Tuesday, May 09, 2006

WHAT MAKES....AND KILLS AMAZING STATIONS

1952: "RADIO IS DEAD. WITH THE LONE RANGER AND JACK BENNY GOING TO TV, BYE BYE RADIO" --TELEVISION MAGAZINE


Well, radio didn't die. It entered the true golden age. Guys like Todd Storz and Gordon Mc Lendon "re-invented" radio with the Top 40 Concept, which is the foundation for most every competitive format 1955-onwards. Storz and McLendon were the marketing, carney and science guys. The "personality" was actually started by the great Black DJ's of the 40's like Al Benson on Chicago's WGES. Guys like Al Benson were rude, crude, and positively engaging. Combine that "personality" with the science, marketing and carney, target it to a mainstream audience, and the explosion was on. TV? Sure it was red hot...but so was radio as it was re-borne in the mid 50's on the AM band.

By 1970, AM was tired..burnt out and FM took the lead and revolutionized radio just as potently as AM did in 1955. Now, FM is tired and burnt out, and the answer is whoever delivers! Part of our job is to help make damn sure that XM does to FM what FM did to AM…but at the end of the day, assuming equal signal reach. Best content is going to win

Radio keeps re-inventing itself as if by divine intervention. Radio revolutions then chokes itself through greed, inattention and somehow forgetting the building blocks of the revolution that got them there in the first place.

The following is a list of the key Building Blocks that created each Radio revolution.....followed by the elements that killed each revolution.
Besides the "movement" in radio back in 55 and 70, every...yes EVERY great radio station built and possibly destroyed themselves on the following points. By "great" station , I mean stations that LASTED 20 years...stations that had HUGE ratings...stations that others copied.

The point of all this is that XM has the opportunity to revolutionize...and the rules/building blocks are identical to those of what made 1955 and 1970 an era of change. These are things we strive for..., but the following lists are void of the trimmings and get right down to the KEYS that are the basics to COMING THROUGH on the promise of Amazing Radio in the fashion of prior revolutions....

Here are the factors that created the radio revolutions and the Great Stations:

*Technology. transistor radios in '55...Stereo in '70. Without the transistor radio...AM could have died in 53. Without Stereo, FM may never have grown to it's current proportion. Digital is now and there’ll be other innovations in the future.

*Music. A music shift that radio responds to and aggressively popularizes. '55 Rock n Roll. "Album", Post Soul Urban and etc…

*Production. In 55 it was jingles, news intros, weather jingles, overblown hype (it worked because it was NEW)...In '70, the mellowing out...the less plastic sound...as well as a Harder more in your face approach. Production is to radio what visuals are to movies and ads. TV Ads in particular continually evolve....Vastly new and fresh production had the same effect on the stations . New sound Production was as arresting as the NEW visuals in Kubrick’s 2001 or Star Wars or any shockingly fresh new eye treat....except for the ears...but the stimulation ends up in the same place--the head. Sound is to radio what color is to film.

*Features. A.k.a "trademarks." The Silver Dollar Survey Countdown and Coke Hit Parade in 50's...Chickenman in the 60's....AT 40 in the 70s for example. Block Party Weekends in the 80’s.

*In Sync. Hip. Current. Street saavy. When an early Top 40 or an early FM DJ talked...people listened. The DJs were as cool as the stars.

*Love/Passion. Stations were families. Not unlike bands who love each other at first...but over time want to kill each other (once successful)

*Audience Respect. No tricks. Honesty. Treating listeners as FANS and never screwing with them. Never lying about "15 in a row"...being the best by actions and truths not brags. Bragging has SO little credability that it's a key reason no one "believes" FM promos anymore.

*Personalities. Biondi, Lujack, Steele etc... Other than Morning shows, the average Joe can't name a single DJ on any given station today….AND “personality” was NOT limited to Mornings. These days there seems to be an unwritten law that says interesting talent on music radio must cease at 10am. Of course thre ARE some music concepts where DJ’s are an irritant, but mabe that’s because they have nothing to say that compliments the music.

*THE musical information source. You found out about EVERYTHING musical on the radio not in print or TV.

*Completeness. In the 50s & 60s it was News, Sports, Countdowns, Million Dollar Weekends, Printed Surveys, DJ's doing hops. In 70s it was Block Party Weekends, Truly sponsoring concerts, King Biscuit, Mascots. Now it's Morning Show, Billboards up and a tested library.

*Local. Truly local and involved. PART OF THE CITY. (For XM... we think NORTH AMERICA as our locality)

*Smarteners. You learned from the radio. It wasn't BS. Jocks said something..no stupid clichés and mindless DJ chatter.

