Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Let's Put on a Radio Station!

Every now and then, a friend, former co-worker, or professional colleague will send me an email, or approach me in person with a Great Idea for a Radio Station. This happens every now and then. You see, for the benefit of those of you reading this beyond my home town, radio is dead in Lima, Ohio.

Like a red shirted random extra on the old Star Trek, it went off on its own behind a Styrofoam rock formation, let out a scream, only to have Dr. McCoy pronounce, "He's dead, Jim." Only this is the episode where Kirk and Spock have found a time portal that might take them back to a point in time before the red shirt died. OR it might take them back to the 1970's where Kirk sleeps with Joan Collins and she ends up bitch slapping some blond alien in a fountain. OR it could take them back to the 1980's where Kirk disguises himself as a policeman in order to sleep with Heather Locklear. In the end, Spock says, "Captain, may I remind you of Starfleet's Prime Directive. Don't do anything that might interfere with the development of a species or otherwise exceed the special effects budget for this episode. Besides, Heather Locklear is out of your league, Dawg."

What was I talking about? Oh yeah. Radio.

Every now and then, somebody comes to me with an idea for starting a new radio station in Lima. "We've got the building," he'll say, "and the equipment, and this town is crawling with ex-radio jocks and news hounds. All we got to do is get advertisers, and believe me, pal, they'll be lining up to get on the air. We can do this!" Then they ask, "Are you in?" which really means, "Got any money for this?"

And, of course, I say, "No."

It's not that these people don't have business experience, or good moral character, or the common sense to know that Spock would never say "Dawg." The problem is this person is playing Mickey Rooney in one of those movies where he says, "We've got a barn, lights, musicians... Let's put on a show!" (If you're too young to have seen one of these movies, let's just say they're kinda like the original Scooby Doo in terms of story crafting and realism.) The idealism overcomes the reality.

I hate to break your heart, guys. I really do. I'm on your side when it comes to reviving radio. But the truth is, and this is going to hurt, but the truth is... nobody wants you to.

People used to rely on horses for transportation. Now I like horses. There's a lot of romanticism about horses, especially in an old western. A horse could be your best friend, a true companion, and even save the day. But the fact is horses must be fed, groomed, given medical attention - with a vet bill that exceeds the gross domestic product of Uruguay - and then you have to shovel out the stall. Believe me, no matter what romantic ideals some people have associated with travel by horse, the fact is as soon as the first cheap reliable motorcar was available, people bought a Model T, sold the damn horse, and never looked back.

Think of radio as a horse. I work in television now, and I make some pretty good extra money doing voice overs for ad agencies. You can wax nostalgic for radio all you want, but I'm not going back to cleaning out that stall ever again.

But the real problem is the need to see the medium in the scale of the larger world view. Let's take a look at another medium that was once a part of everybody's life, only to fall to a new technology. Movies.

Back in the early half of the 20th century people went to a movie house. Some may have gone two or three times a week. And the nightly lineup was like a night of prime time TV: a cartoon, a newsreel, a B-serial (with characters saying things like, "Let's put on a show!"), coming attractions, and then a feature film. And people liked it, but put up with some inconveniences to see a show: getting dressed for the show, getting to the theater, and enduring the clown behind you who talks through the movie. And most of the movies were rather mediocre.

Along comes a new technology, television. Suddenly, movie ticket sales fall. Why go to all the trouble to see a lame movie when you can stay home, put on your PJ's, and watch Milton Berle wear a dress? And it's free - once you've bought a TV. But you can watch now, pay later. People now have credit.

The movie industry could no longer operate under the assumption that there will always be an audience no matter what crapola they threw up on the screen. The entire business model of the industry had to change. It went from a production line type of system, where product rolled out regularly with lower quality, to what we now call the Blockbuster Mentality. You have to aim high. Go for broke. Everything has to be the next "Godfather" or "Star Wars" or "Titanic." Movie producers have little time for someone to waste on little movies. These days, a film that makes only $10 million is a disappointment. We want at least $100 million in the first weekend.

