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Looking for a New General Manager? Start Looking at PDs!

There is a stark reality in radio right now; Program Directors are being phased out. Many radio companies clearly see PDs as nothing more than middle management that can be eliminated by a combination of technology and regionalization.

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A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a former colleague of mine who felt he was at a crossroads in his career. He’s currently a host and wanted to ascend to management to become a Program Director/Content Manager. Since I took a similar path in my radio career, he reached out to me for advice.

“Don’t become a PD,” I said.  “Become a General Manager.”

This elicited confusion on the other end of the phone until I laid out to him what I’ll now lay out to you.

There is a stark reality in radio right now; Program Directors are being phased out. Many radio companies clearly see PDs as nothing more than middle management that can be eliminated by a combination of technology and regionalization. The PD jobs that DO exist pay only a fraction of what they used to. As a result, many talented individuals have left to seek out other career avenues.

This fact is one of the true tragedies in our industry. Of all the positions at a radio station, the position of Program Director is BY FAR the one that requires the most versatility. There is not one corner of the building that they can avoid. From sales, to HR, to legal, to engineering, the hands of a PD touch everything. 

That being the case, why do we not see more of them in executive positions of leadership?  

Most of the General Managers and Regional Presidents in radio started out in one area: sales. It’s easy to understand why. Showing that you can drive revenue is the easiest way to earn yourself a gold star. However, the approach has handicapped the industry to a great extent. When the major decision makers are only versed in ONE aspect of the business, the other aspects can suffer as a result.

Two people I know very well, Mike Thomas and Chris Oliviero, were recently made exceptions to this age-old rule. Thomas, a longtime PD was hired as Manager of Good Karma Brands’ largest market (Chicago). Olivero, the former CBS Radio Programming Exec was tabbed to lead Entercom’s massive cluster of stations in New York. When I saw these “against the grain” moves, I applauded them. As we move into 2021, I’d like to see it become a trend.

Allow me to use some of my personal experiences to expand on why this would be a good thing for radio.

YES, THEY CAN SELL

I can honestly say that in my 20+ years as a PD, I’ve spent almost as much time working with sales as I have with talent. I attended meetings, went out on calls, and helped put together presentations. I kept track of the Miller-Kaplan just as much as I kept track of my ratings and digital metrics. I worked hand in glove with every GM, DOS, GSM, and AE that was on staff. This is no different than what most PDs have done throughout their career. We understand that this is a for-profit enterprise and getting results for our partners and clients is important. PDs are also the very best brand ambassadors. No can explain the content to a client better than they can.

THEY KNOW HOW TO LEAD

On-air talent are artists…and artists are hard as hell to work with. The best PDs know how to get the best out of air talent, no matter how difficult they can be. They are skilled leaders who know how to teach, motivate, and relate to people that some may find weird or off-putting. Often, they must be the calmest person in the room when things are very tense. They are also easy to talk to and confide in because they are good listeners. If a PD can coach the high-strung morning news anchor, why can’t they coach the high-strung salesperson?

THEY SPEAK MULTIPLE LANGUAGES

One of the great things about starting out my career in small market radio is that I got to do a little bit of everything. I was on air, worked in sales, planned promotions, engineered broadcasts, and negotiated contracts. That mentality stayed with me. I’m glad that it did. Because (as I mentioned before) successful PDs are involved in every facet of the business. As a result, you need to speak the different languages found in every department. It was common for me to talk to a host about their show, then pivot to the engineers’ office to talk about tech issues, then take a trip to the HR office to go over compliance, then jump on a sales call with a client. Everyone uses different lingo, and a good PD must be able to communicate effectively with everyone.

THEY’RE NUMBERS CRUNCHERS

I often tell people that I was never very good at math. Yet, I would spend so much time working with numbers. Every month, I’d get trapped in the vortex of going through ratings. I’d spend days punching in numbers to PPM Analysis Tool, analyzing every daypart, hour, and quarter hour. A similar rabbit hole would be jumped into every year when budgets were being designed. How much can I work with? How can we do more with less? If we move money to THIS line item, will it help us more? Like every GM, PDs must live in an Excel Spreadsheet world.

