10 Questions with ... Keith Cunningham
October 9, 2012
1) What was your first job in radio? Early influences?
I (thankfully) started at the very bottom as a promotions assistant. I hung banners, put up inflatables, guerilla-marketed concerts, washed and gassed-up the van, worked every holiday, learned how sales works, met every client I could, did overnight shifts, etc. There were a few people early-on in my career that believed in me, showed me the way, and taught me that getting your hands dirty and learning every aspect of the business is how to grow. Those early influencers were Ann Millison, Haz Montana, Greg Cassidy, Mike O'Connor, Bob Richards, Scott Arbough, Gary Wall, Gayle Shaw and Gene Romano and Tom Owens from afar. Even when they didn't know they were giving me advice, I took all of it and never looked back.
2) What led you to a career in radio? Was there a defining moment that made you realize "this is it"?
Music and entertainment have always been in my blood. As a punk kid, I gave up a sure career as a pro tennis player to be the lead guitar player in a hair band. We ended up getting a crappy European record deal, but we did a lot of overseas radio interviews and got some decent airplay for about five minutes. Through those experiences, I became fascinated with the radio and record industries and knew that if becoming the next Slash didn't work out, Radio or Records would be where I'd look next.
3) How long have you been at Jacobs Media and what are your primary responsibilities?
I'm in my sixth year with Jacobs Media. We have a very dynamic team and collaborate on projects when needed, but Fred and Paul Jacobs have created what they call their X-Men. All of us run the gamut of Rock formats, but we each have our own areas of special expertise or emphasis. For me, it's talent development. While I spend a lot of time with Alternative and Active Rock clients, a big chunk of my time is with morning shows and talent from various formats.
4) Since you work with so many solid morning shows across the country, what are three of the ingredients that make a morning show great?
The easy answer here starts with compelling content. However, to get to that point, there are three key areas that enable a show to be entertaining.
- Personalities who think "audience first," and are also fearless, interesting, relatable, transparent, aware, and very smart with a winning vision
- Strong and smart prep habits
- Unique content treatment
While those three may sound basic, mastering them isn't - and that's where all ratings bets are settled. Further, those three ingredients work in tandem; they're not magic bullets individually. There are a lot of great personalities who fail because they wing it and have predictable treatment. Conversely, there are a lot of mid-pack shows with great treatment, but lackluster personalities. To truly standout and succeed for a long time, mastering all three points is required.
5) Describe a typical morning show meeting/aircheck session ... a) what is the process? b) keeping strong egos in mind, how do you tell a high-profile morning show that they need work?
For starters, to really work well with a show, we must understand the psychology of talent. There isn't an entertainer in the world that doesn't have some natural degree of insecurity. This comes from putting their heart and soul on the line every day in an attempt to entertain and inform. Such a daily grind naturally takes its toll on the human psyche. For radio talent, it can get even worse because they can't see the audience reaction; they're often blind to how their content is working or being received. A comedian or musician can see faces in the crowd; an actor gets immediate feedback from the director; an athlete has fans or a coach in his ear 24/7. Radio DJs need a consistent diet of positive and constructive feedback -- and it needs to come from a completely honest and objective source, rather than chronic complainers or groupies on the request line or in social media. I say this because understanding the psychology of talent on a human level, and knowing how to navigate those waters, is just as important as being able to coach-up content execution.
When I sit down with talent, I do my best to avoid spending time on little things that don't add up to big things. No one wants to waste time, and at the heart of every aircheck session is an honest assessment of the pure entertainment value of the show. It's either entertaining or not, and we go from there.
Much more often than not, rapid improvement of a show will come from working on the three key ingredients listed above. But it's equally important to understand that before you can tell a show they need work, you must earn their respect and trust. Otherwise even the best of advice can end up out the window.
I do not carry a blueprint with me -- every personality and show must be uniquely coached based on their strengths, weaknesses, core personalities and competitive situation. But I'm very tough with clients; they deserve it. I expect shows I work with to have a clear vision and strive to be the very best.
6) You continue to work with some of the best Active Rock and Alternative stations in the country. What is your take on these two formats and why are they sharing less music now than five years ago?
