I get asked a LOT, “How do you think up topics for the blog?” When you write a post pretty much every weekday (holidays excluded), you most definitely need some solid resources and a little help.
But as I've also learned, inspiration has a lot to do with the finding interesting things to discuss with you. Sometimes, my thought process overlaps different people and different pieces of information. And that's how today's topic came together.
At almost the same time, I read Mike McVay's blog in Radio Ink Tuesday morning, “Get Me A PD.”
As Mike pointed out, not only is it easier said than done, but there are a lot of moving and intangible parts. He goes on to provide great discussion points to focus on the skillset that matters, important signs to look for, and what to ask in the interview. It's a great read.
And moments later, Mike Stern sent me a Fast Company story that flew off the page and right into my “idea generation machine.” Called “10 things you should never do as a first-time manager,” it's one warning after another about how to not screw up your first management gig.
The combination of McVay's story about what it takes to get that programming job, and Stern's article about how to not screw it up led me to today's blog post.
I will, however, deviate a bit from the title by listing things you absolutely positively must DO when getting that first PD title. And also, several of the sand traps to avoid – in other words, things you'd best DON'T do.
And let's not limit the readership to newly-minted PDs. There's no question in my mind that sales, digital, and marketing managers have a lot to consider as well.
It also dawned on me that some of you reading this have worked for several radio stations in management capacities during your careers. Part of this, of course, is due to how the radio cookie crumbles. This is still a fast-track industry where U-Haul is often the obvious winner in the comings and goings of PDs – or as they are often called now, Content Directors or Brand Managers.
But maybe, just maybe there's a reason why you're 40 years-old and you've already programmed more than a half dozen stations. These days, management training is virtually non-existent in many companies. Perhaps you've neve been shown the ropes. Or maybe you're seemed to end up in jobs where you're given enough rope to hang yourself. “Hello, U-Haul.”
So maybe the DO's and DON'T's in today's blog post will resonate with you industry veterans, hoping to lay down some roots in your current or next market and company. If these tips help you better understand what went right or wrong in past situations, it's a plus. Sadly, many of the conferences that once provided guidance for young programmers no longer convene, thanks to the pandemic and tougher economic times in the radio business.
Looking back at my career, I can't help but think I‘m one of the luckiest people in the radio business. As my Uncle Bert used to say, “I was raised right.” Coming up in the wonderful world of ABC Radio in the 80's, I got to sit next to some of the best programmers ever. And the company emphasized we learn from each other. There were annual meetings for us ahead of the NAB Radio Show (another event that is dearly missed), several days where we mostly sat around, compared notes, discussed the issues of the day, and got smarter in each other's presence. Good things always came out of these meetings (except when the ratings came out during them).
Programmers like Larry Berger, Frank Cody, Tom Yates, John Gehron, Corinne Baldassano, Jim Smith, Roger Skolnik, Gloria Johnson and Tommy Hadges helped the younger programmers in the room talk through their challenges, selflessly giving suggestions, sharing philosophies, and of course, telling “war stories.”
And my mentor here in Detroit, Tom Bender (pictured) always had an open office door and an inviting couch across his desk, ready to “talk radio.” (How about those natty ties in the WRIF trailers?)
In New York, WABC and programming legend, Rick Sklar (pictured) was never shy about telling you what HE thought. Rick was bombastic, self-confident, acutely brilliant, and very vocal about what did and did not work. You couldn't help but learn from being in his presence. And Allen Shaw, the guy who invented the ABC FM rock format was the young guy at the helm of this pioneering organization of 1970s radio stations. It was a very heady time to be a radio programmer.
It was also common that if your station hit a snag in the ratings or a serious competitive threat erupted in your market, you could fly in a couple select PDs to spend a couple days with you, listening to your station and the competition, discussing tactics and strategies. And if there was something interesting happening in Denver or Atlanta, you would always get the green light to fly to that market and spend a day or two monitoring the market in an airport hotel.
The emphasis was always on making you smarter. And in the days well before the Internet and Mediabase, the only way to get a true sense for what was going on somewhere was to go there.
In my years as a consultant, I have also been blessed to work with a cast of hundreds of programmers representing the full range of competence, experience, smarts, and humor. The best of the lot let me advise them, but always maintained their own vision about how their stations should sound. There are way too many of them to mention, but suffice it to say, when you're exposed to so many diverse philosophies, your personal base of knowledge expands exponentially.
Today's post in a compendium of this learning, consciously and of course, unconsciously. As a consultant, I learned early to recognize a great idea when I saw or heard it. Back to the top of today's post, that's where many of these daily ideas come from.
So, without further adieu, here's the list. And I'm hoping several of you can add your wizened advice from past wins and/or debacles.
1. DON'T talk about where you've been – No one cares. In fact, it'll just cause resentment, because whether your last stop was Chicago, Charlottesville, or Chattanooga, whether you had #1 rating books, and whether you won a Marconi, no one cares. You're “here” now, and all they care about is what you're going to do for them NOW. If there's a killer idea from a past gig you want to brush off and repeat at your new station, try “Here's something I've seen work before” rather than “When I was in Tulsa….”
