May 4, 2010
Few people in radio can rival the experience -- and the wisdom gained from that experience -- of Bill Figenshu. His 34 years in the business includes holding influential positions such as SVP of CBS/Infinity, SVP of Chancellor Media, President of Viacom Radio and Regional President of Citadel. Currently he runs his own consultancy, FigMedia1, and is President of Operations for Peak Broadcasting a "new generation" radio broadcaster that super-serves local, growing communities throughout the western U.S, starting with Fresno and Boise.
Here, Fig expounds on the radically different paradigm radio finds itself in ...and the constants that are needed to succeed in this new competitive landscape.
After holding executive positions at Viacom, CBS, Infinity and Citadel, just to name a few, what made you decide to work at a small radio group like Peak?
It's more the people and talent and not the company size. I work with someone I like and respect in (Peak CEO) Todd Lawley. We had worked together at Citadel and became fast friends and teammates. I have had offers to return to large, major-market radio companies but passed. I love my independence and diverse client base and have been fortunate to make a successful business of it.
Do you oversee and operate radio stations today at Peak in the same basic way you did with stations at CBS and Citadel, or have the times changed so dramatically that you have to take a radically different approach?
The times have completely changed the way a company and its radio stations are run. If you headed up a station 10 years ago and left the business then came back today, you'd barely recognize radio. A lot more people are doing more with less. Obviously, technology has had lot to do with it, but there's another side to it ... and not all of it is good. Before, the average PD would spend anywhere from 40-60 hours a week working to make just one station as good as it can be. Now that same PD is working on three to four stations.
I know a PD of a major radio group who's the PD of the Talk station, the Marketing Director and Production Director for the entire market cluster, does afternoon drive on one station and weekends on another.
It's simple math; unless that PD and GM have the ability be awake and in top form 24/7, something is going to suffer. The reality is that you can't have all your stations be #1, so you play the averages.
This "multitasking" came at the exact same time as changes in technology, the fall of the economy and these regulatory consolidation issues, so what you had basically was the perfect storm. And by the way, no matter what anyone says, those "good old days" of radio are not coming back. The days of one GM, PD and one sales manager for each station in a market cluster are about gone forever. We have to make today the "good old days" using different skills and technology.
Obviously, programming, marketing and promotions are all important, but when one is overseeing everything for multiple stations at once ... and there's only so much time in the day ...how do you prioritize?
The priority for anybody is what comes out of speakers. Some perform better at that than others. I always felt (for example) that I did better with branding and positioning; I've never been much of a rotations freak so I had talent in the building to compensate for my weaknesses. Nowadays, you really don't have a choice; you have to be good at a lot of things and manage time.
My advice is that PDs have to be versatile. You almost have to be a "jack of all trades" except that you have to learn to be efficient and creative at as many ways as possible. Being really good at just one format or skill won't serve a programmer well in a career span of 20 to 30 years.
The bottom line is that you have to be good broadcaster first to make sure what comes out of the speakers, or on the website, is as best as it can be, while at the same time do your best to put quality in the way you present yourself to management, staff, advertisers and listeners. All of those qualities matter today.
Here's another thing to consider: I run into so many people who are so good at branding their radio stations ... but are not good at branding themselves. Like it or not, you are a brand and people have perceptions of you throughout your career. Your name and skills are all you have. That's why it's important to treat your name as a brand. What do you want to be known for?
There's been a debate of sorts among Power Player interviewees. Consultants such as Gordon Borrell stress the importance of investing more time and money in radio station websites to generate more revenue, while radio group heads are reluctant to do so because they don't believe the income is worth the time and money. Where do you stand on this?
I would have to agree with corporate in that there is only so much capital to invest beyond your core business. Building your brand over the years is important ... and your website is an integral part of your brand. So it does come down to how much you invest and how soon.
Is it important to have a very robust website that's sticky and can do all these techie things? It's absolutely important. But there's only so much time and money - and you simply can't spend an unlimited amount on a website because you think it'll pay off someday vs. making payroll. Remember, this is an expense we didn't have 20 years ago.
Making money on a website is like teenage sex. Everyone is talking about it, but not everyone is actually doing it. Currently, the Net revenue piece of our pie represents single digits. Should it be higher? Yes! Will it be more? Of course. But keep in mind, as important as it is to build a web future, our analog product is still heard in 100% of the homes, cars, and computers (if streaming) throughout America. We also have the potential to reach 100% of the cell phones and we should as soon as possible. But I would rather spend money on content first, get it right, and then work on distribution.
Your website, no matter how good it is, won't make much money if you have a bad sounding radio station.
