If you missed Part 1 of my interview with John Gorman click here
I knew a lot the people at WMMS at the time and knew a lot of the stories at the time like the Joan Jett bathroom incident but the book enlightened me about the behind the scenes stuff at WMMS especially at the end of the book about the new management that came in and in turn really destroyed what was going on.
You’ve heard the saying. Fish stink from the head. When Malrite President Carl Hirsch and CEO Milt Maltz had their falling out, it tainted our environment. Gil Rosenwald, who replaced Carl, was his direct opposite. Carl ran a tight ship and you had to be accountable - but you wanted to be. He respected talent, respected innovation - and encouraged it. When you were at WMMS - it was a living, breathing entity. There was a pride in product in every office, in every department. We were encouraged to have fun, take chances. We knew our parameters. When I read of successful Silicon Valley start-ups, I realize that they had a matching environment. We had a core on-air staff that was unchanged since 1978 and we kept adding more people to our team. We kept growing, developing, adding on.
It was my aspiration for WMMS to become a national brand - headquartered in Cleveland. When the campaign to bring the Rock Hall to Cleveland was won, we felt we had a chance. Just as we went out of our way to offer WMMS on cable systems well beyond the reach of our terrestrial signal, I was contacting uplinkers - though there were very few at the time - asking them to consider carrying WMMS audio on their transponder in between usage. You get the picture. We wanted WMMS to eventually develop into a Rock Capital-based superstation. Carl encouraged us to think along those lines.
Then it happened. It started over, of all things, a Jackson concert. The details are far too long to discuss here so let me get in another free plug for my book. Buy “The Buzzard.” The full story is there.
The rift between Carl Hirsch and Malrite co-founder and CEO Milt Maltz ignited - that’s the only way to put it - in fall of 1984.
Carl Hirsch’s successor, Gil Rosenwald was adamant on putting his own stamp on the company. This station - and all of Malrite for that matter - had the best management of any group in the country from top to bottom so why screw with it?
When Carl conclusively resigned - and he had good reason to - Milt Maltz and Gil Rosenwald launched an anti-Carl campaign. Outright lies and fabrication were directed at the person that made Milton Maltz his millions. Even before Carl resigned, Milt and Gil campaigned against him. They were master manipulators.
Days before Carl officially turned in his resignation, Gil stopped in my office and joked about the turmoil. He said, “When there’s a flood, people go to the highest ground,” insinuating that he would be the future higher ground - the man who would replace Carl. It was his subtle way of saying, “Are you on my side?” I replied, “You know, Hell burns from the bottom up.”
Gil moved Jim Wood, a programmer from our San Francisco station to the Cleveland corporate office as his aide. Among close allies, I referred to the pair as Big Prince and little Prince. Collectively, they began playing one side against another, in every department with their Machiavellian campaign.
We had a dozen years of unduplicated growth and success. Malrite had matured from a small-to-midsize radio group to a major market powerhouse, adding television, cable, a research department, and creative services division. From the mid 70s to the mid 80s, Malrite was always top three in media business surveys as the company most broadcast executives and talent wanted to work for.
WMMS had the highest ratings and largest billing of any radio station in the history of Cleveland. Cable companies as far away as Columbus to the south and throughout most of southern Ontario carried our audio. We learned that Warner cable in Columbus was carrying us when we started getting calls and requests from Columbus on our toll free 1-800 line. Buzzard’s Nest, a no-relation record store in Columbus near Ohio University called and asked if we could furnish the store our weekly playlist so they’d know what to order because we were influencing sales at the store.
The only way WMMS would ever be weakened and destroyed was from within. And now, here it was, a great station being dismantled by petty corporate politics. I was called into meetings almost daily and told who I should hire and replace. Other stations in the chain received the same dictates. Their programmers and managers, rightfully fearing the phone lines were bugged, began calling me at home to compare notes. Carl believed in hiring the best qualified people and let them do their job. Now, every decision - even the music we added - was being interrogated and second-guessed.
Gil ordered me to submit an advance list of what music we were considering and what music we added to Wood, which set off even more red flags. His background was country. He was not familiar with the music we played on WMMS. Though I wasn’t ordered to - I was given suggestions for certain titles they felt would “fit the format.”
One day, this was around July 4th weekend, I was called into Gil’s office and asked how I’d feel about working with Norm Wain and Bob Weiss, the two successful Cleveland broadcasters that owned WIXY, when it dominated Cleveland and WDOK, which the duo developed into winning beautiful music station. I asked if they were joining Malrite. Gil said “Wain and Weiss may end up buying the radio properties (WMMS and WHK) and Malrite will stay in the market with WOIO, the new Cleveland television station Malrite had signed on a year earlier.
I asked how that would affect my staff at WMMS and WHK (I was now overseeing WHK, whose format changed to rock and roll oldies - a more compatible format to WMMS). Gil said, “How do you feel you would handle a 50 percent budget cut. You may have to reduce expenses by half. That means letting some people go and doubling-up duties for others. It’s the only way Wain and Weiss can service the debt if they buy. These stations will be sold for a lot of money, considering our cash flow.” Gil was making it quite clear that the sale of WMMS and WHK was much more of a “when” than an “if.”
Just a few weeks earlier we had learned that WGCL had been sold to a newly formed company from Detroit, Metropolis Broadcasting.
Then Gil started naming names of who he felt should stay and go from the air and support staff - in advance of any sale. Gil warned me not to repeat our conversation to anyone. But I did. I told Denny Sanders.
I got to tell you, the end of the book was sad. Anyone my age remembers WMMS, we grew up with that station. To read how it fell apart was sad.
In one year we went from the best place you would ever want to work to a place you couldn’t wait to get away from. I’ll say it again. Fish stink from the head. If a great company begins to fail, look to the top. That is the true definition of the trickle down theory.
