Are You Obsolete?

by John Pellegrini

The other day I was talking to a friend of mine who had just gotten her first job in radio. She is working for a station that's in the Grand Rapids area, but worlds apart in terms of business philosophy and direction. The problem lies not so much with the station itself. They've got a good signal. They cover a large area and have a format that, while not the most popular (beautiful music), it certainly could be successful with the right marketing and leadership.

But leadership is the problem. The General Manager of the station is one of those unfortunate types who was promoted beyond his ability. Seniority, rather than experience or knowledge of the business was the reason. Then, to make matters worse, rather than educate himself in leadership skills to help both himself and his staff, he merely assumed authority because he has the title. Likewise, rather than educate himself in the current improvements in radio, advertising, and promotions, he chooses to "do it the way we've always done it," without any further consideration.

Let me set the stage a little further for you. As I mentioned, the station is an AM beautiful music format. They spend zero dollars on advertising or promotion. Quite frankly, I (along with many other people in radio around here) didn't even know that this station existed. They don't even show up in the Arbitron ratings or any other ratings services. Their power rating is ten thousand watts, which puts them above most of the AM stations in this area, so signal coverage is not the problem.

If you were to judge their competitors by AM alone, their biggest competitor would be the local full service talk radio station, which has a weaker signal than they do. The full service talk station carries a local morning show, Liddy, and Limbaugh during the middays, a local afternoon segment, and Talknet at night. The full service radio station's average spot rate is about (I'm guessing, based on what ours is) $75.00 to $80.00. The Beautiful Music station's only spot rate (no average, same rate day or night) is $13.00 for a :30 and $15.00 for a :60. Why?

Clearly, the market will bear a larger dollar rate, so why does the beautiful music station have it so low? Two reasons: One, the GM doesn't know any better because he refuses to acknowledge any competition, and two, they have no ratings. Literally, no ratings. The GM does not subscribe to Arbitron. Why? "We know we're number one in beautiful music," is his response.

Wait! There's more! He reads none of the trade papers or broadcasting magazines. He does subscribe to RAB's services but only for the sales staff. Rarely does he check out any of the info himself. He dismisses computers and digital technology as "crap" and considers the only advance that will be worth investing in for his station, to be AM Stereo (as soon as it's perfected). Mind you, that's AM Stereo (which became obsolete in 1984), not AM Digital. "Digital is garbage," is his response. He has, on more than one occasion, stated that if they ever added an FM signal to the company, he'd also program it beautiful music because "that's the only music worth listening to. Those stations with other formats may make more money, but the true radio listener only likes beautiful music."

How, you ask, can anyone be so out of touch? Very easy. Ignore everything and stay put behind your little office doors. Never consult. Never ask questions. Make up your mind without information. Ignore your competition, and above everything else, put your own personal preferences and prejudices first in making all decisions. Plus, always make it a point to hire first year broadcast school graduates and people with no radio experience whatsoever to work for him. Therefore, no one with any knowledge or experience will ever threaten his decisions. It's easy to be an expert on anything, just eliminate the chance of anyone or anything proving you wrong. In fact, running a company this way is the easiest method that any manager can use, because it requires no effort or intellect.

What truly surprises me is that this GM is here in the Grand Rapids metro area. Usually, managers with these attitudes are only found in the very small markets where the city or town only has one station. This situation is where management skills based on ignorance can flourish. Normally in markets the size of G.R., a guy like this would have been eaten alive by now. So how does he survive? I should point out that this station has been around for at least 25 years, if not more (like I said, I really never heard of it, so I don't know the history of the station).

The key to their survival lies in the fact that they literally have no competition (at least, not any more). They have a small audience that they serve, and they have a few loyal clients (and I mean few, like maybe 10). They're old enough to have paid off all the bills years ago, and as long as they have enough money coming in to keep the electricity on and the phone working, they're in business.

It is within that last sentence that you have read the death warrant of that station...because their audience and their clients are dying off. With their format, their demos are 55 plus (if they're lucky). Most of their audience is retiring or retired. They're thinking more of investing in their graves than in their future (I know that sounds harsh, but that's marketing perceptions). Advertising agencies, as a rule, do not buy beautiful music for any clients other than retirement programs, retirement communities, funeral homes, old age insurance companies, etc.. But this audience that is dying off is not being replaced.

Agencies also have proof that as the rest of us grow older, for the most part, we do not automatically start listening to beautiful music stations. In fact, the current group of people 55 plus may very well be the last generation that will, as a whole, listen to that type of format on a regular basis. Sure there will be some people listening here and there, but, as with the folks who prefer Scottish Bagpipe Music, there won't be a big enough audience to warrant a format devoted to it. Yet, there is still much that could be done with this station if it were properly promoted and marketed. But it ain't.

What we seem to have here is a classic case of obsolescence staring down the face of obsolescence. Although I'm sure this GM doesn't realize it, he's not only looking at the demise of his radio station's format, he's also looking at the eventual demise of his own career. To those who might say, "Wait! He's survived okay for over 25 years. Why couldn't they hold on longer?" Truth be told, they probably could survive another five to ten years. Like I said, there is a lot that could be done to that format that hasn't been tried yet to help it become successful again. I guess it depends on the GM, and how much longer he expects to be working. But I cannot think for the life of me that this situation could continue if the company involved has any inkling of profitability or growth.

And what if the station is sold? This is a very possible situation because as talk radio formats make AM more viable, along with the eventual creation of digital AM, stations like his are going to be more appealing to investors. Now, when a forward thinking company buys a station like his and sits down to discuss philosophy with this particular GM, what do you suppose their reaction is going to be to his ideas?

I've seen this type of situation happen so many times, and not in just radio, either. Every town is full of empty store fronts, empty factories, empty warehouses, empty offices, all owing to a company or manager or owner's refusal to look past the daily operation. "Business is here today. Business will be here tomorrow." It just doesn't work that way any more. Everyone always tries to sum it up in terms of something called "luck." That person's business is successful because they were luckier than the rest. NONSENSE! People are successful because they work for success. They do exactly what they're supposed to do to become successful. And they don't quit or get complacent. EVER!

Remember this for your own career: You Make Your Own Success. You make your own breaks. You make your own fortune. You, and only YOU are responsible for where you are right now, and either you are happy with it, or you do what's necessary to get out of it. There is no shame in failure. The only way you learn anything and improve at anything is to fail enough times to learn how to do it right. But there is shame in staying there and living in failure permanently. In other words, allowing failure to be your excuse to give up on everything you try, or give up even before you try, is the greatest shame known to humanity.

Keep your eyes and your mind open to possibilities. Close your mind, and you'll end up exactly where our friend, the GM of that AM station, has ended up. And you'll have the kind of future to look forward to in your career as he has, which at this point, is about as close to none as possible. Of course, when it all does collapse, be sure to blame everyone else for your "Bad Luck." If nothing else, you could always say that your job just became "obsolete."

P.S. A year since I first wrote this article has gone by. Our friend relates that the General Manager was fired. The owner of the station took over as G.M. and apparently is just as clueless as the G.M.. We discover that the G.M. was merely parroting what the owner wished. And in the classic way, if you do what the owner wants, and it fails, the owner ain't gonna take the blame. She (our friend) has since left and gone to another station. The merry-go-round continues....

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