let it inspire us and motivate us to not be afraid to innovate.
I'm privileged and honored to work for Peter Smyth at Greater Media. I see great days ahead. The work doesn't get easier, but it's still fulfilling to adapt and improve in a period of chaos and change. If we keep our ears to the ground and understand audience behavior and metrics, and treat our brands well, we can strengthen our brand with entertainment and engagement, no matter what the platform. If we continue to think with that mindset, we can certainly evolve and thrive.