I Want Radio To Sound Its Best
What got you started in radio? My mother, who is 98 now, remembers this story all too well. When I was 3 years old, I got my first Tinker Toys. A lot of people use those Tinker Toys to make very complex things. For me it was very simple. I’d take the little round knob, if you will, and I would stick something in it … and then I would talk into it. From the very first days, I must have been enthralled with broadcasting. It’s been going on since then.
When I was 8 or 9 years old, the local radio station had a chair for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were the top-billing small market station in the country, KOEL/Oelwein, IA. They put this chair outside of the studio by the window, with a little radio and an ear piece, and it was mine for 5 or 6 years. When my parents would make the trip, 25 miles, to that city, my parents would ask what I wanted to do, and my answer was, “I want to go to KOEL!” They dropped me off at the station. My dad would go buy farm supplies, and my mother would go pick the groceries … and I would sit there all day watching the talent on the air, everything they did in the studio. Cueing records, the whole thing. I’m sure I was dreaming that someday I would get to do what they were doing. Somehow, that’s exactly what I’ve done.
When you’re young, you don’t really know better. You pick the biggest and best station in your area, and that’s where you start. My first stop was at the only 50,000 watt AM station in my region. I walked in the door, a young man, with just a piece of paper – the First Class license.
Hal Hannah was the PD of the station. He interviewed me, and as I was walking away, he said, “You don’t happen to have a license, do you?” I said, “I have a First Class license.” He said, “Perfect! You’re on the air tonight at 6 o’clock. I look forward to seeing you here!”
In was 1973. The training was pretty simple. I can remember walking in early for my 6 o’clock shift … the first shift in my life! The gentleman who was on before me says, “Here’s the remote control, here are the records, and here’s the log.” Then, he got up and left the room. I was thinking he’d be back in a minute … and the stylus is sitting there, popping against the inside label. The meters are popping on this 50,000 watt AM … finally I looked down the hall, and he’s gone. I didn’t know the board. I started turning things down until I found what shut off the turntable popping. I loaded a cart, and heard it start “…Rrrrrrrrr…” That’s how I started what’s now a 40-year career.
I still remember from my first experiences in radio, that I’d get there at 6 in the morning, but my show didn’t’ start until 2 in the afternoon. You just didn’t want to miss anything. This business was that much fun. You wanted to be there for the contest calls. It was all fun. And to this day, it still is.
Have you done anything else? I grew up on a farm. Farming is something my family has done for 120 years. I love farming. But at the time this opportunity came to me was right when the value of farm land was going crazy. Land that had been worth $1,000/acre was suddenly going for $2,000/acre. The people that were getting in were borrowing against that new value, then find they couldn’t make it and fall out of the business. The people that had been long-time successful farmers would borrow against that perceived increase, and when the values went back to the old levels, they were all shoved out of farming. It was a great time not to choose to be a farmer. I still love to drive tractor, I still love to grow things and work the land. I probably should have been a farm director for a radio station; that would have combined the two things I love and put them into one product.
Who have your radio heroes been? The best radio personality I’ve run into was Ron Thompson, who worked at many of the big market stations across the country in the 70s and 80s. He was one of the greatest communicators I’ve ever met. He taught me an invaluable lesson about 1 to 1 communication, and why that’s what we do.
Jim Knight was my first PD at KLEU/Waterloo, IA. He had been the voice of all night there for the station for some time. I’d grown up listening to him, so already had a great deal of respect for his talents. He was nice enough to pull me aside right from the first day to help me along and get me started.
I’ve always been a CE. Have usually been a PD, OM … sometimes a GM, and sometimes an owner. I’ve been blessed by working with so many great owners along the way.
How did you become a part of your community? It’s so different everywhere I’ve gone. Where I am now is the greatest example of this: it’s not the announcer, it’s the radio station you work for. Here, KCLB has been the top country station here for 30 years. It’s been the longest-lived station in its time of service. Every single person in this town knows the station, what we do and why we do it. I remember when I owned 5 stations in this market, 1998-2006, one of which was the second oldest station in New Mexico, KICA, which is a great station. It struck me during those years that if I could remember the names of 50 people, that would be good. Now that I’ve taken over this station, that number’s about 3,000. Listeners that call in regularly expect you to know them on a first name basis. I’ve got people that check in with me every week about what they’re doing and what their kids are doing – the story of their life.
