It was 11 years ago when then Silicon Alley Reporter's Jason Calacanis, was invited to speak at our fifth Summit. At the time, technology was most definitely in the air, some stations were streaming, many had websites, and there were abundant questions about where it was all going.
In preparation for his address, Jason did a little digging and ran across that year’s Radio Ink issue, highlighting the 40 most powerful people in radio broadcasting. It was Mel Karmazin, Lowry Mays, and the usual gang of owners and CEOs. As he told Summit attendees who were trying to get a better understanding of where the radio industry was headed, we were most definitely on the wrong track.
Jason held up that magazine and declared that this group of “powerful” radio executives was nothing more than “consolidators.” He questioned why there were no DJs or programmers on the list, and he told us flat out that if radio didn’t focus on its product, it was in trouble.
So we fast-forward to this month, and Radio Ink is still publishing their list. But this year, Clear Channel’s Bob Pittman sits on top. Now Bob is no longer the programmer of WMAQ nor is he the upstart who was the force behind MTV. He has become a consummate corporate power broker over the past couple decades.
But there’s no question where his roots are – in the product.
In a short period of time, iHeartRadio is becoming an even more valuable asset in the Clear Channel arsenal, while the acquisition of Thumbplay appears to be the catalyst for the company creating a viable Pandora competitor. And the big pop music festival that Clear Channel is presenting in Las Vegas is yet another sign that doing big things for the brand is coming back into vogue.
The Randy Michaels news, hype, and speculation of the past few weeks is another indication that the product may be making a comeback. While some people in radio are more fixated on Michaels’ ownership percentage in Merlin, the more important issues are directly related to programming, formats, and the type of content his group will generate. It’s no accident that the acquisition of John Gehron and Walt Sabo to the team are key building blocks in creating bigger and better stations.
Will he stunt? Will he go all news on the FM? Will he go back to his Jacor tactics? Whatever. The fact is, the industry, the trades, and even the mainstream press are talking about him. Like him or not, there’s hope that for radio, the return of Randy Michaels to major market wheeling and dealing can help trigger a renewed emphasis on energizing programming.
And then there’s Dan Mason, the head of CBS Radio and honoree last week at the 36th Annual Conclave in Minneapolis. Since taking over, Dan has been understandably focused on the bottom line. But his vision on digital, streaming, content, and programming is all front and center. Ask anyone who works for Mason – CBS Radio is about making money, but the company is also making smart moves to integrate and aggregate on-air and online assets in order to build better brands that will have a place in the entertainment world's future.
What do Pittman, Michaels, and Mason all have in common? They’re product guys, first and foremost. And while they sit in corporate board rooms and are gifted executives, they each understand the importance of creating great content, hiring brilliant programmers and strategists, entertaining, and thinking big.
And that may signify a change in emphasis for radio at a time when the headlines have been dominated by the Citadel/Cumulus war, Jeff Smulyan taking his company private, and all the other corporate mogul stories that have nothing to do with the on-air product that Calacanis railed against back in 2000.
For too long, programmers have been thought of as artisans, craftsmen, and even barriers that stood in the way of upping the spotload. The pendulum is beginning to swing back the other way, and it’s not a moment too soon for radio.
As Jason Calacanis would probably tell you, “consolidation” isn’t going to save radio, despite what you hear from some of its CEOs. Radio will live, die, wilt, or prosper on the strength of its content, on the excitement of its formats, on the power of its personality, and on its local market knowledge and connectivity.
The bankers and brokers may tell you otherwise. But the events of the past 15 years since consolidation ran amok strongly suggest that if the radio business is going to remain viable in the face of digital competitors, it will come down to its ability to generate big ideas, not on big margins.
As much as anyone in radio, we are excited about the growing importance of digital. But without great content, local sensibility, meaningful personalities, and strong entertainment value, digital is just a shiny bucket – that’s empty.
Let’s hope that what we’re beginning to see – the re-emergence of programming and product as top priorities – is the start of a trend that will trickle down to medium and smaller markets.
That’s what’s good for radio.
Thanks to Steve Goldstein for that little kick in the ass.