R.A.P. Interview: Jim Cook

Jim Cook, Sr. VP/Creative Services, Clear Channel Radio Creative Resource Group

Jim-Cook-jan01By Jerry Vigil

Remember 12 commercial minutes per hour? Now there’s 15, 20, 25, and some stations have even gone beyond that. Perhaps you thought it would never end. Well, the bubble is getting ready to burst. With the introduction of satellite radio, iPods, Internet radio and more, traditional radio is being forced to reevaluate exactly what it is we’re forcing upon our listeners. With at least a few stockholders squirming in their chairs, Clear Channel Communications recently announced a new “Less Is More” strategy that, among other things, intends to REDUCE the number of commercials on their 1200+ stations, as well as shorten their lengths and improve the creativity and effectiveness of them. Enter the Clear Channel Creative Resource Group, headed by newly appointed Sr. VP/Creative Services, Jim Cook. This month’s RAP Interview chats with Jim about Less Is More and how he plans to execute a major shift in the way radio has been handling their inventory and their clients.

JV: What's happened since we last checked in with you?
Jim: It’s mostly been changing titles and expanding responsibilities within Clear Channel. I believe three years ago I was the Production Brand Manager and then became the Vice President of Creative Services and now this past week, the Senior Vice President of Creative for the radio division, which adds the duties and responsibilities of the new Creative Resource Group.

JV: How much hands-on work in the studio are you doing these days, if any?
Jim: Honestly my amount of time in the studio continues to dwindle, but I try to get in there at least daily and do something of use. It’s not anything that is at the extent that it was three years ago, and certainly not at the extent it was five years ago when I was doing daily imaging for two radio stations. Yes, it has diminished greatly, but I still did quite a bit in the last year. We re-launched American Top Forty with Ryan Seacrest for Premier Radio Networks and obviously completely redesigned AT40 when we went from Casey to Ryan. I also worked with re-launching Casey’s American Top 10 show. I produced and launched the new Donald Trump feature from Premier Radio Networks. So it’s been a lot of that along with gathering and working with various people on things that we are using on a national level. For example, I just came from Omaha where I not only had a chance to meet with all of our staff out there at the Clear Channel stations, but spent the day with Chip Davis of Manheim Steamroller collecting various pieces of audio that we could use for our All Christmas stations. We actually went into the multi-track audio of the original Manheim Steamroller cuts and pulled out various cues and pieces that our stations will be able to use.

.JV: How are the administrative duties suiting your style?
Jim: There are parts of it I enjoy very much; the thing I like the most is that I get to act as advocate for the Clear Channel producers all over the country. I sort of get to be their voice in a lot of things that otherwise they didn’t have a voice in.

JV: Do you get a lot of calls from guys who feel they can approach you one to one and say, “Hey, Jim, I really have a problem here. Can you help me?”
Jim: Yeah I do. I get calls and emails — and email seems to be the greatest invention for producers since the invention of the Internet and digital recording. But yeah, I get tons of emails everyday asking, where do I go for this, or how do I find that, or who would have this or the other thing.

And about a year ago we created an internal production forum that is basically a bulletin board where all of our producers from around the country can ask questions and share ideas and answers. It’s also a voice share for commercials. If somebody has a spot that they need a voice for, they’ll post their script. Somebody else from around the country that has a moment and can cut the voice for them — just the voice, no production – will cut it and post it back to the forum. Then the first guy gets an email saying, hey, somebody has responded, and he’ll go grab it. It has helped to spread the voice work around for a lot of producers who are always scrambling for somebody to voice something in a lot of our markets.

JV: Nothing like the days before consolidation when voices were scarce.
Jim: Yeah. And market size didn’t seem to matter much either. I remember times when I just needed somebody to voice something, and it seemed like it was getting harder and harder to find somebody without having the same voice all over a stop set. Basically, everything I invented or created or managed for resources for our producers from around the country came from my experiences in the production room.

JV: I assume with the voice share there are no talent fees.
Jim: Right. It’s one producer helping another. That kind of cooperative generosity is incredibly prevalent, and I’ve noticed it particularly here within Clear Channel because I get to watch closely what happens. I’m always amazed and quite happy with the generous spirit of our producers.

JV: In your estimation, are the Clear Channel Production Departments staffed appropriately? Do you get emails from producers who are overworked and requesting assistance or advice?
Jim: Well I think that on a day to day operation, depending on what markets you are talking about, some are better staffed than others. We all want to have extra help in doing our job. I think that what we can do and what we have been able to provide — certainly from my advocacy — has been better kinds of shared resources so that all of our producers are not duplicating quite as much effort. So those who have a moment or two in one market can help out the guy who is struggling in the other market with voice share or shelled production. Things like sound effects, things that we are looking for and need. Helping one another out like this has been the greatest advantage of harnessing the talents from around the country.