THEY CAN NEGOTIATE

I’ve had countless conversations with agents, vendors, and partners. Some have been entertaining, others have been contentious. I was heavily involved in working out agreements with many different parties. In most instances, I was the point person. PDs understand the art of negotiation. They know what they can and can’t afford, and the value of any asset. They’re never afraid to walk away if that’s what’s in the station’s best interests.

THEY UNDERSTAND CONTENT

At the end of the day, radio is a content business. We are defined by what comes out of the speaker. At their core, good PDs are content curators. This is the one skill that far too many GMs and executives lack. There are some exceptions to this rule, but not many. This is not something that I blame GMs for.  Most of them just don’t have the experience to understand what works and what doesn’t. They’ve never had to. Most of them came up in sales where they only thing that mattered was hitting their budgets. The bottom line is more than just the bottom line. Hopefully, more industry leaders will realize that.

BNM Writers

News/Talk AM 1130’s Drew Lee Just Wants To Understand and Help His Colleagues

Justice & Drew on News/Talk AM 1130, Minneapolis, shoot for a 25-54 demographic.

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In radio, your most vital partner in life might be your co-host. You do spend an incredible amount of time in a cramped room, sharing ideas over mediocre coffee and talking about life experiences. It’s a lot like a marriage, without the laundry and dirty dishes.

Justice & Drew on News/Talk AM 1130, Minneapolis, shoot for a 25-54 demographic. “That’s what the company wants from us,” Drew Lee said. “On AM, it’s a little wider, maybe 35-64 as a target audience.”

“Jon Justice was my morning host in Tucson, Arizona,” Lee continued. “I think the best thing about Jon is his attention to detail,” Lee said. “His attention to detail when putting the show together. He’s meticulous with his prep.” Lee said Justice reads every word of every story, finding nuggets in mundane stories to talk about on the air

Off the air, not Mr. Excitement.

“Jon is like a brother, but there is one thing that irritates me. He’s such a homebody,” Lee jokes. “It’s impossible to get him out of the house. I’d like to see us get the show out more often to events, openings.”

Lee said he’s definitely an extrovert, and he has no hesitation having fun with Justice and himself. “It’ll be six years this summer we’ve been together, and we’re still having a good time,” Lee said.

The duo start out topical, addressing the big points of the day in news. “Those are obviously going to get our attention first,” Lee said. “We don’t want to drag something on for three hours; that’s just overwhelming for an audience.”

Lee said he and Justice don’t find they’re delivering their best shows in an angry vein. “It’s best when we have fun,” Lee said. “I try to figure out what’s in Jon’s wheelhouse. I do work hard to sprinkle in any reference to the Marvel cinematic Universe.”

Now we’re starting to see what makes Lee click.

Lee is also a big Star Wars fan. Not as big as Justice, but still big. Lee said he’s always been motivated by Monty Python. Lee referenced a Monty Python documentary on Netflix. Monty Python, Almost the Truth. The Lawyer’s Cut.

“It’s a six-part series,” Lee explained. “I’ve always loved Python. We were just talking about Monty Python on the air today. I remember in drama class; I lifted Python material all the time.”

As a kid, Lee said he knocked heads in football, on defense, and offense. “I was huge into sports,” he said. “I wanted to be a Miami Dolphin. I played football in high school in Ocala, Florida. I wrestled as well.”

He admits he rode the pines a lot in football, but that didn’t deter his love for contact sports. “I’m a big guy. I love physicality. As a lineman, I enjoyed practice. Hitting. In wrestling, it was all about imposing your will on the other guy, tossing him around.”

Perhaps that’s why he enjoys ‘wrestling’ with Justice on the air. Outside of the wrestling match, Lee said he didn’t mix it up much. “I was only in a ‘real’ fight once in my life. There were a couple of punches thrown; then we were pulled apart.”

Other than sports, Lee said he spent a lot of time reading. “Ocala is a very rural area. If I wasn’t wrestling, we were lighting a bonfire, chasing beer and girls.

(See Jesse Kelly story for a similar youth.)

