The Changing Program Director/Talent Dynamic

| November 8, 2011

Critiquing talk radio talent in the modern era proves challenging as the role of the PD and structure
of the industry undergo massive changes 

By Mike Kinosian
Special Features Correspondent

“This could hurt your feelings, but it is being said for your own good.”

Such verbiage has been the basis for any one of countless program director-conducted aircheck sessions throughout the years in every conceivable radio format.

Quite possibly even more so than ever and as hyperbolic as it may sound, a program director supremely performing duties as a motivating talent coach is worth his or her weight in gold, silver, bronze and platinum.

“Directing” is, of course, a derivative form of the program director title.  Analyzing on-air personalities while simultaneously providing key components of constructive criticism, positive encouragement and guidance was once a basic calling card for anyone aspiring to be an upper-echelon programmer.  To say it is a dying, if not lost, proficiency is the height of understatement.  It is however clearly a two-way process, deeply rooted on a foundation of reciprocated trust.  If or when that is shattered, progression for the two parties becomes tenuous at best.

Achieving the elusive goal of “success” can have its downsides since that particular nebulous description can lead one to think he or she is above any form of critique or direction – especially from someone they perceive to be a “lowly” program director.  Chaos becomes the inevitable and seamy result.

 Memorable 1989 top 40-to-talk format trade up

When WLS, Chicago jettisoned contemporary hit music for talk in 1989, the station’s then newly arrived president/general manager Tom Tradup was given carte blanche to dismiss all its existing music radio personalities.  “We could fire all of them or try to turn them into talk show hosts,” Tradup recalls of such legendary Windy City talents as John “Records” Landecker and Fred Winston.  “The station was 23rd in the market and hemorrhaging red ink.”

Such a ratings predicament was said to be an embarrassment to a company that owned, among others, WABC, New York; KABC, Los Angeles; KGO, San Francisco; WBAP, Dallas; and WJR, Detroit.  “They were the gold-standard talk stations and WLS-AM was still playing music and languishing,” Tradup notes.  “The one entity that remained from the ‘old’ WLS-AM was Don & Roma.  We put them in morning drive and they are still there.  The trick back then was to give the illusion of creative control to Don [Wade], Stacy Taylor and [the late] Don Lassiter.  When push came to shove though and they were beating up an advertiser who was paying for the picnic, we would have to call them in and explain how things had to work.”

Fast-forward to November 2011 and the bulk of Salem Radio Network vice president of news and talk programming Tradup’s workday goes into handling a unique situation involving national talk shows hosted by Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved, Janet Mefferd and Dennis Prager.

Contractually, each SRN personality has complete creative control over his or her program although as Tradup explains, that was a “minor point” management failed to mention when he accepted the job.  “I got on board and was ready to rock and roll,” he notes.  “The first time we had a minor conflict, I said I would handle it but was told, ‘Not so fast.’  I needed to be more of a Henry Kissinger shuttle diplomacy person than use the old-fashioned, technique where management stepped on workers’ throats.”

That isn’t how SRN operates though and at the time, Tradup bluntly thought, “It was crazy.  I didn’t imagine anyone would give a host control of a nationally-syndicated program.”

In actuality however, it turns out to be a good system.  “It sounds hokey but under Salem Radio Network president Greg Anderson, we have developed mutual respect and an awesome working environment,” Tradup proclaims.  “We operate SRN much like a major university faculty, rather than the typical talk radio setup of a ragtag collection of angry, ill-informed hosts who regularly gather around the microphone to subtract from the sum total of human knowledge.  Much like the GOP debates, there are usually one or two adults in the room who make serious points and have broader principles at stake.  They all yell at each other and that is what qualifies as a ‘debate.’  I have found the respect we have for each other makes for a great working environment.  It is a bit tough for me because I came from old-school talk radio where management would say, ‘jump’ and the hosts would ask, ‘how high?’”

What it really boils down to is placing Tradup in an atmosphere where he is more of a counselor.  “We lived through Mike Gallagher’s wife Denise’s valiant, but unfortunate, losing battle against cancer [in 2008],” he recounts.  “That all played out on the air and it helped bond Gallagher with his P1 listeners.  He is terrific at relating to them and they really followed the story.  Partisans of Mike’s show found that was a great part of what he did.  Some peripheral listeners and a few affiliates however wondered when he was going to move on from this.  He had to deal with a personal crisis.  We helped him work through it because we like Mike and we wanted to.”

