June 28, 2011
Jeff Pollack has roots in radio that goes back over three decades. Over the years he has expanded his scope by forming the Pollack Media Group and taking on clients as diverse as CBS Radio, Citadel Broadcasting, Bonneville International, Microsoft, Harpo Productions, MTV, CMT, Hip Cricket, Meebo, Electronic Arts, NASCAR, XM and OurStage. He's also been involved in numerous TV and film projects, as well as contributes a column to the Huffington Post. Here, Pollack offers his perspective on the evolution of radio.
Going back to your KLOS/Los Angeles days (as Interim PD before Tommy Hadges joined the station) when you were going up against Lee Abrams at KMET, to the days when both of you were rival consultants ... to the current environment -- less direct-format rivalries, but a slew of competing consultants. Is the competitiveness in radio more than it used to be or less ... and is that a good thing?
That's an interesting question. The competition in general is less intense than it used to be because back then, there were more stations engaged in same-format rivalries, more different owners and players, so the intensity of competition on the consultant side or the company side made for an extremely creative environment for day-to-day programmers.
A lot of fine programmers were going at each other back then. There's not that kind of atmosphere here today. Not that there's no competition; it's just different.
How the role of consultant has changed over the years?
I can only speak for ourselves; every client relationship we have is different. Some are more interested in music information; some are more interested in trend information; some are interested in the latest digital media tools. We've been asked to help create a stronger relationship with the audience, such as identify the key components in the competitive positioning of your morning show and talent, whether it's using diary tactics or those geared for the PPM.
However, one significant difference is that there are fewer layers of management now than it used to be. At one time, there might have been individual PDs, group PDs and a National programming person per format. Today, there are fewer people in the mix rather than more. Relations with the PD and GM remains extremely important, but if they are each managing five other stations, you have to recognize that everyone has less time to go through the micro part of work. Most people want the big picture that will keep the momentum going forward.
Describe the impact of PPM on music and Talk formats.
We had been working with a version of PPM in Canada before it started in America, so we became familiar with a lot of the technology. There is also similar technology in some of our European clients, so its introduction in America wasn't a brand new experience for us to deal with minute-by-minute ratings.
The good thing about PPM is that really reflects, with much more reality, how people use audio and how many stations they actually listen to ... and how important it is that the talk you do is interesting. It reaffirmed everything we knew, such as when there's a five-minute exchange between the traffic reporter and the jock in afternoon drive, people leave.
It's also been healthy for radio because it's really shows how people move from media platform to platform.
The only thing I don't like is when programmers start trying to measure the success of new music too quickly -- solely off the initial PPM numbers. You still have to say, "My ears say it's a hit, let's give it a chance." Granted, that's no excuse to play bad music, but you must always be cognizant that people don't immediately know the new Bruno Mars or Arcade Fire; you have to give new songs a chance to develop.
Didn't those programmers do the same when it came to cutting back on non-music segments?
The initial reaction to PPM was to remove all negatives. That's not anything new in radio; everybody wants to remove negatives. That's fine, but you also need to have a compelling radio station -- and if everyone cut back on the same things, we'd all sound the same, look the same and play the same music. Having good personalities still matter, but talk from people listeners don't care about is still unwelcome, so again, nothing has really changed.
But the PPM does ramp up your game. Any successful sports team depends on having the fundamentals in place. You lay down a bunt to get the runner from first to second. The fundamentals really matter under the PPM, but radio still has to be fun. You've got to have something that is compelling and creates passion for your station.
As we have all seen, cume is now the driver of your station ... and it's about occasions -- how many times people come to your station. It's knowing you're going to lose them frequently ... and that's okay. Just make sure you are focusing on getting them back ... and you do that by having a compelling station.
One perception that radio seems to be fighting on a daily basis is that it's a passé medium, that it isn't as good as it used to be. Do you agree?
I always dislike blanket generalities, such as when some people comment that radio isn't as good as it used to be. You can say the same thing about anything - movies aren't as good as they sued to be, ditto for TV and music. Yet if you asked me truthfully if radio overall is as good as it used to be, I'd still have to say no. There's less direct-format competition now -- and that used to benefit your game.
