Friday, September 23, 2005

All talk, little action

Philadelphia - It is increasingly frustrating to listen to some of the folks here at the NAB Radio Show go on and on about all the great things radio has done in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, while at the same time ignoring the fact that a few big corporations have destroyed this industry. Radio has done some great things in recent weeks: Helping to raise almost $200 million for hurricane relief, airing countless PSA encouraging people to help out, and collaborated within networks to get information out to the people. NAB attendees were given celebratory "Radio: Respond, Relief, Rebuild," lapel pins for our efforts, something I've proudly worn while here. As well, as an industry, radio offered $9.6 billion of community service last year alone. But about what radio does the other 50 weeks of the year?
This is the big question I am thinking about for the bulk of the day on Thursday while I hear over and over how great the radio industry is and yet I know it not to be true. If I hear "we have a great story to tell ..." one more time without addressing what is in the story, I am going to puke. What is in the story isn't a "story" at all; it is scheme or gimmick or a trick to get more ads and revenue instead of giving the listener competence and quality. And, you know, getting ads and revenue is good. Radio needs advertising to survive. After all, unless you are NPR or an affiliate, it is a business. But the "great story" should also address content issues, and no one wants to touch those here.
For the last 10 years, even before the destructive Telecom Bill of 1996, radio has been de-localizing its formats to gain more and more profit for shareholders, much to the detriment of communities. I actually heard a comment from one guy from Clear Channel who said that most of the stations which were consolidated were, paraphrasing, 'a bunch of mom and pops near bankruptcy anyway' which is just not true.

Sidebar: I touched upon a little bit about this in my posts from the NAB/RTNDA convention I attended earlier this year ["NAB/RTDNA: Second day"].

Radio has the instantious ability to share stories with people right away. And we should be. But, if a company has a bottom line and won't spend the $20k to hire a daytime reporter to share the local stories, you aren't going to be able to share those stories. As well, the perception that "less is more" when that isn't altogether true is disturbing. Less is more if you are distracting.

Be remarkable
Thursday morning opens with goodbye remarks from NAB President/CEO Eddie Fritts and an amusing presentation by Seth Godin, a marketing writer, who's talk was called "Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable."
Fritts called radio "deeply invested in the community" and promoted localism despite the fact that the transformation occurred under his watch. He also quoted Ronal Reagan a lot.
Before his talk, Godin noted that before being asked to talk before NAB, an intern had thrown up some of his own words to his face - about how bad radio was. But Godin followed that up with ways of improving things.
One of the ways Godin proved his point is by noting that some things don't always succeed. He stated that sliced bread was actually a failure business-wise, by the inventor. It wasn't until Wonder Bread took the idea and marketed it and presto, everyone wanted it. Godin made some very good points about the clutter in people's lives and how marketers have the power to interupt that clutter. Even with limited spectrum, radio had to figure out a way to get its message through. It is important not to be boring, he said. Radio should be something worth talking about and should tell stories because it has the power to make people feel a certain way.
But in even all his massaging of information and cute ideas which have broken through in the past, most of Godin had to say boiled down to this: People are sheep - use it against them to make money.

Disappointingly, a session on the Changing State of Talk Radio, hosted by Talkers Magazine, a mag I used to read a lot when their subscription rate wasn't $75 a year, became bogged down in a love fest between a guy from Clear Channel, Gabe Hobbs, the vice president of news/talk programming, and Ken Beck, the vice president of news/talk/sports for Entercom Communications, owner of WRKO in Boston [so many vice presidents, everywhere].

Sidebar: Hobbs and I had an interaction earlier this year in Vegas when I suggested to a panel of radio news folks that they were being irresponsible in their coverage of Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart and news directors should be airing important issues to the public. You can read part of that here: ["NAB/RTDNA: Second day"]. Hobbs stated that it wasn't the job of news directors to direct the news, a puzzling statement, to say the least. I have been meaning to transcribe the interaction between myself and network news panelists, which I have on mp3, but I just haven't had the time. Maybe I will at some point soon because it is relevant to read at this time. It will give a clear understanding as to why things are so screwed up in the news business.

Another panelist was a woman who and did actually attempt to steer the conversation back to where talk radio was going. I thought her name was listed in the program, so I didn't write it down, but when I went looking for it later, I couldn't find it. I think she was with one of the smaller collection of stations. There was also some side conversation about syndication, featuring comments from Doug Stephan and Neal Boortz.