*Musical Digging. No relying on research and trades. DJs/PDs DUG..WORKED to find great songs to play. Imports, Flea Markets....

*BLATANTLY/OBVIOUSLY new ideas. Out with the old. This sound is NEW....and obviously so.

*Anticipation. You couldn't turn a station off in fear of "missing something"

*Claimed artists. Owned them. Absolutely tied at the hip to them.

*Attitude through authenticity. Hired people who "got it" and never had to worry about attitude. The attidude was in the blood of the staff. Kinda like our Liquid Metal vs. a "Rock 40" station. XMLM IS the audience....At a Rock 103 point whatever, they need angry production to mask the fact that the Staff has outgrown the music & spirit.

*Promoting the station. Being smart or aware enough to realize that if YOU don't tell the audience...they aren't going to find out through osmosis. Gotta aggressively and constantly plug EVENTS/HAPPENNINGS on your and in our case other channels. New Eagles out today...if this were 1965, the channel would play the cut every hour....Go over the top in making it known that you have it!

*Star Pull. The stars visited because trey had to and wanted to...not because their label was trying to sell something.

*Guerilla tactics. Stunts...FM converter days. NON TRADITIONAL WAYS of attracting attention

*Thinking. People were creative. THINKING. CREATING NEW ANGLES AND METHODS. Today, radio is on autopilot.

*PRIDE. Willingness to plug the WHOLE STATION because you're proud of THE WHOLE STATION

*Positive Attitude. Whiners or chronic complainers, historically, don't last long. They get in the way of the mission. A station needs a positive attitude…swagger. You can HEAR the negativity in the halls on so many stations.

*Sense of War/Mission. It's not a job. It's a battle. Permeates every corner of the buildong. WAR footing. Don't see that much anymore….at least in programming departments. The War seems to be in sales. That’s fine but that’s like having a Navy without an Army.

*Quality Radar. A bad piece of production....a bad or wrong record simply nver got on the air (with the exception of the occassional free form station...but those, while interesting NEVER reached the ratings or long term success to be in the "great"class)

*Graphics. Not really a programming function, but the revolution was characterized by a new "look" for stations.

OK, those are a few of the key points that made these stations and created the revolution. Don't get absorbed in "sure, we do that already"...Bullshit. We come close and we're getting there...but these "points" are more than vague concepts...they are critically important to AFDI. In all due respect, we don't have a single channel that does ALL of the above consistently. Often due to manpower & workload...sometimes by not fully grasping the importance of EVERY point. We do sound splendid overall so don't take this the wrong way.....My point is that a Radio revolution is a LONG TERM project!

Here are the killers. The things that killed AM..and are killing FM creatively:

*Technology. Not much AM could do, or in time that FM can do. Keeping step with technology has NEVER been more critical.

*Dated architecture. Airplanes are constantly evolving with new features...so are Hotels, Films etc....Radio tends to rely on its architecture until the damn building is crumbling. Traditional Air-LINES are a current model of failing architecture

*NOT embracing New music trends. The failure to understand with the utmost empathy, the changes in music, are deadly. It’s easy for a programmer to age and fight the emerging sounds. Happened in 56 with a failure to accept Rock n Roll…happened in 69 with a failure to accept the new Rock…happens EVERY generation.

*Tired, out of touch DJs. Their name isn't hip anymore..they're out of sync and sad. We all know a few of these. The spirit is drained.

*Old Production. FM is still in 1988 yelling at you with Star Wars laser beam sound effects and big “bite me” voices for example.

*Abbreviated Radio. Music, DJ, Spot,Jingle, Music, DJ, Spots, Jingle . Over simplified. NO MEAT.

*Research. There is GOOD research and it is good...but BAD research seems to rule terrestrial radio. If traditional radio research worked, there would be no need for XM because the 8,500 stations that rely on it would be SO in touch that listeners would LOVE the current state of FM. It's all about balancing ART with SCIENCE where ART rules...but SCIENCE tells you if your art is working. But so much radio research is obviously flawed.

*Ads. Too many. FM scored big with 8 minutes an hour vs.. 18 on AM...FM today? You know that answer! An economic reality? Maybe, but that doesn’t solve the issue.

*Shifts not Shows. If you told the Real Don Steele that his show was a SHIFT, he'd punch you out. Steelworkers do shifts, entertainers do shows.

*Forgot Local. With the exception of the great WGN type stations, most radio has totally gone Town-less.

*Audience Love. Forgot how to Love & respect the listeners. Started feeding them tricks, clichés and garbage in the name of “numbers. Numbers happen after you deliver the goods—they can’t drive the goods.