One key advantage in Tradup’s favor is that each of the six aforementioned SRN on-air talents has a life outside of radio.  “That is a big part of why this network works,” he emphasizes.  “They work hard on the air and at what SRN asks them to do in terms of generating ratings and revenue but then they clock out and do something else.  They all enjoy radio, are terrific at it and understand the importance of it as their base of operations.  It is a good, symbiotic relationship where not having them full-time almost makes them more valuable to us than if they were sitting around the break room, asking if there were any commercials to record.  When hosts have non-radio interests, it actually helps the radio industry.  They become multi-media personalities and we get the benefit of it.”

 Approximately one year after Rush Limbaugh began his national syndication in 1988, Tradup slotted him on WLS, enabling Limbaugh to secure his first top 10-syndicated market.  “He aired in New York from 10:00 am to 12:00 noon doing two local hours,” Tradup notes.  “When he moved across the hall into the broom closet they called ‘The Excellence in Broadcasting Network,’ he wasn’t heard in any [other] major market in the country.  Before we picked him up, his largest market was Sacramento where he used to work at KFBK.”

When then-CapCities/ABC-owned WLS cleared Limbaugh’s daily program, corporate executives thought Tradup had “lost his mind” but Tradup and Limbaugh had worked together earlier in their careers in Kansas City.  “The real reason we took Rush was we had a situation where a person under contract fought coming to Chicago – he signed the agreement but then didn’t want to show up,” Tradup points out.  “We had to put on something and decided on Limbaugh.  We didn’t even have to sign a contract.  It was a huge deal for him at the time but not as big for us.”

Even though Limbaugh would go on to become the world’s leading talk radio personality, Tradup candidly recalls WLS’ first two years as a talk station, including the conservative icon’s 11:00 am to 1:00 pm time period, was like the Kiefer Sutherland-Julia Roberts film “Flatliners”: “There were no ratings and there was very little revenue.  We were only able to plug along because of a lot of blood, sweat and tears from our management team and hosts.  The sad part is that would never be allowed to happen today.”

Novelty songs are a popular element to Limbaugh’s shtick.  One such years-ago offering was “The Philanderer,” done to Dion’s 1961 hit “The Wanderer” and as Tradup mentions, “The words were changed to, ‘I’m Ted Kennedy.  I’m the philanderer – I fool around, around, around.’  Like most other novelty songs, it was funny but Rush would open the show with it; play it three minutes later; and if a listener called to say they missed hearing it, he would play it a third time in 15 minutes.  It was just killing the show.  It was like being in a small market where an on-air talent keeps ringing an annoying hotel bell.  All these personalities have crutches.”

Overreliance by Limbaugh on parody songs — particularly “The Philanderer” — so infuriated Tradup that he called former ABC Radio president Ed McLaughlin to complain, but Limbaugh’s trusted confidant was completely unsympathetic.  “Ed said he had no intention of telling Rush about that; it’s Rush show, he’s a genius and we aren’t going to tell him anything,” Tradup recounts of McLaughlin’s response.  “I called Stu Crane, who gave me the same answer and added he would pull the show from us if I wanted.  That wasn’t what I was saying and wondered what the matter was with them.  I wanted to make the show better.”

As a last — yet ultimately direct — resort, Tradup went straight to the source by calling Limbaugh at his New York apartment.  “I explained the situation and he said, ‘Bingo – it’s fixed.’  That was years ago, but he wanted direction.  All good hosts want — and need — direction.  That does not mean having aircheck sessions where the program director states obvious things like the need to use the cough-button, rather than coughing into the microphone.  They validate their own existence by irritating hosts with minutiae.  I have been a manager where everyone had to do what I said and I’ve been an employee at a place like Salem Radio Network but I like being an entrepreneur with someone else’s money.  I seem to work well with talent and am blessed to have a track record with very few bumps in it.”

