By Holland Cooke
BLOCK ISLAND, RI — Before conventions went-virtual, I was always impressed by how – even after a night of revelry – this first-thing-in-the-morning session was standing room only. And this year’s version lost nothing in translation to Zoom.
Moderated by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP partner Scott Flick, remote panelists Hubbard Radio CEO Ginny Morris and Connoisseur Media CEO Jeff Warshaw reflected on their stations’ response to the pandemic shutdown, and projected their sense of where we go from here.
“Everything we did we would have done a little bit sooner.”
Like many, Morris expected the “V-shaped recovery” that turned-into a “U” – some reckon a “K.” Visualize the-haves in a V-shaped recovery up-top, and the-have-nots suffering the inverted “V” down below.
What the-haves seem to have in common is what radio calls “local, local, local.” Proud of his stations’ response, Warshaw figures “This was the time that our licenses and our obligation to serve our communities were really put to the test.” When the pandemic hit, he says “our morning shows stayed late to do more service;” and when racial unrest flared after George Floyd’s death, stations held town halls, and “opened up our microphones so people had a place to be heard.”
“If we had become less-local over the years, we would never have been able to step-up.”
One Connoisseur station in Connecticut raised money for charity by staging a Food Truck Festival – “18 trucks!” — in the station parking lot. Warshaw says “We did a lot of things that were free,” like giving away gift cards for restaurants.
We’ve seen “local” ROI everywhere during this crisis. If you missed yesterday’s column, read a clinic in station talent rising-to-the-occasion here.
And keeping those staffers pumped-up has been a leadership test. Morris grinned when she told us how Hubbard’s Minneapolis market manager had an all-staff Zoom Pizza Party. “He sent a Domino’s gift certificate to everybody and everybody ordered a pizza and they all got on Zoom and had an all-staff meeting.”
News/Talk “spiked in the beginning,” but formats are bouncing-back to normal listening levels.
Each day’s news is now stunning, but Warshaw’s talkers made it a point to avoid what he called “ridiculously shallow topics.”
And Morris explained that “We were also cognizant of the fact that many people come to us to get away from the news, to get away from the devastation, to get away from the heartache and the sadness.” So some Hubbard stations sought to “find that balance between making sure that we could offer reprieve for listeners and consumers at the same time as operating in the community’s convenience and necessity.”
Being a session about Broadcast Financing, the question had to be asked. And, always himself, Jeff Warshaw didn’t disappoint: “I’m not waking up in the morning thinking ‘I wish I had five-times-as-many stations to run;’ and my banks would not be enthused about it either.”
“The unfortunate truth,” in his view, is that radio’s biggest companies’ debt will continue to “make it more difficult for them to staff local operations, local sales, local programming…the future of our business.”
Ginny Morris was quick to agree: “I can’t speak to the financial performance or challenges of ‘the big three,’ but I do think that as more companies go to the hub-and-spoke kind of programming model there’s going to be a bigger, wider divide in terms of companies that are relying on their national footprint; and those of us that are truly local, and doubling-down on local [business]. And that’s going to create alternatives for advertisers well into the future.” Warshaw calls it “a real separation of business models…this is the way WE do things and this is the way THEY do things.”
“Is it even possible to do long-term planning any more?”
Morris admits that “I have never looked at the money that comes in and the money that goes out on a daily basis, but I am [now] looking at it daily, and am in intimate contact with everything that comes in and everything goes out and that’s probably a habit that will sustain beyond this.” And Warshaw explained how his company’s “revised COVID [Sales] goals [have] tied significant [incentive] dollars to achieving them.”
Herself broadcast royalty, heading a company that pioneered our medium, Ginny Hubbard Morris reminded us that radio turns 100 this year. “This industry has seen wars and depressions and recessions and it’s resilient. Looking forward I have no question that it’s going to rebound from this as well.”
Holland Cooke (HollandCooke.com) is a media consultant working at the intersection of broadcasting and the Internet. He is the author of the E-book “Multiply Your Podcast Subscribers, Without Buying Clicks,” available from Talkers books (click the banner on this page). And he hosts “The Big Picture” TV show Friday nights at 7ET on RT America. Follow HC on Twitter @HollandCooke