February 15, 2011
While the radio business overall is slowly climbing out of a deep recessionary hole, one aspect of the business that has been intensely busy is the syndication market. More stations are opting for syndicated and network programming, be it for financial reasons or creative ones. The number of suppliers and the available syndicated product is also growing, creating intense competition for any opening. However, as Westwood One EVP/Affiliate Relations Dennis Green notes, getting product on a station is less than half the battle. Helping the station succeed with it is the ultimate goal. Here Green describes the syndication battlefield ...and how Westwood One is marshalling its forces to succeed.
How long have you been doing this for Westwood One?
I've held the EVP role since 2006; I've been with Westwood One for 13 years, starting as a rep. In the mid-'90s, I left for Bloomberg in New York, but I came back in 2000.
Over that time, the company certainly has had its ups and downs.
It's like Westwood One has had nine lives, but we've been very resilient. People have been trying to write us off for years, but we've launched more new product across all mediums -- entertainment programming, talk programming, sports programming - than anyone else. We'll continue to be more aggressive in the next 12 months ... and I'm confident our new programming will work.
Considering the willingness of radio groups to save money through syndication vs. the plethora of syndicators today, is it easier or harder to sell new product?
Great question. The best answer is not so much in getting clients interested, but in what our shows are going to do to break through once they get the opportunity. There's so much competition out there -- more than ever before - that we have to do things differently ... from being more aggressive in our marketing to cutting more localized liners. It's amazing how the little things can make a big difference. Or how doing not-so-good promos or not doing anything in social media can hurt you. As a syndicator we try to build as many different elements as we can, even though we can't operate the station ... especially for the stations that are automated. In those cases, it is tough to break through; our goal is to always try to figure out how we can.
Describe your current duties.
My role of overseeing affiliate sales can be broken down into four spokes of a wheel. There's News programming from CBS, CNN, CNBC; there's Sports programming such as Robert Wuhl and NFL play-by-play; Talk programming with hosts such as Dennis Miller and Doug Urbanski; and Entertainment programming from Billy Bush, Perez Hilton, the countdowns, Country music shows, MTV products, etc.
Are the stations more or less patient to see ratings improvements with your product?
That's interesting because we're probably harder on ourselves to see ratings success quicker because from a revenue standpoint, they want ROI quickly. There was a time when you had give a show two years to establish itself, which was so much different than TV, where some shows were yanked after three episodes.
For us on the station level, there's a bit more leash, if you will, although with PPM in bigger markets, that leash is tighter than it was on the diary. In markets that have just one book, you have to give a show at least a year because there's no other report card or way to evaluate shows.
Even so, our contracts reflect our willingness to give the station some leeway. If show isn't working, we can't force them to keep it on; they won't want to do any business with us if we did. We have lot of products we can pitch; we're confident in our ability to put something successful on if the original program doesn't work. We'll find another way to make things work for the client.
How fierce is the competition when you hear of a station flipping formats or dropping a rival syndicator's product?
Proverbially, it's like swimming with sharks. When a station flips formats, when show is dropped, or when a station changes frequencies by going from AM to FM, that's where our opportunities for growth are - and where our properties can be leveraged. For example, if a station that has an opening for product - and it has a sister Sports station that wants out NFL or NCAA "March Madness" coverage -- we can make a multi-station deal where our properties are placed on both stations at once. This is not a cram-down, but we do want prospective clients to look at the wealth of our products and find those that would make some sense for them. It's good business.
How important is offering new talent who has already established itself in another medium?
It does is break the ice. That's what happened with Dennis Miller, Bill O'Reilley and Billy Bush. This certainly has helped Robert Wuhl, too You'd be surprised at how many people where instantly intrigued with him as soon as we mentioned Arliss.
Yet at the end of they day, they still have to perform and be good at what they do ... day after day. We had Fred Thompson, who was on Law And Order and ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. We had him for two years, but he just didn't catch on with the affiliates - and we parted ways amicably.
On the flipside, we're breaking Doug Urbanski, who may not have the name cachet as Fred Thompson, but is very well known in the Talk radio work for all the times he subbed for Rush Limbaugh, Dennis Miller and many others. In his case, he has already proven that he can perform behind a mic.
Is the key to Talk radio success - especially in the political realm - on having the most polarizing personality and views?
Well, you've got to have something to say, with strong opinions, and be willing to take on challenges. That's why we're so high on Urbanski. He knows the format and knows what it takes to do a good show. Our job is to get his name out there and market him. When we help find an interested audience, it will give him the opportunity to really break through.