Some might find it stunning that as often as two or three times a month, a person of Sean Hannity’s elevated stature reaches out to his fellow talk hosts to solicit input and feedback.  “He calls about a half-dozen people, including Mike Gallagher, to find out how he’s doing,” Tradup explains.  “Hannity has great instincts and is a consummate talk radio guy.  It would be great if some of us could take off our competitive hats and share things.  At the end of the day, there isn’t very much going on in this industry that we all don’t know about.  You have to open a host’s eyes to how radio works.  If you know what you’re doing is good but you would like to get better, it is smart to seek input.  Those without a vision or handle regarding who they are become a camel that is a horse designed by a committee.  One person says to take more calls while another suggests taking less, so eventually you are like a big bowl of dirty soup.”

For an approximately 18-month period, former Pennsylvania Senator/GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum was Bill Bennett’s Friday guest host.  “I told him he would do much better in the debates if he’d stop talking about what he did in the U.S. Senate,” Tradup remarks.  “Instead, he needs to discuss his vision about where he wants to take America if he’s elected in 2012.  Nevertheless, every time I watch him he is talking about what he did in the Senate.  All you can do is to try your best to give advice — the smart guys take some of it.”

 Spider web

The directory of music radio, spoken-word and television talents Kraig Kitchin has overseen in his flawless capacity as Premiere Networks’ president/chief operating officer as well as in the counseling/management service role for the company he launched three years ago, Sound Mind, reads like a veritable Who’s Who of the industry.  Top shelf on-air personalities, the impeccable executive maintains, are their own worst critics.  “They have that wonderful, spider-sense about them that tells them whether or not they are on the mark,” Kitchin comments.  “The most difficult and skilled part about being a radio personality is being able to read the room — without having benefit of a live audience.  The really, talented ones accumulate that information in different ways.”

Talent-programmer relationships are different today, Kitchin states, compared to 10 years ago, owing in part that in most cases, program directors no longer simply oversee a single radio signal.  “That person is now tasked with several stations and/or several markets,” he remarks.  “You can’t possibly offer feedback on every show on every station.  There isn’t as much mincing of words in critique sessions as in previous years.”

For time restraints, programmers are much more direct and Kitchin opines that, “Most radio personalities have an understandable tendency to think vertically.  The host of a three-hour sports program remembers the first words of his or her day and every other word until the last one of the show.  A DVD-like chip in their brain lets them memorize what they have just done.  As a result, they don’t view it as five minutes here and 23 minutes there.  Listeners — and program directors — however take things in horizontally, so it is possible they could miss the best bit a personality did that particular day.”

Another major variation from past years, with this development being much more recent in nature, deals with diary — versus electronic-based — ratings measurement.  Arbitron’s Portable People Meters obviously measure audiences much differently and Kitchin states, “Being able to explain and interpret that change is a huge dynamic.  Successful talk hosts pay attention to ratings results because they know their partners in business are doing the same thing.  Talented and accomplished hosts pay attention to the meters and build up data on how the meters gather their statistics.  They are learning differences on understanding they now have a much higher cume audience than they did in the diary.  Smart hosts are definitely digesting the notion that PPM shows a lower TSL and more individual listening occasions than we previously thought.  Perhaps the single biggest concern people walk away from is that the sample size is significantly smaller and adds to much more volatility in the numbers.  The industry has not helped itself by reducing the sample size by two-thirds.”

So much of today’s talk radio features direct-response and direct sales prompting Kitchin to declare, “You don’t need to wait for the next PPM or diary report to know if you are connecting with your listeners and if they are engaged.  You can tell from sales results of the program’s sponsors.  It would be foolish of me to think for even one second that any knowledge I might have about subject matter, topic nature or delivery style would be something smarter than what a talk host could figure out on his or her own.  More than anything else, the top talents have an instinct about what the audience wants.  Even the largest, healthiest ego understands that we are at the whim of a good relationship with a program director.”

Virtually every multiple-market, on-air personality knows that, while it might be easy to cast them aside, those are all individual votes.  “No matter how successful you are and however many Marconi Awards you may have won, when you get dismissed by a radio station, you feel like you are being fired,” Kitchin emphasizes.  “It doesn’t matter if you have been on 600 stations for 20 years or 200 stations for 15 years, it is the worst feeling in the world because that on-air talent believes they have given their best show.  If they did understand it, they would not have the healthy ego that allows them to be a brilliant entertainer.  It is in their DNA to wonder how they are going to connect with the listeners they just lost and how they will replace that.”