2. DO set the right tone – The impression you make in your first days or weeks on the job is the tone you'll live with for your tenure. Walk in with an arrogant or cavalier attitude and it'll be hard to walk that back months later. Be gracious, and show gratitude and appreciation in those all-important early days, and you're on your way toward winning the cooperation of your team and others on the staff.
3. DO your homework – The more you prep for this job in advance, the better you're going to hit the ground running. No one expects you to have it figured out in the early days of your gig, but the more you have a basic understanding of the market, your station, and the situation you're walking into, the better you'll have a perspective on the lay of the land. Read everything you can get your hands on – a ratings history, research the station has conducted, and an exhaustive Google search of the main players. You still have a lot to learn, but at least you're starting on Square Two.
4 DON'T just manage your team – PDs often make the mistake of thinking they just manage the on-air sound and the talent who create it. But in reality, to be an effective programmer, you've got “manage up” – your GM (market manager) and in many cases, corporate. You have to learn who needs to be insulated from whom, when to be transparent, and who needs to know what and when. It's a nuanced challenge. As Mike McVay mentioned in his blog, you also need to “manage sideways” – the other department heads that often includes sales, marketing, digital, traffic, and engineering. You need these people and their mutual cooperation in order to get things done.
5. DO talk to everyone (including ghosts of the past) – Your job is to attempt to draw a complete picture of the challenge the station is facing. Everyone deserves the chance to be heard even if they have agendas or horses in the race. After awhile, you'll (hopefully) start hearing common threads from station stakeholders. They may not always be objective or even right, but their point of view has value. And if you can spend some time with past programmers, you're likely learn even more about the station's history, including where a body or two may be buried.
6. DON'T forget about the “vision thing” – Assessing the situation and not getting into a “ready, fire, aim” zone is important, of course. But so is developing a plan. And that means forming a vision for the station – how it sounds, what it stands for, and where it's going under your leadership. You may/may not be the guiding voice in the station's direction, but being able to articulate a vision for the station is part and parcel in motivating the staff to believe in and follow you. This is your “elevator pitch” to the staff, and even a way you can face bad books and other disappointments that come your way.
7. DO drive the market – Every piece of research will tell you the same thing – more people are likely listening to your station while behind the wheel. So experience your station from the POV of the road. Spend hours driving around the metro, see and experience the cities, towns, and the countryside where those meters or diaries end up. How does the station sound in real time while you're cruising around, whether you're live, voicetracked, or syndicated. What can you do to make your station part of the soundtrack of people's lives as they drive to and from work, pick up the kids, run errands, and play. And while you're at it, pay particular attention to how your station looks on the dashboard screens. Is your metadata accurate and well-placed, is there album artwork and is it correct, and does your station display advertisers during commercial stopsets?
8. DON'T ignore your digital assets – You're not just responsible for what's on the air. Make sure you're up to speed with your station's content offerings on all platforms – streams, the website, smart speakers, the app – anywhere your audience (and advertisers) consume your content. How is the streaming experience, does the app work well, is your website easy to navigate, does Alexa understand the commands that provide access to the station? You may not be directly on the hook for all these touchpoints, but they are a reflection of how consumers interface with your station. Find ways to eliminate the clunky or suboptimal experiences, and focus on making it easy and seamless for your fans to enjoy your station whenever and wherever they like.
9. DO some research – If you're starting a PD gig without the benefit of research, do whatever's in your power to convince the powers-that-be to invest in getting meaningful audience insights. You may be a great programmer, but without “radar” to accompany your flight plan, you're flying blind. And the ratings will only get you so far. Audience research may not provide all the answers, but it will help get everyone on the same page. The great programmers will tell you that while research cannot tell you what to do, it can help you see the landscape in a clear-eyed way. If it can do that, it's worth the investment.
10. DON'T forget the ground game – With all the technology at your fingertips, it's too easy to stay above the fray when you're doing your job. But it's also easy to lose touch with the streets. What's going on with listeners, their emotional state, and how they use your radio station? Most of your competitors – especially in the new media space – have more firepower and resources than you do. But you can easily have your finger on the pulse of the market by keeping your station active, involved, and connected. Show up at every station event you can – not just to show the staff you care – but to also asses their skills at working the crowd, presenting the station at events, and interfacing with advertisers and audiences. Chances are, you can level up your station's street activities, making sure you're got presence at the right times and the best places.
Hopefully, these nuggets of advice for virgin PDs is helpful. In reviewing these 10 DO's and DON'Ts, I have distinct memories about where many of them originated in my personal programming playbook. I owe a great deal to many people who mentored me along the way, or who set an example for what to do or not to do. (You can learn as much from “worst practices” as you can the truly great ideas.)
If you took a nugget or two from this blog post, you've made my day.
Good luck out there. As Tom Bender often reminded me, “running your own starship” is an awesome responsibility. Not everyone can do it.
If you're tasked to do it, do it well.
Whenever someone reminds you, “Content is king,” remember it often starts from the PD's office.
Gary Sandy, (pictured at the top of this post) is the actor who portrayed “WKRP in Cincinnati's” great program director. He will be appearing at Radio Ink's “The Radio Masters Sales Summit” next week in…yes, Cincinnati. Also on the agenda is Paul Jacobs, moderating a panel called “‘Digitizing' Your Audience for Revenue Growth,” featuring Tony Garcia, Katie Gambill, and Creighton Green. Info and registration here. This program director approves.