Archive for the ‘radio’ Category

A TV Guy Helps Radio Break Its Losing Streak

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016

UnknownSometimes, being a fan of radio feels like rooting for a perennially losing sports team, decades removed from its glory years. The wins haven’t come often and when they do, you have to savor them. Now is one of those times.

This example of a victory for commercial, terrestrial radio is WJR-AM in Detroit, billed as “The Great Voice of The Great Lakes.” The station’s 50,000 watt signal can be heard in 38 states and much of Canada. In its heyday, it was a powerhouse of local flavor, national-caliber hosts and billings, lots and lots of bills. But under corporate ownership, the past decade has seen the station shrink, like just about every other across the country. While the station boasts strong talk personalities Paul W. Smith, Frank Beckmann and Mitch Albom, much of the airtime is taken up by syndicated national programming or paid shows.

WJR’s current owner, Cumulus, though, seems to be emerging from bankruptcy with the beginnings of a plan to stay out of it. Unlike others that have cut and then cut and then cut some more, giving new listeners hardly a reason to tune in, WJR is showing signs of investment. It bid on and won the rights to Detroit Lions broadcasts for this season. And now, they are dumping a nationally syndicated political show, Michael Savage, and hiring a trusted, proven local voice, really a household name, to host a daily, local news talk show. (Details in this Crain’s Detroit Business story, featuring Tanner Friedman analysis).

Guy Gordon is a professional news broadcaster. Prepared, polished, inquisitive and fair, Gordon has spent more than 30 years on Detroit TV. I competed against him when he was at WXYZ-TV (his 6pm newscast and the one I produced at WDIV-TV were neck and neck in the ratings, but we eeked it out more nights than not) and I have worked on stories with him at both WXYZ-TV and since his move to WDIV-TV over the past 18+ years. He asks great questions and tells great stories, with high respect for the audience. For the past two years, he has filled in as a host on WJR and has made it sound easy.

For now, Guy will be on 3pm to 5pm but I hear that could expand once syndicated programming contracts expire. Cumulus wants WJR to be more local and it’s a safe bet that advertisers and listeners will respond well to this void being filled. When was the last time we could say a station like this had something new to sell that customers actually want, not settle for? There just aren’t many places for news that emerges during the day to be explored on the air for commuters and even time-shifted podcast listeners. Guy’s reputation and Rolodex will mean his show will be a go-to place for newsmakers to talk beyond the headlines by answering his questions.

This is something for other radio stations and their owners to consider. What are you doing, other than cutting salaries, to sustain, or maybe even grow, your business? What investments in product could lead to more audience and more ad dollars?

Newspapers, you’re due for a win too. There’s something to think about here.

When News Organizations Make Cuts, Others Have To Speak For Them

Sunday, December 4th, 2016

1462736-hand-with-scissors-cutting-out-an-article-from-newspaperOne of the first things I learned in the PR business was “If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you.”

Companies that have nothing to say in times of bad news will have the comment vacuum filled quickly. It was true then and even more obvious now as social media can empower just about anyone to be a de facto company spokesperson.

We’re finding, in this time of multiple crises for media organizations, that their lack of PR acumen is biting them once again. As we have written about in recent weeks, around the country, the end of the year is meaning more cuts in newsrooms that can ill afford them. But plunging revenues, changing audience habits and other factors are leading to job eliminations across the industry. In one case, privately-owned business news outlet Crain’s Detroit Business, the outlet outlined its changes for its customers in this story placed on its website. But in most cases, especially corporate-owned entities, the news organizations are, ironically, leaving the storytelling to others.

As we have written, both the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News are in the process of making cuts. At a client meeting the other day, I heard that situation spoken of as “what the Free Press and News announced.” Actually, they didn’t announce anything. Other outlets got their hands on internal memos. The news organizations themselves have said nothing to customers. Word about who is accepting buyouts is coming out in drips on journalists’ personal social media pages.

Contrast this with when news organizations are on the other side. When companies they cover make changes, journalists demand detailed information on behalf of the communities they cover. I remember one time when a client closed a facility, and didn’t yet know how many exactly jobs would be affected because of a combination of retirements, layoffs and open jobs not being filled, several reports accused the company of “hiding information.”

This is even happening at the national level. Word leaked Friday night via the New York Post that CBS Radio News would push several well-known anchors into retirement. The company did not comment. The next morning though, one of the company’s journalists, Steven Portnoy, did. The company lucked out that a thoughtful, respectful employee was the one to step forward and fill the void. Here is an excerpt:

“You may have read the news that we’ve been wishing some of our very best friends and colleagues at CBS well as they enter retirement with a bit of corporate encouragement. A word on that —

The people we’ve hailed are, frankly, irreplaceable. They represent a big chunk of the institutional memory of our newsroom and their departures leave us feeling quite sad.

