Nearly 20 years ago, I was involved with a fascinating startup based around geo-targeted digital contesting married with radio stations that featured prominent personalities. It was a cool concept because web advertising was still very embryonic. It was pre-Google AdWords, smartphones didn’t exist, and Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school.
At the time, we were pitching a fast-rising web company that you have all heard of and used. The idea was to use the power of local morning radio to drive traffic to this site. They were just a startup, attempting to figure out their media and marketing strategy, and our team was very much in the hunt to help them build awareness and web traffic.
Several people in this fledgling startup were very high on us, including the CEO. But the final hurdle was to get a thumbs up from their New York City-based ad agency. Our entire team flew to the Big Apple for our meeting. As we sat in one of the most spacious conference rooms I’d ever seen, populated by high-power agency executives, we fired up our PowerPoint, and rolled out our plan that heavily involved popular, female-targeted Adult Contemporary morning shows in key media markets to get the word out about this cool website.
As we got up a head of steam, a question arose from one of the higher-ups in the agency:
“Morning radio, you say? Isn’t that just a bunch of DJs running around wearing underwear on their heads?”
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The room went silent, and the meeting essentially ended with that comment. As we scrambled to try to counter that perception with anecdotal and statistical evidence about the value of morning/personality radio, we were losing altitude quickly.
The agency’s impression of morning DJs was akin to the barker at a cheap circus carnival – a low-rate, zany form of juvenile entertainment clearly thought to be well below the image of their valuable up-and-coming web startup.
So, let’s fast-forward and think about the perception of radio all these years later. Have we made progress and changed perceptions? Has morning radio made itself a more vital part of the media tool kit. And have our DJs grown up?
The answer is, “Maybe not.”
Personality radio’s perception problems may have hit a low point last year when that Taylor Swift groping imbroglio court case went down with involving KYGO Denver DJ, David Mueller. A highly visible trial did nothing to improve radio’s personality image. And Swift’s appearance in the courtroom and ultimate victory only helped to cement another incident of a DJ behaving badly.
(It may have also started the #MeToo movement. How many women were inspired by Swift’s resolve and courage to tell their own story? Her case with Mueller was resolved last August. The first Harvey Weinstein outing didn’t occur until weeks later in October.)
And now we segue to Super Bowl Week – an exciting time for denizens of Boston, Philadelphia, and of course, Minneapolis/St. Paul. Yet, radio’s first big headline involved WEEI personality, Alex Reimer, insulted Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady’s 5-year-old daughter, Vivian, calling her “an annoying little pissant.”
There are a lot of Tom Brady haters outside of Boston and Ann Arbor, but somehow Reimer managed to turn him into a sympathetic figure.
And then just a couple of days ago there was a sophomoric dustup on “Radio Row” in Minneapolis involving WIP/Philadelphia’ Seth Payne and former WIP host, Josh Innes (now with KBME/Houston). This little incident was just another chapter in a “Who cares?” dispute between a couple of sports talkers that has been festering for years.
And like the debacle about Tom Brady, this one also went national for the word to see how radio puts its best foot forward for the most-watched live TV sporting event every year.
A story I remember very well that may or may not be a bit of urban legend. It involved a conversation that Mel Karmazin had with a radio executive from another company about their big morning radio talent during those days when FCC fines were getting tossed around like parking tickets. Howard Stern was in his commercial radio prime at this time, and the other CEO had his own “shock jock” making a lot of noise and racking up impressive ratings.
The story goes that Mel said to his counterpart:
“You know the difference between your guy and my guy? My guy knows where the line is.”
Karmazin was right, of course. Howard had that instinctive inner-alarm that almost always kept him out of severe trouble. This other jock? It was one hot mess after another.
And that story hit home for me during this Super Bowl run-up, a time when radio stations in Boston, Philly, and around the country should be having an exciting week, hopefully doing great radio. Instead, radio made headlines, but for all the wrong reasons.
I’m sorry, but the job of station management is to make sure these things don’t happen; that radio stations don’t embarrass their employees, their ownership, their teams, and their towns.
Ironically, when a professional or college player gets caught up in the web of scandals, these are the same guys opening up the phones, pouring on the kerosene, and laughing about the misfortunes of young athletes who should know better.
Now some of you will try to make the case these little radio skirmishes will turn out to be ratings spikes – that sports fans and others were motivated to tune in the next day to find out what happened. And in fact, that may turn out to be true.
But radio’s issues have less to do with the January Week 3 PPM release than they do with the long term, incalculable perceptual damage to radio has a media player. Whether it’s the listening audience, community leaders, advertisers, or the teams themselves – radio is the loser when it comports itself like a cheap side show rather than the classy medium that it can be.
And the last thing media buyers and planners need is another reason to bypass radio, and go with the myriad of other choices they have.
So, what’s the penalty for “un-radiolike conduct?”
When Pierre Bouvard worked for Coleman Research, one of his favorite sayings was:
“Perceptions are like glaciers – slow to form and slow to melt.”
For an industry fighting for every dollar and every ounce of respectability, you tell me who are the annoying little pissants.
I’ll be appearing on a panel at this year’s Talk Show Boot Camp – “Tech For Talk,” featuring Steve Goldstein, Carolyn Gilbert, and Leigh Jacobs. The conference takes place March 8-9 in Dallas Info here.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,000 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.