Radio needs to change its business model. And anyone thinking of diving into the business needs to be willing to approach it the way Steven Spielberg would. Go big, or stay home.

Radio cannot and will not survive with the current practice of having groups of stations up and down the dial playing ten-in-a-row of the same lame ass product that the record companies keep churning out. (There's another industry searching for a new business model, but I'm not about to punch that tar baby in this article.)

Nor will signing up for Rush and his imitators save your bacon. While P.T. Barnum's axiom about a certain audience demographic being born every minute certainly holds true in terms of sophomoric right-wing talk radio, and the advertisers willing to support that particular midway attraction, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that its influence is on the wane. El Rushbo himself is rarely a participant in conservative cable news outlets, but rather the subject of discussion. And Rush himself freely admits he is not a member of the "mainstream media," be that by whatever definition he chooses. No. Right wing talk radio is exists within the domain of the AM band, an abandoned and archaic means of transmitting our message to those who huddle around their wireless sets like so many refugees of a dictatorial regime. If only they actually had a dictatorial regime to huddle against... ah, but that's hardly the point.

If you seriously, and I mean seriously, want to start a new radio station, or revive an old one, follow these ten commandments to the Blockbuster Mentality.

1. Thou shalt not aim for mediocrity. "Bob and Tom" in the morning won't cut it. You need to pay major dollar for major talent. IN THE HOUSE! I don't mean Big Johnny Sunshine reading "This Day in History." A good way to judge major talent: if he showed up at the mall, would he draw a crowd to the point that the police would need to be called? Seriously, I mean drop a call to Harpo Productions and see if Oprah is looking for a little extra touch. I'm not kidding.

2. Thou shalt not do stunts. Stunts are passe. Leave the schoolboy practical joke crap to Howie Mandel.

3. Thou shall pay for professionals. That goes for all dayparts, all positions, in all departments.

4. Thou shalt have a bigass signal. In this age of WIFI and wireless phone coverage everywhere, nobody will have the patience to listen to a piddly class A FM with a signal that chatters at the city limits. On the AM band, anything less than 50,000 watts is a waste of time. Daytimers will be going the way of analog TV in the next decade. Don't sink money into one. Period.

5. Thou shalt spend major Bennies on promotion. Suck it up, Buttercup. You're in the big leagues now. If you're not comfortable writing a big check for a major multi-media promotional campaign, then open a sports card store instead.

6. The production department shalt not be thine sales staff's bitch. See commandment #3. Without the air talent, the sales staff will be back to telemaketing within the year. Remember that, Chukles, before you just assume a talent will do your lousy remote without being consulted.

7. News is King. Thou shalt worship no other god other before the News Director. If you can't figure out how to get a tornado warning on the air NOW, you might as well turn off the transmitter.

8. Thou shalt tolerate no hurtful messages. With the exception of the reasonable "hell" or "damn," no foul language. I'm not a prude, but there are kids in the car, and you should take that seriously. NO gay bashing. NO ethnic slurs, of any group. That includes Arabs and Persians. And if you don't know the difference between a Persian and an Arab, may I suggest a career in sanitation management.

9. Thou shalt avoid "fire sales." If you find the sales staff ringing bells, it's time to put the station on the block.

10. Thou shalt take pride in thine work. You have chosen a difficult task, trying to ride a horse-drawn carriage down a modern city street. But a horse-drawn can be beautiful for the sake of nothing more than itself. So enjoy it. Have fun.

And get a red shirt to clean out the stall.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

This Just In...

I thumbed through a magazine in the doctor's waiting room when an urgent voice came on the television. "We have breaking news," said the anchorwoman. "The FDA is advising consumers to avoid pistachios until the source of the salmonella outbreak can be traced."

Pistachios? Is that it? You call that "breaking news?" For a moment there, I thought we were under attack. Or someone was holding hostages. Or the president had fired another car company executive and ordered somebody to resurrect American Motors and the Gremlin - just for fun. Hell, somebody would buy one. But, no, this "breaking news" turned out to be about nuts.

