Tuesday, September 05, 2006

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 clich├ęs 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.

13 Comments:

At 2:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I checked out Dylan's show for the first time this weekend, and was floored. I honestly think this should be put up on iTunes, perhaps even for free--Yes for FREE!

This show should take advantage of the viral marketing that has overtaken the culture. I do not think this show being exclusive to XM will add that many subs on it's own--until people actually experience it, it will just be viewed as another celeb-DJ show. And we know it is so much more than that. In the TV world, "The Office" and "Grey's Anatomy" both took off after they were on iTunes.

--This is a great opportunity for XM to market itself as MORE than just radio! XM needs to create buzz about the product, and this is the perfect opportunity--I can hear the watercooler talk now, "Have you heard Dylan's show on XM? It is amazing..."

just to clarify, I am not a Dylan fan (I like some of his music, but would certainly not classify myself as a fan), and I do not really listen to 99.9% of the music played on "Theme Time." So if this show can floor someone like me, you just know how special it is...

 
At 4:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee,
I enjoy the blog. You have some great, out-loud thinking on here that all broadcast pros should at least read.

A couple thoughts on today's post.
The success of NPR isn't all that surprising when you consider that; a) It's on EVERYWHERE, even the smallest of towns.
and
b) Aside from being well done, it really has no competition.

Local news/talk, while serving a purpose, is nearly un-listenable for long periods. Their seldom-prepped hosts/content are almost used as flavor... stuck somewhere between traffic/weather every 2 minutes, live spots, and way-too-long listener rants from border-line retarded callers who have somehow managed to dial a phone. It's target audience is the lowest common human denominator and people who won't wait longer than 120 seconds for the traffic report...I think that leaves those in want of real news and insight with only one option.

While we're on the subject of the sad state of news delivery...you mention Katie Couric...I happened to be watching The Today Show on the morning of 9/11. As the second plane hit, she actually said, "It must be an air traffic control problem."
No, I'm not making that up. She now has the former seat of Walter Cronkite.

 
At 7:16 PM, Anonymous Jayb24@yahoo.com said...

Hi Lee - I am a fan of WOXY.com and an even bigger fan of Channel XMU, as I am a current subscriber to XM Radio. My concerns are that XMU doesn't have a large playlist and tends to repeat the same artists way too often.

Please expand the playlist, as it would be my favorite channel on your dial.

Anyway for a college and community radio DJ to get involved?

Thanks,
Jay

 
At 8:52 PM, Anonymous J. said...

I can't agree more with your comments about NPR. I heard you speak at the Public Radio Program Director's Conference last year and you confirmed my past beliefs that you have your finger on the pulse of radio trends and habits. It was so good to see and hear your viewpoint in the midst of my colleagues, many of whom had never heard of you before.

Coincidentally, I am a former employee of WOXY's FM predecessor. Do you remember when it was WOXR, a tiny hometown station trying to be all things to all listeners? Doug and Linda Balogh were the type of visionaries who knew what it would take to make the station "work." We all see what happened when they decided to pull out.

As a refugee to Public Radio, I never cease to be amazed by those who refuse to break out of the cage and take a few risks. From the GMs who are afraid to change late Saturday or Sunday night programming without research....to the PDs and on-air types who are worried that saying the call letters more than once a break will offend the audience.

Hey folks, good radio is good radio and, if we present it intelligently, our "intelligent" audience will support it.

Yes, commercial radio has a lot to learn from Public Radio these days but pardon my blasphemy when I say that we pubcasters need to open our eyes and minds to good radio, wherever we hear it.

I consider myself as having made the transition to Public Radio successfully but I would be remiss if I failed to point out folks such as Mark Perzell, Brian O'Donnell and Frank Johnson who, now at WGUC in Cincinnati, have taken their knowledge of good delivery to the classical format. It warms the cockles of my heart to hear the way they execute in what I still consider "alien territory."

Now what I'd like to hear is Bob Edwards hosting a "Jelly Pudding" style program a la Michael Xanadu.

 
At 9:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I think rather than dreaming about bringing in folks with commercial experience to run NPR, you might want to figure out how XM can get NPR away from Sirius -- and to make sure this includes All Things Considered. There's a reason that NPR is the #3 format. Treat them with the respect they deserve and bring them over to XM!

 
At 10:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee:

What's the story with "National Lampoon Radio." The XM channel guide on the GM website shows this new channel (154) "starting Fall 2006," but the guide on the XM website doesn't list it at all! Is this what MSNBC was dropped for? How come XM isn't promoting it? Is it a Clear Channel production being forced on XM by Clear Channel as a quid pro quo for that huge initial investment? Inquiring minds want to know!

