10 Questions with ... Brian Rickman
March 26, 2013
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
My resume reads like I did something wrong. I've bounced from major markets to small markets, to medium markets and back again. It's always been about the stations/the team/the challenge for me rather than the market size.
I began my career in News/Talk, first as a board operator, eventually as a producer and finally on-air as a news anchor. While I love Talk radio and it will always be my first love, I really wanted to work in music radio. After a few more news-related gigs, I landed various DJ gigs at formats all over the map -- Oldies, Top 40, Country, Soft AC, before finally settling in at Rock. As a "Rock guy," I got my first MD stripes, eventually leading to PD. Then, I was promoted to Ops, overseeing numerous formats (including some that I was a complete novice with at the time - like Urban). Thereafter, it was a step up to a Regional gig. My past couple of jobs have involved overseeing multiple formats in multiple markets. I've been at URBan for nearly nine years, which sometimes feels like some kind of industry record. Here, I'm in charge of every format you can imagine: N/T, Top 40, Country, Rock, Oldies, AAA, Urban, Urban AC, Sports and have even been given the opportunity to create some cool "hybrids."
1) How would you describe your first radio gig?
My first job was at an AM station in my hometown of Decatur, IL (WDZ-A). I was a 16-year-old high school student, and the OM "discovered" me and my freakishly deep voice when he attended a school play that I was performing in. At the time, the owners of the property cared very little about the station's programming and were more interested in using it as a showcase for this terrible automation system that they sold to (I guess) gullible, real broadcasters. It operated on cassette tapes and never worked properly. My job was to babysit this system during the overnight hours that summer. I also got to record the morning farm report! But most of the night was spent reading magazines and listening to the automation system screw up:
Tape One: That was...
Tape Two: ...Loretta Lynn (it was Waylon Jennings)
Tape Three: It's...
Tape Four: (wrong jock) 9 a.m. (it's 2 a.m.)
Tape Five: And outside...
Tape Six: It's snowing! (it's summer)
The owners assured me that this was the future of radio. I wanted no part of it.
2) What led you to a career in radio?
Once I had the experience of my first radio job under my belt, I graduated high school and went to college to study Theatre and English Education (I was supposed to be a failed actor and then a bitter, high school English teacher). Any time I needed a job, I found that I could usually land a gig as a board op somewhere instead of waiting tables.
Eventually, someone didn't show up and I had to do the news on the Talk station. Since I had the on-stage/acting experience, I did okay. So when someone got fired, I was asked to man the midday shift on the Soft AC down the hall until they found a replacement. Basically, people above me kept getting fired or quit and I kept getting their jobs, mostly because I was always in the room for the some reason. All the while, I had other aspirations. It never occurred to me that I might be able to turn this radio thing into a "career." It wasn't until someone quit and I was given the title of "Program Director" that it suddenly dawned on me. "Hey, wait a minute. This could be my job! I mean, they gave me a box of business cards and everything." So, from there, I just sort of went with the flow. People keep giving me jobs. I'm still suspicious that one day someone is going to tell me it's all been an enormous mistake. "We're going to need you to pay back all of that money we accidentally gave you for acting stupid on the radio and listening to music all day."
3) What is your favorite part of the job?
The absurd amount of power I have and the wheelbarrows full of cash are pretty great, I think. But then, when the cough syrup wears off, I always come back to the music. After all, it was what lured me to the business in the first place. I also genuinely enjoy working with our talent. Over the years, I've had the pleasure of coaching a number of excellent jocks who are now enjoying real power and literal bags of cash (quite deservedly so). I believe that aircheck sessions can truly be a fun experience. It doesn't have to be torture after all! When it becomes a brainstorming session rather than a critique, I'm always energized by the amount of creativity that can fill the room. Honestly, there's really not a lot to dislike about our business.
4) What is the most challenging part of the job?
In my position, I have responsibility for a number of radio stations in multiple markets with the full gamut of formats, so the biggest challenge is staying on top of everything. From the music to format specific pop-culture events to lifestyle news relevant to each format's target and, of course, what's happening in each individual market. Our PDs and OMs do an excellent job of keeping me in touch and aware of the challenges they face, but this job requires precise attention to detail. Some days it seems as though I have alerts and reminders popping up on my computer and phone every minute or so. I also have a wife, three kids and a Netflix que that's not going to watch itself. So, basically the biggest challenge is maintaining my sanity and still working with my very talented team to create compelling radio customized for our respective communities. The ratings indicate that we're doing quite well with the latter. The state of my sanity will vary greatly depending on who you're talking to and whether or not I just bought them lunch.
5) What's one thing that would surprise many people to learn about you?
Probably that I'm a published playwright and novelist. These days I write mostly science fiction, fantasy and horror stuff. I have a big time literary agent who says things like "We're pitching to committee on Monday," "slush pile" and "your stupid radio job is getting in the way." I have a rabid following of nerds and goth kids who stalk me on Facebook, Twitter and GoodReads. They're awesome. Especially when they give me money for whatever brain spillage Amazon mistakenly refers to as "new and noteworthy."
6) What was your favorite station to listen to when you were a kid?
