Sun Broadcast Group, Inc.
NEW YORK — It was another sad week for network radio as more great people: mothers, fathers, sons and daughters… dreamers of great ideas, writers of great content, communicators of the stories that shape our world, were sent to the unemployment line. Was it greed? Was it failure to evolve? Was it competition? Maybe. But in my humble opinion it was something simpler yet more devastating… Fear. Fear to be bold, fear to take risks and most important, fear to defend.
The news of Talk Radio Network shuttering its news operations and slashing staff compelled me to do something I haven’t done in years. Speak out. Maybe I too have been afraid. In fact after I finished the first draft of this article, I ran it by my team for their feedback and almost all, while they agreed with me, were afraid of what it may do to us. Will agencies be offended? Will producers stop bringing their content to us? Will major players in our industry try to silence us? Fear. From our staff, to our competitors, to station owners, content developers, network executives large and small, we’re all afraid and after 19 years serving this industry, there was one moment when it became abundantly clear.
Let’s start by going back a couple of years to that infamous day when I believe we all lost our way. I’m talking about February 29, 2012. On that day a few words changed our industry and set in motion a little snowball rolling down the mountainside. Today it has grown larger than a bus with no signs of stopping and nobody seems to care. What words you ask? “Fluke essentially says that she must be paid to have sex—what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right?” Yes, those words. A conservative commentator, no stranger to controversial statements, said something rude about a supporter of a liberal president in the middle of a heated election cycle. He said it to his very conservative audience who tune in for that exact reason. At that moment our world came to a grinding halt. Damn you leap year for giving him that extra day to screw up the rest of our lives!
I remember Thursday, March 1st actually more than the previous day. It was on that day when all hell broke loose. Three years into our new network adventure at Sun Broadcast Group, an already overworked staff of ten spent the day fielding phone calls from agencies that sounded as if they just lost a relative. They demanded everything stop until we could guarantee that spots weren’t playing in or near Rush’s show. This went on for days. Whether we had a Rush affiliate or not (which we didn’t) OUR world stopped while panic set in. The man who was already at the top of the Do Not Buy List just reshaped an industry and set into motion a chain of events that we’ve allowed to snowball into what could be the destruction of this medium.
As the days passed, the dust from that February day slowly settled. We, in the industry, were able to give the buyers and clients the comfort they needed to get through that moment. Life, at least we thought, got back to normal. Boy, were we in for a surprise! What we didn’t notice was during all the chaos and the days after, nobody looked up the mountain to see if the little snowball had been stopped. Instead we all just ignored it and sat by the fire in our mountainside retreat sipping our Radio Cognac. We all continued to deal with the “No Rush” mandate and we all worked hard to make sure spots stayed far away from his show. But then came more panic. In this increasingly sensitive, politically correct world, brands, clients, agencies and more importantly, stockholders from these companies became nervous. Controversy, or even being in the same vicinity of controversy, could lead to a penny drop in stock prices and that is simply unacceptable. Fear of losing money trumped our braveness to defend this amazing medium. So, what did they do to the already bruised industry that we’ve all devoted our lives to? They demonized us more. No longer was this just a Rush problem, now they wanted specific stations removed as well. The Do Not Buy List went from a few lines, to a few pages.
The hypocrisy of what a brand will run next to on television but not radio should enrage us all. But we’re afraid to stand up. Have you watched television lately? Calling somebody a Slut is like the new way of saying hello. It’s not just modern day television either. I recall in the 80s, and now in reruns, Ms. Blanche Devereaux being called much worse. Did I miss the outrage, the boycott? Is it happening somewhere today because the Hallmark Channel chooses to run such “outrageous content”? No. There isn’t one because the television industry defended itself and stood up to being bold and different. They aren’t afraid to create (or in this case rerun) content for the people that are most important in their world, the viewers. If they push the envelope or they get a few complaint emails, they accept, and move on. We have not been able to move on from our darkest day because we’re afraid to be bold, break the mold, and more importantly, defend ourselves.
Recently, I met with an agency staffer who shared their fear with me about the situation. They told me that they didn’t mind so much what we as a network would do, but more what the individual station or station group could do if they were included on a network buy. In this person’s mind, if the local station needed filler they now had the agencies spot in their system and could run it in or near controversial programming. That day, on the outside, I accepted this persons fear with understanding. On the inside I cringed. The snowball was getting bigger. This wasn’t the solution and it was going to get much worse.
Here’s where I have to pause, reflect on that meeting and take responsibility for being just as guilty as anyone else in our industry. On that day when I had very influential ears in front of me…ears on a person who themselves could help stop the snowball, I did what I’m now writing so passionately about. I caved to fear. Just as the brands and stockholders caved in fear they may loose a few cents because of Rush giving his conservative audience the red meat they salivate over, I caved to a person who controlled a marketing budget that included radio and I feared standing up to defend the format and the industry. See, this article isn’t just about talk radio. By our inaction during this time we’re setting a precedent that is sure to haunt us one day. When Miley Cyrus does something offensive on the radio, will we ban Top 40? Will we cancel all ads during a Patriots broadcast because of the actions of one demented player? At this pace every format, every product, every station will be under fire because of our fear.