While there will always be some sharing, the newer music has drifted much further apart, which is great news for both formats. There's a world of difference between Alex Clare and Five Finger Death Punch, and it's (thankfully) creating more format differentiation and clearer choices for listeners. Both formats have also entered a time when the audience -- especially those under 35 -- wants their own generation of music, not sound-alikes from the past or what their older brothers or parents grew up with.
While it's too much to get into here, there has been a lot of talk lately about the health of the Rock formats. Take it from someone who lives and breathes the formats - while Alternative is on fire, all the Rock formats are very healthy and there are many different, viable strategies to take, whether on the older or younger, harder or softer end of the spectrums.
7) Jacobs Media is at the forefront of lots of cutting edge research on technology and how it's being used. What are some of the most significant findings you can share with us?
We have reams of fascinating data from our most recent project (Techsurvey8), but because I work with so many morning shows, the "First Occasion" finding in what is really resonating in my circles. The truth is, radio morning shows are not the first point of media contact with the majority of radio listeners. What this means is morning shows are not likely breaking news or the first to share the viral water cooler stories. The "First Occasion" finding also leads to what I work with clients on most -- having interesting personalities and well-honed perspectives, along with unique content treatment (especially with shared content). It's less about what a show is talking about, and more about how they're talking about it - and this is much more of an issue now than it was a decade ago when morning shows were the first point of media contact.
8) You also have a strong background in marketing. If you were programming a station today, where would you spend your marketing dollars? Would you use more traditional methods like billboards and TV or more social media?
While all three can work, there's no simple answer to this question. It really depends on the marketing message itself, the budget, overall goals, audience target and the state or health of the brand. Regardless of the medium(s) used, the key is hyper-targeting and a relatively personal or direct message. It's easy to waste money these days; we all know it's an over-communicated world and the average American is exposed to hundreds of marketing messages each day that they won't remember by the time they get home to watch "Sons of Anarchy." So, cutting through is less about a campaign's reach, and more about the message and targeting. I'd rather reach 10,000 very likely prospects than randomly aim at 100,000 less-targeted contenders.
9) What's one of the things a radio station can do tomorrow to begin setting itself up for a bright future?
Hire young. There isn't a programming team in the country, regardless of format, that couldn't benefit from having some teenagers in their music, strategy, promotions, social, digital and content meetings. These young minds can walk in with objective minds and tell the old-guard how digital can be done, what new music will be hot tomorrow, and what a brand needs to do socially and digitally.
10) Look into a crystal ball. Where do you see terrestrial, satellite and Internet radio in the next five years?
I'll remind people of what Jason Calacanis, a very successful guy in the online world, said at one our Jacobs Media Summit's a few years ago about radio's potential. Radio, as whole, has the reach, resources and talent to be even more powerful than it is today. But what I'll add to his theory is the challenge really boils down to two key things:
- Will radio find a way to create game-changing, digital revenue?
- How powerful will individual radio brands be in their own market?
The heart of this question, to me, is not about a company's stock price or whether there will be transmitters broadcasting music and personalities in five years. Radio will still probably reach 90+% of the population each week, but what really matters is how relevant and profitable the individual brands will be in their home market. In looking at it like that, Radio has all the potential, but there's work to do. There is room for some cost-effective, templetized or regionalized strategies, but there are only so many syndicatable stars to go around. And what musically or promotionally works in Boise may not always work in Boston -- and we all know there are multiple access-points to a format's best songs. On the back-end, spot rates for :30s and :60s aren't likely to skyrocket in the next five years, so digital revenue will be the tipping point.
The math is simple: Unless there's a mega-star on a frequency, which I believe is the real secret for true, profitable longevity and audience loyalty, hyper-localism and digital initiatives are going to become even more important. Radio's future can be very bright, but it will require innovation, evolution and digitalization on all fronts.
What do you do you like to do for fun when you're not in your "radio consultant" mode?
My wife and I have a one year-old baby girl named Presley, and she's the boss. So, as every parent understands, it's either party time with Presley or time for some sleep or football. Go Broncos.
Are you more of a TV or movie guy and what are some of your favorites of each?
Everyone in radio should be on "The Newsroom" bandwagon. While relatable to most in the industry, there are great lessons to learn about preparation, vision, content treatment and the phenomenal pressures of doing a broadcast on a large stage. If you missed it this season, there's always on-demand or DVDs.