Sidebar: It was interesting to hear Stephan talk because he seemed to be downplaying whether or not the political position of a host could influence the public square. I was disheartened by this because unlike probably everyone in the audience, I recall Stephan during his Talk America days, when he hosted mornings on their flagship station, 1510 AM in Boston, glorifying the NAFTA position. It was clear from his take on the issue that someone "got to him." And when I say that, I don't mean that he was cornered by the mob or anything. But he was clearly cornered by a wonk who he respected or an advertiser of his show who filled his head up with happy talk. There was a lot of that going around at the time, BTW, as there always seems to be when public policy that screws with the ordinary folks gets rushed through. The listeners of the network got pretty ticked off and Stephan got hammered for taking this position, which was surprising at the time because he was on the fence for a long time and seemed like a competent guy. In the end, NAFTA passed and turned into exactly what we all said it would be: A failed public policy, similar to the 1996 Telecom Act and a lot of what Clinton and the Republican Congress did. Not long after NAFTA's passage, 1510 started getting passed around between owners and I stopped listening to anything Stephan had to say.

I left the seminar when it was revealed that it would turn to a discussion on lifestyle talk, women's talk, Latino talk, and sports talk. No offense to Hispanics or women or sports guys, but I had enough of fluff for one day.

A big failure of this convention is the lack of information about content. Almost all of the seminars I have gone to had interesting titles but end up always coming down to revenue, share, profits, and ads, and nothing about content. This shouldn't surprise me when I realized later that the theme of the convention was the following: "Rally Around Radio - Listen. Learn. Profit." But I digress: There was a lot of good information about marketing and boosting a station's presence, things I am definitely interested it, but it would have been nice to hear a bit more about content.

Independence Hall
Before going to dinner, my boss and I decided to take in some history and took a quick one mile walk down to the Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell exhibit. Interestingly - and annoyingly - the security to see the Bell was tighter than the airports I have been in and out of in three different locations around the country. It was cool to see the Bell but I wasn't as overwhelmed by it as I thought I would be. The Hall, however, was pretty impressive. Intricate architecture and structure, you could almost feel the Founders arguing in the rooms. The guide gave us a bit of unknown history such as the fact that July 4th wasn't the actual day that the declaration was read and signed. That was July 8th. July 4th wasn't even the day it was written. That was July 2nd. The document was printed on July 4th. Another interesting point was that John Hancock actually wanted to be the commander of the Continental Army but since George Washington came to the first meeting dress in full military regalia, he was nominated and unanimously chosen to lead the army. I wonder if the outcome would have been different if John Hancock had led the forces. On the walk back, we were at a crosswalk along Market Street just before the convention hall and there was a lot of traffic when an ambulance was trying to get through the street. The people stuck at the light didn't know what to do and I helped a guy in an SUV move out of the way of the ambulance. However, this black guy and his wife, an Asian woman, in a new Lexus wouldn't move out of the way of the ambulance. All of sudden, this guy next to me starts motioning at the guy to move but he still wouldn't. So, I decided to jump in as well, yelling at the guy to move his car out of the way, and even asking the SUV to move over to create move room, which he did. But, the guy in the Lexus still wouldn't move. Eventually, he pulled into traffic, the ambulance passed. The four of us standing at the crosswalk kinda looking at each other dumbfounded that someone, in 2005, would be so obnoxious and indifferent to an emergency vehicle attempting to get through traffic. You would think in this day and age, that people wouldn't be so ignorant.

Marconi Awards
One of the highlights of the annual NAB Radio Show is its Marconi Awards dinner which was held in the grand ballroom of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The food itself was actually pretty good and we were seated with a programmer from an independent classical music station in St. Louis which didn't end up winning its category. But the conversation was good.
Of course, by no surprise, big corporate station chains won the bulk of the awards with some people in the crowd clearly believing that the process was rigged for nomination and possibly even the awards themselves. Pill-popping me-first ogre Rush Limbaugh [or Limboob as I call him, much to the chagrin of my BRI list chatters], won Network Syndicated Personality of the Year. Small Market Personality of the Year winners Ward Jacobson & Cathy Blythe of KFOR won. Blythe was adorable in her acceptance speech, talking about how her daughter spent many years tucking her into bed so she could be up at 3:15 a.m. to do morning drive in Lincoln, Nebraska. Blythe said she was proud of her daughter who has decided to go into broadcasting school.
There were also some lowlights of the evening - like mixed humor from Kidd Kraddick, a syndicated clown from Dallas, who emceed the show. He did a pretty funny bit about the Payola scandals in the radio business which left many of the corporate mucky mucks in the crowd aghast. That isn't such a big thing, is it? But his crude jokes about having sex with Dr. Laura and jokes about Bush and Clinton, hand puppets and all, went over like lead balloons. Needless to say, we left early.

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