Now, certain individual stations are exceptional -- and continue to be exceptional -- because their programmers and managers are putting out quality on a daily basis. I admire them. I'm a believer that if you put something great on-air, audience follows... and money follows.
You can't afford to not be great with the excitement surrounding Pandora, Slacker and satellite radio, along with the growth of Net radio listening. I do see signs of encouragement. New people are coming into the business, particularly on digital side, who can expand the local brands.
The long lag time that it took major broadcasters to move into this space is over now.
Clear Channel, CBS, Emmis and Townsquare are making tremendous strides in the digital space -- hiring great people and doing terrific promotions that we're now seeing with Lady Gaga and other artists. We're seeing some innovation and creativity - maybe not as much yet on the programming side, but we're really seeing it make its presence known on digital side. Hopefully, dollars will follow those efforts, as I think they will be in a good place to maximize audience.
I'm a huge believer in radio; I think the future continues to be extremely positive. We are the best curators of new music and the listeners' favorite music. As much as people say they want to control their own destiny, a lot of people like having someone do the hard work - even if that's music programming -- for them.
Even so, there are a few radio heads who complain about a lack of ROI in the digital realm. Agree or disagree ... and why?
It's an investment. If you're looking for an instant return, you'll be disappointed because the amount digital is returning is very small, but if you're not part of the future, then you're on your way to being obsolete.
Radio had never been so far behind; it had to catch up quickly in the last five years. You have to make an investment with stations ... and a lot of people are doing well. The rulebook is still being written on how to generate revenue; I know a lot of companies that are doing a great job on a local basis in generating revenue. Is it huge yet? No, but it's inevitably going to be a significant part of every major company.
CBS Radio's Dan Mason recently came out with an edict about getting back to front and/or back-announcing songs ... seriously, why is this news? Why hasn't radio been doing this all along?
Dan's a smart guy and he was a programmer. He understands that information about a song you like is another reason to want to listen to your favorite station. I agree with him that the reason people moved away from it is very simple -- we talked earlier about removing negatives -- and many programmers felt that excessive talk was a tune-out.
Correct, but (many also considered song IDs as excessive, which was a mistake, particularly in the non-pop formats).
Yet people are curious about the music they like. They want to know more about the song and the artist. It doesn't mean you need to create liners the length of "Ulysses" ... it obviously has to be shorter than that. Dan's edict was a good one.
How has the label/radio relationship changed over the years?
Look, the whole business has changed. Labels and radio stations have relationships that work, but I can't really comment on how different that relationship is, considering the complete change in the music business and the wholesale meltdown of what it used to be.
Everything has shifted; fewer people are buying records and there are fewer stations in the same formats and there are smaller budgets to do the kind of promotions and concerts and club appearances they used to do. That's the reality of business these days.
You sided with the labels over Google and Amazon on the cloud issue in a recent Huffington Post column; does the Apple's royalty deals with the majors for its iCloud pretty much confirm your view?
I just wanted everyone to know that the people we really need to support are the artists.
They need to get their fair share of the revenue. It's tough to be a struggling band today; you need every dollar you can get. A lot of people don't want to pay for music any more; that's the reality. I don't like to dwell on the past but I can understand the anger of those who thought they were overpaying for a CD when the price was around $20.
But the record business is a whole different entity now. I'm more interested in the fate of young up-and-coming bands that need to get every possible break they can. My piece was more about recognizing that labels have not been able to provide (the kind of support to young artists as in the past). It will be interesting to follow and see whether people will pay $25 a year ... and see where that money goes.
Finally, what will be the keys to a better future ... and what are pitfalls that could impair its success?
We already talked about potential pitfalls. If your stations aren't available on (every possible) platforms, that will become a problem. We've seen the percentage of people who listen to Pandora on mobile. Being on mobile is absolutely critical to radio's future.
Terrestrial radio will continue to be healthy if we continue to innovate and do what we need to do to be accessible to an audience that demands accessibility. It's all about on demand; it's all about immediate accessibility. Focusing on local matters will be big in the future. It has always been important to radio and it always will be.