10 Questions with ... Keith Cunningham
June 21, 2016
1) What led you to a career in radio? Was there a defining moment that made you realize "this is it?"
I was in a (not great, but a fun and time-of-my-life) Sunset Strip band that was doing quite well at the end of the '80s. We were headlining the clubs, had a Euro-distribution deal, and then it all fell apart for many of the typical rock & roll reasons that were outside of my control. Soon thereafter, thanks to some relationships and my musical background, I landed in radio in Denver (where I grew up) and after a year or two, that's when I knew, "This is it, I'll be doing radio for a long time."
2) Give us a brief history of your radio career as a programmer and consultant up to now.
Outside of sales and engineering, I've held just about every radio position possible, from street-teamer all the way up to VP. And while Rock formats and talent development are my sweet spots, I've touched most formats and worked with 100+ brands in one way or another, as a programmer, Brand Manager/Corp Programmer, consultant or talent coach.
Working for Jacobs Media for seven years was a pivotal part of my career, having the good fortune to work with the biggest rock brands and morning shows in the U.S. and Canada (including KLOS years ago). In that seven-year stretch with Jacobs, I learned how to see around corners, saw countless research studies, moderated hundreds of focus groups and amassed more 'radio war' experience than one could imagine. I can't thank Fred and Paul Jacobs enough for letting me go what is the equivalent of Harvard Radio College.
3) Congrats on your position as PD of KLOS. I know it's been a little over a year in this chair, but this has got to be a dream job of yours. How does it feel to be programming one of the most iconic Rock stations in America?
It's a bucket list job for sure, and trust me when I say the iconic nature and heritage of this brand is not lost on me or anyone on the staff. We all realize KLOS is much bigger than any of us, and we're very fortunate to be able to work at such a legendary institution. Not a day goes by where we aren't somehow reminded of the KLOS legacy, whether it's huge stars like Dave Grohl or Jack Black coming into the studio and saying how awesome it is to be inside the hallowed walls of KLOS, being on the streets and having under-30s ask for a bumper sticker or T-shirt because they are collectors' items in Southern California, or a simple call from a listener who has been with the brand for decades. That said, this feels like my hometown station, having lived most of my adult life in Southern California, so I feel 'at home' and know that as the PD, me and my staff have an obligation to the listeners, advertisers and everyone who has ever worked here since 1969, to keep the brand relevant and on top. In other words, it's not about "us;" we're all replaceable. What we do is about the brand and listeners.
4) Most of the industry just gets to see the 6+ or 12+ vanity numbers that never reflect what's going on in the key demos, but just over a year ago, KLOS was teetering near 18th with males, yet going back to Q4 and the past seven months or so, KLOS has risen to see #1 many times in prime (M-F 6a-7p) and full week in the key male demos, which is going unnoticed as one of the biggest Rock radio stories of the past decade. To what do you attribute such an incredible turnaround in this battle for L.A. Rock listeners?
There's no simple answer to that question but, for starters, we have a phenomenal team both on and off the air. Our on-air team is full of all-stars, "The Heidi & Frank Show;" the Godfather of Rock & Roll, Bob Coburn; Steve Jones; Gary Moore; and Melissa Maxx could start on any team, and so can all of our weekend warriors.
Secondly, KLOS is a great brand with amazing bones. When the chips are down, this market still loves and appreciates KLOS and wants it to do well. Even the advertisers and agencies cheer for KLOS to win; we hear it from them constantly, as they know a healthy KLOS -- with our signal, heritage and talent -- means good things for them.
Not all heritage brands share that fortune, but KLOS is a Southern California institution and I knew when I got the gig the turnaround could happen, but it would take some bold moves and time. It's no secret KLOS was in dire straits and coming off some tough times after the loss of Mark and Brian and other talent defections; music, values and vision changes; and an obsessed, copycat station across the street that called KLOS out every hour; but the cume was always there -- they just weren't listening as much and weren't as passionate about KLOS as they once were. So, I refocused the vision with the staff, reset the music, repositioned the brand and set it apart from the rest, adjusted the stationality and attitude, put a clear focus on listener benefit, made some key talent moves, and KLOS immediately started bouncing back and we started seeing key indicators of the turnaround as early as last Summer. But while we're having some ratings success, there's a lot more hard work to do. We are by no means getting comfortable and even though we're winning most of our key battles, we will remain focused on our ultimate goals -- we're nowhere near done.
5) Years ago, besides your role as a music consultant for Jacobs Media, you also specialized in working with morning shows. How would you assess the morning shows in the talent-rich L.A. market?
Mornings are great for listeners in Southern California, as there are so many talented morning shows to choose from. There are great shows feeding every format and niche. Just on the Rock end alone there's "The Heidi & Frank Show" (KLOS), which are the likely heirs to the L.A. Rock crown with their very funny, conversational, real and raw show that has one of the most loyal audiences I've ever seen; then you have the star-studded and sure to be Radio Hall of Fame inductees, Kevin & Bean; "The Woody Show" is starting to make their mark here with their irreverent, self-deprecating tone; Mark Thompson is winding down a long and successful career and taking his final So Cal lap at KSWD, albeit from his lake home in North Carolina; and if you're looking for music, JACK and KRTH have you covered.
Drifting outside of Rock brings more great shows up and down the FM and AM dial, from Seacrest (KIIS) and Valentine (KBIG), to Big Boy (Real 92.3) and Cruz (Power 106), Ellen K (KOST), McIntyre (KABC), Handle (KFI), and then pivot over to Spanish and Sports and you'll find more solid shows. Mornings is a relationship business and all the shows here are also competing with BIG HOLLYWOOD, so standing out in Southern California is the ultimate radio challenge. Say what you will about the shows above, they've all found ways to create success in the most competitive market in the country, so I tip my hat to all of them.