*Manana. In the early AM & FM days...everything was at light speed. Urgency. the fight to stay AHEAD of the competition...ahead of the curve. Nowadays, he urgency is gone. "I'll get to it later after I do my schedules" (BOTH are important)

*Programming not scheduling. Early FM used to have cool sets....Early Top 40 the same. Now, its rare to find imagination in a mix.

*Denial. In 1970 the NAB would allow FM Stations. History is repeating itself.
"FM is a fad that negatively affects the great AM leaders." were opening statements at the '69 NAB in Chicago.

*Politics. Infighting is a sure sign of the "breakdown" of a revolution or great station.

*Dumbing Down. Lowest Common denominator...instead of thinking UP. Inform. lead. Let listeners learn from YOU.

*No point of view: Its a no rap, no metal, no commercials, no talk weekend. It's also a No Interest weekend.

*Afraid of New. Afraid of the "creative batting average.” Come up with 100 ideas and if 30 work, you’re batting 300. Problem is that few are taking any creative swings…a lot of .000 creative batting averages out there.

*Failed to claim artists. EMBRACING artists….not just the obvious ones…re-engaging ear power to seek and deliver. There's more to owning an artist than playing thier latest...or playing the catalog. Thinking beyond the obvious is lost on all but a few stations.

*Off Course. Forgetiing what they are "all about"

*Stoginess. CHR or Low End Stations run by 40 year olds who are still living in 1985 usually makes this happen (Kids channels are the exception).

*Failure to Promote the whole station. Why: You don't care. A "screw it" attitude"

*Extra Mile? PAY ME! Sounds like short term view combined with questionable creative passion

*No Pride. Why? Station stinks..owners don't care and I'll never make any money here

*No THINKING. Accepting things as they are and "going with the flow" instead of thinking about the flow.

OK--both lists are not totally complete...but you get the idea.......

Whats the point here? To GRASP AND EXECUTE the building blocks and to AGGRESSIVELY avoid the killers. In my opinion, XM will succeed because: (At least this is what we tell ourselves, and strive to deliver)

*It's Natural timing. Just as "natural" as FM in '70....AM Top 40 in '55. We are in sync with the radio historical timeline

*We subscribe to the formula/prescription that makes great radio--everytime

WE are the 21st Century version of 1955 AM or 1970 FM...except WE are all of the channels. That's why I'm so over-the-top about ALL Channels operating at 150%.

WE HAVE THIS OPPORTUNITY ONLY ONCE...THIS IS IT.....WE MUST MAKE IT WORK.....WE SHOULD ALL BE SHOT IF WE BLOW THIS....
WE WON'T.....BUT IT'S UP TO US EVERY MINUTE AND SECOND TO DELIVER THE GOODS AS REVOLTIONARIES...NOT JUST RADIO GUYS.

WRITING A PLAN IS EASY....EXECUTING IS HARD....HEARING THE RESULTS FROM SPEAKERS AND LISTENERS IS MAGICAL

Terrestrial still has over 300 million radios out there..... It's up to new thinkers to create brilliance on the speakers.

NEW TECHNOLOGY + KNOWING THE PULSE OF NORTH AMERICA + DELIVERING A REVOLTIONARY NEW SOUND THAT'S IN SYNC WITH THE PULSE.............
THE REVOLTION WILL BE OURS TO WIN.

11 Comments:

At 11:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could not agree more with your assessment of what makes good radio... however I find XM often falling into the same trap as commercial radio with annoying ID jingles and bumpers inserted in the middle of the sets.

I am used to the more respectful public radio model where station ID's and other announcements are only placed between the sets, not during them. All too often these amount to disruptions in the flow of the music... (sometimes they are so out of context I have been actually scared by them) something I am increasingly having a hard time justifying paying for.

Todd

 
At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Woland said...

Great piece, Lee. I hope you won't mind if I ask whether you think these same issues apply to XM. For example, do you think the recent addition of even more hits channels to XM could be based on faulty research, causing subscriber unhappiness at the loss of great niche stations like WorldZone and MusicLab? Also, do you think XM's audience will always prefer yet another new station at the expense of top-notch sound quality? I think you can guess my answer to these questions but I'd love to hear your thoughts in a future blog entry.

 
At 10:34 AM, Blogger Dave said...

Bravo Lee - well said! Dave Martin

 
At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good overview of radio and what 'made' it click.

These examples you point to were successes of 'individual' stations, plus the stations were freely available to anyone with a radio. It was easy for word-of-mouth to spread, one friend telling another "did you hear that on [input local call letters here] this morning". Once you told someone, they could tune-in become a part of the revolution.

