CASE STUDY: How to Launch an Independently Syndicated Talk Show

| July 24, 2013

By Thomas R. Ray, III CPBE, AMD, DRB
Tom Ray Consulting
President   
TALKERS
Technical Editor

NEW YORK — I’ve been promising for a while the story of “The Little Engine That Could.”  As many know, I work with an independently syndicated radio program, Ron Ananian: The Car Doctor.  This is the story of how and why we took it into independent syndication.  You could do this, too.

Car Doctor logoThe Car Doctor was a program offered on the WOR Radio Network.  With the acquisition of WOR by Clear Channel on December 20, 2012, The Car Doctor program was bounced from the schedule and was immediately taken into 30 day reruns to fulfill contract obligations.

Ron Ananian, program host, called me on Christmas Eve.  Obviously, he was upset – as was I.  Ron runs R/A Automotive in Waldwick, New Jersey.  He has been on the air for over 20 years as The Car Doctor.  He wanted the program to continue, and asked how we would go about doing that – if I wanted to get involved.  Yeah, I did.

First things first – we needed a home base.  We discussed building a small studio in Ron’s house, which we are going to do by the end of 2013.  But not knowing if our creation was going to fly, Ron did not want to put the upfront money into a studio, and I did not blame him.  While he has friends and associates who could do things like put up a wall, he would need a console, phone system, phone lines, etc, etc, etc.

We found a radio station fairly close to Ron in New Jersey that had a studio available on Saturday from 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm, with phone lines and a studio phone system.  We came to an agreement to rent the studio for the two hour program weekly at a fair rate.

So far, so good.  But, how do we get the program to affiliates?  A quick call to Cumulus Satellite Services secured us a channel on their XDS satellite system at a reasonable rate.  And considering that the WOR Radio Network was distributed by Cumulus Satellite, this made perfect sense to do, as affiliates already had the receivers in place and wired.

OK.  But how do we get audio from New Jersey to the Cumulus head end in Manhattan?

This is where we needed to purchase equipment.  We purchased an Aphex Compellor, an AirTools 6100 profanity delay, and a Comrex BricLink IP codec – all of which we installed in a road case that we bring to the studio weekly.  Audio goes from the studio’s console to the Compellor, used as protection for the digital devices that come after.  The delay, well, we all know what that is for.  It is set for 10 seconds to make the math easy in the studio to hit the hard break times.  The BricLink connects to an internet connection in the studio, and is set to automatically attach to the Cumulus side.  We now have a complete system to get the program to the affiliates.  And it didn’t cost that much to do.

What about a call in number?  The studio had 201 area code numbers, but Ron’s listeners were used to an 800 number.  Using a service called E-Voice, I got us a catchy 855 number (toll free) — with perks — at a more than reasonable monthly rate.  I can point the 855 number anywhere it needs to go.  So if one Saturday our usual bank of phone numbers is out, I can easily repoint the 855 number to the second bank in the studio.  And – bonus — when the show is over, we repoint the 855 number to voicemail provided as part of the E-Voice account, so listeners who call in markets that air the show on a delayed basis can leave a message.  This message is transcribed into an email that goes to Ron’s producer, Fastharry.  Harry calls the listener and arranges a convenient time the following Saturday to call out to the listener and get him on the air with Ron and get his problem solved.  It’s a great service and something I think every show should have if you will have affiliates running the program on a delayed basis.

Next – affiliate relations.  Willis Damalt of the WOR Radio Network was let go on December 20, the day of the Clear Channel acquisition.  Ron hired him on for affiliate relations.  Willis managed to keep all of Ron’s affiliates.  And since the program was bounced and was being removed from the WOR Radio Network schedule, it became a simple behind the scenes software move to make Ron’s show active at affiliate stations.  Basically, affiliates needed to check to make sure their receiver schedule now included the new location of the Car Doctor, and reprogram their receiver relay outputs for the new cue codes.

Ron has been working with a company for a long time selling the show, and has continued this relationship.  Very frankly, and yes, I’m bragging here, we have been sold out, and in some cases, oversold, for several months now.

Finally, we needed a board operator.  While I have run the board for the show, very frankly, I’m a somewhat expensive board operator.  Jimmy Altamuro, who was John Gambling’s board operator on WOR, was also let go in the acquisition.  Ron hired Jimmy on to run the show — and Jimmy is second to none in keeping Ron on time during the program.

