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Lessons Learned Last Week In Las Vegas

Sin City was electric last week, thanks to its usual festivities, and the arrival of the 2016 NAB Show. Over one hundred thousand people invaded the region to get a closer look at the future of broadcasting, and it didn’t disappoint.

Although radio had its moments, and fair share of quality sessions, it was hidden in the background. Crowds gathered for drones exhibits, video conferences, discussions on digital and social media, virtual reality sampling, and conversations with the world’s top media minds.

It was inspiring to see thousands of people gather in one area to appreciate the media industry. It restored my faith that many still value innovation and creating quality programming. Radio may lag behind in these categories at times, but other industries see it being essential to their future success. That’s refreshing.

nab-1Because I had four days with minimal distractions, I was able to observe a lot. I enjoyed eavesdropping on various radio sessions, and am still trying to comprehend how I managed to survive an entire trip in Vegas without emptying my wallet on casino slot machines. I spent less than five minutes playing, and didn’t participate until the final day of my stay. After six spins, I hit for $250 dollars, and proceeded to cash out. Not a bad way to end a great trip.

Leisure gambling has its pluses and minuses, but I’m not here to discuss that. Instead I want to share with you, what I took away from the NAB Show last week.

It was a solid experience, that I recommend checking out if you haven’t done so before. If the only thing you care to learn about is the radio business, then it might not be your cup of tea. Instead you may want to attend the NAB Radio Show this September in Nashville.

nab-4However, there’s a lot happening in this world. While my focus may be on the radio industry, I also enjoy taking advantage of opportunities to learn something new. If the world’s leading experts are going to gather in one city, and share secrets on how they’ve succeeded, then I’m going to soak up every ounce of knowledge they’ve got to offer because you never know when an idea or trend from one industry might become valuable to the one you make your living in. Plus, who doesn’t enjoy seeing drones perform up close?

Now on to the observations.

Mike and Mike – The ESPN Radio duo were inducted into the NAB Hall of Fame, the result of a successful seventeen year partnership on the nation’s largest sports radio network. Greeny and Golic not only deserved to be honored for what they’ve accomplished on the air, but the way they’ve conducted themselves as individuals during the course of their careers also speaks to their integrity and character as people.

Prior to the induction ceremony, CAA sponsored a pre-show gathering which was jam packed. Whether that was due to the Mike’s being present or free booze being available is up for debate. Mike and Mike gave an impromptu speech, and thanked everyone for being part of their special day. The room had its fair share of heavy hitters in it. Most of ESPN Radio’s management figures (Traug Keller, Dave Roberts) were in attendance, as were other broadcast leaders such as Dan Mason, Bill Hedrich, Jeff Smulyan, Greg Solk, and Bob Profitt.

nb-mmWhen it was time to be recognized, the duo were introduced following a great video which captured the essence of their show during its seventeen year run. They expressed their gratitude to the NAB for recognizing the show and what it had accomplished, and offered a few doses of their humor during a short but effective speech.

One thing about Mike and Mike that many in our business overlook is how seamless they make everything look. For seventeen years they’ve woken up five days per week at three or four AM to go perform on radio. In 2004 they added a television simulcast which only further exposed the program. Now imagine having every one of your opinions, jokes, questions, or comedic bits under the world’s microscope every day. Anything they say or do can appear in print or be used against them by agents, players, teams, or their own company.

They have to serve multiple masters with different agendas while being socially active and responsible. Add in working with sponsors, and creating content that will fuel the radio department’s success online, and satisfy affiliates, plus traveling for road shows where they’ll be expected to interact with fans and local teams/clients during each day of the trip. I didn’t even mention yet the actual work of preparing, watching games, and trying to maintain some semblance of a family life.

How many shows could handle all of that? Many say they can, but it’s harder than you think.

It’s all of those reasons above why Mike and Mike are now members of the NAB Hall of Fame. Their induction ceremony was classy, and one of the highlights of the entire week.

Failing To Read The Room – During the course of one hour, Kim Komando managed to reel in an audience, only to lose them. Her command of the stage was strong. Her knowledge and passion for her brand, and the industry was sharp. But over preparation, and an inability to adjust sucked the air out of the room. Not exactly the way you want to setup a Hall of Fame induction for two popular personalities.

KimI felt bad for Kim because if this were a normal conference, she’d have passed with flying colors. But many in this room were there to see Mike and Mike enter the Hall of Fame. Picking this day to present an hour long infomercial on the Kim Komando show reflected poor judgment. I witnessed multiple CEO’s and executives switch from being invested in her commentary to getting annoyed. A few even left the room. I could be wrong but I don’t recall her saying a word at the end about Mike and Mike. I asked multiple people and they didn’t hear it either.

Because Kim’s speech dragged, it caused the session to run past its scheduled time, and reduced Mike and Mike’s time on stage. Kim is very talented, and has an excellent story to share, but if there’s a lesson to be learned, less is more. Be ready to abandon the script. If you don’t, you’ll lose the crowd, and your message will fall on deaf ears.