Supreme class and graciousness are among Kitchin’s signature hallmarks and while displaying his customary courteous, ultra-polite nature, he is resolute in keeping Sound Mind’s heavy-hitter client list confidential.  Nonetheless, he explains that he is entrusted with making sure his clients have, “the best audience relationship, best resources and the best economic outcome.”

Way it is done in the wild, wild west

By the very nature of its unique, multi-channel platform, CRN Digital Talk continuously searches for new programming.  As a result, it is extremely customary for the Los Angeles (Sunland)-based entity to approach — or to be approached by — radio novices.

High-profile talents are definitely not exempt from being critiqued, but as CRN Digital Talk president/chief executive officer Mike Horn stresses, “You have to go easy on them at first.”

Even though Robert Conrad hadn’t had any previous radio experience, Horn explained to the actor who masterfully and adroitly brought to life such characters as James T. West (“Wild, Wild West”), Tom Lopaka (“Hawaiian Eye”) and Major “Pappy” Boyington (“Baa Baa Black Sheep”) what he’d be doing as if Conrad were playing a role.  “He can be tough to deal with because he has the thought process set in his mind,” Horn candidly states.  “When we first met, I found out he was a conservative.  I thought it was great because I might have the next Rush Limbaugh on my hands.”

The first batch of Conrad’s CRN shows was done from the actor’s home and Horn served as his board-op.  “He wasn’t particularly quick on his feet but as soon as we gave him a celebrity guest, it was like a searchlight found him,” Horn remarks.  “The tap turned on and water started flowing out.  He and the guest started going back and forth on the things they had done.”

All of a sudden, it wasn’t a political talk show, but a program that covered events that happened in Hollywood.  Calls came in with much greater frequency, as listeners were curious about Conrad’s career; anything dealing with politics was totally dumped.  Everything went to entertainment and the show is in its fourth year.  “Robert’s been bitten by the radio bug but he can still be hard to deal with because he has a preconceived notion that he will never discuss issues or politics,” Horn laments.  “He should be able to talk about something that is going on if he wants to, but he prefers the show be listener-based and guest-based.”

Another CRN talent with “Baa Baa Black Sheep” roots, Larry Manetti (Bobby Boyle on that NBC-TV show), is currently heard on weekends.  Perhaps best known though for his “Rick Wright” second-banana role to Tom Selleck (on CBS-TV’s “Magnum P.I.), Manetti brings his wife Nancy to CRN and the two enjoy an excellent on-air camaraderie.  “Larry has many guests; knows a lot of people; and takes direction very well,” Horn comments.  “He is trying to learn as much as he can so he can do a daily show.  The person you might think would be the least interested in taking direction would be [former NFL defensive end and star of NBC-TV's 'Hunter'] Fred Dryer but, once again, he wants to be a radio star.  Fred could do a great political talk show and he is learning things as he goes along.  Someone who really wants to become a radio star will be very willing to take direction.  Everybody is different, so a good program director knows how to handle each talent.”

While CRN’s Conrad, Manetti and Dryer triumvirate successfully made their individual marks in television (and in Dryer’s case football before TV), they all arrived at Horn’s cable radio network as radio rookies.  “You can get them to listen,” Horn insists.  “Once someone has been around for a while however, it’s hard to tell them what to do.  One person Rush Limbaugh would listen to and trust was Ed McLaughlin.  As soon as Rush stopped doing that though, a number of things began happening like Rush being hooked on painkillers.  The same is true with Howard Stern.  He and Mel Karmazin work well together because Howard trusts him and there is mutual respect.  Talent is [usually] making more money than the program director but programmers like [KFI, Los Angeles'] Robin Bertolucci get the hosts’ respect.  Everybody needs a mentor — everyone needs a higher power.”

Frenzied firefighters

As so many of today’s program directors are being pulled in multiple directions, Talk Radio Network president of programming Phil Boyce is among those bewailing the lack of time to lead, teach and coach.

