Certainly one of the most recognizable images in the history of radio is the ubiquitous RCS Rainbow Screen – the gateway into Selector. And while Program Directors today enjoy the stability of version 12.53j, which includes a bevy of options they can customize to their station’s needs, we rarely stop to consider what the world was like before computerized music scheduling.
The man who may be most responsible for the way that music stations have evolved over the past 3+ decades is Dr. Andy Economos who launched his company, Radio Computing Services, in 1979. Long before there was a PC (let alone two) on every desk in radio, Selector became ubiquitous in radio. The service took root quickly, rewarding stations that invested in the new technology with higher ratings and a distinct advantage over their competitors.
Before Selector, boxes filled with 3×5 cards representing each song, sequence sheets, and jocks arranging their music using category systems was the way that music was presented on the radio. Suffice it to say, there was very little accountability, poor archiving and tracking, not to mention songs that somehow “disappeared” from the box because they weren’t popular in the air studio.
Selector came along, and music radio has never been the same. In some ways, the Selector wasn’t just about the introduction of music scheduling for radio – it was the gateway for computers at many stations. For today’s edition of Innovation Friday, we asked Andy to share his recollections of developing the program that revolutionized radio and became the industry standard.
JM: How did the idea for Selector come about?
AE: The first thought of Selector came when I headed up computing activity at NBC. I asked Walter Sabo, who was heading up NBC FM Radio, how we kept track of the payments to the royalty societies. He explained that those were easy bulk payments, but said the real problem was scheduling music properly; rotating the songs and blending the sounds.
JM: Here's Walt Sabo's side of the story:
Walt Sabo: When he left NBC, Andy Economos asked me if there was anything I felt he could develop that radio stations needed. We were crossing Sixth Avenue in front of Radio City. I told him they needed music scheduling computers. He then did it. He and his wife provided outstanding customer service as the company grew. The company succeeded because of his humility. Today's IT people are arrogant and hated by their co-workers. Not Andy.
JM: How did you get from idea to development?
AE: I tried to add building a scheduling program to my department’s agenda, but it kept being rejected as not important enough for NBC to devote the resources. Their main focus then was TV. But when I left after 15 years at NBC to start a one-man software company focused on developing systems for the broadcasting industry, Sabo was still interested in a scheduler. He and I worked with NBC’s program director for the Chicago FM station to develop the first draft of what the system should do. I called it Selector.
JM: What were some of the biggest hurdles in building the system and how did you overcome them?
AE: The first big challenge was that it was the early 80’s, years before there were PCs or any inexpensive computers available. For perspective, there was a new line of small computers the size of a closet that cost about $30,000 each. So this was not only a new idea, but expensive, too, which meant only big radio stations were candidates.
The second big issue was the jocks giving up control of the music to the program director. Only the innovators and most creative radio people, like Scott Shannon and Randy Michaels, were willing to use the system. But that got easier when it became evident that stations using Selector were getting better ratings.
My personal hurdles were the same challenges that face most new companies. Trying to build a talented staff that buys into your dream and finding the money to pay for everything. I went four years without being paid, living off my savings and my wife's small salary.
JM: What was the initial reaction to the product when it first became available?
AE: When we first came out with Selector, there was a great fear among most people in radio, but there were also the pioneers who wanted to learn this new technology. Remember, in the beginning we were selling computers to stations who had never used one for any application not even accounting or payroll. But overall, the early word of mouth was wonderful.
JM: Since computers weren’t common, was it hard to train people to use the software?
AE: We trained a lot of people in radio to use a computer. And yes, it was difficult, but it was also a select group many of which had knowledge about electronics.
JM: Today, crowdsourcing and beta-testing computer programs is the norm. How were you able to test the software and get feedback as it was being developed?
AE: Throughout my 30 years of building this company, we grew a great client base with the best radio stations, great program directors and jocks, and consultants who recommended us to their clients. They were always forthcoming with wonderful feedback and ideas to improve and enhance the product.
When we made changes, we always tried to test the system in-house first. Then we would give it to a few forgiving and knowledgeable clients as our beta testers. Then we would make it a general release. Over the years we had some good ones and some real bombs.
JM: Did you have any indication of the impact Selector would have on the radio industry? Did it work out the way you thought it would?
AE: Selector became a dream product. When I sold the company after 30 years, it had become the industry standard with some 6,000 client stations in 100 countries. We had offices in 22 different countries to support our stations.
JM: Is the program being used the way you intended?
AE: I loved the way the stations used the program and invented new ways to maximize the existing capabilities.
JM: Looking back over your involvement with the program, what was the best part?
AE: The best part for me was building a company with a very talented and devoted staff. I am very proud of our company and the part we played in radio. In those days, radio was such an important industry full of creative and talented people who were a pleasure to know and work with. What a fun industry to be part of. Another thing that delights me is that the company is still successful and making more money than it did when I ran it.
JM: Is it true you awarded a gold floppy disc to the first program directors to adopt the software? Who was it?
AE: Yes, we stole the idea of giving gold discs from the record industry. We awarded a gold computer disc to Terry Danner, our first client who was the music director at KYUU in San Francisco.
JM: What advice do you have for someone starting out on their own with a new idea?
AE: I don't have much advice to give on starting new businesses. There are so many problems to be overcome. For those few who started businesses and became an overnight success bless them, but that is not my story. For me it meant hard work, long hours and surviving scary financial times. It was a wonderful journey and, if you do make it, it’s more fun and rewarding than running for a 100 yard touchdown and winning the game; it just takes more time.
Thanks to Mike Stern for writing this “RMI” profile.
INNOVATION QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Innovation is the specific instrument of entrepreneurship…the act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.”
Peter F. Drucker, author and consultant
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