It’s important for radio fans to understand why this is happening. It is NOT because fewer people are listening. In fact, just the opposite is true! Nielsen and Edison Research tell us that radio now reaches more people than any other medium, including the social one you’re reading right now. Many of our stations are at the very top of the ratings in their markets. Tens of millions of Americans of all ages learn about our world from network radio news — don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, we’ve got the data that proves it’s just not true.

The trouble is, marketers — the companies that buy advertising, in the hopes that you’ll buy the things they sell — are always looking for the newest, most cost-efficient way to reach people in a crowded media universe. They’re spending less money on advertising generally and are trying to figure out whether that will work for them. The jury is still out, but network radio in particular has taken a pretty tough hit from the shifting dollars. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the idea that fewer people are listening isn’t one of them.

It’s with this backdrop that CBS has, however, been forced to make tough, careful decisions about our staffing. My understanding is that no more cuts are planned.

What’s important for you, a fan of radio news, to know is this — each hour, 24 times a day, 7 days a week, 365 days each year, the that proudly introduces our newscast will continue to signal the very best in broadcast journalism.

The people of CBS News are as committed as ever to living up to a legacy that began with Robert Trout and Ed Murrow, evolved with Douglas Edwards, Dallas Townsend and Christopher Glenn, and continues today with Frank Settipani, Steve Kathan, Dave Barrett, Pam Coulter and countless others who have made it their life’s work to bring the most up-to-date news to you, a member of one of the largest audiences any media entity in America can claim…

…Thanks for keeping our colleagues and what we do in your thoughts, and thanks for listening.”

If you don’t speak for yourself, others will gladly speak for you. Others won’t get as lucky as CBS and will continue to suffer via public opinion.

Into the Wild Blue Yonder

Thursday, October 27th, 2016

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Election Talk Doesn’t Have To Be Boring

Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

boring-content1This past week, there was actually a radio show that analyzed the third Presidential Debate without screaming, name-calling or, maybe best yet, no recitation of campaign talking points from predictable voices.

The show was Detroit Today on public WDET-FM and you can listen via this link to hear what it sounded like. It was a privilege to be a part of an independent on-air panel and the audience seemed to appreciate hearing far more than what it has come to expect from guests who represent the major parties, typically armed with the party lines and purely political perspectives.

Therein lies the problem as a consumer of media during this election. So much of it has been so predictable. From this vantage point, that has long been a characteristic of political talk, where predictable can turn, in an instant, to boring.

“Hmmmm… what’s Rush Limbaugh going to say today? Oh that’s right, Republicans are good. Democrats are bad. Got it.” “What’s Rachel Maddow talking about tonight? Oh ya, Liberals are correct, Conservatives are wrong. OK.” While there’s a proven business model behind the always-take-one-side content approach, for those of us looking some cognitive challenge this time of the year, it can be hard to find.

That extends across all platforms. By now, each of us on social media has figured out where our contacts stand. Their posts have become flat boring. But nothing seems more predictable and boring than some of CNN’s punditry. In the name of “balance,” they are paying political types who have essentially become actors to recite campaign talking points on their set. It’s an quick-grab of the remote every time Jeffrey Lord, for example, is called upon to deliver his rehearsed and well-compensated lines.

I’m hearing what you are from those who know that they are “sick” of the election and “can’t wait for it to be over.” But media consumption levels are telling a different story. Ratings for news are up, clicks online are up and the election is The Story. So here are a few suggestions of places where you can get your election fix, give your brain a workout, and avoid boring content and paid acting:

-Sirius-XM POTUS Channel (124) – This is a political talk channel without a political agenda. If we didn’t have it, we’d want someone to invent it. I have been avidly listening since just before the Conventions this summer, after being an occasional button pusher the past few years. Particularly recommended are Tim Farley’s “Morning Briefing” in the early morning and Michael Smerconish’s show in the late morning (his trademark theme song is the ’70s Stealers Wheel one hit wonder “Stuck In The Middle”).

-The Axe Files – The podcast from former Democratic strategist David Axelrod is civil, insightful, multi-partisan interview and conversation. It’s simply worth your time.

-NPR – It’s often lumped into the “liberal media” category, probably more because of its audience than anything else. But take it from someone with a discriminating ear who spends a lot of time in the car, thorough political conversation has been paramount this year. Even the daily campaign news is put into context through on-site reporting. Locally in Michigan, the aforementioned “Detroit Today” and Michigan Radio’s “Stateside” talk shows are fair and, most importantly, interesting. NPR credits the election for a ratings bump.

