R.A.P. Interview: Thomas P. Owens

Thomas P. Owens, Senior Vice President, Programming, Jacor Communications

tom-owens-mar98by Jerry Vigil

Merger madness continues to be a hot topic among radio’s production personnel. Job descriptions are changing. Studio locations are changing. Owners and management are changing. For some, it’s business as usual. For others, it’s like getting a new job without having to quit or get fired first. For others, it’s 8-hour days turning into 12-hour days, or worse, no job at all. Jacor Communications has rapidly worked its way to America’s second largest radio group in this game of consolidation, and when it comes to production, the Jacor group knows all about it. They know the value of great production, and they know the value of great production people. This month’s interview visits with Tom Owens, the Senior Vice President of Programming for Jacor. We get some insight into these changes that radio production is going through and how these changes affect the production side of the business. As you’d expect, Tom is quite busy these days and was on the road when we contacted him for this interview. But he agreed to pause and respond to a few questions via e-mail.

Bio: In 1967 at the age of thirteen, Tom Owens began his radio career on-air at WMGR, Bainbridge, Georgia. He continued to work as a full-time air talent and programming assistant throughout high school and while attending the University of South Alabama. He accepted his first programming position at age nineteen in Charleston, West Virginia at WVAF-FM, converting the station from religious to a highly successful album rock format. In 1978, WSAI-FM in Cincinnati hired Mr. Owens to challenge rock market leader WEBN, and within sixteen months, Owens had led the station to ratings dominance. In the early 1980s, Owens left Cincinnati for a programming position at KZEW in Dallas. Within fourteen months, they rose to number one in the Dallas rock market, nearly doubling their ratings. Owens returned to Cincinnati in the mid-eighties for a corporate programming position with Circe Communications and presided over the largest rating achievements in the history of WEBN.

Owens founded an independent program consulting business in the late 1980s, providing programming, promotion, research and marketing counsel to a number of America’s most respected radio stations. In addition to working with numerous stations nationally, he provided consulting services to many Jacor owned and operated facilities.

In February of 1994, Owens accepted the position of Vice President for Programming with Jacor Communications. He has programming responsibilities for the 188 radio stations comprising the Jacor group. The Jacor stations are nationally admired for their ratings excellence, aggressive programming, creative marketing, and superior product personnel. Mr. Owens has won numerous programming, advertising, and marketing awards and is frequently called upon to lecture at various functions and contribute articles to broadcasting publications.

jacor-noiseRAP: Before deregulation and consolidation, there was usually just one production person for one, maybe two stations in a market. Now, in markets where there are four, five, even eight stations under one umbrella, one person isn’t enough. How many production people does a multi-station facility need? Is there a basic structure emerging for the multi-station production department, or is it still a case of “shuffle the deck, deal the cards, and see what happens?”
Tom: As with any explosively growing industry, our ability to transact has outpaced our operational designs, and production has been one of the departments most immediately impacted by the collision of regulation and technology. This is not only a result of increased responsibilities per-person-per-market, but also from cross-utilization with regional partners or like-kind formats nationally. Each situation is somewhat unique relative to the skills of available personnel, the specific alignment of format types within the market, and number of format changes dictated. In Cincinnati for example, we own five stations and LMA three others. We employ five full-time off-air production talents with numerous part-time support personnel. In Tampa we own seven stations and employ four full-time off-air production talents with numerous part-timers. If you were to monitor Jacor’s products in these markets, I think you would be very impressed by the caliber of their production values. There is no question the important work is getting done. However, it’s still too early to know whether we have achieved the ideal balance of workforce to workload.

RAP: A few short years ago, one person could handle the commercials and the imaging for a station. Now, is it essential to have one person as the “Commercial Production Director” and another as the “Imaging Director,” or is the ideal still to find someone who does both?
Tom: Without a doubt, in a fully rationalized marketplace, our ideal is to employ both “image” and “commercial” specialists and cross-utilize them amongst stations in a market, a region, or a format cluster as appropriate by situation.

RAP: Describe the kind of person it takes to become a Production Director in today’s top 50 markets. What kind of person would you and Jacor look for? What should his/her qualifications be?
Tom: Creativity, initiative, curiosity, great writing, advanced assembly skills, passion to learn, desire to win, and a willingness to embrace change.

RAP: Obviously, you have “key” production people in the Jacor group, such as Eric Chase at WFLZ/WFLA who was recently interviewed in RAP. How many stations in the Jacor group to date, and about how many of these “key” production people would you say Jacor has? How have the roles of these people evolved in the past couple of years?
Tom: Jacor currently owns 188 radio stations. Few companies place the premium we do on production excellence. Jacor has a solid arsenal of creative weaponry and personnel, and we consider all of them “key.” Nevertheless, there is still too much great talent working for the other guys, and we’re addressing that problem every day. At our growth rate, our greatest challenge is recruitment excellence in all phases of station operations. The roles have obviously evolved into much farther reaching inter-market, regional, and national contributions.

