The story covered by Tom Taylor last week that consultant Walt Sabo and New Jersey 101 are parting ways is indeed an anomaly. As Tom points out, consultants tend to hope that no one notices if they get dusted by a client, and just hope the story goes away.
But in 2009, the end of long-term relationships, like Walt and New Jersey 101, have become all too common. It's one thing when a consultant isn't effective and/or the station fails to reach its ratings goals - for whatever the reason.
It's another to be cut from a franchise station that has succeeded for many years due to "budget cuts."
I have been thinking about the consultant/station relationship for some time now, and have remained silent on the topic. But I feel the need to say something in the wake of Walt's departure from New Jersey 101. I don't know the details of this situation, so no blame is meant to be cast. But as Taylor's story notes, this was one of "the most fruitful relationships between consultant and station."
During a period when great talent has been cast aside by owners and managers faced with horrendous decisions about who should stay and who should go, consultants have been frequent victims - even in situations like New Jersey 101 where Walt's contributions are well-known.
I contacted Walt, who looks back on his 19 years with the station and is thankful for the relationship. He reminded me of some of the particulars about New Jersey 101 that many of us may not know:
- In 1990, when Walt started with the station, it was valued at $12 million. Press sold it for $100 million, and it is most definitely worth much more than that today, even given the industry malaise.
- All these years, the station has been 100% live and local. Bob McAllen (owner of Press), John Dzuiba (the GM under Press), and Andy Santoro of Millennium all get kudos from Walt for their steady management, and for letting the programmers program.
- It achieves a cume that breaks 1,000,000 listeners (and has for many years), making it the most listened to FM talk station in the U.S. (outdoing other FM talkers even in markets like NY and LA).
So you see, when it works, consultants function as partners, coaches, and consiglieres - that strategic, objective voice at the table who managers can turn to during times of feast or famine; during those gut-wrenching moments when a so-called impenetrable brand is under attack; or when a personality or show does something heinous or embarrassing, and cooler heads must prevail.
When I got into this business 26 years ago, my sense was that the industry's image of consultants was that of the snake oil salesman. I heard stories where consultants double-billed client stations for travel, and other sleazy things that made making fun of us as popular as lawyer jokes.
Aside from trying to build a company, my goal was to do whatever possible to elevate the role of consultant, to provide a valuable service, and to make a difference in the success of our clients. We haven't been effective for 100% of our stations, but I'd be willing to compare batting averages with anyone.
I am only too aware of the angry and anonymous naysayers who frequent radio geek boards, reveling in taking shots at us and others. But I would bet that if you surveyed the people we've actually worked for over the past quarter-century, we've acquitted ourselves well.
So when I read about the Sabo/New Jersey 101 news, and I think about some of the brands our company has helped build over the years where we've unceremoniously been axed, it saddens me to see great partnerships go by the wayside during these desperate economic times. Walter is right to celebrate his nearly two decades with New Jersey 101. But he should still be advising the station.
Rather than lose enthusiasm for the business, we at Jacobs Media are energized by the great clients who still believe in our services. As I remind managers who ask why a programmer needs a consultant, even Tiger Woods needs a coach. It makes him a better player, and it provides him with outside expertise and perspective that he could not provide on his own.
And of course, the response is that to build a great brand, to weather the storms, and to face the challenges that all media players inevitably go through, it's just good business to have a smart, ouside, objective, seasoned perspective - a consigliere. Good consultants challenge station management and conventional wisdom. They bring an outside view to the table. They open a window to what others are doing in similar situations. They will tell you your baby's ugly, when everyone else around you is telling you what you want to hear.
And in the case of New Jersey 101, the annual cost of a consultant is probably equivalent to what stations pay the night guy. (Oops - I forgot that no one has night guys anymore.)
I expect this post will be met with responses ranging from "He doesn't get what's the financial realities," to more nasty, hyper-critical comments made by disgruntled former radio guys. And that's OK because this blog doesn't have anything to do with you.
A lot of consultants have played a major role in creating, building. and maintaining some great brands - many of which have the strategic foundation to survive even the most heinous management decisions and cutbacks.
So, fellow consultants, this one's for you. And congrats, Walt, on a job well done.