If you’re interested in echo chambers that just tell you over and over again what you want to hear, I can’t help you. But there are a few options for those seeking something different for the coming weeks.

How Will Radio Survive The Cars of The Future?

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

14485135_10155219735769908_8228594928117918541_nJust when we thought there might be a small stretch of relative stability in the media business, a new wave of change is already in the fast lane.

This past week, I had the privilege of working in media relations at the World Mobility Leadership Forum, a two-day conference that convened experts from around the world near Detroit to talk about the short-to-medium term future of personal transportation. The program featured the Chairman of Ford Motor Company, the CEOs of General Motors and Volvo and executives from Tesla and Lyft, along with government officials from the U.S., Finland and other countries.

The consensus among the participants was that autonomous (self-driving) vehicles are coming, as quickly as within the next 5 years. The technology is beyond most Americans’ wildest expectations. The other trend exploding and showing no signs of reversing is ride sharing. The experts predict that it will continue to grow fast – far beyond Millennials taking Uber to the bars in big cities.

All of this threatens the medium of terrestrial radio. While radio has withstood threat after threat, ever since the proliferation of television after World War II, radio has survived because of its primacy inside the American automobile. But what will happen when cars drive themselves and the driver is free to consume entertainment or information without hands on the wheel and eyes on the road? Or when a ride-sharing driver is increasingly in control of the dashboard while the passenger does work, goes online or even sleeps during the car trip?

The challenge for radio now is to make itself invaluable, especially for information formats that truly could be distinguished from music streaming services. Satellite radio has increased its level of portability, with a place on the phone/earbud combo beyond the car. But local terrestrial radio must create value to go with its audience into the next chapter of transportation. How will that happen? The largest owner of radio stations, IHeartMedia, is carrying more than $20 billion in debt. The largest owner of all-news stations, CBS, is spinning off its radio division into a new company. Could either afford to put new resources into the product to make it indispensable?

Throughout so much change, radio has proven to be powerful, personal and resilient. Now, it’s going to take what the auto and technology companies are making priorities to secure their futures – ingenuity and investment

A Return to Radio Roots

Friday, August 19th, 2016

newyorktimes_rootsrockradio_wesduvallWith apologies to author Thomas Wolfe, sometimes you can go home again. At least I was afforded the unique opportunity to do so this past week – returning to my radio roots for an on-air thrill ride that was equal parts fun and hard work.

I have written previously and been quoted in Crain’s on Superstation 910 AM, owner Kevin Adell’s still young and well-timed venture aimed at providing a prominent media voice and forum for the African American/urban community.  As such, Tanner Friedman often seeks to book appropriate clients on station shows, including with midday man Cliff Russell and afternoon host Karen Dumas.  Interviews conducted on the station are typically in-depth, long form and enlightening; again refreshing and needed.  And then came the request.

As the station prepared to broadcast live earlier this week from Oakland Hills and the 2016 U.S. Amateur Championship, the opportunity suddenly presented itself for me to co-host Dumas’s “The Pulse” Show on Tuesday. Now, some may know and others not that radio was my a first love and initial career – starting in college as a music radio air personality and newsman and continuing for 10-years after graduation. Following on-air stints on several stations in my hometown of Champaign, Illinois, I moved on to suburban Chicago and then to Detroit.  In town, I was most known for reporting traffic and weather, including on WWJ, WXYT, WLLZ and others. That ended in 1994 as I entered the world of PR, and, while I still do voicework for radio commercials and videos, I have not worked in the industry in over 20 years. That is, until this week.

For those who have never before hosted a 3-hour radio talk show (like me) it is very hard work.  You need to be knowledgeable, upbeat, intuitive, engaging, adaptable and, perhaps most importantly, possess the ‘gift of gab’.  Really listen to the masters – Karen and Cliff among them – like Paul W. Smith and Frank Beckman and the crew at WWJ , and you’ll truly appreciate how good, smart and prepared they are. Thankfully, with a bit of handholding from Karen, the three hours went by fairly fast.  Yet, like running a marathon (something else I’ve never done), the long haul can leave you content with your accomplishments yet drained by the effort put forth. All applicable here.

Indeed it was a thrill but for now I will stick with my day job, free from massive amounts of show prep, headphone hair and the need, quite often, to extend an interview to fill time and accommodate a show clock.  At the same time, I remain eager to get back into the hot seat in the not too distant future to talk to the masses while quenching my own thirst for living on the air – at least every so often.