Now don't get me wrong. I like pistachios. In fact, I almost bought some right before that recall was issued. They're tasty and they make my pee turn green, and anything that makes my pee turn green is way cool. But I wouldn't call this a "breaking news" story. The story had already been broke (Is that good English?) several days before when the salmonella outbreak had been discovered. That's when a story breaks. Additional information from the FDA is not "breaking news," but rather, it's additional knowledge about to be added to my information overload.

But proclaiming it "Breaking News" got my attention, and that's just what CNN, Fox, et al, want. As you scan the cable with your remote, you're not going to stop on a channel running a banner along the bottom of the screen saying, "Everything is fine, right now. Just fine. Nothing wrong. Nothing to see here. Just turn your TV off and go to bed." Your thumb lifts off the button only if you see "Breaking News," or "Developing Story," or anything with the words "Alert," "Crisis," or "Brittany" on the banner. The Royal Flush for news directors at these channels is the Continuing Coverage of the Breaking Brittany Crisis. I'm not joking.

The TV in the waiting room was tuned to CNN. I haven't been watching CNN much since the days when I worked in news/talk radio, and I kind of miss it. But after a bout of non-stop Crisis Coverage Television, I remembered why I didn't miss it all that much. In the 45 minutes or so I watched, CNN gave me 2 Breaking Stories, 3 Developing Stories, a Crisis in the Mid-East, (that doesn't even qualify as a Continuing Story so much as a Status Quo.) 5 updates, and at least one News Alert regarding Michelle Obama touching the Queen of England. My wife left the doctor feeling great. I needed a sedative.

It must be an exhausting life working at a news network these days, constantly working in a state of Code Red. Back in the pre 9-11 days, a producer could kick back and drink in those periods in a news day when, especially at the local level, nothing happened. A reporter could dig deeper into a story on political corruption. A videographer could grab some B-roll that could lend more context to a package report. Facts were checked. Mistakes could be caught and corrected. Voice overs could be rehearsed. Awkward sentences could be rewritten. Spelling errors in the graphics could be ousted. Trust me, the down time was well spent. These days, a producer is charged with the responsibility of making every event in life a crisis in order to grab restless attention spans. I don't think I could work like that. I know I can't watch it.

I've never really thought about it before, but the current state of TV journalism could explain why it can so difficult to hold a conversation with certain family members and coworkers. For example: within my lifetime, the price of gasoline at the pump has risen and fallen more times than I can count. Believe me, the oil embargo of 1973 lives in my memory, when gas prices jumped 60-70%, shortages caused lineups at the gas stations, everybody was driving 4-ton Detroit behemoths that got 8 miles to the gallon, and rationing was mentioned for the first time since WWII. We were not happy campers. While last summer's surge in gas prices was not pleasant to say the least, compared to '73, it was hardly a Crisis. And yet, every time gas prices take even the slightest rise, it's a Crisis. Which leads to me getting e-mails from coworkers or family telling me about a day when I'm not supposed to buy gas to protest the prices. Yeah, that'll change everything, just like it hasn't for the past 35 years.

Most disturbing of all is the coverage on our economy. Yes, a 7,000 point drop in the Dow is certainly newsworthy, and in-depth coverage is justifiable. But I can't help but wonder how many "Internet Investors" switched on a cable news channel, saw "Alert: America's Financial Meltdown" or "Breaking News: Economy Flat Lines" on the screen, and immediately dove for their laptops to sell off their stocks. Who is the worst culprit: the overreaction in the media, or the person who overreacts to the overreaction in the media?

I can't help but think this current culture of overreaction has spilled over into other aspects of life. Road rage. Mass shootings. The bitch-o-grams I get in the company e-mail when somebody leaves something smelly in the break room refrigerator. Whenever an injustice has been committed, we expect on-the-spot Breaking News coverage of our victimization, whether it be Chris Hansen from Dateline confronting the wrongdoer on hidden camera, or Dr. Phil or Oprah giving us a new car to salve our heartbreak. The copier is jammed! Code Red! Initiate full document recovery procedures!

Yeesh. I think I'll just go buy some pistachios.