Kelly’s on-air work has resonated with Lee. “He’s fearless,” Lee explained. “He will say some stuff on the air that just blows me away. It’s nice to see talk show hosts that aren’t afraid to talk and sometimes put their foot in their mouths.” Lee said people that are willing to push the envelope are always welcome. Lee said he’s happy Kelly has enjoyed success. “I just wish we’d have grabbed on to his coattails,” he jokes.

Lee was delivering pizza in Florida and attending an audio recording vocational school. “I wanted to be a music producer,” he said. While delivering pizzas, he listened to WTKS 104.1 FM in Cocoa Beach. 

Jim Phillips hosted afternoons on WTKS-FM from 1992 to 2018. Phillips worked in the Orlando market since 1972, first as a news reporter 

“I also listened to Russ and Bo on WTKS,” Lee said. “They were very similar to Howard Stern. They became the “Monsters in the Morning,” and still have a podcast on IHeartRadio.”

Rus and Bo were looking for an intern, and Lee answered the call. “I drove to Orlando and applied, got it,” Lee said. “Apparently, I was the only person who applied.”

His duties on the show were a bit of everything. Cleaning up, booking guests, whatever was necessary. That morphed into a weekend gig for about a year.

He welcomed his first daughter, and radio wasn’t paying the bills, so Lee took some time off. The lure of radio called him back at WSKY FM in Gainesville. 

“The Sky was a conservative news and talk station,” Lee said. “It still is. I was hired as a board-op, then morning show producer. Six months later, I was PD.”

His new job demanded about 80 hours a week, Lee said. “A good PD must have the ability to listen. Get the best out of the people you have, then put them in situations where you maximize their strengths.”

Understanding the people that work for him was his primary goal. “I might chew one guy out and be gentle with another,” Lee said. “It’s especially that way with talent. You have to find those ‘buttons’ to press. Some people like a combative relationship. They like to shake hands and move on.”

Still others, Lee said you have to coax things out of them. “Everyone has insecurities, flaws, strengths. Part of being a good manager is understanding that.”

Lee said his personality as a PD and on-air host includes trying to see the other person’s side. “I don’t like people trying to convince me of something I don’t believe,” he said. “At the same time, I respect what they believe. I’m going to assume a person has put some thought into their beliefs. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have a relationship with anybody.”

Covid did a lot of nasty things, including kill a pretty cool podcast Lee had going. It was called Minnesota Beercast. 

“I started that show because I witnessed all the beer taprooms popping up just about everywhere,” Lee said. “We’d do remotes from the brewery. We’d talk almost exclusively about beer. Sometimes the brewing process. Other times we talked about food, wine, and spirits.”

What’s the future hold for Justice & Drew?

“We don’t talk about the future a lot,” Lee said. “I’d say five years ago; my big dream would have been syndication, to be distributed more widely.”

He said that goal has dwindled a bit over the past couple of years. However, with today’s technology, he can be heard almost anywhere. “We’ve got listeners all over the country, from New York to California,” Lee said. “I find that amazing. Here we are, this little Minnesota-centric show growing an audience at the national level. I’m excited about where we’re going organically. People seem to be gravitating to our content, telling friends about it. I want to see how far we can take this fun little morning show.”

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WGN’s John Williams Was Determined To Get Into Broadcasting at Any Level

Sending out tapes every six months was a part-time job for Williams and anyone else who wanted to venture out to a larger market.

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WGN broadcaster John Williams knows two things for sure; Coffee’s for closers, and someone out there has eaten the entire left side of a menu at a restaurant.

“There are movies that enable male bonding,” Williams said. “In Glengarry Glen Ross, it’s bonding in terror. In Diner, the bond is about growing up with friendships.” (You can correlate each of the opening intentions with the movies above.)

Williams said he believes these types of bonding opportunities make us better as human beings. “My dad was in the Air Force, and we predictably moved around quite a bit,” he said. “I always envied my friends who had a steady upbringing, who were able to feel the consistent ground under their feet. They’d known each other for years, shared inside jokes together.”

A 10-year-old John Williams found himself in fourth grade in Honolulu. “Once again, I was an outsider. We lived in Taiwan before that. Most of the kids were Japanese or Hawaiian, and I was one of the ‘haole,’ or white kids. I never had to spell the word, I just was the word.”