The Las Vegas Sports Radio Scene – I had an opportunity to run into two old friends during my visit. Mitch Moss, who produced for me at 95.7 The Game in San Francisco, now hosts middays on ESPN 1100. Matt Perrault, who I’ve known for a over a decade and auditioned for me once in St. Louis at 101 ESPN, hosts evenings on Yahoo Sports Radio.

nab-2Each broadcast their shows from different locations. Moss operates out of a radio studio off of the strip, and Perrault from a created studio inside the Palazzo casino.

What I didn’t realize before my journey to Las Vegas was how many sports stations operate in the city. There are seven stations listed as operators of the format. Granted, most of them are national brands, but that is still too many for a market which has under 2 million people residing in it.

If there’s one benefit, it’s that the city receives some of the best tourism support anywhere in the country. That makes it easier to create effective promotions and remotes for local stations. It also further provides evidence to the NFL and NHL that the city could be financially productive if either league elects to move one of its teams there in the future.

Networking – If there’s one major benefit of heading to a show like the NAB, it’s the opportunity to meet and mingle with numerous people in the industry who you might not normally run into. That’s one of the real joys of the experience for yours truly. Spending time with Kraig Kitchin, making small talk with Fred Jacobs, Dan Mason, and Michael Fiorile, catching up with old ESPN teammates Ray Necci, Amanda Gifford, Pete Gianesini, Liam Chapman, and Justin Craig are all part of what made the trip memorable.

I was surprised though by how many broadcast executives I ran into seemed to be in a rush to get out of each room. I realize that not every conversation is going to be fruitful but if you’re going to take the flight, stay in a hotel room, and engage in hour long sessions discussing the future of radio and why it’s a business people should want to be involved in, you should probably allow for some time to indulge the audience afterwards. This is their opportunity to meet you, compliment your work, and ask a question or two. There’s no harm in that right?

hellum2Guys like Erik Hellum of Townsquare, and Jeff Smulyan of Emmis were gracious with their time, so I don’t want to paint a picture that lumps everyone in as being distant. That wouldn’t be fair. I’ve been in this industry for twenty years, and fortunate enough to foster enough relationships that I don’t need the extra face time, but for those who don’t travel much, and are new to the business or considering entering it, the way they’re treated during face to face discussions can impact whether or not they pursue a career in our industry.

It’s silly to take the stage and express concern about a lack of interest in the industry from younger people, but then hightail out of the building when they ask for a few minutes of your time. Maybe I’m making a bigger deal out of this then I should, but I bet people will take notice when the next Steve Jobs chooses a different line of work because he or she was turned off by the way radio people responded to their request for time.

Joe DiMaggio used to say “you never know who’s watching you for the first time, so always give your best”. That’s some great free advice for some of our people to consider.

Appreciating Innovation – Fred Jacobs moderated a session on innovation which featured Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan, NPR COO Loren Mayor, and National Radio Talent System CEO Dan Vallie. While each participant spoke on behalf of their organizations and the numerous things they were doing, the one who connected most with me was Smulyan. That’s probably because he was the one person with enough guts to launch an all-sports format in New York when everyone told him it was a stupid idea which had no chance to succeed.

jeffsHe used that same mentality to launch the first hip-hop station Power 106 in Los Angeles, which was also thought to be another one of his terrible ideas. Now, he’s facing similar backlash for his belief in the Next Radio app.

Truth be told, I don’t know if his latest project will or won’t pass the sniff test. Many have poked holes in the project, and some of the criticisms are valid. However, I can appreciate that Smulyan is taking a risk to try and make industry measurement better.

Often we complain about radio not receiving its full share of listening, and sales people and market manager’s everywhere cling to old articles which tout radio’s massive 93% reach. The reality though is that the ratings system is tremendously flawed. I refuse to accept that what we have provided to us from Nielsen is the best that we can do.

If Spotify, Facebook, YouTube, Google, Twitter, and iTunes can figure out how to measure their audio and video offerings, and provide excellent analytics for clients, than radio should be able to do the same. We see advanced data with our mobile and digital sessions, so why can’t the quality of measurement for over the air listening be the same?

The Next Radio App might be the solution radio needs, or it might not. That Smulyan is willing to bet on it, and invest his time and resources to make it work speaks to his confidence in the product. Many people talk about innovation, but few have the scars to prove they’re trying. Jeff not only sets the example for his company, but he does so for many in the industry. That alone gets my respect and appreciation.

Millennials – I apologize in advance if this comes across as negative, but it’s time for radio to take a good hard look in the mirror when it comes to talking about how to reach the younger generation. For starters, work needs to be done on the arrangement of some of these panels. Rather than rolling out the same industry people again and again, how about including some members who actually live, breathe, and speak the lingo of the audience that the industry claims it wants to reach?

millennialsNo disrespect, but how many sessions on reaching millennials must be staffed by members who are above fifty and sixty years old? Do we honestly believe that younger people are going to take their cues from people that don’t live their lives the same way? It’s no different than telling someone older to take their cues on investments, and retirement from a twenty year old.