Could a Keith Olbermann succeed in political Talk?
I will tell you this -- Keith is an unbelievable talent. The problem is that he'd have to choose what kind of show he'd want to do --- Sports or Talk - and his chances for success in Sports is much greater than in Talk. As we all know, his politics is very much on the liberal side, which would make it difficult for him to get the mass distribution you need to succeed. It would be hard to walk into a station with a talent that management perceives to host a left-wing, liberal show.
It's not that his show couldn't succeed in specific situations; it's just that liberal Talk shows haven't tracked at the level of conservative political shows. I've been trying to figure out why that is for a long time - and it comes down to the difficulty liberal Talk has in reaching critical mass. Our research has shown that it hasn't been a player in that space.
There's no question he'd do well in the more urban markets - if the stations had strong signals. But look at where Liberal Talk is now in L.A., Chicago and New York. They're on weak signals compared to the conservative Talk stations. So not only is Liberal Talk challenged by not having a deep bench of star personalities, the ratings of Liberal Talk stations on the air now are eroded significantly by their signals. It's possible to rebuild those stations, but you'd have to spend millions in promotion and marketing - and no radio group has that kind of money to spend on their weak sisters nowadays.
How has the movement of AM Talk to FM impacted your business?
When FM Talk first came out, it was purely an entertainment format, going back to KLSX with Tom Leykis and Heidi, Frosty & Frank. Now management has discovered that if they put their AM Talk format on an FM signal, they can bring in a younger cume with more females. You're going to see more spoken word formats on the FM band; the phenomenon will continue to grow by leaps and bounds because more people are seeing the model work ... and they'll try to convert their audience to the FM. Even if their AM is on a blowtorch, as it was in Atlanta, when they went on the FM, they brought a bigger, different cume to the table, while still keeping their core demos from the AM. Remember, there's a whole group of listeners who never listen to anything on AM.
Judging by how often Arbitron uses it as examples of PPM's prowess, Sports broadcasts must be a golden goose these days.
Well it certainly is with NFL football, which has shown to be huge ratings grabber, be it on the FM dial and on PPM. Certain sports do better than others, but football has been huge for us - especially our NFL deal. Looking at the research, every year the numbers continue to go up. We get a lot of competition from stations that want us to move our NFL package to them.
A rival syndicator has just consummated a deal with the Dallas Cowboys for play-by-play broadcasts outside of the Dallas-Ft. Worth market. Is that something you see Westwood One doing?
I don't know if that's our model; we're the exclusive holder to key brands and the marquee sports properties -- Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, the playoffs and Super Bowl, so how can you top that? Still, you never say never when you do rights deals for specific teams.
In college football, for instance, you do purchase the rights directly from universities. Some people have tried to do packages with conferences, but we prefer finding the best games ... be it Texas-Oklahoma, Ohio State-Michigan, USC-Notre Dame, USC-Oregon ... and to do that we have to deal directly with the teams.
Outside of the NFL, what is your second most-valuable Sports product?
The NFL and NCAA's March Madness is our one-two punch. We just renewed the rights to March Madness, which is probably the single largest multi-game sporting event in the country. It's actually a month-long event - it's very heavy early in March and building up to the championship games in the first weekend in April. It's a nice way to come out of the Super Bowl. The first and second quarters bring in a lot of revenue, but overall we're more team-oriented than league-oriented.
What made you decide to do business with Rick Dees?
Working with Rick Dees was simple. He's an icon as well as a brand ... and what Westwood One can do more than anyone else is market brands across the board. There are very few products we offer that don't feature known entities. That's because both advertisers and stations want to be associated with the biggest and best brands ... from Loveline and our MTV properties to Country shows with Cody Allen. Although our Classic Rock show with Eddie Webb may not have that high-profile brand appeal, he brings a certain level excellence to the table that we eventually can build into a household brand.
Do you see a future where Westwood One will have Net radio affiliates?
It's tough. The biggest thing now is getting all the stations to make sure they're streaming our properties because we want to convert those streams into new revenue. We probably would like to integrate Net advertising with our on-air revenue streams. Online is the next big area to monetize.
However, could we ever do programming separately for online radio stations? We've talked about creating product that would be exclusive to the web, but as of now, you're limited in terms of audience. We have to be cautious; we want our initial digital efforts to be very vital going into the 21st century.
Beyond that, we have to make sure that we don't go away from our core business. We have very strong distribution of our properties through the radio medium. For now, all we want to do is take our brand and have radio extend it into digital streaming or video components. We embrace those areas of our growth; we can't afford to just ignore it.