October 10, 2014
A long time ago, I learned a valuable lesson that went something like this: You tell the bosses that your proposed business plan will take about a year and a half to really kick in, that they need to show patience and understand that the revenue won't immediately show up, and they nod and say yes, we understand, go, do it, take your time. And then they can your butt in a panic a year into it, because they just can't wait.
That's not just in radio, that's in business, period. It's a function of the need to answer to investors as to why you're not generating huge growth to justify the share price at which they bought in. The rule of thumb is that when they say you have 18 months, you have 12. If they say five years, you have maybe three. And whatever the shortest term of your contract is, that's all you're personally likely to get. (Those three year contracts where only one is guaranteed and the others are options? One year contracts.) You have to assume you aren't going to get the time you need, and count yourself lucky to get what you get.
All of that came to mind when Radio One pulled the plug on News 92 in Houston this week. I'm not going to do a post-mortem -- Jim Farley, who consulted the station for a while, notes that credit is due Radio One for hanging in there even for three years out of a five year plan and investing as much time, effort, and money as they did. And that's true, and it's also true that building an all-news brand when the news itself is less than urgent -- no weather emergencies, no O.J. trial, nothing that screamed "find an all-news station right away" -- is a difficult task when you're starting from scratch in the social media age. Ditto when your signal isn't optimal (Hello, Conroe! Greetings, The Woodlands!... Hello? Can you hear us?)
But three years for that kind of project isn't enough, and that says something in turn about spoken word formats and why we're not seeing what should be logical growth, especially when advertisers are seeking the kind of engagement a jukebox can't provide and the content and personalities inherent in a well-produced spoken word format can't be duplicated by someone else in any medium. It needs time to build, time for word of mouth to spread, time for brands to get established and people to get accustomed to turning to that station when they want the latest news or a particular host or a certain kind of conversation. It takes time to get people to set a preset button to the new station, or to get used to stopping there for a while when the scan takes them to that frequency. Most of the big news, talk, and sports radio brands weren't overnight hits. They built into powerhouses over a span of years. For WFAN, it took the move to 660, the addition of Imus, and the development of Mike and the Mad Dog to move the station from an interesting concept to an institution. The blackout of '65 made WINS indispensable; the O.J. trial moved KFI into dominance. You get the idea. There are exceptions, but even some of the most storied call letters in spoken word radio took time really getting off the ground.
Again, though, because investors want results this quarter and not five years down the road, time isn't necessarily available. Long-term planning, which is an essential part of business operations, has become less-than-secondary, even for the biggest companies (what, Apple hasn't invented a radical new product yet this month? Sell!). We're caught in a pretty terrible trap, in which the industry needs visionary ideas to survive in the long term, yet won't allow them to develop because it needs revenues now. And that's why a jukebox is very attractive, because it'll do okay in the PPMs, cause no controversy with clients, and cost very little to do, especially with judicious use of voicetracking and automation. News is very expensive, local talk or sports is expensive, but Today's Hottest Hits, you can do on a budget, at least until performance royalties are a thing. Engagement? Results for clients? The next owner... er, we'll worry about that later.
So I can't blame Radio One, or any of the others who tried all-news in the past couple of years, for giving up and throwing a music format on the air. That's the business in 2014. But if radio in general and spoken word formats in particular are going to have a future, we've got to experiment and gamble and develop new formats and we have to give them time to gain traction. I don't know how to get investors to go for that, but it's what has to be done. Think they know that Rome wasn't built in a day? Think they care?
You don't have to be in spoken word formats to find stuff to talk about on the radio at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics. There, you'll find hundreds of items and ideas for segments on your shows in any format, plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else. Some of the nation's biggest music-format morning show hosts use it -- why not you, too? There's plenty for everyone. Click here for that. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries (a division of Legendary Pictures), which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
Heads up: I'll be out not this coming week but the following week. More details in next week's column, assuming I get a column done. Let's assume that for now. Talk to you then.