Sold- Out, Power-Packed Conference Tackles Key Industry Issues
By Mike Kinosian
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief
NEW YORK — More often than not, rising on-air talents, promising athletes, or new dining establishments cannot live up to lofty expectations.
Some, in fact, could argue it is virtually impossible to parallel the sizzle; thus, the numerous number of disappointing fizzles.
Such though was clearly and thankfully not the case this past Thursday (6-6) at “Talkers New York 2013,” as an indisputable Who’s Who gathering of spoken-word broadcasters proved to be every bit of THE must-attend event as had been billed and trumpeted.
Granted, that may appear as self-congratulatory hyperbole; however, the essence and vitality of the talk radio genre was perfectly woven into one of the most ambitious agendas of any radio industry get-together.
It all clicked.
One fascinating thing to monitor at any convention is the use of certain buzzwords and phrases.
Hot verbiage at “Talkers New York 2013” included “game changer” and “content is king.”
Wall-to-wall “stars” were present everywhere at NYC’s Concierge Conference Center. Fresh new names mixed in nicely with long recognizable veterans.
You might have done a double take and had to be reassured that Miss Universe and Glee’s Matthew Morrison (“Will Schuester”) were actually in attendance.
Panel moderators such as RAB chief Erica Farber performed their duties with especial aplomb (WYD Media’s Thom Hartmann even did so with his left arm in a sling) and each session contained more than its share of nuggets.
Copious off-air luminaries included onetime mega-syndication rivals Kraig Kitchin and Norm Pattiz; former leading adult contemporary consultant-turned-corporate programming honcho Mike McVay; and an array of presidents, executive vice presidents, and senior vice presidents.
Even so, the unsung heavyweights might very well have been the audience as a whole which numbered somewhere in the vicinity of 500. (There were some 55 speakers.)
Contrasted to many other conferences, seminars, conventions and the like, attendees at this particular gathering displayed uncharacteristic attentiveness and populated the meeting room throughout the extensive day.
Not one session had an embarrassingly low turnout. Quite the contrary, as most were standing room only.
Perhaps the most noticeable thing that proudly shined through was a genuine politeness expressed and a legitimate sense of community.
Back To Basics
At an event that featured several keynote speakers, keynoter number one was multimedia talk star Sean Hannity of Premiere Networks and Fox News Channel who contributed to both ends of the conference sponsoring his traditional morning breakfast (featuring a great buffet and seemingly unlimited mimosas!) then delivering a cool video presentation produced on the set of his television show and then closing out the festivities by shaking hands with just about every attendee in the house at the closing cocktail reception.
A friend of Hannity’s who works in the car industry showed the popular talk personality what a future automobile dashboard will resemble. “Every car will have iHeartRadio, satellite radio, Pandora, and every car will have the ability to listen to online stations,” Hannity noted. “It is great that people will have all these ways to find us. We have to embrace that reality.”
The popular personality grasps the economics of the business and he noted, “This is not a charity. Radio is a money-making industry. We have to be lean and cut excess expenses. Think back to five or 10 years ago and ask yourself how different the station you are working at today is from the one you worked at then.”
Some of the biggest radio facilities Hannity visits around the country have fewer program directors and music directors, as well as “non-existent” news staffs. “I have met salespeople who sell talk radio – yet they do not know who Rush Limbaugh is,” he remarked in disbelief. “There might be a short-term benefit to drastic cost-cutting, but we have to pay attention to the long term harm to the industry.”
Quite recently, stations did extensive marketing and contesting. “We have to ask ourselves if we are forgetting some of the basics,” implored Hannity. “We want people to invest in our radio stations by spending ad dollars with us, but we need to spend to build our audience base. For example, point-to-point marketing can target every single area in a market where there are [Arbitron portable] people meters. A station can contest specifically to those areas, depending on [its] target demo. 10 years ago, we did many giveaways and they worked, so we need to remember the basics.”
On an ultra-positive note, Hannity commented, “The great news is that we remain the number one format in radio. We have more platforms than ever before to reach out, connect, and build our audience. Staying ahead of technology is one of the biggest challenges of the day. I have confidence that we will conquer it.”