The last Car Doctor airing on the WOR Network was January 19.  The first live show on Ron’s own network was January 26.  We didn’t miss a beat, and the first show went off without a hitch, though there were butterflies in each stomach in the studio as airtime approached.  And, for the most part, it was seamless to affiliates.

Audio production is minimal.  The spots Ron needs to record he does, usually on Wednesday evening, on a small handheld Tascam digital recorder.  He uploads these files to Google Drive, which either I or Jimmy can pull down, edit and load into the on air system.  Additionally, custom opens are done for each of the two hours weekly consisting of sound bites from the previous week’s show.  I produce these for Ron at home.  I have it down to a science where I spend maybe an entire hour on the opens.

We started doing the show with all the breaks pre-produced on CD.  Since, we’ve gone with a Linux based free automation system, Rivendell, that we use to run the breaks and keep the proper cue timing.  It runs under Linux, which runs under Parallels, which runs on a Mac.  This is a topic for another column.  It sounds more complex than it is.

We also put together a website, began Podcasting (available on iTunes, incidentally…and that is not necessarily easy to meet their requirements), and are planning other digital offerings soon.

And we managed to do all the above and re-launch the program within a four week period.  Starting over the holidays!  So it can be done quickly and economically.

If you’re considering launching a program into independent syndication, it is not as difficult as you may think.  You need to know the steps to accomplish to get there.  And don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a bazillion phone calls on your first show.  On Ron’s first show on January 26, listeners had become accustomed to not being able to call in, as the show was in reruns, for four weeks.  Additionally, the re-launch had a slightly different sound and feel to it.  We were in a different venue, Ron was surrounded by different people and, yes, he was in a different mental state because of all that had occurred.  But it was still The Car Doctor Show.  We lacked for calls on the first show.  Lately, the phones have exploded, and we are lucky if we can fit any of the callbacks into the show.

So if you have a program you wish to take into independent syndication, you need to know the basic steps and questions to ask:

  •  Where will we do the show?  Can we rent a studio, or do we need to build something?

  •  How will you get the show to your affiliates?  If your program is done live, and if you will only have a few affiliates, you may want to consider a multicast digital audio codec.  I now rep TieLine codecs, and can point you in the right direction.  If you expect exponential growth in affiliates, you will want to consider satellite distribution.  If your program is recorded, consider FTP distribution on the internet.

  •  Will you be taking listener calls on the show?  If so, you’ll need call in lines and a studio phone system.  Don’t cheap out by buying a speakerphone and putting a microphone in front of it.  Your listeners deserve better, and the better you sound, the more seriously you will be taken.

  •  How will you get production elements produced?  You may need to hire someone freelance to help you with this task.

  •  Assuming you will be playing commercial breaks, how will you play them back?  The easiest is to pre-produce the breaks on CD.  You can also play files through Windows Media Player or other computer based methods.

  •  You should have a pre-defined program clock that clearly shows the network break placement and lengths, the local break placement and lengths, and the hard start and end times of the program.  Your affiliates obviously need this – but it helps to keep you straight and on time during the show.

  •  How will you sell commercial time?

  •  How will you service affiliates and get new affiliates for the show?

  •  You will need to put together a website for the program where listeners can head for information, and affiliates can also head for information.

  •  If you podcast, you need to consider how you will go about this.

Once you can answer these questions, it forms a fairly easy road map to launching the program on air.

Granted, all involved with The Car Doctor are seasoned broadcast professionals who know the phone calls to make and the people to call.  That doesn’t mean you cannot do the same thing and put a quality program on for affiliates.

Going into independent syndication, while not simple to do, will give you a great sense of satisfaction.  Particularly if you hop onto an affiliate’s audio stream and hear the program hit their stream – 2000 miles away.  Yeah.  That feels good.

1-tbugk

Thomas R. Ray, III CPBE, AMD, DRB is president of Tom Ray Consulting and Technical Editor of TALKERS. He can be phoned at 845-418-5065 or emailed at tomray@tomrayconsulting.com.  His website is www.tomrayconsulting.com

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Category: Advice, Technical