6) You also recently brought back Steve Jones and "Jonesy's Jukebox" to weekdays (noon to 2p) on KLOS. How has the response to his hiring gone over with listeners?
My Market Manager, Dawn Girocco and I spent a lot of time talking about this early last Fall. She worked with Steve at Indie 103.1 and knew what the show could do with advertisers, but we also knew the KLOS brand and audience is a different beast and proposition altogether. While not resting on our laurels, we saw the opportunity and plotted out how to best go about such a bold move in an already successful daypart. I decided to put the show on Fridays through the Fall to see how it would do and those 10 shows performed on-par or better than usual, so we had proof of concept and then launched it as a daily show in early January.
Looking back, everyone thought we were bat sh!t crazy and I don't blame them, but anytime you can put a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer who is still relevant, with a big personality on your station, DO IT! Steve's ratings are great, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive, but it's so much more than that. He has brought a new swagger and level of credibility to the brand. For a station that is evolving, Steve has been the perfect bridge: our older audience grew up with Steve and knows his music and rebellious tendencies, and the younger demos think he's really cool. And strategically speaking, book-ending middays with the legendary Bob Coburn and Steve Jones gives us the ultimate power block of Rock and Roll royalty every day. It also doesn't hurt that Steve's friends are rock stars, TV loves him, Converse released a limited edition line of Sex Pistols shoes, he has a book coming out soon, and advertisers have lined up wanting to be associated with the show. Steve is a pleasure to work with - down to earth, big hearted, totally transparent, willing to do whatever is needed, he shows up early and he's great with his co-workers and advertisers.
I'd like to add one more note about putting "Jonesy's Jukebox" on KLOS: Radio has reached the PPM and Appointment Listening tipping point, where if brands continue to sit in the corner, scared to death and playing every bet safe, overall passion, Occasions and ATE will jump right out the window for other mediums daring to be different with music, information and entertainment. Steve's show is totally unconventional, it's peer-to-peer and he has a way of getting his friends and guests to really open up and be comfortable. And while the show sometimes brings magical train wrecks, that's the charm and why people love it - it's NOT the same ol', predictable radio they can get everywhere else. For a medium that is starving for true listening appointments and exclusive content, we need more shows like his.
7) Now let's talk about the music on KLOS. Since you've taken over as PD, the station is rocking a lot more in the overall tempo and texture, plus you've added more titles from the '90s to the mix as well as some occasional new music titles. By the looks of the station's recent PPM ratings success in Adult Men, how much have these music adjustments helped?
Music is what we do most of the day, so the library changes are a major reason for where we are. I have evolved KLOS into being a Rock station that plays some Classic Rock, from being a Classic Rocker that played some Rock, and there's a BIG difference between the two. The transition has been methodical and natural, not disruptive. We have a very sincere, well-thought-out, audience-based strategy with music and everything we do, and that means we will not be boxed into an industry or format corner and we will do radio the KLOS, Southern California way with our listeners and talent in the driver's seat.
8) In addition to "Jonesy's Jukebox," you've put some other specialty shows on KLOS. Tell me about them.
Like a lot of heritage brands, KLOS reached that point in time where some evolution was necessary, and in addition to the other changes we've made, I did put on a few specialty shows that are passion-based, touch points to help the brand naturally expand its reach into spaces we weren't really touching. We brought in Full Metal Jackie to do a customized Hard Rock & Metal show for KLOS called "Whiplash;" in a similar but different vein, we created a show on Saturday nights called "Horns Up!," which is like if KLOS, the Sunset Strip and KNAC all clashed together, and it's hosted by our own Stew Herrera who worked at KNAC back in the day; and then we resurrected a popular local show, "Check One ... Two," hosted by Mr. Shovel. All three, along with the other changes have played a key role in redefining KLOS as The Rock of Southern California.
9) I recently caught a few of the 'PSA' videos the station did with Jack Black, Lenny Kravitz and Taylor Hawkins, how did those come about?
We were looking for ways to market both "Jonesy's Jukebox" and our evolved music recipe, and what better way to do so than when you have guys like that who are willing to be ambassadors. It was the perfect storm for us -- those guys genuinely love what's happening at KLOS and they were happy to hop on camera for a few seconds for their friend Steve Jones.
10) Finally, heritage radio stations many times play it safe with music and programming and can become quite predictable. During your tenure at KLOS, the station has not rested on its iconic history. What would you tell other programmers in similar situations?
For Radio stations, heritage only means something if you continue to be relevant today, so resting on history is a losing proposition every day of the week. In the larger Rock sense, whether it's Classic, Mainstream or Alternative, the days of standing out and winning by doing '90s-style radio and playing the same 325 records over and over are ... well ... over. If that's your strategy - you are wallpaper and quickly becoming irrelevant. These days it's about getting back to the basics of what made Rock great in the first place. Take smart risks often and that's how you'll build passion and start standing out; be bold, authentic, aggressive and confident in everything you do; don't chest pound and tell the audience how great you are; wear your flaws and mistakes on your sleeve; don't assume the audience 'needs' you because they don't, we must work hard and earn their time; worry more about yourself than your competition; always ask the listeners what they want, it's about them, not us; and if you're a programmer reacting to weeklies or are paranoid about losing a meter, you've already lost the battle. Meters will come and go and you can't control that, but building true brands that people love can last forever.