Fresh out of New York’s St. John’s University, Mike Francesa went to CBS and managed to hook up with Brent Musberger, who instantly got the sports enthusiast a job. “I traveled with him for a couple of years when he was bigger than big,” recalled WFAN, New York personality Francesa, who delivered the “Talkers New York 2013” Sports Keynote Address. “Nowadays, people are tight with every dollar. It is that way in radio and television but I was there when it was the Roman Empire. They spent $1,000 on production meeting meals. The early-1980s was a very different time.”
According to Francesa, sports radio at WFAN changed owing to the arrival of a certain legendary morning talent. “Without Don Imus, there is no Mike Francesca or ‘Mike & The Mad Dog,’” insisted Francesa, referencing his association with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo. “Don Imus allowed us to build the foundation of the station on his billing.”
On-air for a Herculean five and a half hours every weekday (1:00 pm – 6:30 pm), Francesa is hardly a (pun intended) fan of competing against himself in online interviews. “That is what we are trying to do now, but [the website] is not rated,” he stated. “Until we get all of these different platforms married, we are bastardizing our own product. That makes no sense and that one statement alone is worth anyone coming here. It has to change,” he said echoing a point raised earlier by Sean Hannity.
Discussing one of his past bosses, Francesa joked, “You have all heard about Mel Karmazin – whatever you heard about him, it is worse. My job is ratings and the only words he wanted to talk about were ratings and revenue.”
Every Monday at 12:15 pm, Francesa sits in front of a computer to go over the week’s ratings. “That is my report card: I get one every week,” he pointed out. “I could be #1 [among New York’s sports stations] with one hand, but my job is to beat every station. That has been my job for 25 years. I react to the numbers weekly. The show I have done the past 25 years has basically been first or second in the market.”
When Francesa started at WFAN, the idea was to build a brand. “Don Imus was a brand – everyone in New York City knew his name,” Francesa explained. “We had to do that as well. That is the first step to lasting success. Building a brand is the most important thing to do. It is very true that we are in the business of selling content. That is what the media business is doing so well right now. If I can sell something two or three times – hey – it is better than selling it just once. The first thing you must do though is to become a brand. It is not going to happen in one day.”
Not only is Francesa absent from the Twitter and Facebook craze, he raised more than one set of eyebrows when he declared he does not get anywhere near those social network platforms. “There are fake Facebook and Twitter accounts with my name, but I have never been on any of those streams,” he stressed. “Use them – but do not live on them. Why would I give someone my view on a game at 8:00 pm and then ask listeners to listen to the same damn thing the next day at 1:00 pm? That is not appointment radio.”
In addition to being a non-participant in Facebook and Twitter, he does not do interviews on other WFAN shows. “I ask people to show up to listen to what I say,” Francesa mentioned in his keynote remarks. “People are on Twitter all the time but I am not captivating enough to be on 24 hours a day. They are giving the product away for free. My job is personality, point of view, and analysis.”
The goal is for people to listen to Francesa’s daily WFAN show, which is simulcast on the YES Network.
Estimating that his WFAN program has lost one ratings point compared to its pre-YES days, Francesa explained, “We have been well-compensated for that point. It has helped us in other ways with such things as promotion, so the simulcast has worked. We do a radio show on TV. Listeners can eavesdrop on [it]. It fills [the YES Network’s] need for five and a half hours of original programming every day.”
Many syndication offers were made to Francesa and his on-air partner Chris Russo (“Mike & The Mad Dog”) but Francesa indicated they turned them down to remain local. “If you are going to own a town, New York is a nice one to own,” he joked. “We were doing so well that we thought our audience might not like that we were trying to appeal to two masters. There are thousands of choices out there so you have to cut through. Local works and you should never give it up because it is live, immediate, and it is the best thing that radio is. Network radio is homogenized [while] local is passionate and the heartbeat of a city. At 3:00 pm, I am attending to the world’s largest parking lot – the Long Island Expressway. It is a captive audience with nowhere to go.”