 
At 9:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting blog.
It's funny you should mention woxy.com, Frank Wood's WEBN, and Steve Dahl in the same entry.
Woxy.com, and its predecessor, 97x out of Oxford, Ohio, reminded me very much of the early days of WEBN's FM broadcasts after the Jelly Pudding program was introduced in 1967. 97x was as close to free-form radio as you could still get in rock and roll music before its terrestrial demise. Its DJs knew the music, and related tidbits about every song they played, much like Frank Wood's WEBN did in the late 60s and early 70s. 97x carried the tradition over to its internet programming, perhaps becoming a little more daring and free-form when the DJs had a stake in the business, making the programming decisions.
I sympathize with your frustrations in having to read e-mails from woxy fans. I am a member of the message boards (frizgolf) and I've seen some of the responses some of them have regarding the demise of the station. The same flood of emotion occurred in 2004 when the station left the airwaves. The audience is young and educated, but, judging from discussion on the boards, may be prone to acting on pure emotion. They are artists and music fans, but the pure writers and business minds are a little fewer and farther between. I apologize if any have struck a chord with you. They are passionate, and are acting out of desperation, having learned that they will lose the most important music source they have known.
Personally, I see it as the death of an era. Radio as I knew it growing up will only survive under the guidance of satellite radio stewardship, or on internet broadcast.
As for the famous Chicago DJ, one of my friends growing up had an eerie resemblance to Steve Dahl. When he moved to Chicago, he was often mistaken for him. He admits to being tempted to take advantage of his look alike status for restaurant freebies and groupies. We both grew up on Frank Woods' WEBN. I can remember sleepovers when we were kids, and tuning in Woods' overnight DJ, Ty Williams. When I first heard George Taylor Morris in syndication years ago, I thought it was Ty.
Anyway, thanks for the mention of woxy.com. It's refreshing to know their influence is felt amongst the movers and shakers in the radio business. My heart is breaking to see them go. I have made some friends through the message boards, as we often have get-togethers amongst boarders, usually at local shows. I'm most worried about finding new music without woxy around. Oh, sure, I'll find it; it just won't have the passion, knowledge and familiarity the woxy DJs bring. They know a lot of their fans by name. I'm also worried about the local music scene here in Cincinnati. Without woxy.com (and its terrestrail predecessor), local bands will be losing a valuable sounding board.
Know anyone in Cincinnati with a few million laying around?
Russ Toelke
Cincinnati Ohio

 
At 3:48 PM, Blogger Steve K. said...

Lee, just to hear that Special X is even on your radar screen makes my heart soar like a hawk!

 
At 6:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I get XM Radio on my DiercTV
wyh don't they get rid of some shopping stuf & faith based gumbo
& let Dylan air...are they waiting for the funeral...so they can have a special?? bd 1941 Huck

 
At 6:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I applaude you for your tireless dedication to providing America with the best content and presentation in radio entertainment.

As deep and analytical as it gets; XM programming is overthought.

Relax, Lee, you sound like a 60's hippie ready to change the world. That is what killed radio in the first place.

Relax, breath deep.

There is no such thing as "perfect" radio. Stop analyzing and just get involved in the music.

If I heard your DJ's talk like they were making love to their turntables (harddrives).. take me out of Floyd and move me into Morrison... Ride with me through the theater of Panic! At the Disco and lust after JT and Timba as a prelude to licking between the toes of Beyonce. Talk me through it, share with me the love of the artist, the music the creation the life the death.

Do your exit poles and talk to the kids but you will always be faced with two truths...

1)A hit is a hit. Whether its country, jazz, pop, alt, emo, metal, NPR, Stern (why else would you hire the lame O & A?). You are always going to play the hits.

PD's that love music and are free to play from the hip will give you the playlist that reflects their own personal journey or relationship with music. If you take two rock dj's and put them in a room, they will seldom agree on a playlist (but the songs they do agree on are certainly NOT under the "hit" radar).

2)Until you get a life, you will always be inside looking out instead of outside looking in.

Buy a ticket to a show, stand in line, buy a shirt, fight your way to the wall and live it up!~ Come back to the mic and tell me all about it.

Share with me, lets experience this thing together. Interactive is where it is at... radio (XM or not) is still speaking AT me, trying to tell me what I want to hear.

I listened to The City all week and I know nothing more about Yung Joc or Pharrel or Diddy or any of the other artists on the station. I don't know what is new music, what is old, what is exclusive etc.

I do know that there are various mispellings of the artists names across the board on XM. I heard a Justin Timberlake song yesterday and my XM screen read "Justin Limberlak". I would sure feel stupid if I turned to my kids and said, "I just love Justin Limberlak!~ Now that may sound like a small thing, but it makes me wonder whether it would be better for you to spend time with your stations instead of hanging with Bob Dylan and sharing your comments on this blog with the other radio geeks.

Good Luck, Lee.

(I see you will have the final say as to whether or not this goes up on your blog page. I understand if you do not want to publish this. It's all good.)

 
At 10:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

XM music programming is excellent.

Don't change a thing.

 
At 9:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee, you all really should talk to the powers that still own the rights to all the 97x stuff and get it over to xm -- really compelling music content is something that neither you or sirius have.

i miss faded flannel... i also miss 97x -- wouldn't it be great to announce this:

"The Future of Rock and Roll is now... Bam! 97XM - WOXY"

think about it... you could change the rules... again.

 
At 7:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lee Abrams was our consultant at WRDU - THE Rock station in Raleigh, NC - Along with Carl Venters, they took this to a whole new level in AOR radio. I was incredibly fortunate to be a part of it. The brilliance of Lee Abrams is apparent with each and every word. The vision, the humor, and the consistent relatability is what makes him an icon in the industry. Ok, Lee - No, not looking for an XM job, but look to your wisdom regularly still being in the business.
Kitty Kinnin
Raleigh, NC

 

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