I’ve spent the past six to eight years attending multiple conferences, and every single time I go, I’m left befuddled by the image crisis that plagues radio. We talk about the future, and being ahead of the curve, yet those who think that way, and are likely to create the next big thing that helps our industry are left back in their studios.

There’s something to gain from every single person who speaks on a panel, so I want to be clear that this isn’t only about age. I believe that including an older perspective in the conversation is important. But, when variety isn’t provided, and a mixture of opinions, ages, genders and races isn’t offered, you miss the whole point.

For radio to succeed, it has to reach everyone. You can’t do that when the chosen mouthpieces come from the same neighborhood and fail to relate to those living in other locations. There are enough people in this business to create thought provoking discussion. I’d like to see the organizers of these conferences work harder to produce original sessions that provide a variety of personalities and opinions and leave everyone in the room thinking.

Right now there’s a lot of butt kissing, rah-rah speeches, and solutions coming from one side of the street. If radio really wants to move forward, and reach young people, it has to be open to hearing their perspectives, and involving others who actively shape our brands each day. I’ve heard many industry folks complain about these issues at each conference I’ve attended. It’s time something was done to make these sessions balanced and valuable rather than using them to reward our industry friends.

What About The Product? – The final issue that stood out during this conference was one that people at the higher levels may not even realize is happening. CEOs, Corporate Executives, and Market Managers focus their discussions on sales, investments, expenses, radio’s increased listening percentages, and the importance of growing digital and mobile revenue.

But, do you know which one area isn’t mentioned? Their products!

It’s the brand, and the programming it provides that leads a person to listen, and grow from being a casual fan to a station advocate. Without highlighting the reason why we matter to audiences, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

The majority of people who attend these conferences want to learn why your brands matter, what you do to make them unique, how you’re positioning yourself in the digital space, and where you see the future. They want to absorb your passion for radio, not be treated to a sermon on business acquisitions, and why you’re debt-free or considering bankruptcy.

So why does this happen?

jobsThe honest answer is that most radio executives are removed from the product development portion of their organizations. They are focused on big picture growth, finding ways to monetize their investments, and networking with various industry people to help advance the company. They perk up and offer more opinion when digital is raised as a topic, but that’s because they see the majority of business heading in that direction, and they know they have to play in that space to warrant a larger piece of the revenue pie.

Look around the industry today and you’ll find numerous operations run by people with strong sales backgrounds. There’s nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, understanding business and how to make money is an important aspect of the job.

But so is recognizing what makes your brand’s special, and the reasons why they succeed. If an organization’s leader doesn’t have a passion and understanding about the brand’s they’re responsible for, and why they matter, they’re missing out on the most important sale of all. It’s easy to toss around catchphrases like “content is king”, and maybe you’ll hide out in the weeds for a while and trick people, but at some point, listeners and advertisers start to vacate and results begin to dip if they sense you’re unattached to your products.

Can you imagine if Facebook didn’t have Mark Zuckerberg or Apple never had Steve Jobs? The reason why companies like Apple, and Facebook (two of the best of all-time) have been a giant success is because they were run by people who understood business but had a deep passion and connection to the product.

If you look at the annual keynote addresses provided by both groups, they’re well attended, and covered by various national media outlets because people genuinely want to hear what they have planned for the future. It’s easy to buy in and see the vision because the discussion revolves around the product, the future, and how each brand will work to further satisfy its consumer’s growing wants and needs. They focus on innovation, and pleasing their fans, not their investors. It’s the old adage “if you build it, they will come”.

Because they deliver fascinating products, it leads to results. Yes the business does matter, and each are in business to turn profits, but make no mistake about it, they succeed because of a vision for their brands, and an ability to passionately communicate it to those who pay attention.

markzNow imagine Tim Cook (Jobs’ successor) or Zuckerberg leading one of these radio conferences. They’d be given a stack of papers to explain ratings growth, stock price activity, company debt, and how to generate more sales. When the subject of programming and product improvements are raised, they’d defer to someone else, because they don’t have the answers.

As I listened to numerous sessions where questions were asked to panel members about finding new talent, creating exclusive digital content, incorporating video into radio, and fighting off competition from Pandora, Spotify, and Satellite Radio, I heard a lot of generic replies, and a whole lot of insufficient details. That’s not a good look.

There are certain sessions during a media conference that will pass with flying colors (Fred Jacobs’ innovation session). There are other ones which will appeal to your personal interests (Mike and Mike enter the HOF). Unfortunately though I find myself leaving many of these trips with more questions than answers. I just hope the younger generation who are considering a career in our industry aren’t doing the same.

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