Bad has far more gravity than good. Eventually, bad builds momentum. Instead of trickling down - it drops like an atomic bomb.
There is a line from “Godfather 3” that says it best - “Don’t let emotions cloud your judgment.” Malrite was enveloped in a thick fog of restlessness.
I’m leaving a lot of the story out - but it’s old news and not something anyone would want to relive. Rosenwald and Wood got exactly who and what they wanted out of Malrite. Adding to that, the account of Norm Wain and Bob Weiss buying WMMS and WHK was pure fabrication on their part. There were never any discussions on selling WMMS and WHK nor were any budget cuts planned, which I didn’t learn of until many, many months later.
With Rosenwald at the helm, there was only one way to go. And they did.
Years later and what brought that reign to a finale was an order for every radio station in the chain to buy a pontoon boat from a designated company. Okay, maybe you could barely justify a promotional pontoon boat for WMMS. You could run it the Flats - but Z100 in New York? Where would they run it? The Hudson River? It turned out that if one bought a certain quantity of pontoon boats the company would toss in a couple extra at no charge. When the story went public about where those two boats would be docked, Gil resigned, the incident was referred to in media circles as “Pontoonboatgate.”
Malrite, now a public company, had stopped growing. Revenues were in decline. Maltz hastily made a terminal decision to privatize Malrite. By the early nineties, it was all over. Malrite, the once eminent broadcasting company, was dead.
Do you think the way WMMS portrayed your competitors like WGCL and WMJI with the lip synching fiasco, the chimp references, etc impacted the way listeners were in following you and Denny to 98.5? You guys were pretty brutal at times.
The WGCL lip synching fiasco - I loved that confrontation. Slade. They were, at best, a blip in time. I think they played the Allen in the early 70s. Probably an opening act. In the mid eighties, the band reformed and released an album in the U.K. that was pretty good. We got a hold of an import copy and started playing a couple of tracks from it, “My Oh My” and “Run Runaway.” A month or so later the album was released in the U.S. and sold briskly in Cleveland because of our advance play.
We felt that our airplay identified Slade with WMMS. We inquired about the band doing an appreciation day concert or a night out. Then we learned the label, Epic Records, gave WGCL the band for a free concert. That was wrong in every way.
This story is also far too long to tell here. Briefly, Epic and a few other labels would occasionally give special promotions to CHR - contemporary hit radio - stations, which is what the industry began calling the top forty format because most stations were now playing only 30 current singles.
Columbia, which owned Epic, preferred CHR to album rock stations, because the former played songs in a higher rotation than the album rock format. The label didn’t care about ratings. They measured importance based on how many total airplay spins they could get on any given track. Radio and Records had become the trade paper of choice and their back page top thirty chart was the music industry’s new gospel - and songs were charted based solely on airplay spins.
So, we did our own intel on where and when Slade would play and how we could take advantage of it. Label promoters talk too much and we learned from eavesdropping on a conversation that the band couldn’t duplicate the sound of their album live. Professional studio musicians augmented the instrumental backing and even the vocals were enhanced by back-up singers. The label’s plan was to have the band lip sync to backing tracks to create the illusion of performing the songs live. We even learned that the specially mixed six-song lip sync tape had been delivered to the local Columbia Records office.
We sat on that story until a couple of days before the concert, when Jeff and Flash revealed the scam on the air - and the rest of the story is one of the best in the annals of Buzzard Radio. It’s in the book.
Regarding the move to WNCX. Emotions definitely clouded my judgment there. But no matter how many times I’ve rerun the story through my mind, I always come to the same conclusion. There appeared to be no other way out.
When Metropolis pitched an opportunity akin to what made the Carl Hirsch-run Malrite triumphant, it was difficult to resist. We didn’t know it at the time. This new company, outright lied to us about their financials. Metropolis was headed by the son of a Detroit pharmacy chain or whatever who developed a business plan that foolishly assumed far more revenue than they could generate. But we didn’t know that. We were looking at and working from a different set of books. The bogus ones.
Their first acquisition, WDTX in Detroit appeared to be a winner. It came across an upstart, very WMMS-like “break the rules” stations that adopted a unique and successful format that lured away one of the top morning drive personalities in the market by offering him a piece of the action. They also claimed to be closing a deal for a station in Washington, DC, WWDC and were considering a station in Boston - hinting that they wanted Denny and I to provide input on that one, too. They talked a good talk about Denny and I getting a piece of the action and profit sharing sooner than later. And they claimed to have financing available to buy properties in New York and L.A. should the right deal come along. What we didn’t know was that they had already assumed debt more than could handle and the talk about other markets was just that.
And WNCX was never meant to go directly up against WMMS.
There seemed to be a time after that it seemed that radio and music in general just seemed to go in the shitter, what happened?
There’s a certain amount of ebb and flow. It’s the law of physics. For every action, a reaction. Styles change, people change, the world changes.
The biggest of all changes taking place was the aging of the baby boomers. By the early 80s, the oldest of the baby boomers were approaching 40. The youngest of the baby boomers were now in their teens to early twenties, and discovering their own music, their own style.
The post-baby boom generation would be smaller and less influential because of their numbers. One of the reasons we had so much talent -especially in the arts, sciences, and finances - from the sixties through the eighties was directly due to the sheer volume of those born between end of World War II and the invention of the birth control pill. You had more of everything because you had more of everyone.
We can’t disregard or ignore MTV adding visuals to music and making style and fashion all that more important. I feel MTV’s greatest contribution - beyond music - was bringing the avant-garde closer to mainstream acceptance. Those early music videos - the creative, innovative ones - were directed like independent art house films. The quick cuts, the split screen, the imagery. It influenced the way products were marketed and the way films and even television shows were directed and presented.
There was also a new payola scandal that burst out of a NBC News investigation. It’s a long story. If anyone’s interested, look up a book titled ''Hit Men'' by Fredric Dannen. It’s a good read.
