Production and the LMA

by Jim Pastrick

Whether you're doing production in a small, medium, or major market, chances are you're working harder and doing more to keep up with the rapidly changing state of our business.

Innovations in technology such as digital sampling, multi-track studios, CDs, DAT, and outboard processing have affected the way we practice our craft in the production room.

Sales, promotions, programming, and engineering departments also are scrambling to stay ahead of the pack, as are owners and General Managers.

As a result of the FCC's deregulation of the broadcasting industry and the state of the economy, the competition between stations and other forms of mass communication has become hotter than a two-dollar pistol, a $50 VCR, a major-market CHR's "A" rotation.... You get the idea.

Mergers, leveraged buyouts, signal swaps, upgrades, and docket 80 90s made radio the "glamour industry" that intoxicated bankers and investors in the 80s. Well now, here we are in the 90s, recovering from all that fun. And the grim reality is that we're experiencing a financial hangover! As a result, stations are tightening their belts; cutting costs, salaries, payrolls and overhead; finding ways to stay alive and competitive.

The 90s may become the Age of the LMA (Local Marketing Agreement) and LSA (Local Sales Agreement)! When two stations shall become as one! Like most marriages, the real fun begins when the new couple leaves the church and begins living with each other every day!

An LMA (Local Marketing Agreement) differs from an LSA (Local Sales Agreement) in that an LMA usually provides for the take-over of another station's sales and programming, whereas an LSA provides for the take-over of another station's sales only!

In August of 1991, Rich Communications Corporation's WGR NewsRadio 55 and WGRF/97 Rock in Buffalo signed an LMA with crosstown competitor WUFX/The Fox and WXBX-AM, owned by Metroplex Communications. It was the first LMA in our market, and one of a handful in the nation at the time. The LMA led to the creation of The Rock Network, whereby the sales and programming of WGRF and WUFX would be handled by Rich Communications (WGRF). 97 Rock is a heritage-AOR that relies on Classic Rock to serve a predominantly 25 54 demo; The Fox (which was a marginal AOR) became a straightforward, current-edged AOR, targeted 18 34.

As Creative Services Director of WGR and 97 Rock, I and my associates, Assistant CSDs Todd Broady and Tom Donahue, as well as Duane Doherty of The Fox, learned a lot about LMAs and the unique programming, sales, and production responsibilities that accompany them.

With the FCC about to allow ownership of multiple AM/FM combos within any one market, there's a likelihood that you may find yourself in an LMA/LSA or duopoly situation at any time. Much of our expertise has come from "on the job training" as we faced daily challenges "head-on." With the help of a number of key people, we've succeeded.

This article looks at the LMA from the perspective of the employees who work for the controlling LMA station. Without appearing to be patronizing, we have some advice for the employees of the station being controlled by an LMA.

Most LMAs are created to reduce cost at one, or both stations, and to increase the efficiency and profitability of both stations. Personnel at the annexed LMA facility are likely to be reassigned or terminated as staffs of both stations are consolidated. Rich Communications' commitment to making both properties succeed individually and collectively led to the retention of most of the WUFX airstaff, as well as individuals from the traffic and sales departments.

If your station is annexed through an LMA and you want to survive the transition, it's essential that you show your new management that you can contribute to the LMA's success. As a Production Director, your chances of survival are probably greater than any other staff member. After all, you can contribute directly and immediately to the LMA's profitability. An accomplished production person is the "Second Best Salesperson" on the staff because of the contributions he or she can make to every salesperson's success.

So the LMA transition was a piece of cake, right? Not exactly! Todd Broady makes a point that there can never be enough communication in order to make the transition work effectively. There were a lot of meetings and "skull sessions" (where there are no bad ideas, but some that come really close!). We found that one-on-one communication worked best because problems were directly addressed and quickly taken care of. We found through experience that the only way to solve problems and make the LMA function effectively was to have the key players working together: the General Manager, Sales Manager, Program Director(s), Chief Engineer, Traffic Director, and you, the Production Director!

Unless the controlling station retains the Production Director of the LMA affiliate, most of the commercial production will be the responsibility of the controlling station's production department. Translation: more work and some logistical problems. Your people skills, technical skills, and problem-solving skills will be put to the test.