Even though Francesa enjoys other things such as politics, he steadfastly concentrates on doing a sports show. It is not “guy talk,” or “t & a,” since he emphasized, “I believe in doing real sports talk. I want to think about what is in each person’s head when they are going home that day. Sports has become the driving force in culture in this country. We idolize sports stars and that is why it works on the radio.”
Opining that radio is “a simple business,” Francesa advised attendees to understand the business part of it. “Cherish your audience and challenge your callers,” he suggested. “The show should not be what you like, but what your audience wants. You do not have to be everywhere and you do not have to give it away for free.”
Sports radio talents, Francesa noted, are compensated on their ability to register 25-54 numbers, but he stressed the format’s demos should be changed to 35-69 because, “People 60-69 have all the money. Guys who are 25 live at home and cannot pay their rent; 25-54 is gone. I have been yelling that one for years. Make it 35-69 because they have all the cash. I will be 60 next year and I’m loaded. I am the guy you want to sell.
Radio Isn’t Dead
In what seems to only surface at TALKERS-related gatherings, there was a quirky departure from typical convention protocol immediately before the 11:00 am “State of Radio Advertising and Sales” session.
Deeply solidified following Smulyan’s mini-presentation was the already widely-held notion that, if the industry were fortunate to have a handful of executives even remotely comparable to him, the outlook for the business would be supremely rosy.
Emmis’ always effervescent, optimistic chairman-president-chief executive officer pointed out that the cost for electricity at the chain’s Los Angeles rhythmic CHR, KPWR (“Power 106”), is $39,000 a year.
For that price, Emmis can simultaneously send its signal to just one Southern California resident, or to as many as 15 million in that locale. “If we took down our transmitter and went to the internet, it would cost us over a million dollars a year to reach our audience and it would cost our audience more than a million dollars to receive our signal,” Smulyan stated. “We are coming to a time when the American public is learning that data is not free. At the same time, people are finding out they will have to pay a lot of money to listen to what we do, while there is a free alternative. All they have to do is hit a button on their phone.”
This marks Smulyan’s 40th year in the radio business and he is acutely aware that change is the nature of the industry. “I can still remember when we put “Mike & The Mad Dog” together at [New York City’s WFAN, the country’s first all-sports station],” he fondly recalled. “I have never seen one issue that can change our industry more fundamentally [than this one]. It will change the perception about the way people look at radio. The interactive tuner we have developed will give people another reason to look at our business. When this comes – and it will come soon – I urge you to tell your listeners to try it and experiment with it. We have a way that will engage them in a way that we have not had in a long time.”
According to Smulyan, the next radio tuner will allow broadcasters to do instant voting, polls, texting contests, and other things that will engage a station’s audience in the mobile sphere in which they are living. “Let’s face it – everyone carries a Smartphone all the time,” he reasoned. “Twenty years ago, 40 million Walkmen a year were sold – we don’t sell any today. Today’s Walkman is a Smartphone. The FM chip is in there. We are working on AM and think translators are the best way to do it. The reality is that this gives us a chance to re-introduce our product to a whole new generation of Americans. This is our time to change the perception that radio is dead. We have a tremendous advantage by being able to reach every American at no cost. In a world where people are paying a lot of money for data, we have a great alternative.”
Proud Professional Parasite
Following his well-received remarks, Smulyan took his place among fellow panelists.
Radio Advertising Bureau president/chief executive officer Erica Farber had the distinction of moderating the session and she noted, “Even if you don’t like salespeople, or have had a problem with people in sales, all of us are in sales. Every time an on-air talent opens up the microphone, he or she is selling something.”
Premiere Networks senior vice president of sales Dan Metter indicated that, by a “great” margin, “Second quarter is outpacing last second quarter,” and that the syndication company’s talk radio division “is doing especially well.”
It was the contention of Salem-owned WNYM, New York vice president/general manager Jerry Crowley that, “You are not going to do revenue if you don’t have boots on the street.”