RAP: From a production standpoint, do you feel radio is still in a stage of transition and change? If so, how do you see things once they begin to settle down?
Tom: I don’t think we are close to settling down. With strong balance sheets and freedom from national caps, the companies that continue to produce strong returns are going to grow domestically and internationally, as well as through the acquisition of related industries like syndication, technology, and entertainment. This past week at the RAB, Tom Hicks said that Capstar’s business plan calls for nearly twice the number of stations it presently owns. It is quite likely this will come to pass.

RAP: Where does the independent producer, that “outside voice/production guy” fit in five years down the road? Do you see more of these independent facilities cropping up, or do you see more of these independent producers being hired by the large radio groups to help feed their hungry stations on a more exclusive basis?
Tom: I think these opportunities will certainly continue to exist. However, in the new high volume-ownership period, the smart ones will rethink the way they interface with their customers. Some will undoubtedly decide to come “in-house” doing group deals from centralized locations.

RAP: We’ve seen contemporary radio “imaging” go from using the big ballsy guys, to using the “stuttering” effects on everything, to the Generation X style of production we hear a lot of today. Where do you see things headed in the new millennium? Any new styles of production that have caught you ear?
Tom: Actually, that’s one of the upsides to hiring the best. We literally can’t wait to hear what they come up with next. Rarely a day goes by that I do not hear something generated by a Jacor production talent that staggers me. Our “hold” line at corporate which features this work would probably be a highly profitable 900 number.

RAP: A question has come up among our readers about talent fees for commercials that run on more than one station in a market. For example, say station X was the only station owned by a group in a market. The production guy at station X has been getting a talent fee for spots that have been running on stations Y and Z. Now, station X buys station Y and Z, and the spots still run on these other stations. Should he lose his talent fee? Should he be compensated by the station for his loss? How should this be handled?
Tom: Ultimately, we’ll need to compensate talent in a manner that takes these issues and many others into account. It’s still early on the curve for us to fully understand what the optimum compensation template is going to be. Conversely, the talent will have to recognize the fundamental change in the way these businesses are going to be operated. The inter-market cross-utilization is just a small piece of what lies ahead. We’re constructing terrestrial and satellite inter-connectivity on digital platforms that will allow us to transport data of all forms between our stations with a user-friendly flip of a switch. We have a Mix network out of Cincinnati now feeding various combinations of music, on-air talent, production, and promotions to five other Mix stations regionally. We’re already distributing talk and nostalgia programming from hubs like Cincinnati and Tampa to spokes in Lexington, Dayton, or Sarasota. We’re mass-distributing promos, work-parts, commercial and song parodies and more between like-kind formats. Once our data exchange systems are fully functional and second nature, we will create ways to enhance product and profitability that haven’t begun to occur to us yet. All of us working within the industry will have to recognize the new reality in which none of the jobs we used to have exist any longer, and these new definitions span all divisions. Our market manager in Tampa oversees Sarasota and Venice. Our Denver financial management supervises accounting functions in Ft. Collins, Casper, and Cheyenne. Whether it’s programmers with multiple station oversight or on-air talent doing simultaneous programs in multiple markets, it’s simply the new law and order. It’s also a wonderful time to be talented and motivated because that’s all the leverage you’ll need to succeed.

RAP: In comparison to other programming elements such as the music, the morning show, the afternoon drive show, what is the value of the station’s imaging production? Is it as important as the morning show or the music?
Tom: Jacor has always prioritized difficult-to-duplicate station attributes, but today quality production is more essential than ever. It continues to constitute an around-the-clock product impression and, as we move rapidly into the inter-connected domain in which creations will be utilized more globally, production takes on greater importance than ever.

RAP: Obviously, production people at growing facilities everywhere are finding themselves doing more work for more stations. Burnout can become a problem. How do you address, or how do you plan to address this problem if it arises at one of your stations? What advice would you give to the production people dealing with the stress? What advice would you give to Program Directors to help keep the burnout factor from getting the best of their people?
Tom: We need to be monitoring these situations closely in all departments. We have to pay attention to what our quality people are trying to tell us and create atmospheres where they feel they can share their concerns and ideas. As managers, we need to be the first to recognize the need to continuously re-invent our systems and expectations. Randy Michaels would tell you that he is not afraid of making mistakes. He prefers to make them quickly and move forward. His greater fear is that we might allow old-line attitudinal barriers to prevent us from trying more things more quickly.

One piece of advice I might offer would be stressing the importance of understanding that the kind of fundamental changes we’re experiencing is an exceptionally unique event occurring perhaps once in five decades within an industry. Historically, in times of primary change, experts quickly become victims. In the mid-fifties, the highly established network O&Os, with their superior signals and economic resources, were the last to recognize the potential of Top Forty formatics and were machine-gunned by them in succession. Twenty years later, they were again dead last to recognize the potential of the FM dial. As late as 1979, Westinghouse was practically giving away high-powered FMs in Boston and Pittsburgh. We should probably pay more attention to the new generation of minds that take multi-dimensional playing fields and digital domains for granted. Further, we need to shift our focus to solutions in search of creative answers to problems we’ve created, take intelligent risks, and mostly, be passionate about enjoying the process. We’ve only taken the first few steps of what promises to be a long, strange trip.