Speaking of investing your time and money, how much of that should be devoted to HD Radio?
I've been on the record on this for a long time. HD has a couple of problems associated with it. Try this. Ask most owners, GMs, PDs and station staffers if they actually own an HD radio in their cars or homes that they themselves bought. I'll bet there wouldn't be many who say they were regular HD users ... and we work with it!
I bought an HD radio and installed it in my car ... and I have one in my home, so I had a fair amount of time to listen to it in my market. I get all the New York and Philadelphia stations, as well as out-of-town stations in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. Yet I can't hear the stations. Why? There's not enough power. If you can't hear it consistently, you can't listen. I applaud the FCC for addressing it; let's see if it works.
HD radio needs a completely different thought process. You can't create more radio stations that sound much like AM and FM stations. Putting on a Classic Country side channel when you have a mainstream Country on the main FM won't generate any more listeners. We don't have enough listening to our terrestrial stations as it is. Why put more niche music stations on the air?
There are a lot of format opportunities that have to yet be exploited. How about a HD channel that does traffic and weather 24/7? What about a "books on tape" channel? One devoted to local real estate? HD permits us to do micro-formats that appeal to specific interests. High school sports, computers dining, financial, you get the idea. These kind of channels are completely different to what's being heard on the AM and FM, which can bring new listeners and advertisers to the band.
It takes time, commitment and money. I don't see it changing until the economy improves substantially. Plus, the current staff has no time to do it well. Most are too busy trying to keep the main channels sounding good, the website looking great, and the reduced staff being productive.
But wasn't one of the marketing pitches for HD was that it offers better sound quality for its music stations?
In all of my years of broadcasting -- and in the research I do as recent as last quarter -- I have never heard someone complain about the sound quality of a well-processed, full-signal FM station. I will say that HD on AM sounds very good, but again, it's not the quality of sound that will get people to listen to HD. It's the content ... period!
Another perception is that PPM has created a second style of programming that different than the programming for a diary. Would you like to see the PPM in the markets Peak stations are in - Fresno and Boise?
I am all for PPM if the sample is right.
Some pundits assert that PPM is causing more formats to change, clocks to change and programming to change to more music and less jock talk. Is all this warranted or do you feel some people are overreacting?
It's hard to say they're overreacting. Successful stations make adjustments all the time, while others overreact to anything. I've seen overreacting to diary wobbles, too. A station that doesn't do well with one methodology will not do better with another. Of course, there are exceptions, but I can find you exceptions to just about everything. If you show me 10 different places where the same thing is happening, it's probably valid. Stations and careers are built over time, not monthly or weekly trends.
Are you at all concerned that the PPM could point to less use -and development of -- talented personalities?
No. A great personality, no matter what, will always have an advantage over stations that don't have them. Advertisers like people to talk about their products. Personalities who understand marketing, who are part of the community and who put on creative, compelling shows are still in demand. Believe me; if stations thought they could just segue records and win, we would all be doing it. A local personality with equal ratings to an all-music, no-people station will always win the revenue race.
What's your take on the growing battle between those who are opting for syndicated and nationalized talent vs. those who still believe "live and local" wins?
Just being local doesn't mean you automatically win. You've got to be good at being local. And the same goes for syndication. Syndication doesn't automatically win; good syndication can win. The debate about local vs. syndication all depends on the talent. We have the #1 station in Fresno not solely because we're local, but because we're good at what we do; and it's the same in Boise. We are proud of our local talent in Boise and Fresno and support them because they are good, not just local.
After accomplishing so much in radio already, where do you see your personal career going?
I'm in content development and distribution business, not just the radio business. My career has migrated to other platforms because I like the challenge of creating great content no matter the delivery system. I am fortunate to be associated with wonderful, quality clients. Norman Goldman is an example. I work hard get him in front of the people no matter where they are. He is very smart, works his butt off, and puts on a great show every single day. My job is to develop him as a brand, personality, and successful business on air, on line, and on every cell phone in this country. Through our alliance with Compass Media we have developed Norm into one of the fastest growing talk shows in America.
Any station today worth its salt has to think beyond the traditional band. Air talent can't just have a "great face for radio" anymore. You have to be concerned about how you look online as well as on air to be successful. Just because you have the strongest AM/FM signal doesn't guarantee success unless you have great talent creating strong content to go with it. Whether it's Norm Goldman, Peak Broadcasting or my proprietary clients, my job is to take them where the people are and monetize the results. Today, consumers are in charge and everywhere they want to be. I want FigMedia1 clients to be where the people are.