Williams was in second grade at the public school in Ewa Beach as one of two white kids in his class. “The racial difference wasn’t a factor but the fact that I was an outsider was.” He transferred to a Catholic School and, over the next three years, made friends and gained some confidence. Like most any of us, he just wanted to be accepted.

“I was a mild, meek kind of kid who never really got his bearing. I read a lot and was always curious enough. I asked the right questions. I’ve always been interested in everything. I wasn’t a recreational reader then.”

When he was young, Williams said comedians helped shape his thought processes. “I grew up with comics and their albums. We memorized the bits from George Carlin; later, it was Richard Pryor, Steve Martin. They were insane. Before his reprehensible behavior was realized, Bill Cosby influenced a lot of comics.” Cosby taught a lot of us how to tell a story.”

Throughout his childhood, Williams said he always thought he’d be a writer. “Becoming a broadcaster was so presumptuous to me. When you wrote, you didn’t have a microphone in your face at a radio station. Who was I to think I could pull that off.”

He kept busy writing short stories, poems, always typing away at something. “One year, I got a typewriter for my birthday. A Corona. I even had the click-out eraser cartridge, the whiteout. I still have a lot of that stuff around. But I always could find a sheet of paper, right?”

Hhmmm…a nerd and a hoarder. 

He attended Joliet junior college and earned what he said was an ‘associates degree in nothing,’ leaving him unqualified to do anything. In defense of junior colleges, Williams also said he felt an associates degree can, in fact get you ready to do anything well. “It was excellent,” he said. “It primed me to talk about anything.”

“After that, I went to Southern University of Illinois in Carbondale. They had a good broadcasting school. I tried getting into Northwestern, but that didn’t happen. I transferred to SIU as a junior. I couldn’t partake in any real broadcasting classes until my senior year. Couldn’t get in front of a microphone until then.”

His ambition was to be able to get into broadcasting in any form, at any level. “During my senior year, I was so nervous. I couldn’t hold a piece of paper without shaking,” Williams said. “I’d have to put the paper down on the counter in front of the microphone so it wouldn’t shake, and I could read the copy.”

Sending out tapes every six months was a part-time job for Williams and anyone else who wanted to venture out to a larger market. “This was in the late 80s,” Williams said. “I’d enjoyed a good career at WMBD in Peoria from 1982-1992 but looked for more. I was doing well in the mornings.”

Demo tapes went to cities like Cincinnati, Des Moines, Minneapolis, and all the mid-major markets. All the ads read, No Phone Calls. In attempts to get around this roadblock, Williams felt he was kind of slick.

“I’d call and say, “Hey, I’m not calling about my tape; I just wanted to see if you got it.” You never knew how that would play out. More tapes went to Orlando and Miami, Florida.

“I called and did my ‘follow-up’ and was put through to the program director at WIOD in Miami. I couldn’t believe it. I got through. The voice on the other end asked, ‘Are you John?’ He knew my name! I answered a feeble ‘yes.’ ‘John,’ the program director continued, ‘Apparently you can’t read because the ad said, NO CALLS!’”

After swallowing a trough of pride, a big break was getting from Peoria, which was 188th in the market at the time, to Minneapolis, which was 15th. The salvation manifested in the form of WCCO. He worked there from 1993-1997. “To go from 188-15 was a leap in every sense of the word,” Williams said.

Then, a really big break. After the usual barrage of outbound tapes, he got a call from WGN and was told he was on their short-list. He couldn’t believe it. “To go from 15th market to number three was beyond my imagination. The place where Wally Phillips, Bob Collins worked was like hallowed ground.”

Williams arrived at WGN Radio in September 1997 as a midday host. 

Planning out a show can be like walking a tightrope. “I don’t see the upside of talking too much about push-button and red meat topics. WGN is not a silo-broadcasting company. Other stations take a narrow approach and then preach to that choir. They are safe in that silo. But we’re a big tent station. We want to accommodate as many people as we can. You can get your tough talk politics elsewhere. There’s no point in running listeners off when they disagree with you. And frankly, those who would agree with you are exhausted with politics right now, so we don’t really need to go there. At least not much.”