Illustration: With kind approval of artist Wes Duvall.  For more of his work, visit: http://www.wesduvall.com

The “Little” Station That Could – And Is

Monday, July 18th, 2016

imgresIt might not yet be the ‘little station that could’ but it sure is the radio station that’s trying.  And, however you choose to look at things, Kevin Adell’s self-anointed “Superstation 910 AM” is showing up in the Detroit radio ratings after a relatively short time on-the-air.  Bill Shea goes into great detail in the latest issue of Crain’s Detroit Business.

Adell has populated his station with top-notch talent including the likes of Steve Hood, Cliff Russell, Karen Dumas and others.  At the same time, the oft-controversial owner has also brought in what some might refer to as a “cast of characters” including disgraced former Michigan lawmakers Cindy Gamrat and Todd Courser for separate shows.  Talk radio should be insightful but also entertaining and such additions bring both a curiosity factor and ‘wow’ level that can motivate listeners to tune in.

What is also impressive about the upstart is the level of promotion that is being utilized.  Billboards, live appearances (including the recent Detroit Chamber Mackinac Conference), snazzy station vehicles (including a metallic-painted broadcast-ready mini-trailer) ensure high-profile awareness. This harkens back to radio’s heyday of the 60s and 70s when stations and their personalities were “everywhere” and promoted heavily.

Most importantly, they say timing is everything and certainly “The voice of the urban community”, as the station positions itself, has come along at the right time.  No matter your politics and no matter your position on recent and on-going tragic police/African American events across this country, a dialogue is necessary – vital.  Right now, 910 AM is doing this as well as anyone. Providing a forum, a platform, to talk, debate and, one would hope, move toward understanding and resolution.

It is what media is supposed to do – act in the public interest.  And while it is early, the Superstation is an interesting one to watch and listen to.

WMGC: Wherefore Art Thou Going Next?

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

imagesIs this where we cue the DJ to play Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust?” Sadly, the death of another radio station format in Detroit is no laughing matter – not when jobs and livelihoods are lost.  Yet, after just three years, that is exactly what has happened again in this town as Greater Media announced last night that its Sports/Talk station, 105.1 WMGC, is switching formats. Most staffers, it has been reported, will not be retained.

How and why did this occur? A look back (and of course, hindsight is always 20/20) illuminates what some might deem missteps. When WMGC flipped from Adult Contemporary “Magic” (with Jim Harper) it brought Drew Lane, the legendary morning man from sister station WRIF-101.1 FM, over to apparently anchor the new competitor to CBS juggernaut WXYT (97.1 FM The Ticket).  However, Lane was inserted not into his customary AM drive slot but rather into PM drive.  A lot of that could have been due to the fact that Lane had publicly shared his disdain for the life-style-challenging early morning shift.  His audience, however, did not follow him in the droves that had been anticipated or at least hoped for.

Other air personalities were similarly mismatched and moved around. As a result, top talent such as Matt Dery and Tom Mazawey were not allowed to flourish nor build particular daypart followings. The station did set itself apart from its crosstown rival with a plethora of regular live, on-air interviews.  In many ways, though, this was countermanded by too much national (ESPN) content, including for a time, much of its primetime weekday morning programming.

In the end though, WMGC could simply not compete with other Detroit radio heavyweights long known for their sports team pedigrees and acumen – including CBS and Cumulus’ WJR. The Pistons were on board, sure, yet decades removed from the “Bad Boys” days of fanatical citywide excitement; having not possessed the panache of the Tigers or Red Wings (or event Lions) for far too long.  They certainly were not enough to carry a station on its back.

So, what’s next for WMGC? From a formatics standpoint, the one glaring hole in this town would appear to be the Adult Contemporary format.  And while WOMC and Greater Media sister WCSX often dip a toe into the waters of Elton John and other traditional A/C staples, only iHeart’s WNIC is considered a true A/C.  Listen for a time to 100.3 though and ‘NIC often sounds like the more-current leaning WDVD 96.3 FM, if not a Hot Hit station.  Perhaps it is time for a more sedate, adult-focused format that more intuitively merges new songs with old.  WMXD 92.3 FM has done this very successfully, albeit with a more urban/R&B flavoring. For now, ‘MGC is simulcasting content from the WCSX HD-2 classic oldies format channel.

Ironically, WMGC was A/C before Sports/Talk yet with a more upbeat, current/recurrent bent.  It might be time for a return, although with the twist I am suggesting. To get anyone to go up the dial to 105.1 FM, though, especially in these days of Pandora, Satellite and MP3s, it is going to take an investment in truly local and name-recognizable talent.  How about luring Jim Harper out of retirement and re-teaming him with Chris Edmonds? Putting Lynne Woodison back on the Detroit airwaves? Hiring Ann Delisi to program and do what she wants on both sides of the mic? Kevin O’Neil and Tom Force should be back on the regular airwaves again too. The key to success will be investment – in forethought, strategy, true name-brand talent and an appreciation for what really makes radio great. I’ll keep my fingers crossed – but am not holding my breath.

