Who has the toughest job in today's radio station?
Of course, this assumes that one person is actually only doing one job. These days, that's not a real perceptive conclusion. Most owners have taken multitasking seriously, and consequently, many radio station employees are wearing multiple hats.
But just looking at my question, title by title, which conventional radio job is most challenging in 2023?
OK, no surprise given who's writing this post, but I have to conclude it's the program director. In many ways, the role has changed a great deal over the years. And in others, it's the same job it's always been – just exponentially more complicated and multi-layered.
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Back in the day, programmers were radio gods – some of the biggest names in the business, right up there with the morning man (and it was almost always a man or two men.). PDs like Scott Shannon, Oedipus, Larry Berger, Steve Rivers, John Gehron, and so many others, were the toast of radio. The really good ones moved up the market ranks from small to medium to major, commanding more and more money – and respect.
While some may have had the benefit of research or a consultant, they mostly ran their own starships, as my friend Tom Bender called radio stations in the 70s and 80s. They were the ones tasked with the station's vision and execution. The sales department deferred to these influential programmers, and even general managers offered up their opinion and then let the PD make the call.
It was an uncomplicated job in many ways. Pretty much the only content that got created revolved around the over the air product – music, jingles, production, contests, and events. And in the top 25 markets at minimum, there were assistants, music directors, and promotions and marketing people to contribute to these creative tasks. The PD, however, was the boss of the airstaff – the style and execution of the format, airchecks, and even the look of the team.
It was all about what went out over the airwaves. There were no secondary platforms. All that mattered was what came out of the radio speakers.
The buck stopped with the PD – and rightfully so. He was generally in control of the product. And when “the book” came out, there was only one person to congratulate or interrogate. Programmers owned their ratings, good, bad, or otherwise.
My, how that role has changed. Who actually occupies the PD's chair is pretty much the same today as it was back then. Only about 11% of radio programmers are women. And while, there's been some growth, it's been incremental.
As I've discussed here before – and at Morning Show Boot Camp when presenting our AQ studies comprised of air talent – women in radio have a much tougher climb. Given that PDs often start their careers on the air, fewer women in the air studios makes fewer female PDs a self-fulfilling prophesy.
No matter the gender, the PD role has become so much more difficult. That's because there are so many other content centers than the content on the airwaves. I made up the graphic below that illustrates many of the other content areas that contain the call letters and/or the brand. While many programmers may not have the time to play watchdog over content on these various channels, it is all content consumers experience – for better or for worse.
In red, I highlighted the basics of the PD job when I last programmed in the early 80s. Aside from the on-air product, merch, and station events, my main focus was always on the product that was disseminated by the transmitter and the tower in the local metro.
Today, the job has expanded to a point where most PDs simply abdicate these other content centers and platforms to others, or in many cases, they may not be really supervised or managed by anyone. Eventually, unmanaged assets hurt the brand, and are often sunset or cancelled due to a lack of resources, bandwidth, or both.
Another difference? Listeners now have an efficient and often effective feedback loop with social media, platforms that can amplify any decision, especially if it proves to be unpopular. In the old days, a disgruntled listener called the station and a receptionist took a message. If someone got really hacked off, they might have the commitment to write a letter and mail it to the station. Today, reactions are instantaneous. Anything is liable to end up on social, from staff memos to clocks.
One thing that hasn't changed is that the PD is probably the one person on the management team most tasked with the challenge of both managing up (the GM and corporate) and managing down (the airstaff and direct reports). Often, she must insulate the one group from the other in order to maintain a positive vibe. And when it comes to advertiser decisions – inventory, the appropriateness of a campaign, spot loads, sponsorships, live reads, roadblocks – the onus is on the programmer to explain why additional revenue opportunities could turn out to be problematic to the audience and the brand. In these situations, a beleaguered PD may be the only one fending off a misguided marketing idea, an unpopular place to be.
I have a huge amount of respect and empathy for today's programmers. The job has certainly become more difficult. And the feedback I get is that many are frustrated with their ability to affect change and improvements. It is disheartening to spend a long day at a station only to walk out at night and wonder if anything actually got accomplished that day.