Given that air personalities and support staff still crave direction/feedback, Boyce declares programmers have to find time to supply it.  “Every on-air talent needs somebody to keep them on the straight and narrow, who can tell them what they need to hear even if they don’t want to hear it,” he insists.  “The temptation is for them to listen to a sycophant who gives the wrong message.  Smart talk talents develop a few close allies who can act as both coach and mentor.  Every one of them needs a sounding board to give them honest feedback.  I fear the program director job at many stations has become so burdensome that they don’t really have enough time to direct.  Most programmers are putting out fires all day and never have time even to listen to the station.  I used to try to take one day a month to drive around all day listening like a typical listener.  Get away from the fires and phone calls and really focus on what comes out of the speaker.”

Having a great relationship with his air talent was one of Boyce’s true loves as a local hands-on program director of such stations as New York’s WABC and as vice president of programming for ABC Radio’s news-talk stations.  “Most air personalities can see ‘b.s.’ walking a mile away so programmers who are not 100% honest will not last very long in a host relationship,” he states.  “It takes time to build trust and confidence.  You must love talent and understand that the very thing that drives us crazy off the air is the same thing that makes them so darn good on the air; you can’t change that.  Program directors who understand that can develop that relationship, while programmers who resent it never will.”

Most talk hosts, according to Boyce, “despise” conventional sit down aircheck sessions.  “Sean Hannity even put it into his contract that he didn’t have to do it,” Boyce points out.  “I just made it a point to sit down and chat with him everyday before the show.  It took him months before he said, ‘Wait a minute, this is your version of air-checking me, isn’t it?’ There are gentle ways to nudge talk talent to better on air habits.  You do not need the ‘my way or the highway’ approach.”

Extremely intelligent network hosts know the programmers of his or her affiliates personally and they have frequent communication with them.  “A willingness to go the extra mile and treat the local station like your own goes a long way,” Boyce maintains.  “Hosts who are willing to visit the market, record liners, and show concern for local issues are the ones who are kept even during bad times.  There is no room anymore for prima donna hosts.”

It’s frankly about r-e-s-p-e-c-t

As the programmer for Bonneville, Seattle’s sports KIRO-AM; news-talk KIRO-FM; and talk “The Truth” (KTTH), Larry Gifford adheres to a philosophy built on trust, respect and consistency in dealing with on-air talents.  “It is usually not about being right or wrong but looking at what was good and how it could be better,” the former ESPN Radio Network program director and Fox Sports Radio sports director remarks.  “Specific, timely feedback is also vital.”

Viewing the relationship between the program director and on-air personalities as a collaboration, Gifford opines, “We work together to best serve the listener and the station.”

Some personalities want the interaction and discussion although Gifford also points out, “Others are unreachable.  It depends on how each side views the deal.”

Rather than Gifford arbitrarily taping a random 60-minute segment, he has his on-air talent pick his or her own segment to be reviewed in a critique session.  “I listen to it and prepare my notes ahead of time,” he explains.  “We listen together and discuss what we liked about it and how it could have been better.  My job is to help them; empower them; and take them through a creative process that allows them to be their authentic self, while serving the station and the listeners.  In the past, program directors would grab an aircheck and pick it apart telling the talent everything that was wrong with what they did.  It is now more of a partnership, as talk radio personalities are artists, performers, creators and curators.”

On the flipside, Gifford maintains program directors are coaches who protect talent.  “They give them the tools, space and security to be authentic and inspired,” he comments.  “Some on-air personalities respect the program director and some don’t.  You do not get automatic respect for a title.  Like any relationship, respect is earned by being consistent, honest, and engaged.”

Clearly, the word “respect” is a common thread woven throughout any discussion of program director-talent interaction and KMJ AM & FM, Fresno program director Skip Essick chimes in by adding, “A long time ago, I learned that it depends on if the programmer respects the personality.  It really does not matter what kind of track record you bring to the table: If you don’t respect the talent, they won’t respect you.”

Possibly attached to it is a credibility issue, but Essick states, “Talk personalities need to understand the art of showmanship.  They can’t act their way through the course of dialogue.  They need to take a position and remain true to it.  Otherwise, the ‘b.s.’ buzzer will go off.  Programmers are a lot more than ‘directors.’  Today’s program director needs to be a businessperson first.  If you can’t read an income statement, you need to learn.  This is all about selling products and services of the advertising customer.  Life is a much easier if you really accept and understand that.”

Mike Kinosian is special features correspondent for TALKERS magazine. He can be e-mailed at mike.kinosian@gmail.com.

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Category: Features