In short, the labels subcontracted promotional work to independent record promoters, which carved out specifically defined parts of the country to operate in. They claimed the system was more cost-effective and efficient to promote their product.
The feds leaned on a weak Los Angeles radio station general manager who sang. Subsequently, the feds also squeezed the bodyguard of the independent promoter the general manager ratted out.
After that whatever payola was being peddled was regulated to the deep underground.
But at the turn of this century payola made a comeback and this time it was barely legal. Pay-for-play was technically not illegal. Radio stations were always free to sell their airtime to third parties to carry anything from religion to special music programming - as long as they logged the programs as long-form commercial time and charged accordingly.
The same held true for any music station. As long as the station made mention of the pay-for-play scheme on-the-air once per day - which stations did in a speedy announcement at 5 AM - and paid taxes on earnings received by independent promoters it was technically - and barely legal.
When the Telecommunications Bill of 1996 deregulated radio, it appreciably increased the value of all radio stations. With deregulation in place radio could be bought, sold and traded with far fewer restrictions - and there was no limit how many stations in total a group could own.
Initially, it created a starving piranha style buying frenzy. Wall Street bought into the hype and lenders shoveled money at anyone interested in buying radio stations in bulk. The buyers’ business plans read: “Buy ‘em up now and we’ll figure out what to do with them later.” Wall Street compared radio to real estate. Because of frequency restrictions, “they ain’t making anymore.”
Radio became a highly valued commodity. Clear Channel, at one point, owned over 1,200 stations. Stations sold for ten, twenty, thirty, even forty times cash flow. Stations that were bought for $30 million on Monday were sold for $40 million on Friday.
When critics of the radio buying frenzy questioned how these chains would service their exorbitant debt, they were provided with a three word answer: non-traditional revenue. What did it mean? You guessed it. Absolutely nothing. It was an answer in search of a meaning. And radio found it, albeit temporarily.
Payola went legit. Since there were no longer any restrictions nor suggestions on the limit of commercial time per hour, every song played on radio was logged as a commercial. The value was placed on an annual fee as opposed to a per-song basis for bookkeeping purposes. Participating stations received an annual x amount of dollars from an independent promoter to control of all current music played. All the station had to do was allow the promoter to control their playlist. That’s not how they worded it - but how they worked it.
Though it didn’t solve all of radio’s debt service problems, this new legal payola added non-traditional revenue to the bottom line. Without it, the radio industry would have crashed years earlier.
From 1999 to 2004 nearly every station in America that played current contemporary music was engaged in a payola scheme. The annual fee was based on market size and averaged six figures. As low as $100,000 to over a half million.
Influence and market size determined the exact rate. A CHR station that played its biggest hits up to 90, 100-plus times per week received more dollars than an album rock station playing fewer current tracks in a slower rotation. A station in New York would be paid far more than a station in Cleveland.
So basically the music we were listening too…
…..was payola-driven. And station management titles were redefined. At many radio chains general managers - not program directors and music directors were controlling the music because music programming was now bottom-line driven. Program directors and music directors were redefined as facilitators.
Even a number of non-commercial music stations gave in to this practice. Non-commercial stations didn’t have to worry about debt or billing but do need donations to cover operating costs. They didn’t get six figures - but the non-commercial stations that had a one basic format got in the game with a lucrative donation in exchange for legal influence peddling.
The acts whose music was being worked for pay-for play had to consent to the labels deducting the cost of doing business from their royalties. Now, ask yourself what happens when the only acts getting played are those willing to give up a certain percentage of their royalties?
You got it.
For one, these stations are no longer playing the soundtrack to popular culture. They are playing only music from artists who are willing to give up a portion of their royalties to be heard. The prime directive isn’t to secure airplay. It is to keep other artists’ music off. These were the years when Limp Bizkit, Britney Spears, Milli Vanilli, Backstreet Boys, Nickelback, and whole lot of bad one-hit wonders dominated popular music.
I’ll give you an example. In 1999 the Cardigans released a single, “Erase/Rewind”. It was a huge worldwide hit. In fact it was one of the biggest hits in Europe that summer. England, Ireland, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Belgium. I heard that song on every contemporary station in those countries. And it never received any radio airplay in America. Why? Because the Cardigans refused to relinquish their royalties for airplay on U.S. radio. No pay, no play.
There are a number of European acts that refused pay-to-play and absolutely none of them received a note of U.S. airplay. In a few instances, labels chose not to release their music in the states. It did not go unnoticed that the music charts of the world did not in any way resemble the U.S. music charts.
Kylie Minogue had a huge worldwide hit with “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” in 2001. It was a number one hit in over forty countries. That is, everywhere except the United States. Kylie Minogue’s management refused to give up royalties for airplay, given that the song was an automatic number one wherever played. In 2002, her management, realizing there was no other way to break her in the U.S., gave in to pay-for-play. Once secured for payola, the song was added at radio and reached number nine on the U.S. national charts.
Even U2 surrendered to the system. They were on a downward trend following the somewhat disappointing response to “Pop,” their nearly scarcely solvent Pop Mart tour and experimental “Passengers” album. In 2002, they released a single “Electrical Storm” that evoked their grandeur. It went to #1 in Europe, #1 in South America but received neither airplay nor chart position in the U.S. It was as if the song was never released.
This made U2’s manager Paul McGuiness realize he would have join the pay-for-play brigade if he ever wanted a new U2 song to get radio airplay in the states again. And he did. When U2 released their next single, “Beautiful Day,” he not only paid the freight, he overpaid the freight - double and triple to going rate charged by independent promoters- to secure airplay on CHR, album rock, and alternative rock stations. And, as if by magic, radio welcomed U2 back. To insure continual support he even listed the name of one of the most prominent independent promoters on the credits of the “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” album.