So, that's the idea of this post. While it may be difficult for any number of structural or systemic reasons to make macro changes to a station, it is not at all difficult to set an important goal:
Every day, strive to do just ONE thing to make the station better.
It doesn't have to be a world changing shift or a wildly innovative change. It can be the simplest of things that in their own small way improve something on the air, relations with a staffer, an audience connection, anything. And it doesn't need to take long to accomplish.
And when you've hit your daily goal, write it down. Journal it. And go back after every quarter to review your efforts.
Let me give you a few examples of what this might look like. The list below took almost no time to put together. And that told me there's all sorts of room for improvement at many stations. We're talking about those little things that can add up:
- Help a rep get a buy by offering to (or actually) going on a sales call.
- Jump on your station's biggest social media platform and thank people for listening (or clear the phone lines in an adjacent studio if listeners still call in).
- Spend a few minutes talking to someone at the station you never interact with. How are they doing? How are the kids?
- Bring donuts, bagels, or treats in for everyone.
- Take the airstaff out to dinner (try to do it quarterly). If money is tight or you can't get reimbursed, go to Taco Bell.
- Speak to a high school or college class in the area.
- Jump in the station van and drive around for an hour. Take in how other drivers and pedestrians react. If you have any swag, pull into a strip mall or well-traveled parking lot and give it away.
- Go into the database and call three people with birthdays today. If you get voicemail, leave a birthday greeting. If the listener answers, leave those birthday wishes, thank him or her for listening, and ask what they'd like to hear on the station.
- Sit in the parking lot for 15 minutes and do a quick audit of the FM band and your market's metadata. Start at 88 and go all the way to 108, noting how every station looks (including yours and your cluster partners).
- Inventory your production and your promos. What's been in too long? How's everything rotating? Is your messaging strategic? If it's broken or dysfunctional, fix it.
- Hop in the car and spend an hour driving around during a daypart you often don't get a chance to listen to (probably middays). And how's the competition sounding?
- If you're driving a 10 year-old (or older) car, visit a local dealership and test drive a modern infotainment system.
- Make it a point to thank someone on the staff who did something positive for the station or your department.
- Hotline a host for doing something really well.
- Visit a station client, introduce yourself, and thank them for supporting the radio station.
- If some swag or promotional items come in (tickets, t-shirts), pull one or two aside to gift someone in your department station “just because.”
- Test drive your station's mobile app. How's it working? Is it being updated?
- Go into the archives and find a fantastic thing the station once did (an event, promotion, etc.). Find a way to “resurface” it on the air, the website, and/or on social.
You can undoubtedly do better than this list, because you know your station and your brand better than me.
These simple things can be very simple positives, especially if your station, cluster, or company is struggling or in the doldrums. You can make a difference at your station, in your building, in your company. And you don't need a budget to do it.
What's the ONE thing you can today to help your station? Once you get in the habit of routinely doing these basic niceties, you may find other managers follow your lead.
The famous philosopher, Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen once said this:
“From small things, big things one day come.”
Believe it. It's true.
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Scott Jameson says
Arrive every day before 7am
Fred Jacobs says
Wait – are you the morning guy now, too?
Abby Goldstein says
What an awesome post, Fred. Let’s give some hope to the people who have the hardest job in radio.
Fred Jacobs says
Much appreciated, Abby. Now if there was just a radio organization made up of programmers who could share these ideas! 🙂
Robert Christy says
When you and I were “pups” the old saying was “Every PD gets three books, every GM gets 3 PDS”. What do Brand Managers and Market Managers get for a timeline today?
My wife and I drove from LA to Phoenix in January to see an old friend, who is battling cancer, After a couple of days in Phoenix, we drove to the Grand Canyon for a few days (ever been to the classic bar at the El Tovar hotel? If you haven’t go!) I think we had the radio on for a total of, maybe, an hour over the entire drive, and that was to see if we could find a decent weather forecast as we drove into a snowstorm north of Flagstaff. We found spotty coverage and finally used the weather app on our phones.
My oh my, how things have changed.
Fred Jacobs says
Indeed. I made a cross-country trip with a fried in the mid-70’s. He was a radio guy, too, and we took a Broadcast Yearbook with us to look up stations in every market we drove through. It was a ball, especially in small markets – my first exposure to Tradio. Yes, my how things have changed.