August 16, 2016
The importance of "Localism" may not mean as much to the major radio groups these days, but it still means a lot to Cherry Creek Group PD Mark Elliott. Elliot initially was a Group PD for a few markets and a couple of radio groups, then formed his own consultancy before joining Cherry Creek as Group PD, where he oversees 54 stations in small markets. Here, he offers his insight into making small-market radio a success in an increasingly corporate and digital world.
You were a group PD for a couple other radio companies before leaving to form your own consultancy. Now you're back as a Group PD for Cherry Creek. What did you decide to return to that kind of role?
It's the nature of the business we're in. As Group PD overseeing several stations, the main focus is on programming. Consulting is a combination of business and programming. I enjoy the business side but I like focusing on programming more. This opportunity with Cherry Creek Radio, allows me to focus more on the programming side.
How has the radio industry changed during the years you had your own consultancy?
We're still paying for the sins of consolidation in many ways. Ownership overpaid for properties and are still faced with a challenging business climate brought on by the financial crisis. Most of the big companies have in-house consultants and didn't need or want to go outside. I had to focus on smaller markets plus I did a lot with Internet Radio, which is translating to things we're working on now. I did some consulting work for Cherry Creek radio off and on and when Bob Guerra retired, since I already knew the culture of the company and many of the players, it was a natural transition in becoming the Group PD.
Is this the largest group of stations you've overseen? How does handling so many stations impact how you do your job?
I have to rely on the people in their markets. I couldn't do the job without our in-market GMs, OMs, PDs ... and the entire teams locally. Communicating with them on a regular basis is paramount because they're more tied into their markets. It's always a team effort blending all of our experience together and moving our business forward. It's easier to do today because of technology. I can communicate with our markets through phone calls, video chat, text and e-mail. I'm virtually "down the hall" and they know they can contact me 24/7. The main thing is to keep the ball rolling and not let things get bogged down. Everyone does a really great job handling their own individual markets. It would be tough in my position with 54 stations if we didn't have great teams in each of our markets. My role is focusing on the big picture and tying all of our markets together.
Is being a group PD for Cherry Creek any different than your previous posts - and if so, how are they different?
What's different for me is we have 54 stations in six states. In my prior experience as a consultant I worked with 32 stations in three to four different groups. To a point, each company runs differently, but the bottom line - programming is programming. I'm more hands-on as a Group PD. Whereas a consultant makes recommendations, a Group PD is responsible for making decisions.
How has the role /duties of Group PD evolved over the years?
It's always changing. The great thing about our business is it pulls you along whether you like it or not. The key is to try and stay ahead of the curve as much as possible. To quote a speaker at a recent conference I attended, "Radio today is like attempting to change a flat tire on a moving automobile." That pretty much nails it....
Are the challenges any different ... and if so, how?
The challenges are different with every station. I had to learn as much as possible about each station to identify each market's specific needs and work with our OMs and PDs to assign who is responsible for achieving the goals set for each station. Then we constantly go back and revisit them -- and set new ones if needed. My goal is to get our stations to the point they can always come from the proactive position and not a reactive position. The way I operate is we have to consider the domino effect of every move we make. It's like playing a game of chess where you want to be three or four moves ahead of your opponent.
When it comes to utilizing social media, should it be Cherry Creek standard or should local stations set them up themselves?
We want each individual station to have its own identity. We've all seen radio groups that use the cookie-cutter approach for its websites. That's the way they do it and that's their business.
We approach it differently; we want our stations' websites and social media to be an extension of our brands, first and foremost. In fact, everything we do supports our local brand -- not just social media, but everything we play ... the music, commercials, imaging and how we engage our audience, as well as how we sell our brands to our clients. Now, creating a local-centric social media platform does take extra time and work but our staff believes doing that is as important as I do.
What's your take on the usage of voicetracking?
Voicetracking is a necessity. Certainly if done right, it sounds great but I've heard a lot of voicetracking that doesn't sound good because it's basically talent back and front-selling sets and that's just mailing it in. A station with that sort of voicetracking lacks stationality.
You have to approach it the same as you would as a live shift. In both cases, you work with talent constantly to synch the message in each show. Essentially you do the same critique of a voicetracking shift as if it's live.
The one mistake our business has made is taking for granted the 2% of the audience who participates with a radio station. We've focused on the 98% who don't -- forgetting the 2% who do participate are the heartbeat of a station. The 2% who participate with the station on-air helped entertain the 98% who don't. That 2% helped us position and differentiate our brands, too. Now the right kind of voicetracking and utilizing social media interplay can still create some positive perceptions, but it takes preparation just like a live show. However, it will never replace the vibe and energy a station generates from live talent interacting with an audience real time.
What's your take on station concerts? Is it possible for Cherry Creek to service is stations with a Jingle Ball-like lineup for their seasonal shows?
As you know, we're not reporting stations in our markets because we're mainly in small markets, so labels don't offer us the opportunities for artists like they do for iHeartMedia, for example. We don't have much luck in those conversations, but we certainly seek out the chance to create some concept selling opportunities to partner with clients to pull off a concert promotion the old fashioned way -- and if done right, it still works.
Even though your stations are still rated via the diary, are you aware of what stations are doing in PPM markets, and have you utilized some of their programming techniques to optimize ratings?
We can certainly program and learn a lot from stations in PPM markets, but the way we approach it is that it's still a top-of-mind awareness game. There is a danger of getting so wrapped up in the things you read about PPM in our markets that if you apply all of their methodology, we could get stung if we forget our main focus is being memorable, being top-of-mind and doing what we can to insure we are always top of mind with listeners should they get a diary. PPM hasn't changed that at all for us.
Considering all the time you spend on social media and your sales efforts, do you still spend as much time on your music and on-air talent?
The way I approach it is I want whatever we do to be done the right way. That means we have to be market-specific as it relates to local listeners and clients. Focusing on local is the main advantage we have over everyone else. We want morning shows to engage with their audience on the air and on the streets, to make our stations an extension of the market. That's why we work with our on-air talent constantly to develop the right habits.
Generally, are you a proponent of format flipping if a certain niche format has become popular and there isn't one in your market?
We happen to have a lot of heritage brands in our markets so we don't have a lot of that going on. We'd much rather improve on the brands we have. Of course, if we see an opportunity, we'll look at it, but for the most part we've been very fortunate. When you have a successful heritage brand in any market, good luck going up against it.
Finally, are you bullish on the future for Cherry Creek - and for radio in general?
Any good radio station is an extension of the market, and if the people who work for your station believe in what you're doing, you market yourself properly and treat clients fairly, you'll accomplish what you want financially. It's a matter of blocking out all the white noise around you so you can focus on what you want to accomplish. Stay focused on your goals and sure, you're going to have your ups and downs -- everybody does -- but the real challenge is to block out the white noise and stay focused on what you want to accomplish. All you need is good personnel who'll buy into that concept, and that's how we look at it.