Nix to Negativity

Crisis? What crisis? Have some candy.

Nikki Sixx
Nikki Sixx (Photo Courtesy of Tim Davis)

Introduced as a sort of post-heroin Renais­sance man – bestselling author, entrepreneur, and, most impressively, not dead – Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx offered his advice on the way to fix radio to a packed room of radio industry executives last week in Austin. "The biggest thing is, listen to the audience," said Sixx, speaking in the manner of a seasoned marketing executive, occasionally waving his tattooed knuckles for emphasis. "It's important for radio to realize they don't have a captive audience."

But it turns out Sixx has it all wrong, at least according to many of the industry pooh-bahs gathered in Austin for the National Association of Broadcasters' annual radio convention. To them, the industry's problem isn't a lack of understanding of its audience or programming that could make a dead man yawn – it's "negativity." That darn negativity "could possibly jeopardize the future of the entire business ... and threatens to paralyze us," NAB President David Rehr said in his "state of the industry" address.

Part pep rally, part Rotary Club cheese-and-cracker mixer, the convention often veered toward the realm of delusional fantasy. Companies are shedding employees, ad revenues are dropping, investors are fleeing, and their on-air product is widely mocked. But all would be great if not for those Debbie Down­ers and their bad thoughts. The problem isn't with the product; "the problem is perception," said Jeff Smulyan, president of Emmis Communications, which owns six stations in Austin. (For the record, Emmis' stock fell from $27 to $1.50 a share in the last four years, suggesting Smulyan has a very large perception problem.)

At times the convention took on the tone of a bad episode of Dr. Phil. One executive referred to the current woes as a time of "low self-esteem." We've survived tough times before, many executives proclaimed to cheers; the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" was played over and over again to make their point. The executives' mantra was a Stuart Smiley-like, "We're not in the toilet, and people, really, really like us."

Candy and the Magic Bullet

"I don't buy into the negativity," said Pat Paxton, senior vice president of programming for Entercom Communications, which owns three stations in Austin. He urged his fellow executives to spread the message that the industry is still making "hundreds of millions a year" in profits, which might not be the best talking point at a time when thousands of people are losing their jobs. Talking on the same panel, Border Media Partners programmer José Santos said he visited his company's Austin office and was surprised to find the sales staff "seemed so down." His solution was to buy them candy, which he said perked everybody right up. "You want to be gloomy, go sell cars," Santos told the audience.

But the gloomy clouds were unavoidable, even in the NAB hug-fest. On Wednesday, the day the show opened, the Radio Advertising Bureau announced that local ad revenues in August were down 11% from a year earlier; national ad revenues fell 14%. Despite all the positive thinking, attendees sounded very much like they were working in an industry in crisis, evidenced by repeated references to radio at a "crossroads" and the need to "reinvent" and "reinvigorate" the business, as well as the urgency for some serious "out-of-the-box thinking" to create "another radio renaissance."

At every level, forces are pulling at the foundation of the business. During the convention, several seminars and untold hallway discussions focused on the introduction of Portable People Meters, a game-changing technology that will automatically record the listening habits of ratings participants, as an alternative to the current system of written diaries. And NAB is battling record-industry attempts to collect royalties from broadcasters, as well as a move by the Federal Communications Commission to demand more localism from stations. Rehr decried the local­ism efforts as "unnecessary and oppressive" (leaving anyone in the audience not drinking the Kool-Aid to wonder how an unnecessary regulation can also be oppressive).

In the face of that type of negativity, technology was repeatedly trumpeted as the great hope for stations, the miracle that will save their bottom lines. A top priority is to convince manufacturers to install radio chips in cell phones and mobile devices, a move that may have been shrewd and innovative in, say, 2002. In the same fashion, broadcasters are displaying a new zeal for the Internet, which they've largely ignored up until now. A dozen panels and seminars focused on ways to generate more dollars from the Web, one of the few growth sectors for the radio companies, which are now eagerly "rebranding" themselves as "media" companies.

If We Only Had the Staff ...

Left unclear was how companies are going to hire staff to launch new digital media initiatives when budgets are so tight that managers spend their days counting the number of plastic spoons used in the staff lounges. And several executives called for increased marketing, yet all around there was evidence that companies can't even afford a good billboard advertisement anymore. "I have been here two days, and I haven't seen any sign that Austin has radio stations," Harpo Radio General Manager John Gehron told one session audience.

Meanwhile, there was little discussion of actual programming, beyond the occasional references to the need to perk up "content." "I don't think there's a need to reinvent ourselves in terms of programming," said CBS Radio CEO Dan Mason, who referred to on-air talent as "announcers."

Syndicated radio host Kidd Kraddick, heard locally on Jammin' 105.9, urged the industry to build new stars, which is going to be difficult if they continue to jettison talent in favor of pre-recorded voice tracks. As he spoke, a nearby banner offered broadcasters a choice of exciting "morning show solutions": either The Bob & Tom Show or The Big John Boy and Billy Show. "We can't deny since Howard Stern left, radio has gotten a lot less attention," Kraddick told a room full of broadcasters.

Kraddick said radio executives have it backward. Instead of radio serving as a "carnival barker" for the Internet, the Internet should be used to promote radio. "Let's take some pride in our medium and stop being the Internet's bitch," he said.

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