The one word Smulyan used to describe the atmosphere at his Indianapolis-based company was “ecstatic.” Amplifying on that, he pointed out that Emmis is doing well nationally, locally, and digitally. “Housing starts are up and we are very, very hopeful that this is going to be a better year,” he remarked. “Our advertisers depend on us to get to our listeners. We are almost 90 years old as an industry and that has always been the case. If we keep doing that, people will keep responding to us. As long as we can make sure that we matter in a person’s life, this business will be vibrant. It will still reach 93% of the population 10 years from now – just as it does today.”
Meanwhile though, Dial Global executive vice president of East Coast sales John Murphy commented that, agencies have become “afraid” to recommend talk radio to their clients because, “They are not educated on the benefits and the right uses of the medium. We have to get out and make them aware. We have to go beyond the 25-year-old buyer and get to the CMOs and CEOs of these clients. You always have to look at direct response to have a balance in any talk show. You want transactional and direct response, so you can weather any storm.”
As the time for this panel wound down, Farber opened the discussion to audience members. Among those taking part was Dial Global’s Jim Bohannon, who some 90 minutes later would be presented with TALKERS’ Lifetime Achievement Award. “They listen to me right through the sales message and buy the product or service,” the iconic nighttime personality commented. “Advertisers say, ‘Gee, that worked – let’s buy some more ad time.’ We should understand the relationship: I am a professional parasite and I embrace that. Think of me as your tapeworm.”
Recognition of the highly personable Bohannon as the latest LAA recipient initiated a block of non-session ceremonies that focused on individual accomplishment.
As part of the Freedom of Speech Award honors – renamed in honor of the late Gene Burns (WRKO, Boston; WOR, New York; KGO, San Francisco; WKIS, Orlando among others) – Rising musical recording artist and military-families supporter Tora Fisher (Fisher House Foundation) performed a rousing rendition of the Lee Greenwood hit “Proud to be an American” vocally backed up by Master Sergeant Mary Kay Messenger and Staff Sergeant Alexis Cole of the United States Military Academy West Point Band.
It is only natural to assume that since this was a radio gathering, clever one-liners would abound. Indicative in that vein was Humanitarian of the Year recipient Clay Hunnicutt. The Clear Channel executive vice president of programming elicited laughter by deadpanning that he realized the irony of hearing “humanitarian” and “Clear Channel” in the same sentence.
Transitioning to a serious tone, Hunnicutt noted that Clear Channel has contributed significantly to Fisher House in both awareness and fundraising. “Over the last three years, we have donated over $8 million and aided in raising $1.3 million dollars to build comfort homes where families of veterans can stay while their loved one is receiving treatment,” he pointed out. “Our local stations have embraced this cause and many others.”
During one week in November, Clear Channel’s San Francisco cluster raised $255,000 to help build a new Fisher House at Travis Air Force Base, outside of Sacramento. “[On Wednesday, June 5], Clear Channel launched the single largest public service campaign in our history as part of a company-wide initiative aimed at addressing the issue of unemployment among U.S. military veterans,” Hunnicutt stated. “In 2013, we will donate over $75 million in resources to the campaign.”
Michael Smerconish Delivers Annual “State of the First Amendment Address”
The band was reluctant to tour in support of the double-album, but as part of its record deal, Pink Floyd was obligated to do a certain number of dates. “I was able to see them and was the envy of my friends,” commented Smerconish, who at the time, was the editor of “The Chatterbox,” his high school newspaper. “When I came home from the concert, I decided to write a review of ‘The Wall.'”
Speculating what the ‘wall’ was and what it symbolized, Smerconish recounted it could have been a prison wall or a wall around a person seeking isolation.
When his review came out, he was summoned to the principal’s office. “The principal said he was disappointed that I had written the review and requested a retraction, not because of anything in particular that I had written, but because I had addressed the subject at all,” Smerconish explained. “He wanted me to do a follow up and be critical of the group’s music.”
The then 17-year-old Smerconish was “only superficially familiar” with the First Amendment. “I doubt that I could have defined ‘censorship’ or ‘prior restraint,’ but I knew enough that something he was asking of me just was not right,” he recollected. “I weighed his request and I did not do it. More than 30 years later, I spend all of my time talking about such dilemmas, speaking my mind, and rendering judgments about matters of public controversy – only now – I do so with profound appreciation for the source of our freedom. Establishing a government framework for the weighty subjects of religion, speech, assembly, and petition is exactly what was accomplished in 1791 when the First Amendment and the entire Bill of Rights were adopted.”
