NPR, MORNING SHOWS AND LABOR DAY DAYDREAMS
Our trip to Cooperstown to see Bob Dylan was scrubbed. The idea of seeing a twilight concert at a ballpark on a summer evening amidst the pastoral backdrop of upstate New York was squashed by the forecasts of heavy turbulence, rain and the other remnants of Ernesto. Looks like we'll take a rain check (literally) on that gig.
Nonetheless, no shortage of things to do during the traditional down time of Labor Day weekend. Dan Turner and I went to Atlantic City for lunch instead. It's kinda like Las Vegas with a big smudge...nobody smiles there. It was surreal. Las Vegas with a headache. I guess if you get real drunk you can have fun. We didn't get drunk, but had a good time making cultural observations that ranged from scary to interesting to.....strange.
On Friday, WOXY, an adventurous online channel closed down. As in the case of any channel that ceases to exist, we are inundated with emails from the fans hoping that XM will pick up the channel. We'd love to look at that, but we have no spare bandwidth right now, and our priorities would likely be to resurrect channels like Music Lab, Special X and On The Rocks that have been sent to online only because of bandwidth issues. We also need to improve our own channels that target the WOXY fan. The thing about the emails is that it's real difficult for the fans to send enough of them to reach critical mass, and the emails tend to be pasted from the website, along with the occasional "You guys are idiots, if you don't pick up this channel you are dumber than I thought" types which aren't very effective. My advice for any channel would be to have a central person that collects the fan input and then presents the case in a businesslike way to XM. Much more effective than the scattershot email torture. In any case, I hope WOXY is able to stay around. We need channels like this in the current new media mix.
I read recently where NPR is the #3 most listened to "format" in terrestrial radio. Now that says something. Programming NPR would be fun. I always wondered what would happen if a crew of smart and experienced veterans of commercial radio wars were to run NPR and run it WITHOUT compromising their integrity. It would either ruin it, OR take it to a new level. If done right, probably take it to a new level. I say that because in many respects, XM brought many public radio people as Programmers, put them in a more commercial type environment and they flourished as they had nearly zero preconceived notions for what it's "supposed" to sound like. Maybe people with NO public radio experience could bring that same clean slate to Public Radio. At XM, anyone who came from commercial radio wars had to un-learn a lot whereas Public Radio folks had no un learning to do in terms of the tired clichés that "FM commercial wars veterans" were associated with. An example is that we like to use Bob Edwards to voice production. He has no "here's how a promo is supposed to be voiced" baggage, and the fact that he just "talks" is so refreshing in itself. Experience can be a bad thing--even successful experience if the person is unwilling to aggressively evolve their thinking.
The thing that underscores the NPR success is that there's far more to successful radio than the contests, play-the-hits and STYLE of radio that's become a parody of itself. There's nothing wrong with playing hits! But that STYLE in which radio is presented on FM--and even on XM at tmes, is SO out-of-touch. I listen to some FM's...and some XM stations at times and wonder--WHAT are these people thinking!!??? Is there ANYone over 8 that would find this even remotely entertaining and interesting? NPR can certainly touch the other edge of the spectrum with being a little too elite for the room. There's that zone in the middle where it's inspired, interesting and not too elite OR cheesed out. THAT'S being "in sync" with the era.
A few years ago, a friend of mine named Frank Wood actually called them to try to buy it. Frank is an eccentric, brilliant and legendary station mogul who started WEBN in Cincinnati years ago with his Father and built it into one of the great stations only to be creatively dismantled over the years--though Frank's operation was SO strong during his tenure that WEBN still does extremely well. He later owned Secret Communications and sold the group during the early days of consolidation. He possesses a true balance of insanity and clever business acumen. He collects books about truly weird stuff ranging from torture techniques in the 1400's to books about sexual etiquette for teens written in 1905, he also owns a very nice Jet and takes cycling trips with Real Estate guru Sam Zell in Turkey. You get the idea. Now if Frank took over NPR, I have no reason to think it wouldn't be the #1 format within a year. Unfortunately, they said no way.
I recently had lunch with Frank and ex Clear Channel Radio head Randy Michaels in Cincinnati. Now THAT was an interesting lunch. I tried to figure out what Randy's next move was going to be. In typical Randy fashion he started waxing on about technology--I got about every third word, and left with the feeling that I still have no idea what his next move is, but it'll likely be innovative and successful. I also wonder what Clear Channel Radio would be like if Randy was still at the helm....He's one of these 200 IQ guys that probably didn't finish high school but memorized the tower height of every radio station in America by the time he was 8. We used to have these trivia games that went till 3am...music trivia, but more challenging was a game of "What do the Call letters stand for" we had in Phoenix. (He won, but I got him on WQAM--We Quit At Midnight). Guys like Randy and Frank are the kind of guys that made FM Radio the icon it was. Real thinkers...but real crazies (for the right reasons) too. A potent combination.
Good weekend radio listening. The Bob Dylan marathon on The Village is great. Then there's "IT", Fred Essentials, etc.... Usually we like to do these "specials" during less obvious times. There seems to be an unwritten FCC law that says a station MUST do specials during holiday weekends. My feeling has always been that if it's really special, why limit it to the "obvious" time. Then again, the listening patters are so conducive to these kind of things on a weekend like Labor Day, we should probably do them on Holidays AND during the non obvious times. It's one of those "baggage" things where you get SO conditioned to doing things a certain way...and that certain way might be completely wrong. We at XM need to do a deeper baggage search than the TSA.