 

 

 

 

A Rare Endorsement Of Broadcasting

Sunday, April 17th, 2016

imagesI had the privilege of starting my communications career at age 11.

That’s because I had the exceptionally good fortune to grow up in a community that funded a radio station, put it inside of a school, staffed it primarily with students and made it accessible. By the time I got to college, I had seven years of experience on the air but also invaluable leadership and teamwork lessons learned behind the scenes. This adventure began more than 30 years ago and it’s reassuring to know it will continue long into the future.

This weekend, I had the honor to speak at the dedication of spectacular new studios for WBFH-FM in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The people who make decisions about the area where I grew up, which is not too far away from where I live now, have decided to invest in the future of community broadcasting. When the school district decided to merge two high schools into one, leaders determined that WBFH should be the physical centerpiece of the new school, to ensure its relevance, vibrancy and accessibility well into the future.

I remarked during the dedication ceremony how energizing it is to see a long-term commitment made to local media. In today’s environment where, for better or for worse, large public corporations own media outlets, decisions are made about meeting financial targets quarter-to-quarter. Decisions about “the future” often mean next year. Cuts and “more with less” rule the day in ways that audiences are having a hard time understanding.

WBFH will turn 40 years old in October. During the dedication ceremony, community leaders spoke of “the next 40 years” for the station. That kind of talk is unheard of as commercial media faces an uncertain future. I remarked, tongue slightly in cheek, that “Leaders here seem to care more about the future of broadcasting than the corporations that are in the business of broadcasting.” That is not to suggest public companies should abandon commitments to shareholders to make capital investments. But it sure is refreshing to see broadcasting, which is now happening over an app and not just via a tower, embraced by a community that understands its value to education as well as quality of life.

Everyone Needs A Murray Feldman

Monday, March 28th, 2016

hqdefaultI firmly believe that success in business and in life are not possible without mentors and role models. Looking back, I’m thankful that nobody had that better than me. I realize this now, as one of the professionals most instrumental to my early accomplishments in communication is, maybe for the first time ever, the subject of news rather than the one reporting it.

Murray Feldman has been at Detroit’s WJBK-TV for 40 years. I met him 30 years ago. He let me spend an off day from school shadowing him in the newsroom and out on stories. Just days after my 16th birthday, he invited me to spend a whole week off school doing the same. At the beginning of the week, I was opening his mail. By the end of the week, he had me at the typewriter, writing stories for air (on carbon paper).

A few months later, I landed what I thought was a big interview with a radio personality for my community radio station. But when I got back to the station, I realized the interview didn’t come out. It was a blank tape. I was devastated. As hormones pumped through my body, tears ran down my face. I got home, plopped on my bed and looked at the carbon copies of the scripts I had written not long before. I called Murray for advice. He told me it happens to everyone. It has happened to him. It’s part of the business of electronic journalism. Sometimes the equipment fails. My focus now should be looking forward, not back. So, I did.

I’d send Murray tapes, he’d send me critiques. When I got to college, he helped me get an internship at Channel 2, rare for a freshman (the photo here is from that year). I got to work half-time with him and half-time for his Executive Producer. That EP soon became the news director at WWJ Radio and gave me my first paying job. Murray has done business reporting for WWJ, in addition to his TV work, for about 30 years, so we became colleagues. He was always honest about “The Business” and never tried to do anything but help me chart my own path.

Murray was my first phone call after my parents when I got my first full-time broadcast news job. He was my first phone call when I became an equity partner in a PR firm. I talked to him on the first day of Tanner Friedman. He has always been encouraging, nurturing and in my corner.

Thanks to Murray, I have now been among news people for 30 years. I have never met anyone in the media industry with his consistent class, professionalism, attention to detail and commitment to teaching. After 40 plus years as “talent,” he has never thrown a tantrum, never acted like a stereotypical anchor. He has been anything but.

Now, Crain’s Detroit Business reports he’s leaving the station. Circumstances aren’t clear (Fox doesn’t allow its journalists to talk to reporters, keeping a “corporate employee” type policy). I just hope he’s leaving on his own terms. While I’ll miss working with him on stories, maybe we’ll have more time for lunches and dinners? I’m trying to be like Murray – to think positive, to look forward, not too far back.

Everyone who wants to be successful needs a Murray Feldman. I will be eternally grateful that mine has been Murray Feldman himself.