It’s kind of like a big home town. In my whole radio career, I’ve never seen such a connection between a radio station and its listeners, to where they really feel they know the radio station, and when they see you, they expect you to know them. It’s been sensational. It’s the best relationship I’ve ever seen a radio station have with its listeners.
This morning, we had a couple of listeners walk into the studio and ask if we had time to discuss an issue with them on air, and we said, “of course.” We have a program called “In The Community” and even on an FM music station, we find 5 minutes to have local guests talk about what they’d like.
We’re the sports voice for our high school football and basketball teams. Here, in New Mexico, like the Friday night lights in Texas, it’s bigger than the pro teams. Our local high school has more state championships than any large school in the week. Last year, our girls won the state basketball championship, and our boys lost the state basketball championship. My station does football and girls basketball. The AM sister station simulcasts the football, and then does boys basketball. Our stations have been doing this for 61 years; that’s our niche.
Our station is sold out on high school football; we have 25 sponsors. The officials try to move the game along quickly for the fans, so it’s hard to get more than 2 spots per game for the sponsors.
Then, I have a sister FM station, that has the same exact football broadcast, and they’re sold out as well. Then, my sister AM also has that same game, and they’re sold out as well.
When it goes to basketball, we do the same simulcasts on all 3 stations, and we’re all sold out. Then, when playoffs start, we give those to our sponsors at no charge if they’ve been with us through the season.
Do you do community events other than high school sports? This is a great example of true, small market radio. On Halloween, the fire stations here in Clovis give away candy for the kids for safe trick or treating. We were there, talking to the firemen about who donated the candy, talking to the kids who are getting it … local, local, local. Most people would say they have something better to do than go to the fire station and do some cut-ins. The truth is, we’re local, and on a Halloween night, there’s nothing more important than the safety of the kids.
Our job is not to just inform, but to be intertwined with the community. Whether it’s at the court house, or something going on, or a concern … I get calls from people that want to share a problem with the community and see how I can help. That’s what, as managers or owners, we were supposed to do. To have a phone number in the phone book and when people needed to get ahold of you, even at night, then that was OK. Our job is to get the word out, that’s what we do.
That’s why radio is here. It’s not to play commercials. It’s not just to play music. It’s to serve the public.
How do you manage remotely while doing your shows on-air? The 4 managers of each of the combos gather in my office one day each month to go over everything … not only the profit and loss, but also sales, collections, outstanding balances, problems – the kind of stuff you would imagine 4 managers do when they’re sitting around at a radio station. Then, every few months, I visit the outpost stations.
You’re serious about your audio quality. My very first manager explained it to me: “The product of radio is audio, and we want ours to be good.”
As an engineer, and having been an audiophile my whole career, I find this fascinating. In our industry, how many people are transmitting high fidelity bandwidth audio? When listeners don’t hear our hi fi audio, they’re listening out of a small ear piece from an iPod, with MP3 compressed audio.
I find it fascinating that we have allowed people to compare us to bit-reduced, heavily digitally compressed audio. There’s not a day that any FM station I’ve ever heard could sound as bad as an MP3 recording of that same song. I don’t care if you went in and twisted every knob on the processor from 1 to 10, it doesn’t matter. It will never sound as bad as a digitally compressed recording.
If we’re in the medium of audio, you’d think someone would raise the flag and say that .mp3 audio is not acceptable for broadcast. It might be OK for commercials, but it was never meant for broadcast. Especially not to have it compressed down, expanded up, noise gated – everything we do with audio processing, it doesn’t do well with that wavery, half-tuned in .mp3 audio sound.
At my stations, I won’t allow an .mp3 recording to play on the air. I want radio to sound its best. We’re in control of that. Our industry has spent too much time trying to find shortcuts and fast avenues, and that’s why listenership in many places is down.
HD? No one has gone digital in our part of the world. The high cost of installation is one reason, and the second reason is the addition of an annual fee. For the most part, I don’t think small markets have found the application of multi-channel digital broadcasting. We’re tasked with making an AM/FM, or a single station, sound its best and do its best job at what it does, without creating 9 more things that it can do.