Of added significance is the fact that, as Smerconish mentioned, it was done in just 45 words and in a manner that would be relevant for 222 years and counting. “It is so simple and yet so prescient,” he commented. “This guidepost was written two centuries before the advent of the internet.”
The succinct way in which Smerconish assessed the state of the First Amendment was “resilient.”
Troublesome to Shut Up
In his introduction of Glenn Beck, Michael Harrison described the Premiere Radio talent as, “a hero” in terms of the First Amendment. “He has shown how you can effectively combine entertainment, showmanship, grace, passion, and compelling content in such a way as to elevate not only his own career, but the entire platform,” Harrison declared of Beck. “If it were not for people such as Glenn Beck, talk radio would not have any kind of cache whatsoever in our society. He is a once-in-a-generation performer in the broadcasting arts.”
A grateful-appearing Beck began by commenting that, “The freedom of speech is under attack by both the left and the right.”
Perhaps eye contact was made with one particular attendee when Beck asserted, “We have a First Amendment right because people are offended by it, whether it is the people in power; your neighbors; or Alan Colmes disagreeing with me or me disagreeing with him.”
It is “puzzling” to Beck when people try to lead boycotts and he maintained that he “welcomes” the progressive movement coming on to talk radio because, “It makes all of us stronger. It is good to debate the issues and have any available point of view.”
Advocating more speech – not less, he emphasized that, “Today, it seems you are not allowed to say things that you believe, which – to me – does not make any sense. We should not be shouting down people in the square. If you want to babble on about what you believe, go for it. Say it. Make your best case. I am not going to shut you do. I will make my case. If anyone – a Democrat, a Republican, an independent, a Tea Party person, or a member of Occupy Wall Street – tells you to, “Shut up and sit down,’ it is trouble.”
Appreciative to CNN and Fox News Channel for putting him on the air, Beck stated that he is “thrilled” that he can live at a time to be associated with Premiere and Clear Channel. “If I can find an audience, they will carry me. The day that I cannot find an audience, they should cancel me.”
America, he stressed, is all about “the opportunity to be heard.”
For any role the bombastic talk talent has “played in dividing,” Beck – who punctuated his presentation with a variety of show & tell items – commented, “I wish I could take [it] back [but] I do not wish I could take back the truth that was spoken. Many times [however], I could have said it differently. I was not fully aware of the times we are living in. Possibilities are endless and so are the nightmares. It will require all of us to recognize we have a profound responsibility because of the rights we have.”
It is Beck’s contention that “healing” will take place in this country when we protect the rights of those with whom “we vehemently disagree.”
It might “kill you” to do so, but Beck maintained, “You stand with those people.”
Debate Minus Hate
Aforementioned “Navigating a Talk Radio Hosting Career” panelist Alan Colmes emphasized that, “A liberal in talk radio has to be appealing to both sides of the plate. If it is just liberals talking to liberals, you have Air America – and that did not work out too well.”
Some of progressive Colmes’ best guests on his nightly Fox News Radio program are those with a conservative lean. “That really is what entertainment is – having friction – but doing it in a friendly way,” he commented.
Much of Colmes’ audience are conservatives and they might not agree with what he has to say but, “If my presentation is good and my tonality is fine, they will take the poison of my point of view with a spoonful of sugar which makes it go down a little easier. I am not trying to convince the audience to become a liberal. I hope I can convince them to listen and enjoy the show.”
Information is everywhere, but as Sirius XM talent David Webb recommended, “We have to create something that is unique and has credibility. The first skill that a politician has that we must [possess] as well is to get people to listen to you, whether they agree with you or not.