How does Williams approach his day? He said he gets up in the morning, does his ‘clicking’ for news. “I go to NewsNation, Fox News, The New York Times. I buckle down. If I don’t, my show suffers.” He has a whiteboard in his office, and he breaks it all down, breaks it into half hours. 

“I go for a mix on my show,” Williams said. “I don’t do all interviews. I don’t want to do all open lines. I better have some breathing area, a chance to get the lay of the land.” Williams says it’s all about relatability, not an overdose of what Putin’s strategies might be.

“I had a great interview recently. I spoke with Kyle Buchanan, who wrote Blood, Sweat & Chrome, The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road. We talked about director George Miller and other things.”

After 41 years in the business, Williams feels he’s hit his stride. “I was miscast a couple of times,” he said. “There were times I didn’t feel I was doing well. I don’t worry about my longevity too much now, but you do think about it. My motto was and is to stay in the game. Be versatile. You say you need someone to cover Chinese hockey? Where do I go to learn Mandarin?”

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Everyone is Welcome at Keven Cohen’s Table

“For the first eight months, The Point was hemorrhaging money,” Cohen explained. “Bleeding would be too tame of a word.”

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Somebody had better step up and take the blame.

Ostensibly, both his mother and father are responsible for the odd spelling of Keven Cohen’s first name—probably more his mother.

“I think she had too much of the epidural medicine,” Keven Cohen jokes.

He likes the uniqueness but said it has caused its share of problems.

Cohen was born in Detroit, but the family moved to Florida just before his 13th birthday. He later studied broadcast journalism at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Where a lot of kids wanted to be a ballplayer, Cohen wanted to be Ernie Harwell, the legendary broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers.

“In our neighborhood, we didn’t ask when the Tigers played; we asked when Ernie was on.” That’s how revered the man was in Detroit. “To this day, I’m an obsessive Detroit fan. I like to say you can take Keven out of Detroit, but you can’t take Detroit out of Keven.”

Growing up, Cohen said he was inseparable from his older brother Marc. “We have been best friends since the day I was born,” Cohen said. Cohen was able to convince his mother and brother to move to Columbia so they could be around each other.

His sister was the lone holdout, but Cohen does speak to her every day, as a rule. Marc was a teacher but hung that up for corned beef, opening his Groucho’s Deli. His sister is a physical therapist. They’re like peas and carrots…and more peas.

Cohen started out in radio at WRUF in Gainesville. He spent five years at that station.

“After graduating college, they created a position for me as assistant sports director,” Cohen explained. “They were grooming me to take over for the sports director. The problem was that I realized that the sports director wasn’t going anywhere soon.”

In 1994, Cohen began searching for a new opportunity, but he still didn’t want to go too far from Gainesville. He’s truly a man dedicated to his family.

“My father died in a car accident when I was young, and I couldn’t bear the thought of moving too far from my mother in Florida,” Cohen said.

After enjoyable years at WRUF, Cohen began exploring new opportunities. He recalls landing his first dream job in Columbia, South Carolina. He knew he was as talented as the other 267 applicants for the sports job, but he had something else. Moxie.

“The guy that hired me in Columbia now does the radio play-by-play for the Atlanta Braves. Jim Powell,” Cohen said.

Cohen knew the competition would be tough, but he had his sights set firmly on the job. Interestingly, when many young radio people send out tapes, they send them everywhere around the country. This wasn’t the case for Cohen. Family is so important to him; he again didn’t want to go too far from home. The only tape he sent out was to Columbia. The distance between cities was doable.

“I called Jim Powell and pleaded with him to give me fifteen minutes with him,” Cohen said. “I told him I’d gladly drive the nearly six hours to Columbia, meet with him, then turn around and drive back to Gainesville. That’s how serious I was about the job.”

Powell was impressed with the young man’s spirit, and they talked for more than an hour and a half. A week and a half later, Powell called Cohen. Powell told Cohen there were candidates for the job with better demo tapes, but he liked Cohen’s tenacity and drive.

“I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” Powell told Cohen. The bad news was the station wouldn’t pay moving expenses. The good news was he had the job if he wanted it.