Opie and Anthony were on Letterman. I gotta say I was impressed with the way they carried themselves off. I've been on a few News type shows and it's not easy. You drive to the studio rehearsing in your head about how cool you're going to be--then once the camera is on and there's 50 people standing around, everything goes down the toilet, but O&A had extraordinary poise and were as natural as they are in person. Guys like that are always a lightening rod for disapproval. There are people who WANT to see them fail. But fail they did not. I thought they were very impressive.
A week or so before, I saw where Steve Dahl and Garry Meyers kissed and made up. Other than Disco Demolition, Steve & Garry never got the National exposure that other "two man shows" got, but they owned Chicago. They hit their stride before the big National Morning Show syndication thing hit, so may have missed that boat, but damn they were good. Occasionally they'd do live morning shows before a huge studio audience. Radio magic. It was 1940's live radio meets the 20th Century. Before Steve and Garry, you had Fox & Leonard in Philly, but the first big two man team was Bob and Ray at WINS in New York. We still carry Bob and Ray on Sonic Theater Channel. Their style of humor is definitely worth checking out. You'll either get it...or you wont. Sorta like Fawlty Towers. If you get their style, it's timeless.
Our "Best of Artist Confidential" CD has hit Starbucks. Good collection of live songs recorded as part of our Artist Confidential series. Robert Plant doing Whole Lotta Love, Coldplay, Phil Collins, and several others are in there...good set. Getting the rights was a nightmare, but it all came together.
Ran across a good article about Richard Branson , everyones favorite Rock n Roll billionaire:
Sir Richard Branson still remembers how he was first received by the establishment powers when he started Virgin Atlantic Airways 22 years ago. "The head of American Airlines said, 'What does Richard Branson know about the airline business? He comes from the entertainment business.' But that was exactly what the airline business needed."
He has been right, of course. With the exception of Southwest, all of the look-alike U.S. carriers wound up filing for bankruptcy or going belly up. Meanwhile, Virgin, with its fun-loving flight attendants who seem to be hosting a party, is still thriving.
What Branson understood two decades ago is just now beginning to be embraced by other corporate leaders: We should be having fun when we're spending our money. In a sense, Branson has never left the entertainment business, and that's why he's kicking off our third annual Customers First awards. As his empire has expanded--from a recording label and a chain of music stores to what became his fiercest passion, airlines, as well as an astonishing array of some 200 other eclectic ventures worldwide--his method has remained the same. He takes on intransigent industries that treat customers inexplicably badly and shows that he can offer not only a better deal but a truly entertaining experience. The approach has made Sir Richard a multibillionaire and Virgin a beloved brand--as well as a $10 billion-a-year operation.
Throughout Virgin's history, many of its most propitious ideas, small and large, have sprung from Branson's wants and needs as a customer himself. "The reason I went into business originally," he says, "was not because I thought that I could make a lot of money, but because the experiences I had personally with businesses were dire and I wanted to create an experience that I and my friends could enjoy."
On one trip, he recalls, "I wanted to talk to the pretty girl in the next aisle, but I was stuck in my seat the entire flight." Branson's frustration inspired him to introduce stand-up bars in Virgin's cabins. After his wife's manicurist suggested offering nail treatments and massages onboard, Branson didn't bother with market research. "Sounds like a great idea," he said. "Screw it, let's do it." Now Virgin has 700 therapists on staff.
Putting customers first is hard in a corporate environment that understands only cost, efficiency, and business as it has always been done. That was the case when Branson thought flyers would love seatback video screens that would let them pick the movies they wanted to see onboard rather than having to wait for whatever film the airline had picked. "Seatback videos are complicated, expensive things to do," he recalls. "The cost was around $8 million, and the airline was quite stretched at the time. I went to the bank, and they wouldn't give us the money. So I rang up the head of Boeing and said that we wanted to order some new 747s and could he give us seatback videos, and he said yes. We were able to borrow $2 billion to buy a new fleet of planes, but not $8 million for seatback videos."
Airlines are not the only industry where the big players exist in a weird state of mediocre parity because they put their own interests ahead of their customers'. Virgin Active, Branson's European chain of health clubs, lets members pay when they go rather than locking them up with a contract. Similarly, in the mobile-phone business, Virgin Mobile USA has attracted 4 million customers by offering prepaid cards mainly to young people who couldn't afford costly long-term service plans. The lesson: Don't rip people off, and they'll happily stay your customer.
A lot of executives consistently do what's easiest or cheapest for the business rather than the people paying the freight. Branson offers an alternative: Take a look at your business and ask yourself, "Is this how I would want to be treated if I were the customer?"
Now for the other side of the coin:
What is the deal with this Katie Couric coming to CBS News thing? More imploding under he weight of short term glitz and hype. Personally, I think that's the TV equivilent of the radio STYLE that's out of sync with the era. The circus surrounding her will ceratainly get a quick buzz and draw attention. Understood. But I gotta think they are gong to collapse their future credability, integrity and ultimately success by living and operting in the world of cheese.