XM is subscription based, I can't just tell a friend that "they need to hear this" because if they don't have access, then they need to fork out money not just for the service but also for the device to hear it on. Radio made waves because it was readily available to anyone. Radio sets were cheap, and if you remember, there were plenty of people building thier own radios. Both AM and FM had a technology push behind it by electronic enthusists. It was the reason for radios birth and big reason behind the success of FM.

In comparison, I just don't see the excitement of satellite radio like I do in internet radio. Internet radio is where the radio sets are being "built" today. Not only can you listen, but you can build your own.

Also, XM is only known to the public as a "system" of many channels. There is no one-to-one connection being made to non-subscribers for your individual channels. As a non-subscriber I have no interest in checking it out to see if I can identify with one of your stations, all I know is that you have a gazillion channels, and that I have to pay to hear it. It will be interesting to see if you can create a revolution ("Save Radio!") through subscription.

..."assuming equal signal reach." That one line you wrote sums it up.

 
At 3:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Abrams -- I think I was almost as excited as you to learn that Dylan would be coming to XM. I cannot afford to subscribe so was more than happy to learn that I could listen to XM on the new version of Winamp (which I have been doing and love it). However I was very disappointed to discover that Bob's show is not available on Winamp. Will it be available as regular programming as either rebroadcasts or on The Village? Thanks.

 
At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee, it is a great article, but you guys seem to already be falling into some of the same things. You have gone to a more hits oriented model, especially in the rock catagory. You dumped XM Music Lab which was the only reason I signed up for XM. You've added Big Tracks which should just be part of Top Tracks.

Deep Tracks is fantastic and is really the only reason I still have XM. George and Earle are great at what they are doing. DT has it's own sound (and seems to have enough bitrate to make it enjoyable). They do play new tracks by established DT artists, and some progressive rock, but nothing new by some of the other prog groups that have come along holding the prog banner. many of these groups would fit well, but aren't played. You get an occasional new prog tune on Fine Tuning, but you've lost much of the reason many XM fans had for tuning in.

I will say that ML needed a serious overhaul. There were complaints about it being on autopilot and some were certainly valid. But you've thrown the baby out with the bathwater and I know several XMML fans that will probably let their prepayed subs run their course and that will be the end of it.

Like I said, DT and FT are great, but all the hits channels sound too much like FM. So much for the revolution...

Dennis in TX

 
At 12:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Technology...Without Stereo, FM may never have grown to it's current proportion."

More evidence that sound quality is important to consumers. While XM seems to be moving backwards in that department, terrestrial radio is trying to move forward with HD. Whether HD will ever be successful or not is still up for debate, but XM should AT LEAST match current FM Stereo in terms of sound quality which hasn't been the case of late.

 
At 9:27 PM, Anonymous Corey Deitz said...

Wow...what an amazing perspective. Thanks...

 
At 2:36 PM, Anonymous TheLongshot said...

Lee, I love your passion, and you certainly know how to say the right things.

Too bad XM doesn't seem to be following very many of them.

For example, where is the passion to make XM Music Lab something special the last couple of years? The content had stagnated for a very long time, and it was just looking for the axe.

Da Boneyard spent most of its time ignoring new bands, just sticking to the genre stuff. Now, just when it was just starting to play the bands that are around now, Logan left, and now the station has gotten a lobotomy.

It seems more and more, we are getting stations like Big Tracks, which don't really add to the content of XM, but appeal to the mass market. Meanwhile, XM Music Lab, which never seemed to get TLC from its PM, ends up being a wasted opportunity.

I see you guys sqandering the promise of satellite radio. Too bad.

 
At 7:26 PM, Blogger Billy Roberts said...

I really enjoyed reading about the current state of FM radio. I agree with what you said.

However, I have to agree with some of the people who posted about XM also suffering from some of these same problems. I love XM but I have noticed a backward trend within the company. They are becoming known more for quantity over quality.

Examples:playlists on channels (mainly the Hits and even some of the Rock channels) have been cut, there has been an increase of promos, there's less "niche" programming and there's more examples of channels being programmed poorly.

Boneyard has not been the same since the former PD, Charlie Logan, left. Ethel hasn't been the same since Steve Kingston arrived. The Heat is suffering from sub-par programming. Lucy and Ethel have too much overlap; they are losing their distinctive "sound". The Heart at times sounds like The Blend; I miss the old Heart with the original PD.

Also, the sound quality has gotten so bad. There's too many channels and not enough bandwidth.

I love XM and will continue to subscribe to it because I believe in the product. But XM is not as "cool" as it used to be, as it is starting to fall into the same traps of what is killing FM radio.

 
At 9:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LA....great overview of where FM was and is and needs to be...XM should not allow terestrial thinknig into the house...you will lose the "cool" factor and become just "another" choice....keep writing brother...---tjl

 

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