The design of pay-for-play was Randy Michaels’ baby. He devised the scheme during his brief reign as CEO for Clear Channel Radio. But the acts were not pleased with their reduced royalty payments and found a way to get back at Clear Channel through their concert division. Artists and their managers began making greater demands - and threatening to sign with a rival company, AEG, to produce their tours if the concert division didn’t pay their freight. The end result? Those $100, $200-plus concert tickets you’re paying for.
Eventually, Clear Channel sold their concert division at a loss. But high-ticket prices are here to stay. Blame the acts, not the promoters. Now that acts don’t make money from the record sales, touring and merchandising have become their only guaranteed revenue generators.
And, of course, the labels had their own consolidation. There are only three major label groups now - worldwide. They lost touch with their customers and where technology was headed. With payola, they could control what got played on the radio and assumed it would sell. A&R - the talent scouts and the people with ears at labels that used to sign acts were downsized and eliminated. Like radio, content has become an afterthought with the labels. The labels also ignored the migration to digital download technology until it was too late. They ignored it because they didn’t think of it first.
One of the problem I have to radio today is there is no station that wants to make you feel a part of it like WMMS did in it’s heyday. I like listening to Bill Louis talk about music, I like listening to Ravenna talk about music, I like listening to Dusty Street talk about music but stations don’t want these people to talk.
Those you’ve mentioned have both a long-term passion for music and are well versed in its history. For decades, Arbitron, the most recognized radio ratings service, gathered their results by a diary system that had one person representing the listening habits of three thousand. That is why Arbitron ratings were always referred to as “estimates.”
Today, in larger markets, Arbitron, the radio ratings service, switched to a device called the portable people meter - or PPM. Instead of a survey holder filling out a diary, a PPM is a pager-like device you wear, which detects radio stations you are hearing. It is considered to be more accurate than the old diary method - but it may report that you listened to a station in a store, in a friend’s car, or at work that you personally never would have chosen or even realized you were listening to. And whereas a diary holder had only a one-week period to be surveyed, under the PPM a household can represent the listening habits of even more individuals for an extended period of time. We’ve traded one set of deficiencies for another. The PPM has greater accuracy in what you hear but the results may be misleading.
The PPM is supposed to detect movement, which means it’s supposed to protect against one propping up a meter next to a radio to let it rack up time spent listening. But, let’s say, it’s attached to a portable ceiling fan set at a slow speed. It will show movement and listening to the same station - but it may be coming from an empty room. It opens up the PPM to massive abuse.
Now, please do not let me question the integrity of the radio industry today. I’m not saying any radio executive would ever lack the ethics or moral judgment to even remotely consider this. But let’s say a local radio chain manager who has been warned by his corporate office in a distant city that his future with the company depends on an immediate ratings increase - and he learns that a friend, neighbor, or family member is an Arbitron PPM respondent. I mean, do you think he or she would….. Naw!
There are too many flaws with the PPM methodology. Another problem with the PPM is that it favors passive formats. In other words, formats that are essentially background - audio wallpaper. If a station is being listened to passively, in other words music for people who really don’t care about music - are their clients’ spots really being heard or are they also background noise?
At this point, it’s all about results. I tell my clients to ignore the ratings. Instead. tell me who you’re trying to reach and if radio is in the mix, your advertising has to be on stations that are being listened to actively, not passively. If you buy passive, you may as well open your office window and throw your budget to the wind. And I have plenty of research that I provide clients to back that up. I believe radio is still an effective sales medium. But it has to be the right format, the right daypart, and the right message. And forget the ratings. Successful buyers that get results for their clients don’t even consider them.
To radio stations I work with I say be the best station you can be. Be active. Be in your listener’s face. Fulfill their entertainment needs and desires. And make sure your spots stand out - and are not in the way. I go as far as to tell them what spot should go where in a set.
Stations looking for an easy way out will not find one. There are too many options to bad radio and passive radio. Unless a station has an in-your-face, genuinely making you listen with both ears format - don’t even consider advertising on it. I’m not sold on buying time on Pandora yet - but they make a much better pitch for their product than most radio chains do. The best radio sales people I know are not selling radio anymore.
We used to have great radio in Cleveland, we used to have major concerts here it seemed almost every night of the week, Cleveland seemed to be the center of the music universe. Why does it seem now that Cleveland has become so insignificant.
The “well oiled machine” is broken and, yes, it starts with the radio station and exposure.
Radio is dying because radio is no longer serving its purpose. You have a number of platforms you can listen to like Pandora or Spotify. You can listen to your iPod or Internet radio. Some of the best Internet stations are not linked to a terrestrial source.
There are many choices. The consumer will migrate to the platform supplying the best choice and content. That was the original intent with V-107.3. Give the audience programming and content they can’t hear anywhere else. That’s having an edge over your competition and providing your listeners with true, exclusive entertainment. It’s not rocket science.
I use the Tom Waits line, “Give ‘em a little somethin’ they can’t get at home.” That’s what makes radio unique and captivating. Unpredictability. In a world where one can preprogram Pandora, an iPod, and other products - an entity that can surprise you, amaze you, and impact your senses in a positive way - something that gives you what you want, need, and didn’t expect - but enjoy - that’s what having an edge is all about. There are still elements a radio station can provide that you can’t download or access on demand.
Cleveland media was bought up by major chains and assigned new programming rules by decision makers that never set foot in this market. Being a line item on a profit and loss statement is not a fair representation of the station or the market.
Cleveland was one of the last markets to be bought up by the major chains - but it was one of the first to feel the impact of the new regime. Radio time spent listening dropped faster in Cleveland than most other markets. It was the like Stalin’s tanks and troops rolling over Eastern Europe. It was that fast and that thorough.
A successful radio station treats every listener as you would your best friend. That was the doctrine I learned from my mentors. You don’t treat listeners as statistics in a ratings book or on a P and L statement. Listeners support stations that support them and their community.