So here we are, September 2013. Nineteen months after that dark Leap Day. The “No Rush” mandate and subsequent “No Rush Affiliate” mandate has now ballooned to the “No News/Talk” mandate. Great companies with great products, some of which are represented by my competitors, products like Bloomberg Radio, Wall Street Journal Radio, ABC News, and yes…even Talk Radio Network are all suffering. Are they controversial? Did ABC News infuriate a brand with a politically biased tirade? No. They are guilty by association. To their credit, there are some reporters in our trades that have tried to make some sense of it all, but none of us have done what truly needs to be done. Other than a few industry events where we all pat each other on the back and smoke cigars while we talk about how great we are, nobody at the executive level, including myself, has stood up to make a damned bit of difference. Our industry is being redefined in the most terrible way because of our own fear, and the people that poured their lives into good, quality radio are being laid off rather than applauded. People like Mark Masters. Whether you agree his approach to the problem or not (that can be debated elsewhere), he’s given decades of his life to creating radio products that entertain and inform millions. Today he sits in an office filled only with echoes of great communicators and history making moments. He watches that on-air light wondering when it may go off for the last time.
Once upon a time families gathered around their radios to learn together, laugh together, and if bad news struck, to weep together. Radio was their connection to the world and to each other. We took pride in providing that service to them. We were bold. We took chances. We didn’t care about research or cookie-cutter formats. We didn’t look at headcount if we knew our product was the best. We did the unimaginable; we listened…to our listeners and gave them the product they wanted. Now, it’s easier to find the next internet project, iPhone app or star-studded concert to divert attention. We drop news and talk stations from our lineups to appease the masses. We accept the beating to a format that has given this country so much rather than gather as a team, put all of our arms out together and finally stop this snowball from coming right at us. What will eventually be crushed under that’s now is a magnificent retreat filled with memories from greats like Jack Benny, Paul Harvey, Dick Clark, Casey Kasem, Ryan Seacrest and yes even Rush Limbaugh. These people all took risks. They did it their way. They used a medium to communicate and engage people who desperately wanted to be part of a conversation. Today, it’s all unraveling, uncontested. All so we can protect our wallets, our stock prices and our businesses.
Meanwhile, the CMOs, stockholders of the world’s biggest brands, many of the consumers, and sadly the younger people who will one day inherit these marketing decisions are long gone. They’re enjoying the party at Club Spotify, The Apple Chalet, Pandora Place, Googleville, and others. Those “clubs” are young, hip, fresh and hell some of them even have waterslides into the hot tub. However, most importantly, they’re doing something that WE wrote the book on…they’re daring to be different and not afraid to take chances.
Remember how we all laughed at XM/Sirius when they launched? We watched the debt build to unbelievable heights and wondered who would pay for something they can get for free. Fast forward to today…Oprah, Martha, Howard, NFL, NBA, MLB. It hasn’t been an easy road for SiriusXM, but I saw a lot of happy employees there during my last visit. Oh yeah, they’re making money too. The same is true with Spotify, Pandora and the companies that you and I still don’t even know about yet. The company that the 16 year old in his parent’s basement is working on right now as you read this. What do they all have in common? They’re not afraid.
I look around today at the chaos. Eyes trained on everything but the real problem. I see an industry that soon, and hopefully, I’ll inherit from those of you that I watched when I first entered the space as an awestruck 17 year old. Today, at 36 I’m the youngest network executive at the helm of a fast growing, forward thinking radio company who’s trying to carve out my space in this industry. I’m not here for stockholders…I have none but myself. I’m not here for the pay, it’s radio, the pay sucks. I’m here to make a difference. I’m here to entertain. I’m here to inform. And starting today I pledge to be unabashedly, unafraid to do just that.
I truly believe that even with all the competition we face today and the different ways that people consume content, that radio’s best days are ahead of us. The wonderful little airwaves that circle around our heads everyday will always be there. Always. What we put on them, well, that’s where I think torch passing can truly change the conversation.
So today, I’m asking all of you reading this. Don’t be afraid. Join me. Stop fighting each other and start standing together for our future. The networks, the agencies, the companies whose successful products today were the result of a great radio campaign yesterday. Stand up for this medium to the people that matter. One day “kids” like me that watched you and learned under you, will want a chance to make a difference too. If right now we refuse to rise up, defend radio and get back to the basics of providing quality, informative, entertaining content to the people we serve, there will be nothing left but a pile of mangled wood, under a hill of snow and a mountain of history buried beneath it.
Jason Bailey is CEO of Sun Broadcast Group, Inc. He can be emailed at JBailey@sunbgi.com