JV: Let’s talk about the Clear Channel “Less Is More” approach. We’ve heard about shorter stopsets and shorter commercial lengths. What’s the official word on what Clear Channel is hoping and planning to do?
Jim: Overall, from a bigger perspective, it is basically taking a leadership role in the medium of radio. We obviously need to make some changes, and the biggest thing that we can do is to try to reduce clutter. And when John Hogan launched Less Is More he sort of took his hand, wiped the table clean and said, okay, we need to rebuild this, guys. We’ve got increasing encroachment from all kinds of various media around us. Everything from satellite to the Internet continues to encroach on the available time that any consumer can spend with any particular medium. So we need to do a better job with radio. We need to take a stewardship role in our medium, and that is what Less Is More begins to do. It says that we can make this sound better for our listeners and be more effective for our advertisers, but we have to be willing to make some bold changes in order to do it.

JV: And cutting the number of spots in the hour is one of those changes.
Jim: Cutting the amount of clutter in any hour is one of the things that we can do, and it is probably going to be the thing that will work the quickest for us. We’re not only reducing the number of units, but they are also restructuring the pricing structure for spots so that 30s are more attractive to our advertisers with fewer units and less clutter. We also need to improve on the creative within those clusters -- a better use of radio, training, just part of what the Creative Resource Group is charged with doing is to try to improve creative in those spot clusters.

JV: That was a point that caught my attention, the plan to improve the creative itself.
Jim: That was also a part of John Hogan’s initial Less Is More initiative. Not only did he say we’re going to clean up the clutter, but we’re going to make what we put into the remaining units sound better. And that’s when he came to me and said, “Jim, how do we do this? What do we need? What resources do we need to call to task here to make this happen?” And that was the genesis of the Creative Resource Group.

What we hope to do is not from on high be providing all of the creative for our radio stations. That’s not the goal. It’s to empower and to harness the talents all around the country on the local level. For the most part, our Creative Departments, and as I travel around and get to various markets, most of our producers and creative writers, they understand it. They get it. They know what makes good radio and what makes bad radio. Many times we’ve forced them to do the wrong thing. Well, we need to try to change that. We need to make a paradigm shift in the way we respond to and treat our creative people on the local level. I think we are beginning to do that now with the Creative Resource Group as a guide.

We hope to be able to improve the creative not only by example from creating things that are good use of radio, but also through training, and a lot of that is going to start with the people who are the first out on the line – the AEs, the guys who many times bring back the wrong things for us. They make the first contact with the clients. They are the ones who are doing the one on one face time with most of our clients around the country. We need to help educate them on the side that we haven’t done much education for them, which is the creative side. We’ve spent a lot of resources and a lot of time training them how to sell the real estate, but we haven’t spent a whole lot of time training them on how not to end up with a shack on that valuable real estate. And it’s not always the AE’s fault. I’m not blaming the account reps for every failure of something. It’s just that without tools and training and help to get what is right, that is more our fault than theirs, and we need to solve that, and that’s what John has begun to do with the Creative Resource Group and hopefully with some of these training exercises.

We need to get multiple messages out of commercials. Less Is More is going to take 60s down to 30s – certainly make 30s more of the standard length because it’s priced now more appropriately. So therefore you need to get down to single messages. Basic marketing 101 lessons become even more valuable and important because you can’t do newspaper ads held up to the microphone in thirty seconds. We can’t just take bad 60s, pare them down to bad 30s, and walk away saying we have done our job. We need to help the AEs and empower them to understand better creative and what it takes to get it, and give them the tools to be able to help us make better radio for them and to become marketing partners with our advertisers.

JV: That’s a Roy Williams approach – marketing partner.
Jim: Yeah, I guess it is. We will be working with Roy on helping us in obtaining some of these goals as well as with Dick Orkin and the Radio Ranch. We’ve also asked for help from Jack Trout. So there is some marquee value here to what we are doing, and John has been very serious about making sure that what he set out to do comes to fruition.

JV: The creative and effective 30-second commercial is nothing new to Canadian radio, as is often displayed on the RAP CDs. So this aspect of Less Is More is certainly attainable.
Jim: That’s right. It’s common in a lot of other places. It’s common in Mexico as well with even shorter unit structures – fifteens. So it’s not like this is impossible to do, and I think it can be done well and will improve the medium overall.