When KTRH, Houston personality Michael Berry does a show about adoption, it is his number one show of the year. “People know that is important to me,” he stated; in addition to KTRH, Berry is heard on an approximately 10-station network of other Clear Channel talk properties. “You can do a show about the virtues of fried chicken as opposed to grilled chicken. One of talk radio’s problems is the inability to connect with people where they are. Nobody – not even the people who despise the man – wants to hear how bad Barack Obama is every single day. They want to hear you talk about other things.”
Labels are unimportant to WFAS, Westchester, New York host Lisa Wexler. “Several years ago, a listener said to me they loved my show because it is ‘debate without the hate,'” she noted. “That is a compliment. Anyone can come on my show and give an opposing point of view.”
Manic Marathon Monday
Instead of a rah-rah closing keynote, “Talkers New York 2013” wrapped up with a tremendously poignant closing keynote titled “Reflection on a Tragedy” from Entercom, Boston vice president of programming Jason Wolfe.
Immense class was displayed by WOLB, Baltimore host Larry Young in introducing the last event on a packed agenda.
Marathon Monday (4-15) began much like any other normal day. First reports that something terrible had happened though came in at 2:50 pm. “Twitter posts were from everyday people who were in the area,” recalled Wolfe, who oversees sports powerhouse WEEI AM/FM and talk WRKO. “They told of horrific things. Body parts were flying all over the street and blood covered the sidewalk. We did not have a lot to go on with our on-air reports.”
Then the calls began pouring into the stations. “Information is critical in crisis situations, but what needs to be reported is the correct information,” Wolfe cautioned. “Many media outlets could not have been more irresponsible in the initial hours of this tragedy, especially in regard to arrests that were never made. One of the hardest parts in covering this tragedy was that we needed to be correct in the information we reported. We could not trust television or social media.”
Admitting that neither of his stations had adequate resources on the street to cover such a massive story as “breaking news,” Wolfe decided to have WEEI and WRKO become the outlet for the audience. “We wanted to make our [core] listeners comfortable calling us,” he explained.
Many reached out to say they were angry and emotional about what had happened. “We made them feel it was okay to feel that way,” Wolfe commented. “The initial aftermath made it difficult to monitor what was happening.”
With police fearful that cell phones could detonate additional devices that were found at the scene, cell phone service was interrupted. “People were calling us and they wanted to connect,” Wolfe stated. “We needed to be there for them.”
It has been approximately two months since that devastating day in Boston. Lexington, Massachusetts native Wolfe could have easily been one of the victims had he done what he normally does, which is take part in station events near the finish line. “Patriots Day has always had a special meaning to me,” he pointed out. “I have had that 4:00 am wakeup call many times so I could hustle to the reenactment of the battle on Lexington Green and then to Fenway Park at 11:00 am for the Red Sox game.”
As soon as the Red Sox contest is over, fans generally walk to Boylston Street and the Marathon’s finish line. “I have stood at the spot at least 100 times in my life,” Wolfe remarked. “I’ve seen the best of the best blazing through downtown Boston. I have seen friends and co-workers achieve something they have trained for over weeks and months.”
It is a uniquely special Massachusetts and New England holiday that brings people together. Fifty of Wolfe’s co-workers were in the area of the finish line this year and he noted that, “All of them were immediately accounted for – none suffered any injuries. Hundreds of others were not so lucky.”
A veteran of nearly two-dozen years of Boston radio, Wolfe has never had to cover such a “significant, heartbreaking, personal” story. “As broadcasters, we have the responsibility to provide the public with information and the opportunity to react and share their feelings with us,” he stressed. “That is what makes talk radio so special. We have the ability to provide a service that no other medium can – even in the wake of unspeakable evil. We connect on a very personal level with our audience and help assuage their emotions and fears. Each host on every Boston station found a way to be the outlet their fans needed.”
Boston-area stations featured tribute songs, musical montages, countless calls from listeners, and as Wolfe explained, “An overwhelming display of support. I don’t know if we could have done anything different to cover this tragedy, but I do know the important role that radio played. As a programmer, I have never been prouder of [our employees] and my colleagues at other stations. They put together such an incredible effort that provided comfort and healing to a city that really needed it.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor and West Coast bureau chief of TALKERS magazine. He can be emailed at email@example.com.
Category: TALKERS NY 2013