R.A.P. Interview: J.R. Nelson

R.A.P.: Maybe these programmers are just doing what their managers tell them to. Maybe this "feeling" of the station has to come down from management, from the top, as you said earlier.
J.R.: Well, it does. It reminds me of the NAB in New Orleans a few years ago. I was down there with a buddy of mine, and we had buttons made up that said, "Radio is for Broadcasters." We were passing them out, and the reason we did this was because there were no broadcasters there. They were all bean counters. I ran into a couple of broadcasters that I knew from years ago, but the general population of that NAB was all bean counters, and it was amazing. You sit back and realize that's why this industry is the way it is, because nobody allows you to be creative.

I'm a teacher of metaphysics and have been for ten years, and the first thing that anybody learns in metaphysics is that you create your own reality. Well, that's what we've done with this industry. We've over-leveraged ourselves. You're not going to find six figure production salaries any more. Ten years ago it was a different ball game. Now, the days of making the good money are gone. So, you have to make adjustments. But it's a cycle. I think the smaller companies are using their upper management to motivate their people by saying, "Listen, we're fortunately in a business where we can play and make a living, so let's do that. Let's have fun. Let's play radio." Why I say it's a cycle is because the bankers had to take over a lot of radio stations in the last five years, and they're going to have to spin those things off sooner or later. Well, they're going to have to get broadcasters to run them because what they are finding out is that the people they were putting in to run them can't run them because they know nothing about the business.

So, it's a situation that will correct itself, but in the process there may be a lot of good, young talent lost, and that's the thing that really pisses me off because there are a lot of good, talented kids out there. They just don't have anybody to smack them around and say, "Hey, come on! Do it this way," but it will happen.

That's one advantage of being an old fart like me. You can sit back and look at the old days in the '60s and especially the progressive radio. If you look back when progressive radio started back in the late '60s and the advent of AOR and classic rock and all that stuff, it was all cycles. I remember when WMMS first went on the air. They would play commercials at half volume because they didn't want to offend anyone, but they just talked all over the music. They always talked over the intros. Then you went through the period of time where the rule was, "You don't talk over the music, and you don't talk any louder than this," and all that kind of BS. Well, here again, it was a full cycle. Take the classic rock of today. It's nothing more than the beautiful music approach of the announcer to the music. If you look at what a jock does on a classic rock station and what an announcer does on a beautiful music station, it's the same thing, the identical same thing. The only difference is the music.

R.A.P.: You refer to management today as a bunch of bean counters. What other differences do you see between today's management and the managers of yesterday?
J.R.: Well, there might be a lot of bean counters today, but they're a lot more sophisticated. Back in the old days you could bullshit anybody. I know because I did it. I've gone to General Managers back in the '70s and said, "Honestly, man, we gotta have this," and we'd get it. Nowadays, you can't do that.

Back then, too, there was a major gap between programming and sales. You never talked to a salesperson. You just didn't do that. General Managers back in that era would often say, "Damn it, my wife hates that song, and I'm gonna have them quit playing it." And that's what happened. Now, at least you have research to say, "No you can't take that song off because your wife hates it."

You also have what I consider to be a very challenging environment for managers now because of LMAs and duopolies. Now they have to put on three hats. Of course, they have to put on the bean counter hat. But now you're talking two stations, and, generally speaking, if they are a country station and a rock station, or something like that where the formats are diverse, he has to be able to understand both of those formats and wear the country GM hat and the rock GM hat. By taking the time to try to understand both of those formats, he's done more than the average General Manager with just one station. So, there's a little bit of an education process as far as managers are concerned now. If they are bean counters, they are going to have to learn a little about the format to know the difference between station A and station B, and the needs of each.

R.A.P.: What advice can you give to Production Directors on how to do their job better in the '90s?
J.R.: Well, a lot of it has to do with attitude. You're going to laugh when I say this, but the best thing that a Production Director can do in 1993 is to listen to his clients. I've always been the kind of person who has specialized in the hard-to-please asshole accounts because I used to listen to them. Nobody listens to people. They may not be able to communicate to you what they want, but you have to realize now that you don't have another advertiser waiting to fill that one's shoes if you piss him off and he leaves. You've got to keep clients.

We're a service business, and the whole thing is to give them options. This is going to sound dumb, but I have done spec spots and sent them out on a cassette with the full produced spot first, and then I would just dub the voice track as the "second version." I would tell the salesman, "Okay, tell him there are two different ideas and see what they think." Now, to us, two different ideas means two different production ideas, but not to a client. To a client it just means two different approaches. So, they hear the full produced thing, then they hear the voice track itself and they go, "Yeah, okay. What I'd like to do is run that voice track, the second one, in afternoon drive, and I want to run the other one in morning drive." Now you and I know it doesn't make a bit of difference, but to that client, well, you've given him an active choice in his marketing. Now, that's something that a lot of places don't do, and I think that if they would, even if it's a smoke screen like I just described, you're still giving him a choice. And, when a client realizes, "Hey, you're taking time to help me! You're actually giving me a choice here," that guy's going to be back.

So I think a lot of it is forgetting the glitz of the business and getting down to basics and remembering that it's a service business we're in. We're here to serve people. Sometimes in this business we forget. We're more concentrated on making glitzy promos and sweepers which is fine, it's part of the fun job. But, the bulk of your job is to serve. And don't think that the salesman is against you because he's not. Everyone is on the same page. Just the simple thing of attitude is the best advice I can give because it will filter down to every little thing that you do.

R.A.P.: What about Program Directors and their relationships to the production people? Any thought there?
J.R.: With programmers, you have so many schools of thought, so I guess it's hard to generalize. The best thing I can tell you is to give them ideas. With PDs, you're talking egos just as much as with managers or anybody else. Show the PD that you want to help him. I had a PD once -- I won't say who it is -- who was a real asshole. It wasn't Scott. We were having a problem with a promotional campaign, and he didn't like anything I was doing. I went through five or six completely different renovations of the campaign. Nothing could please the guy. Then I called the guy up at home one night and said, "Listen, I've got an idea...," and it was just a very simple little idea. But just by making the call off hours and saying, "Listen, what do you think of this?" the guy totally changed. He realized finally that I was on his side!

Programmers nowadays, especially with the LMAs and duopolies, can be replaced in a second, and they know it. So, build a team. You've got to work together. Programmers are famous for changing their minds every five seconds. That's the nature of the beast, and that's what you've got to be able to accept. If you can't accept change, then you're in the wrong business. You do the promo, and you bring the PD in and say, "What do you think of this?" Let him make changes. That's what his job is. As far as how you handle the criticism, the best thing I can say is don't take it personally. You have to get down to basics, and the basics say check the egos and realize you're in a service business and just as much as you're going to serve the client, you're going to serve the PD.

R.A.P.: Any final thoughts for our readers?
J.R.: I think that what I've learned throughout the years -- and I've had a rocky road just like everybody else in this business -- I think a lot of it is believing in yourself. I mean, I've left radio stations where PDs have just battered me to death, and through it all you have to believe in your creativity. It's just like anything else -- if you don't believe in what you're doing, you shouldn't be doing it. I think a lot of it has to do with believing that you can do it. I don't give a damn what you want to do, if you believe you can do it, you can do it. It's that simple. 

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