JV: How do you hope to implement Dick’s and Jack’s and Roy’s knowledge and assistance on the local level with the stations?
Jim: Well we’re still working out the details of that to be quite honest. We’re trying to work with those guys to find out exactly how we best use what they can bring to us. I know that we’re going to be doing some seminars in various places around the country with Dick Orkin and the Radio Ranch that will be accessible to certain key people in various places around the country in the coming year. We’re talking with Roy right now about his services and what additional training he might be able to help us with, as well as speaking to our groups around the country to help guide us. And with Jack Trout, we’re asking Jack to help us with proper messaging and positioning of what the Creative Group is and what Less Is More is to our advertisers, agencies, to the press and to our staff.

JV: Well there is probably no one in a better position than you to take the knowledge that you have about what goes on in our studios and mix it with the likes of Dick Orkin and Roy Williams and Jack Trout to really make a difference in radio as an advertising medium. This could be a turning point for radio, especially with more and more stations developing in-house creative services departments for advertisers, as illustrated in last month’s interview with Tim Miles who utilizes the Roy Williams approach at Zimmer radio in Columbia. Seems like Roy Williams is popping up more and more.
Jim: Yes. He has an amazing handle on radio and the problems that are encountered on a daily basis and has some unique vision as to how to overcome some of those. I was drawn to him initially when we were setting up the Creative Group by a number of our stations from around the country that have used his services.

One of the things that we will be creating that will be tangible with the Creative Resource Group will be a cyber – for lack of a better word – toolbox that not only our producers and creative writers but our AEs from around the country will be able to go to and access and get training and ideas from, and suggestions and direction. We’ll make this available through our local wide area network. It will have some services that may be similar to, but broader than the imaging site that I created a number of years ago to help out our promo and imaging directors. Those same kinds of tools and more would be available to them, and hopefully we will be able to figure out ways to make Roy and what he brings to us a part of that. But we’ve yet to get that all nailed on. We’re so early on here. I don’t even have all of my staff in place yet for the group. There is going to be between six and eight people total for the Creative Group.

JV: Will you be setting up shop for the group there in Atlanta?
Jim: The Creative Group is not necessarily a hard entity. The Creative Group’s clients are our radio stations, and we are going to be spread out, at least initially, around the country. Various people will be in various places servicing this. But again, we hope to be able to have portals through which people can garner most information. We will travel as necessary and listen closely to our radio stations for what their needs are. And because we are a small elite group of people, we will be able to do a quality versus quantity sort of thing, and hopefully, much like we were able to harness the resources around our group with the imaging site, be able to do some of the same things around the enterprise for the commercial side of things. All great ideas are not going to come from a group of six to eight people. We’ve got to take the wonderful ideas that come from Peoria or Macon, Georgia or Los Angeles, wherever they come from, and everyone should be able to benefit from those great ideas.

JV: Will Less Is More affect the imaging side of Clear Channel to any degree?
Jim: Yes. The total amount of available imaging time is also reduced in the Less Is More requirements for each of our stations. So yeah, we need to do a smarter job of how we image our radio stations as well, taking a look at each and every thing that we place on the radio stations. What is its purpose? What are you trying to accomplish?

I had a great talk with our various Program Directors at the programming meetings that we had in Dallas before Less Is More was even announced. We talked about thinking about what the purpose is for any particular piece that we’re putting on the air, and making our radio stations clubs that people want to join as opposed to packaged goods that we’re trying to sell to them.

JV: We’ve heard so many success stories of stations that create in-house agencies to bring creative commercials to their clients. Will Clear Channel stations be encouraged by the Creative Resource Group to set up their own little in house creative agency?
Jim: Those decisions are up to the local market managers and staff. At the CRG, our primary mission is to help educate and empower at the local level. By way of definition we are better described as a radio advertising laboratory, a place where radio advertising theories, techniques and methods are tested, analyzed and demonstrated. It is at essence ‘how to use sound to sell’ by process, study and implementation. Our clients are primarily our radio stations. They may choose us as a resource to help with advertiser and agency needs or requests. As for costs associated with custom campaigns originated at the group, the local stations will decide how best to accommodate those costs in the total package. When the group originates spec campaigns, there are no costs to our stations other than minimal ones associated with any later customization requests.

JV: You’re in a remarkable position to be able to positively affect a lot of production people at a lot of radio stations in this country. We’re lucky to have you up there batting for us!
Jim: I am just such a huge fan of the people who sit in the rooms around the country sliding audio files around and making incredible magic because I did it for so many years. I am so much in awe of the process and the talent there that it’s always been my hope to be able to empower all of them. I think that as a group collectively, they are some of the best people in radio.