I don’t care if you’re a stand-alone independent station or part of a thousand-plus radio chain. When your first priority is your listeners, your shareholders will make money. That’s what foreign automotive manufacturers learned - and that’s how they brought the Big Three down. The import car companies did what was best for the customer. Why has Ford made such a great comeback? Their first priority is, once again, the customer.
And I also caution those I’ve work with that just because a company is locally owned, operated, and programmed doesn’t mean it’s a better than a chain with dozens or even hundreds of stations. Some of the largest companies in the world are the best to work for. It’s not corporate versus independent. It never was. It’s functionability versus non-functionability.
How did you get involved with V107.3?
V107.3 started out as Boom.com. It was an all-over-the-road Internet radio station playing what seemed to be well over a thousand to fifteen hundred titles. I traced the URL back to Elyria-Lorain Broadcasting and called its president, Lonnie Gronek. We discussed the viability of this format, specifically an adult rock station - or what the industry mislabels an adult album alternative format - on a terrestrial signal. The ratings for smooth jazz across the country were in decline. Cleveland, considering its size and musical history, not to mention being the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame city, was a perfect market for this format.
Ric Bennett, who was known as Rocco the Rock Dog on WMMS and WENZ put together the original on-line Boom! On-line radio is listened to differently than terrestrial - so the format for terrestrial radio had to be reconfigured.
When we reached a consulting deal, I outlined a game plan. I wrote up a radio format version of a film treatment. What the format is, the criteria for music and programming. Where our listeners will come from and how to reach them. We needed a timetable to measure progress. When preparing a treatment, you have to think about it from every possible angle. The way to achieve a successful business is to lay out clear expectations, provide training and tools, and monitor and measure progress. And be flexible enough to make change.
Done correctly, we would shake up the market just enough to get noticed. Radio, in general, would be the beneficiary.
I was adamant about a few things. One, I didn’t want any label interference. We were going to select music for the format our own way. We were not going to play the label game or follow their lead. We’ll take their music under consideration but I did not want the labels defining us. We’ll define ourselves, thank you.
I have a problem with the labels. Not the people who work for them. It’s those running them that continue to make poor business decisions. Over the past two decades the labels wiped out the businesses that made them - the record stores. This is long before downloading. As big box stores like Walmart and Best Buy demanded better deals for their bulk buys, the labels gave in, and the box stores began selling CDs for less than independent and smaller chains could buy product at wholesale.
Now the labels struggle because they’re playing catch-up with new technology and have to play the game with downloading services.
But the labels are also cutting deals with Clear Channel and other major radio chains for across-the-board adds, premieres, and promotions and shutting out the smaller independent stations from participating.
Since the labels choose to play that game, I feel the smaller chains and independently owned stations should take matters into their own hands and put in the time and effort to find the right music for their stations and not be dependent on the major labels and their manipulation of national trade charts.
Some of the best new music is now being released on indie labels and not being promoted to terrestrial radio, like The Arcade Fire and The Thievery Corporation. Both acts, by the way, are among the most visual performers on stage today - and neither has played Cleveland. Everyone knows The Arcade Fire by now. They’ve been on Austin City Limits and other music shows - but the Thievery Corporation isn’t well known but should be. If you catch them live I can guarantee you it will be one of the best concerts you’ll ever see and hear.
Sure, it takes a little extra effort to hunt down these gems - but if one is at a music format, it should be a sense of duty to seek new music. I’m regularly listening to new music and soliciting suggestions from those I know whose ears I trust
We also had what could be a huge advantage or a major problem in launching a Triple A. Cleveland never had a format like this, meaning we had to introduce and indoctrinate Triple A artists from the past ten to fifteen years - without sounding like ten in a row that no one knows. It’s a balancing act. Artists like Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, David Gray, Ray LaMontagne, Joss Stone, Spoon, Snow Patrol, Decemberists, K.T. Tunstall, Paolo Nutini, Lucinda Williams, and Rachael Yamagata were getting little, if any, airplay on commercial radio in this market. The good news was we already knew, based on other markets similar to ours, what tracks would work the best to establish these somewhat unknown but highly credible artists to our audience.
Another advantage we had were those years of payola-driven airplay on commercial radio. Though it was ten or more years old, why not play that aforementioned worldwide Cardigans hit, “Erase/Rewind,” for example. The only reason it didn’t get played here was because they wouldn’t play the payola game. As far as I’m concerned, more power to them.
Then we can fill in the unfamiliar with mainstream music that not only fits the format - but in other markets, the format that broke the artists. U2, Coldplay, John Mayer, Goo Goo Dolls, Train, Gavin DeGraw, Brandi Carlisle, among them. Those acts are already familiar to and popular with mass audience.
And there were all those classic rock tracks that didn’t quite fit WNCX - but were original and Next Generation WMMS hits - Stones, Beatles, Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Fleetwood Mac, Walsh, Eagles, Mellencamp, Sting, Roxy Music, Neil Young, Dylan, Steely Dan, and so forth.
Local music, past and present, was another important ingredient. We have a lot of local talent to be proud of and worthy of radio support like Bob Gatewood, Jane Dough, Chris Allen, Carlos Jones, Austin Cane, and a dozen others.
For spice, occasionally sprinkle in Kevin Ayers, Michael Nesmith or Jim Pepper’s Pow Wow and some rare, hard-to-find live tracks. I’ve always liked adding live tracks, especially when they’re current. If the live version is as good or better than the studio version, it adds life to a current song.
It was a precarious musical balancing act, but it could be done - and done precisely would mean a respectable top three adult station with long time spent listening. Most Triple A’s have a smaller audience that listens longer, which means a commercial message is more likely to be heard on Triple A stations then, let’s say, a passive audio wallpaper format. With the right mix and a quality, and adult delivery - there was no doubt in my mind this station could be one of the biggest and best in this format. There was no reason why we couldn’t get a much larger audience that listens longer.
