The fact is, radio isn’t the scalable business that many investors and corporate mavens think it is. And dealing with talent is often one of the toughest challenges that managers and owners face.
I was reminded of this with the passing of Detroit-area native and world famous crime author Elmore Leonard. You probably know who he is, even if you haven’t read any of his books. Several of his short, dialogue filled novels were made into movies, like Get Shorty and Freaky Deaky. Around suburban Bloomfield Township, Michigan, it was not uncommon to see Leonard motoring around, enjoying the city, its restaurants, and its shops.
In a 1983 interview, The New York Times offers up a great quote that relates to the most interesting of characters in his books:
“The bad guys are the fun guys. The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types. Their language isn’t very colorful, and they don’t talk with any certain sound.”
Leonard could have just as easily been talking about DJs or morning teams. With few exceptions, the most talented, the most compelling, and the most magnetic are often the ones most difficult to manage, coach, or attract. They have a certain rebellious quality that makes them compelling but also often incompatible with the changing mood of corporate radio. But they’re also the ones that get you ratings, win over fans, create relationships, and build loyalty.
If you’re in the radio business and you’re hoping to have it easy when it comes to managing talent, you would have never hired stars like Howard Stern, Tom Leykis, Henry Del Toro, Carolyn Fox, or Rush Limbaugh. These types of personalities are tough, demanding, and often question just about everything. But of course, they’re also the ones who will keep you on top of the rankers, book after book. And they're also the ones that advertisers and clients always want to meet.
Elmore Leonard had a knack for creating great characters and letting them speak for themselves. And many of the most memorable – like Chili Palmer – had DJ-like names. So it is with radio talent. The really great ones need to own their own voices, they're flawed, and they'll make mistakes in judgment. But they also are the straws that stir that radio drink. The ones that have gotten away to the world of podcasting may have achieved a measure of freedom, but often not huge success either. In that equation there have been few winners – the stations that lost them, the audiences that miss hearing them on the radio, and the personalities themselves now working on a much smaller stage.
So the next time you find yourself struggling in a difficult talent negotiation or even one of those frustrating internal conversations about content, policy, or procedures, think about Leonard’s “take” on what truly makes characters interesting.
The dangerous ones are usually the most entertaining.