Streaming? We all stream one thing: our high school sports. We stream our games, along with our local commercial content.
The waffling in music fees have kept us from streaming any more. Every few years, it goes back to court, and one side declares they won and somebody declares that they lost … this year, the adjustment fee that was created by the federal court totals enough to easily replace a fulltime person in my station. Not what our annual fee is … but just the adjustment fee that covers 2012 and the first 6 months of 2013. Just the adjustment was a substantial check you just had to send in. For most small broadcasters, with the ASCAP/BMI/SESAC fees – let alone the streaming fees – we’re close to being only able to broadcast talk. We’re seeing ever-increasing fees, and the only way we can control it is to not start streaming and add another expense stream out of our station.
Just this week, I heard the news that over 50% of Americans are now getting their local radio online. That forces us to revisit the streaming of our product … is it something we’ll have to do? Every small market broadcaster has to be thinking it over. But, today, we really don’t know. As of today, after being in this market for 16 years, I’ve never had one person ask me to stream my station.
Are those people that are streaming in larger markets? I hope that’s true. In a small market, I’m not sure those kinds of numbers come through. We’re still probably 5-7 years away from 50+% of the people listening that way.
Marketing? My country station does 2 major promotions a year. We do registration promotions … the registration box is proven to drive traffic for our advertisers. In the spring, we do “Pays To Listen.” Folks register, and we bring those registrations back to the station to give away cash … typically $50 each time, with a lot of regularity around the Arbitron sweeps. In some places, $50 might be nothing, but in my market it is well sought-after and much appreciated. That typically attracts 20-30 advertisers.
I believe our job is to sell advertising. In the case of promotions, I believe our job is to sell advertising. We sell promotional sponsorships for exactly the number of commercials, and the cost of the commercial. The promotion is at no charge. The promotional spots that run, the door slick, the registration box … those are no charge.
In the fall, last year, we came up with “The Biggest Fan.” It was the best promotion I’ve ever helped create. We would register our listeners, and each morning, we would call one person and ask them to ID the artists for three songs, and if they get them right, they’re a finalist. We called another person during our afternoon show. We ended up with 24 finalists. They all gathered here at the station, and we had a live on-air contest that was one of the more fun things I’ve ever done.
We brought the contestants, one-at-a-time, into the studio for them to identify 3 songs while we kept the other contestants in another room, unable to hear the contest. Ultimately, when the contestants missed 2 songs, they were disqualified. So round after round … our listeners were waiting to hear a voice they recognized to see if they would win the contest. It ended up going 3-1/2 hours, and people were glued to it.
Gentleman called me the next day, and said he was glued to that. He said it was the greatest contest he had ever heard on radio. He said, “I’m a truck driver. I drove 50 miles away when it started. While you were playing commercials, I started to unload. When the commercials were done, I was ready to drive back another 50 miles to load another truck and return. I had to time my loading so I could listen to the contest.”
Ultimately, we gave away a $5,400 package to Fan Fest in Nashville. It included airfare, show tickets for all of the shows, Grand Ole Opry tickets and $1,000 cash. The lady who won was fantastic. She said on our air, “This is the greatest moment of my life and it happened because of your radio station.” The listeners and advertisers really liked it … and it’s the most successful promotion we’ve ever done with our sponsors. It helped grew our listenership from #5 to #2 in the market in one year.
How do you use your website? One event we promoted online was the Texaco Country Showdown. It’s an annual talent show. It starts out locally, and 7 stations in New Mexico did local talent contests. My local winner happened to win the state contest, and went on to the regional contest. All of this was promoted online, with pictures posted on our website.
It was an event for our listeners. We charged $5 to attend the contest at the big event center here in town, and 100% of those proceeds went to the restoration of a local historical theatre here in town. The radio station had paid sponsors with banners in the auditorium. We heavily promoted this all on social media, because it was appearing live and local.
What do you do outside of the office? What’s fun? Riding my Honda Goldwing. I ride 25-30,000 miles a year. I tour for my summer vacation. If it involves travel on two wheels, I love it. I start serious rides in March, and continue into November.