Also, a percentage of what we played had to be hard to find or unavailable. That’s where the “give ‘em something they can’t get at home” comes in. I won’t tell you the percentage, trade secret, but there is a precise one. This is stuff you just can’t go on line and download. In many ways, it was quite similar to the programming philosophy of original and Next Gen WMMS.
There are many moving parts and many skill sets that go into a successful station - and they all have to work in harmony to be successful.
It’s rarely brought up but I am proud of the success we had with WMJI during its oldies years. WMJI to me is what Wings must be to Paul McCartney. It was a quality product throughout. We built state of the art studios. We bought the best equipment. Believe me, quality makes a difference - not only in how you sound - but it shows your staff respect for providing them the best tools to work with. In WMJI’s case, everyone delivered.
Every oldie we played on WMJI was the version you heard when the song was current. We did this with WHK when we switched it to “14-K” in the mid ‘80s. too.
Most oldies stations assembled their playlist from greatest hits albums, which often didn’t have the original versions or mixes. Take the Rolling Stones. The versions of their hit singles you hear on the radio today are not the original versions. Compare the original single version of “Tell Me,” “Time Is On My Side” or “Satisfaction” with the version you hear on radio today - including Sirius and XM. Same with the Animals. Compare the version of “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” you hear on the radio with the original single version. Same with Motown. The single and album versions sound radically different. Same with Three Dog Night. Same with Mitch Ryder. They were either re-recorded or mixed differently for their album release. Sometimes it was a producer’s decision. Other times it was legal. Until just recently, even the version you’d hear on the radio of “The Twist” by Chubby Checker was a remake because ABKCO, which owned the original master, refused to re-release it.
It seems insignificant - but it’s not. I compare it to an Apple Mac versus a Dell. The Apple is sleek, functional, and has no screws attaching the unit. The Dell is clunky, cheaply made, and eventually the screws holding it together with loosen and fall out
WMMS was the number one billing station in Cleveland from the late seventies through the late eighties. WMJI was the number one billing station throughout the nineties. Money talks. Like WMMS, I had an all-star cast on WMJI. We played up personality, - Ravenna, Scott, Denny, and so forth. We played a wide variety of oldies - and longer playlist than the average oldies station - and we became the highest rated, highest billing per capita station in the format. I credit the attention to detail, the quality product, and the people representing the station that made it a number one station in Cleveland.
The enthusiasm and energy you bring to the table is what motivates others to get involved. You have to make your passion contagious. I learned that from those that motivated me through the years. I was privileged to work for and with the best. So, going into this Triple A project I was initially optimistic about its success.
However, being a consultant is different than hands on. You can make suggestions, but you can’t implement them yourself.
One of the things I like about 107.3 was even though most of my music is ingrained in the 60’s and 70’s, it turned me onto to bands like Kings Of Leon, Amos Lee, Head And The Heart. I’m not going to find them listening to say 98.5.
Nor should it. WNCX knows its audience, has been in the same format, and gets respectable numbers. V107.3 was not direct competition to WNCX. If you study a cluster analysis chart for this format you’ll see that it shares audience and style with a number of formats, from NPR to adult contemporary. From Sirius and XM to Internet radio. I’d say one out of three callers that found the station or were turned on to it by others had stopped listening to terrestrial radio in favor of satellite or on-line. We had businesses call us to say they preferred us over Sirius and XM or listening to an out of town station on line because we were live, local, unpredictable, and they couldn’t turn us off.
A lot of people I knew that didn’t think they’d like the format - granted, I didn’t say much about it other than it being a new rock station - checked it out and were pleasantly surprised. One told the story of hearing a different version of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule The World” that was so good that he drove around the block so he could hear the whole song before pulling into his garage. Another, who was also driving home after work late one evening heard “Simple Sister” by Procol Harum - had not heard that song in 20 years - had forgotten who did it - but also hesitated to pull into his garage until the song ended.
V107.3’s format played wide variety of timeless and diverse music that blends well. The timeless is what drives it. One can play a new Amos Lee next to a Bonnie Raitt track that was recorded in 1973 and it works. The greatest advantage of rock and roll is its timelessness. Certainly, there are period pieces that belong to a specific space and time. But there is also a huge body of work that sounds just as fresh today as it did 20, 30, 40 or more years ago. Combine the old, the current, and the new and you have a format with wide variety and broad appeal. Many consider Triple A to be a boutique format. I consider it an intelligent mass appeal format.
There is an evident reason why Cleveland is one of the best adult rock format markets in the US. One, if you are 35 or older and living in Greater Cleveland chances are you were born and raised within a 100-mile radius of the city. You grew up with regional influences and Cleveland-centric music. Cleveland isn’t Denver or Las Vegas or Dallas where a considerable number - at least half or more - of the total population moves there from somewhere else.
I’d have to look up the exact statistics, but I’d have to say that most living in greater Dallas have no history with that market. When 2 out of 3 potential radio listeners came from somewhere else there isn’t much local flavor to play on. Cleveland, on the other hand, is not a city one moves to, which for many economic reasons is regrettable. You either stay here or you were born and raised here, left and chose to come back. Given that, it was to V107.3’s benefit to provide specific musical and cultural reference points.
The first four to five months of V107.3 were its best - at least as far as the musical flow and direction. If allowed to grow organically and naturally it would have become a major player in the market.