I was lucky enough to grow up listening to WLS-A in Chicago when it was still a music station. I listened to Larry Lujack, John Records Landecker, Steve Dahl and Gary Meier. There's a great online collection of airchecks from that era and I'll still sometimes go back and listen. I remember being very bummed when the music on the station started to suck and they eventually flipped to Talk.
7) What is the one truth that has held constant throughout your career?
Every day is different. I'm not sure I can remember the last time I arrived at the office and had what someone might call a "normal day." I have a good friend who is an executive at an insurance company. He has a regular, big-person job. He has stress, of course, but his stress is about TPS reports or whatever important big shots at insurance companies worry about. I once had a casual conversation with him about whatever craziness had happened to me that month: the pop star who arrived drunk for the morning show and puked in the lobby, the DJ who had an anxiety attack at a car lot remote because some weirdo listener brought their pet snake to the broadcast and she has a severe reptile phobia, the promotional bottle of liquor the record company sent to promote some new album that shattered when the UPS guy dropped it in the lobby and now our entire building reeks of bourbon and the GM is pissed at the Programming department for some reason ... that kinda thing. Anyone in our business would read that and immediately counter with, "You think that's nuts? Listen to what happened to me this week..." My insurance selling friend, though, asked me in all seriousness, "Why the hell would you put up with that? Are you looking for another job?" He was shocked that I would consider any of the above part of an acceptable work-week. I thought for a minute and told him, "Because it's fun. Your job would be hell for me." Expecting the unexpected is what makes the job invigorating.
8) What advice you would give people new to the business?
Learn everything you can about every job in the building. Our industry is shrinking, for better or for worse. Those who know a little something about everything are the most valuable employees we have. If you're fortunate enough to land a gig in a cluster, take the time to learn every format available to you and become adept at it. It's a hell of a lot easier to find a job when you can send airchecks for multiple job listings. Plus, if you ever have aspirations to program a station, you need to know the target audience for your chosen format like the back of your hand. There's no better way to get to know them than while you're on the air. Finally, learn everything you possibly can about new media. Be the go-to person for all things related to the website, social media, the stream, the apps. That's where we're going. Above all: Go that way really fast. If something gets in your way ... turn.
9) What is the current state of the radio "talent pool"?
Right now it's extraordinary but for very unfortunate reasons. In recent years, we've seen a lot of very talented people displaced because of the economy. It's crazy to have a job opening in a small market and to receive an aircheck and resume from a former major-market talent. Time was, you might have been very suspicious of a submission like that ("who did this guy piss off?"). Now, it's par for the course. However, if the question is about young and up-and-coming talent, I think we're definitely seeing a shrinking talent pool and it's no one's fault but our own. We've failed to train a lot of our young jocks. They've been told to "shut up and let the music play" forever. When they are asked to entertain, many of them don't have a concrete idea what you're asking them to do. It's certainly not about reading show prep verbatim. For this, I blame PDs who are too busy to coach their talent, VPs of Programming who scold their managers for allowing the local jocks to take chances on the air, and DJs who have simply become too lazy to even try anymore. If you're a talent in a situation where you feel stifled ... find another job. Can't find one? Start a podcast or a YouTube channel and experiment there.
10) What would you like to do to save radio from its "dying-industry" image?
The first thing we need to do is to stop pronouncing ourselves "dead." Radio can still be a viable source of entertainment for everyone, including the younger generations that we seem to be abandoning in droves. But, if we're going to remain relevant, we have a lot of work to do. Radio, at the moment, is doing nothing more than crashing parties rather than hosting a new one of our own. Facebook got big? Better get a Facebook page! Twitter also! What's this Pinterest? Do we need to be on there? Yes, that too!
That's all well and good but where's the innovation? We like to say that Radio was the first social media - so, why didn't we create Facebook? When you think about it, it should have been a no-brainer. Likewise, why aren't we iTunes? That will go down in history as one of radio's greatest missed opportunities. My point is, we need to be leading the way with new media. As an industry, we need an R&D department. We need to take a page from Google and start to think big about our future. It's about much more than making sure there's an FM radio on cell phones. Really? That's our biggest concern right now? Think bigger and stop trying to rebrand something old as something new.
We have a huge challenge coming our way in short order. AM/FM is going to be vanishing from cars. Our stations will be accessible via a single app. Ask yourself why a listener in your market would chose to listen to your station instead of a station in Los Angeles or New York? Everyone always says, "Local content." Okay. So, where is it? All I hear are the same playlists (and in some cases, the same DJs) from Idaho to Georgia. We need to develop new formats ... hyper-local stations. We like to call our properties "brands" these days. Great. Is your brand Pepsi or are you Clover Valley Cola? Are you just a pale imitation of a bigger brand? If so, you're going to fail in the new age. The correct answer should be "we are a unique blend of flavors, derived from ingredients available only in our local market. Our cola tastes unlike any other cola you're ever going to have ... and it's delicious." I have to go now. I'm thirsty.
What's the biggest gaffe you've made on-air?
Handing a live mic to an audience member while broadcasting live at a Pantera show. "You ready for a great show, man?" "F* yeah, Rickman!! It's gonna f*in' RAWK!" That station didn't have a delay. I have no idea what the hell I was thinking.