“When Jim Powell speaks to colleges and high school students, he still uses my tenacity as an example,” Cohen said.

After 18 years in a community, Cohen had developed some deep roots and friendships.

He was at WVOC in Columbia from 1994 until 2012, a good run in any radio market. Then management decided to go in a different direction and fired Cohen. This happened ten years ago, but you can still hear the pain in the recollection.

“I was devastated,” Cohen said. “I’d cut my chops on the radio there. I put in more than 18 years there. I was blindsided.” At the time of his firing, Cohen was hosting pre-game shows for the South Carolina Gamecocks, and it was the middle of the season. An election was just a short time away. Management figured that would be the perfect time to give him the ax.

For the ace-kicker, hours before his firing, Cohen had lunch with one of the salesmen and returned with a $64,000 sales package from a local business. They still fired him.

Isn’t that a fine how-do-you-do?

“My firing made the front page of The State newspaper,” Cohen explained. “There were protestors outside the building, upset that I’d been fired. Personally, I never felt any bitterness toward Clear Channel—publicly or privately for the firing.”

As they said in The Godfather, It was just business. Most people reading this are well aware of that sting. People in this business get stung so often that they don’t even bother putting baking soda on wounds.

WVOC gave him the talk all fired people know too well. They put him on the sidelines with a non-compete clause.

“I told them to keep their severance package; I just wanted to work.”

No dice. WVOC said that wasn’t going to happen.

“I’m the kind of guy who turned the firing into motivation,” Cohen said.

Cohen was offered a job in Jacksonville, Florida, but wanted to wait. He was promised a job by another station in Columbia when the non-compete expired.

“The call never came,” Cohen said. “I was so discouraged as I’d turned down the Jacksonville job. There were no other talk stations in Columbia. I either had to leave Columbia or leave radio.”

There were plenty of opportunities Cohen could have grabbed that required a briefcase. Banking or insurance companies would have begged to get him. He had earned a stellar reputation in the community, and many businesses felt he’d be good for their business if he worked for them.

Now it gets a little weird.

One night, Cohen couldn’t sleep, so he went down to the basement. He was able to fall asleep and was visited in a dream by a friend who’d died from cancer.

“In the dream, Rick told me everything was going to be alright, and I should start my own radio station.”

Thanks, Rick. Not like that’s a tall order or anything.

“It hit me that starting my own radio station was something I could and should do,” Cohen said. “I ran up to tell my wife about the dream and asked if she’d support me if I attempted to create my own station. She said if I let her go back to sleep, she’d support me.”

What a gal.

“I’d never considered this before,” Cohen said. “The only thing I’d ever done on radio was my show. I reached out to some people to get the ball rolling.”

Cohen said four banks were no help. “They knew me well and loved me, but realized I’d never run a radio station before, or anything even close to that. I don’t blame them.”

The dream (the one with Rick) paid dividends. Cohen was fired from WVOC in November 2012 and started his radio station in October 2013, less than a year later.

“For the first eight months, The Point was hemorrhaging money,” Cohen explained. “Bleeding would be too tame of a word.”

He said advertisers were initially wary, and he understood that as well. But they started to come around.

“Things were very lean at first,” Cohen said, “but when we hit the 10 ½ month mark, we broke even for the first time. Then, we started making money. Not a ton, but it was coming in.”

The Point, 100.7. FM, 1470 AM, has become a player in the market. “The community has been so supportive,” Cohen said.

The Point has evolved in its format. “I wanted an old-school talk radio station,” Cohen said. “I always wanted it to be community-driven. I’ve never pressured my hosts or news people to lean a certain way, politically or otherwise. They are on their own, as long as it’s ethical and moral.”

Cohen doesn’t like to micromanage. “I do all the traffic, schedule all the commercials, create all the sales. I’ve tried to create a family. We socialize together; I go out to lunch with hosts. They feel like they can talk with me about anything.”

On his morning show, Cohen doesn’t utilize a call screener; he just answers them as they come in. “There’s no way of picking and choosing which so many hosts like to do. Everyone is welcome at our table,” he said.

Which to me sounds a lot like, ‘We’ll leave the light on.’

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