Saturday, October 07, 2006

"I was frequently disgusted at format leaders who couldn't find more than a dozen truly new songs to play" Ron Fell

The obvious is almost always the hardest to see. In the quest to achieve competitive 25-54 numbers some in music radio believe jockless oldies offers the most effective, efficient solution. Playing oldies, specifically those titles not recently available in a market, practically ensures a strong ratings debut. The history of music radio is replete with supportive turnaround exhibits; the so-called "fresh" oldies strategy has become the miracle cure for failed stations, the now vogue silver bullet of choice, the prescriptive solution for quick, if not overnight, ratings success.

Oldies in combination with a jockless presentation offers low cost of entry and requires the most modest of operating investments. The single biggest expense of any station is labor and the jockless oldies station can be launched without any (or a greatly reduced) cost of talent. Compared to the continued funding of a fully staffed ratings sick operation, the jockless oldies strategy is a bean counter dream come true - operating financials improve dramatically and literally overnight. Once the station gets beyond earning out any severances and marketing associated with the flip ongoing operating expenses are minimal and very stable.

Nothing really new here. A great many of the first FM stations simply simulcast their big sister AM, the perfect expense free operating solution until the FCC mandated "non-duplication" standards. That's when FM music radio first went jockless with the help of a one-time cap x investment in automation and the leasing of syndicated programming. Those were the days when the FM station of a combo was housed in a closet, automation running perhaps Schulke or a George Burns' format. Today's jockless initiatives are reiterative, an echo of that first automation era. The FM station on a hard drive running Jack or the Alan Burns' format. And in a day when dollars are dear the jockless price is right. In the recent past jockless was a mere launch strategy, a convenience affording one the time to properly recruit an air staff in the open post launch. The jockless debut was once the opening act of a much more developed multidimensional creative offering. Today, reminiscent of the first wave of cost saving automation, stations are jockless by design, jockless for the run of the show. In net effect, we are again teaching listeners to expect tunes dressed with minimalist staging. By comparison, the theater of Drake's KHJ Sneak Preview sounds involved, complex, absolutely orchestral.

The real issue here should not be the near-term performance of these jockless oldies stations for it has been demonstrated they provide both immediate financial relief and, in most cases, solid ratings improvement (at least in the debut). The real issue, it seems to me, should be about sustentation, about building a sustainable brand, about growing a profitable enterprise, about competing for the future. Or have we reached the point where format permanence is an illusory, romantic notion. Have we reached the point where all that matters is staying current on the latest low cost ratings solution. A day when plug-and-play preemption is prized. A day when the Arbitrends of one station in one market becomes catalyst, the first domino to fall, the starting gun of a nationwide race to be first. The first to serve up the brand new soup of the day (or a knock off that tastes every bit as good). The art of radio programming become speed dating. No matter that first mover advantage is a marketing canard, incumbency a highly overrated fable in all but politics. And the velocity of change is only likely to increase. The weekly data points via PPM will bring radio much closer to TV, formats will be subject to the short runs and quick cancellations so common now in network television. The new format given a month to win audience, the new drive show judged a winner or loser in weeks not quarters. Not to say that will be a good or bad thing but things will be very different.