Here's a Production Director's LMA Checklist:

1. Will your LMA affiliate have an individual Production Director? Your workload will increase if there is no production person. Double that if formats of the two stations are not similar. In this situation, a separate production person or associate is an absolute necessity. We're fortunate to have two very good production people at our LMA affiliate.

2. Will your LMA affiliate have a person responsible for at least "basic production" tasks such as dubbing carts? Appoint one capable person from your LMA station or someone from your station's production department to handle this critically important task. In our situation, personnel retained when the LMA was initiated are responsible for this.

3. How will you get production that is created in your studio to the control room of your LMA affiliate? This can be your biggest problem. If your LMA affiliate is "on the other side of town" or in another county, you'll have to consider using broadcast quality phone lines, microwave, Marti, subcarrier, or (gasp!) satellite. We considered this option, even though our LMA affiliate is only a half block away. Ultimately, we opted to dub all production to 5-inch reels using Ampex 456 and walk them over to our LMA station. It's no problem in the summer, but even though I've lived here most of my life, it can be a challenge in the middle of February (my apologies to the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce).

4. Will your traffic department generate the logs for your LMA affiliate? This depends greatly on how the billing is set up. Here again, it's important to meet with your Sales Manager, Business Manager, and Traffic Director. In our case, the program logs for all stations are generated in one traffic department. It's essential to know what commercials will air on both stations or only on your station or your LMA. So the next logical question is:

5. Will you have to revise production orders and dub forms to accommodate your LMA? Almost certainly. We revised our production/dub order and sales request forms to include a checklist of all the possibilities: WGR-AM, 97 Rock, WUFX, The Rock Network. When we revised our production order forms, we had the printer make carbonless copies, and we include a copy of the production order with every tape that is delivered to our LMA. This eliminates confusion and gives us a backup on the tape and production order. National agencies and networks send us two dubs of all material, one for WGRF, the other for WUFX. The processing and paperwork for those orders originates at WGRF.

6. How will your sales department "sell" the stations' advertising? Because the formats of our two AOR stations are complimentary - one skewing 18 34, the other 25 49 - we sell the stations in combo as The Rock Network. All commercial stopsets are "shadowcast," airing at the same time (within a few minutes) on 97 Rock and The Fox. Stations with dissimilar formats may have an entirely different approach. An LMA involving an AOR and a Lite AC may have different clients with different commercial approaches. The production department is directly affected at this point because one commercial may have to be produced in two different styles to accommodate the distinctly different formats.

7. How will the stations be promoted? If there is a simulcast or shadowcast, you will only deal with one promotion person. Obviously, if there are two different formats, there will be separate promotion requirements, which leads us to ask:

8. How will station promos be produced? Here again, your workload can double. That's why production personnel are critically important to the success of an LMA. In our case, both stations use separate outside voices for production of sweepers, breakers, and IDs. Each station produces its own station promos.

9. What is the condition of your LMA's production room and air studio? You and your Chief Engineer (or your LMA's CE) should go through every reel-to-reel tape deck and cart machine to check compatibility, head alignment, and frequency response. If you spend a few hours on a commercial, you want it to sound as good on your LMA station as it does on yours; conversely, if something is produced at your LMA, you want it to sound clean when it's sent to your facility! Check the LMA's processing and studio protocol. Are tapes carted with limiting, noise-reduction, EQ? Establish a uniform standard for procedure. If you choose to send your production to your LMA using phone lines, make sure they're properly installed. You might want to use very light limiting at the sending point and a distribution amplifier at the receiving station, with feeds sent to your LMA's production room and air studio at specific times each day. You should be able to monitor the phase (L+R, L-R) of your feed once it gets to the LMA. And there should be a certain procedure for operating levels ( 10 or 0 dB).

10. Keep the lines of communication OPEN with every department head and every person involved! Operating an LMA is an invigorating and, at times, trying, learning experience, regardless of how skilled and experienced every member of your staff may be. My hope is that this article can help you to survive and thrive if you're ever faced with this unique situation. Positive reinforcement for jobs well done by associates is essential. That's why I would once again like to thank my Assistant Creative Services Directors, Todd Broady, Tom Donahue and Duane Doherty of The Fox.

If your GM tells you, "We're doing an LMA...," before you reach for the aspirin and Mylanta, you'll be able to say that you know something about LMAs and be one of the leaders who contributes to making it a success.