Now, you know what “but” is an acronym for. Basic Underlying Truth. Here come the buts…
But success is achieved by speaking from one voice - not many. You define one direction, not several. You have one name, not many. You have one logo, not a new one every couple of months or nine in two years. You stick to one name - not four. You need a firm identification through positioning statements and slogans, not vacillation. Above all, a music format must be clearly defined. It can’t be leaning one way this week and another way next week. You need a team that works together - not a committee - or in this case, committees. And did I mention promotion and marketing? You need to promote and market wisely. No matter how much one may like the format, no one is going to find you if they don’t know you exist. What little promotion and marketing was done was very haphazard. There was little to no relation between what little external marketing was done with V107.3 and the station’s format.
Persistence removes resistance. If you’re the new station in town and it’s a format that never played in the city before you have to promote and market a specific message and image. The same rules apply to print. This is where V107.3 went flailing out of control. I’d open up a suburban weekly owned by the Chronicle-Telegram and see a print ad for V107.3 with a 15-word slogan and commas in all the wrong places.
There were three local music industry jokes. You’ve probably heard them. The first was that you could always tell what label guy took the PD and MD out for lunch by listening to what label’s music dominated the playlist the following day. The second, what is that station calling itself today? Boom? 107.3 Cleveland? V107.3? 107.3 CLE? The third, did you hear the new station slogan? If you don’t like us, no problem. We’ll be something else tomorrow.
There is a difference between a work in progress and not being able to leave anything alone. If you keep trying to rebuild an airplane while it’s in flight eventually it’s going to crash. If you don’t have the confidence in your product, you’ll never convince anyone else to have confidence in it.
I’d hear that the station was sold out - meaning it sold all of its advertising time allotment. Yet, I’d hear the same five dollars-a-holler accounts on the air. Since I couldn’t get a straight answer regarding station billing, I did my own analysis and came to the conclusion that some TV anchors in Cleveland were making more per year than V107.3 was billing annually. They’d hit a certain figure, extremely low for the market, and say, “That’s it. We’re sold out. Let’s go to the Beer Engine and trade some drinks.”
And that one solo billboard V107.3 had on I-480 at Valley View? Come on! I feel the same way you do. “No Yuk Yuk, we don’t suck” or whatever it said? It made no sense. Tell me what you’re not? And the billboard was sited in a spot where the station had signal interference from other transmitter sites in the area. It’s within a mile of Cleveland radio’s antenna farm.
Though V107.3’s transmitter was in Grafton, roughly 30 miles west of the Cleveland’s antenna farm, which covers Parma, Broadview Heights, and Seven Hills, I clearly recalled that station having a wholly competitive signal to any station housed on the Cleveland farm. Just before V107.3 launched, I did a drive around the eastern suburbs and found that the signal had lost much of its reach and punch. I checked and learned that an element on the station’s antenna had been badly damaged, probably by lightning, a couple of years earlier, but was never repaired.
You wouldn’t put a billboard for a restaurant next to a funeral home. You don’t put a radio billboard in a location where you can’t receive the station being advertised.
Look, after a few months of this I felt, yeah, it’s been nice but if you don’t mind I think that it’s time for me to go back and play with the grown-ups again.
To me from the outside it seemed that 107.3 was picking up momentum. They were attaching themselves to the concerts that were coming in, it just seemed like they were picking up steam finally and then bam, they get sold and the format gets changed back to “Yanni elevator music”. What the hell happened?
The Chairman of the parent company of V107.3, Lorain Printing passed away unexpectedly. Lorain Printing also owns the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, the Medina Gazette, and has interest in a number of weekly newspapers around Greater Cleveland, as well as other radio properties in Norwalk and Milan, Ohio.
His replacement made the decision to sell V107.3 for $6.5 million to another independent radio company, Rubber City Radio, which is headquartered in Akron, obviously. Rubber City owns WONE, WQMX and WAKR in that market and had recently sold a radio property in Lansing, Michigan. It was their choice and their right to change the format.
Why are they dumping the AAA format and going back to what wasn’t working?
You would have to ask the new owners. But the station’s ratings were going in the wrong direction in most dayparts.
Yes, more people were stumbling upon V107.3’s format but, let’s be candid, it had become a bipolar, all-over-the-road format of the week station. Each week it sounded different. One week, it was a heavy on the classic rock station, another week it’s playlist resembled a young alternative station.
If you want to pinpoint when the stations rating took a lethal plunge, go no further than the week leading up to 92.3 changing its automated alternative rock format to sports. V107.3 reacted by adding a number of alternative tracks; perhaps assuming they would “get 92.3’s share.
But 92.3 hovered around a 2 share. That’s no prize. And it was a different audience, a different demographic, a different everything. And even had they been equal formats, any broadcaster will assure you that when one radio station changes format another station will not automatically gain their audience share. That’s broadcasting 101. Those shares from the now-gone station vanish. And they did. When V107.3 front loaded all that young demo new rock - and commenced their hourly play of the Foo Fighters they nailed their coffin shut.
They could have been the toast the town. Now, they’re just toast.
Look, I effusively believe the future of radio in on line and it’s closer than most terrestrial radio owners and operators believe it to be. In planning for the future I want a product that will effectively pollinate multiple mediums. The successful ones will learn. The ineffective will perish. If radio cannot monetize both terrestrial and digital transmission, those broadcast towers in Parma, Seven Hills, and Broadview Heights will be dismantled for scrap.
I am a partner in a small marketing company and ad agency. A few months back at Fusion, the marketing and ad agency I have a partnership in, a client located another market wanted to buy radio. We put together a deal with a station owned by one of the major chains, their name I promised I will not mention, that offered supplemental no charge digital advertising as a “value added.” When we received the invoice, it was for the price we agreed upon but what it listed attributed most of the dollars to digital. In other words, the way it read, we bought digital and got the radio at no cost - the opposite of what we did.
When I inquired, I was told that the station’s corporate office wanted x amount of business written-up as digital - and if we didn’t mind could we look the other way. That told me the company knows the future is digital - not radio. Though they can’t fathom how to make it work, it looks better on paper to shareholders to be a digital company instead of a radio company.