Recently KOAI in Dallas changed format bringing to an end a 19 plus year run of the north Texas Smooth Jazz brand known as The Oasis. By any measure that's a great run but over that run there were good years and bad. Perhaps the new format will enjoy a run as long, time will tell. However, today most corporate folks would be happy, contented, by the promise of a format with a baked in 19 month run of success. 19 months of stable, predictable earnings and low investment holds greater appeal than the vagaries, the potentially expensive notion, of building a lasting brand. Nickel slots vs $100 a hand blackjack. Preference for taking the safe swing vs swinging for the fences, the focus to get on first rather than going for the game winning home run. Risk management vs game changing innovation. Changing formats every 19 months might well be the new template, the new reality, the new structure of doing business. Have we reached the day of the short-lived, disposable format? To be considered successful or even competent must we embrace a new programming philosophy, one more attuned to the quarter by quarter visibility so de rigueur in the orbits of green shades and their paramours, the analysts? Have we entered a new arena of play wherein our nimbleness and speed in adopting the latest format trend is judged to be more important than any ongoing stewardship of a much older, perhaps even great, known brand? Our agility in getting the latest flavor of jockless music on the air more celebrated than the audacious, expensive move of daring to create a talent driven community institution? Clearly, the expectations and standards have changed or are in the process of change. That the jockless formats are getting more trade attention than this year's top billing stations while nothing new still says a lot. I am reminded of the lesson Paul Drew once taught me "I would rather have you be right than be first." Please allow me to table this rant with the suggestion we revisit these issues another time. I do invite your thoughts, please make use of the comments option at the end of this post. I'd enjoy getting your take as I'm sure will others. Thank you. My earlier thoughts on jockless radio here, and on the state of and future of music radio here.

Today, let's talk about the need for new. The following is a writing by my friend, the great Ron Fell. Ron's writing is a follow-on to an earlier post about the history of AC radio. But Ron, as usual, has more to say. His is a profound observation one that deserves thought and discussion. Ladies and gentlemen...Ron Fell:

I am absolutely certain that Bill Gavin coined the phrase Adult Contemporary. That's not to say he created it as a format. Bill was looking for a handle on a format that seemed to represent a growing cadre of Gavin reporting stations. The stations might have been labeled Chicken Rock, or Easy Listening, which to Bill were negative designations. He felt that many of his former MOR stations wanted to attract contemporary adult listeners. Simple as that.

The premise at the stations and in Bill's head was Rock and Roll/Top 40 had been around long enough by 1973 that there were plenty of listeners who'd grown tired of being treated like a teen, yet were not ready for the standards and schmaltz of Middle of the Road. Bill hadn't a clue what he'd done with such an annointment, but it lead to many adult-leaning pop stations adopting the moniker or handle.

The format has never been a big factor in music sales as nothing could compete, nor can it compete with the musical appetite of teens and the very young adult. But A/C offered a sancturary for those "contemporary adults" who still appreciated the new and now.

I played only a small part in the development of the format when I replaced Bill as his A/C editor in 1975 and anchored the format at Gavin until 1998. I had joined Bill and The Gavin Report following three years programming the NBC O&Os in SF (KNBR AM & FM). I witnessed A/Cs search for respect and identity within the larger music community as the phrase competed with R&R's chart label of Pop Adult and Billboard's Easy Listening.

I think the format was stiffled early on and remained suffering because programmers in the format did not see the connection between "adult" and "new." I was frequently disgusted at format leaders who couldn't find more than a dozen truly new songs to play, and who couldn't find more than two opportunities per day to play each new song.

For decades it also seemed Top 40/CHR had a bold contempt for anything A/C and yet in the late '90s what becomes of many non-urban Top 40/CHR stations? They adopt the handle of Hot Adult Contemporary. How hilarious?

I left the business in '98 without seeing A/C radio get its props. I also noted with some sadness that programmers felt and feel that only extreme treatments of current music can satisfy the contemporary adult. Those treatments are what I'd prefer to identify as either a mix of re-current and oldies, or a too-hip-for-the-room mix of non-hits. Good golly Miss Molly there must be something in-between.

But that's why they invented the Walkman and later the iPod.

Thanks for the invite, David. I will now slowly, if not gracefully, crawl down off this soap box one last time.

Ron Fell
San Francisco

Bravo Ron! Very well said. Thank you for sharing. "One last time"? say it ain't so Ron! Your insight and thoughts are welcome here always - at any time of your chosing.

Debt of gratitude: First meeting Ron I was an MD and he made me a much better one. Because of his teachings I later became a far better PD. During our long association I have learned much from Ron, been inspired by the grace of his style, made better by his example.

My sense is there is something wrong with a station that fails to feature new music, that fails to keep me in touch, that goes on without the excitement of surprise, without the depth and emotions of pure fun and joy that only happens when discovery is shared.