How many radio chains are reported about on CNBC these days? None. It was obvious as to why Clear Channel dropped “radio” from its corporate name and replaced it with “Media + Entertainment?” They are definitely trying to reposition Clear Channel as a digital company.
What’s next for you?
How can you miss me if I don’t go away?
Seriously, there will be at least one Triple A format in this market, and this one will be done right if I have anything to say about it. Bottom line, we’ve already confirmed a market for the format, which means there is money to be made, events to sponsor, and Greater Cleveland deserves it.
I enjoy consulting media - radio, television, on line. I like writing and creating. I’ve always enjoyed developing and working with talent. I love marketing. They are all extensions of what I’ve been doing in radio and other media. I’ve worked on political campaigns. If I believe in the candidate, I can fine-tune their message to reach the masses.
One can’t have a successful product no matter how good it is or how much it’s needed without marketing and promotion and you can’t market or promote something or someone that doesn’t have tangible content. Sure, there will always be exceptions. The pet rock, for example, and fads in general. But when was that pet rock popular? Thirty, forty years ago? Can you even think of three more fads? Today, they’re in and out in microseconds.
Certainly, you can create something out of nothing with the right amount of hype and enough money. How long it will last depends on how much you’re willing to spend, knowing that your investment will eventually hit a brick wall. You stop hearing about content-less celebrities when they run out of money to pay their publicists.
You can’t create talent. That “something” has to be there in the first place. What I find rewarding is discovering, refining and polishing raw talent. I’ve found so many people who didn’t even realize the talents they possessed.
In Fusion, the marketing company I’m a partner in - it’s all about content providing. The old style, old school, “Mad Men” culture doesn’t cut it anymore. And if a product one wants us to pitch lacks that “something” - sorry, we will not take it on. Promotion and marketing is not about coming up with a pitch to sell refrigerators to Eskimos.
I’ll give you a case in point. The film industry. The Hollywood Reporter is my favorite trade paper. It’s an excellent barometer of things to come. A large gaggle of film executives believed that the future of films was 3-D. The film industry arrived at that assumption by the box office success of “Avatar.” So, what happened? It seemed like half the movies released post-“Avatar” were 3-D action or animation. And many of them died at the box office. It was all flash and no substance. No content. Some may argue that “Avatar” was short on content - but it wasn’t. John Cameron knows how to do a good mass appeal story and how to tug at heartstrings. “Titanic” proved that.
Radio is flying off the rails. It fails to understand that its content driven not technology driven. The technology improves your content delivery but if you don’t have content you have nothing to deliver? It’s the lack of content and connection. It’s lack of format innovation. It’s having no farm team stations to create the next generation of on-air personalities, of gatekeepers of popular culture. Hell, chains like Cumulus want to eliminate anything that’s alive and breathing.
I’ve been asked about this a few times over the last couple of months so evidently the story has gotten out. I never really mentioned this to anyone before. The story that was told back to me was inaccurate so here’s the real story. A number of years back I met with a couple of decision makers, whose names I promised not to mention, at Ideastream to pitch an “Austin City Limits”-type show for WVIZ, which could also be syndicated - and to get the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum involved.
I also suggested evolving WCPN into a non-commercial, broad-based Triple A rock and roll-centric station during its local programming hours that could, among other things, develop income-generated syndication for other public stations - featuring blues, rockabilly, oldies. And there were no reason to not maintain some jazz programming. It’s all interrelated music.
There is so much timeless content. Start with the fifties and sixties music that isn’t getting airplay on commercial stations. Rock & roll has a rich history, has world wide appeal, and Cleveland has been the epicenter of its growth so many times that this market deserves a public station with a rock & roll backdrop.
I compare some of the formatics to existing public stations like KCRW in Santa Monica and now KCSN in Northridge, California - both in the Los Angeles market.
Seattle has KEXP, which has won numerous best station awards and has direct linkage to Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project, the west coast rival to our Rock Hall. There is KCMP in Minneapolis. Closer to home, WYEP in Pittsburgh. These are non-commercial public Triple A stations. For that matter, Akron has WAPS - The Summit, which has solid community support.
Back then, I was told the audience for public radio and television wouldn’t accept rock and roll. Well, it’s 2012. If you were 15 when Elvis Presley became the biggest name in rock and roll in 1955 you are 72 years old today. If you were 14 in 1964 when the Beatles and the British Invasion broke you are 62 years old today. KCRW knows this. KCSN knows this. KEXP knows this. It’s time for the Rock & Roll Capital of the World to make a move. I have no doubt a station of this caliber would receive solid support from this community. And it would have a positive effect on all radio listening in the Greater Cleveland market because it would draw more listeners back to terrestrial, locally - and build a growing international audience on-line.
I believe - and statistics back me up - that Cleveland, like Minneapolis, could support both a commercial Triple A and an NPR-affiliated non-commercial Triple A - and both would be successful. They would be some sharing but both would, for their own distinct reasons, have decent market shares and average time spent listening. They unquestionably wouldn’t sound alike - but there would be just the right amount of compatibility.
I know there is a lot more great stories. Will there be a sequel to "The Buzzard"
I certainly have enough stories. Of all media, I know the least about the book business. And being in the midst of major change, I cannot be certain if there is a market for more stories about WMMS. For now, I will leave that up to my publisher, Gray & Company. If there is interest, I’m sure he’ll let me know.
Over the years interested parties have approached me on both a film and documentary based on the book. I feel WMMS and that era of rock and roll carry interest beyond the limits of Greater Cleveland. I feel it could even make a long-running sitcom. Who knows? We had an extraordinary team, and it was a unique period in our culture, and Cleveland was the epicenter for much of it. There are still stories to be told. Like I mentioned earlier, there are some pretty astounding WMJI and Next Gen WMMS stories to tell, too. I want to believe they’ll be stories to tell of things yet to come.