We like to check in with Dom Theodore now and again because of all the radio professionals we encounter, Dom ranks up there when it comes to out-of-the-box thinkers and resolute problem solvers. Never one to shy away from any challenge, Dom’s approach to programming is to remain on offense and not lose ground to the macro-competitive environment that envelopes the world of terrestrial radio. More candid advice and solutions abound from Professor Theodore.
When it comes to programming they don’t come more seasoned and polished than Dom Theodore. After all, he’s spent most of his upwardly mobile career in senior programming positions in major markets serving such notable employers as Clear Channel/iHeartMedia and CBS Radio. It’s through these high level experiences that Dom developed his philosophies and theories on programming strategy, implementation and execution.
But it wasn’t until Dom shifted to being an entrepreneur that he further established his ground as one of the industry’s pure free-thinkers and self-implementers, as in recent years he’s been on very firm footing as a consultant and property owner. And given his affection for programming, he’s also stayed in that part of the game through his association with The Blaze Radio Network.
His approach to issues and problem solving regarding radio’s state of affairs is always a refreshing and straight-forward perspective and you can expect more of that similar style in our most recent conversation.
What are your biggest concerns regarding radio’s future versus the depth of digital and personalized options available to consumers these days?
There is no doubt that the sheer number of media options pose a threat to ALL media, not just radio, as audiences become more and more specialized by subdivisions of interests. But remember, each delivery system has different strengths, weaknesses and limitations. Radio needs to play to our strengths. What worries me is I see many operators attempting to mirror the experience of other platforms instead of recognizing that radio has unique strengths to exploit. We shouldn’t be like Pandora. We shouldn’t be generic appliances that dispense music. Yet many operators are fooled into thinking that’s what people want. What people really want is interesting content that makes them feel something. We can do that much better than other options, if we choose to put in the effort.
Is radio innovating enough to keep pace with the increasing delivery of new technology designed to displace traditional entertainment and information sources?
When we talk about innovation in radio, there are really two types of innovation we need to look at: technological and content. I would give us a C+ when it comes to technological innovations. We do an “ok” job taking our brands to digital extensions using apps and social media. HD Radio has been a disappointment in many ways, but I’m hopeful that when the connected car becomes the norm, we will have a prominent place on the digital dashboard thanks to innovations like the iHeartRadio app and TuneIn.
But then there’s content innovation, and I would give us a D- in this area. Radio has become too risk-adverse and has buried our best assets – talent. Much of what I hear is interchangeable jocks that generically curate songs. Not because they aren’t capable of more, but because they’re aren’t being trained to do more, and the jocks that CAN are told to shut up and play the hits. When we can get back to creating an experience in between the songs with personalities that make people feel something, we will once again be content innovators. But right now, we are just boring museums of music.
How does radio remain relevant as a premium option by assuring itself a prominent place in the new (fully connected) auto dashboards?
We need to first be available on the digital dashboard. I can certainly see a future where the various listening apps are on a dashboard type display, and you can choose from a variety of Internet stations, terrestrial stations, and even some homemade stations created by some kid in his basement. Radio used to have steep barriers to entry. It was hard to get a license, build a tower, invest in studios, etc. But the digital dash eliminates many of those barriers. Then it becomes a matter of who has the best and most interesting content. If we develop audiences now that are deep fans of our exclusive content, we will carry that audience over to the digital dash. If not, we will get lost in a sea of options. This is why content innovation is absolutely critical right now. We may never again have the chance to build an audience of critical mass.
Will the lifeline of radio continue to be maintaining a strong position in the community with local personality and product ties that tap into the emotions of its listeners?
Local content is still very important because being relatable starts with shared experiences. For example, programming radio in Flint, MI right now might be focused on the water crisis, but if you live in Atlanta, you really don’t care about that. But beyond local, it’s really about entertaining an audience. Providing companionship. Making them laugh. Sharing a vulnerable moment with the audience. Story-telling. These are the things that endear an audience to us, in addition to being there when something like a water crisis happens. If we are truly being honest with ourselves, most radio stations fail in these areas. It has become a sea of “listen to win this at 7, 11, 1 and 7,” or “check out the story on our website.” Where is the emotion? Where is the conversation?
With CHR stations a high premium has been placed on major artist cross-branding partnerships and involvement. Do you feel the relationship between radio and the music community is stronger and more co-reliant than it’s ever been?
A healthy record industry and a healthy radio industry are obviously good for each other. But in the big companies, music decisions have become overly-centralized. I’ve had some odd conversations with PD’s where they tell me that a song they’re playing is a stiff. I ask “why are you playing it then?” “Oh, it’s a corporate new music initiative.” Huh?
There are two big things that radio can do for record labels: play their hits and help them market those hits, and be honest enough to say when a song isn’t a hit. This craziness where companies create spin programs for songs that the local PD’s don’t have confidence in, because of a deal some corporate PD made with a label who has set the song as a “priority,” is not going to help ratings or record sales. It’s just a race to the bottom.
But, as we have seen in other cases, labels are bringing songs to a room full of PD’s to get honest feedback and set their priorities based on that feedback, and that’s a very good thing. Honest communication is key. Clean out the rest of the nonsense and let local PD’s pick their playlist, just make sure they have valid criteria for those decisions.
How important is it to empower local PD’s with this decision making process?
Part of the art of programming is knowing when to jump on a record when you hear a hit. Too many PD’s live in fear today of doing that because their corporate PD might not agree with their decision, especially if the song is “off menu.” I’ve taken that risk a few times and found some big hits that way. One of my favorite moments was walking into the studio in New York and playing “Replay” from Iyaz for the first time in the country. It ended up being #1. This is the thing that can only happen when local PD’s are empowered.
Do you envision any areas of improvement that can enhance the label/radio relationship?
I think there are too many conversations going on between labels and radio about what they can do for each other, instead of what can they do for the consumer. This is where we run into trouble. Conversely, I know many smart label people who think about 360 degree consumer experiences, and they find creative ways to work with radio on crafting those experiences. THAT is what we need more of.
Are there any radio groups that you feel are pacing the pack in the artist association and engagement areas?
There are both individual stations and radio groups that do a good job working with labels to develop awesome artist experiences. Those who are the most successful know how to build “money can’t buy” experiences for listeners, getting them up close and personal with artists. Whenever a radio station can provide elite artist access, it’s always a win, not only for the stations involved, but for the overall perception of radio as the “go to” place for artist experiences.
Regarding CHR music, there appears to be a persistence of relying on mining all formats grabbing the “hot songs of the moment.” How does the Pop format develop its next set of superstars if this trend continues?
This is another perfect example of the lack of content innovation that I was talking about earlier. Rather than take a chance on a new artist, we would rather play the fifth cut from an established artist, even when that track isn’t as strong as the first two or three big hits. But CHR has never really done a great job of building artists. It has always been a format of “songs.” The difference today is we are way less patient than we used to be and we don’t want to wait for a song to develop. We are looking for instant reaction in callout and Shazam, and not every hit will generate that reaction instantly. Some hits take more than just one week to develop!
The other issue I’ve seen from time to time at the station level is incorrect music rotation structures where the “new” category has too many songs rotating too slowly. As a CHR, if your turnover on a new song is 6-7 hours, it will NEVER get familiar enough to test. Play fewer songs more frequently, and then have at least a little patience, particularly with new artists.
The Alternative music cycle is still leaning toward a more Pop-friendly brand of artists for ultimate success stories, many of which do cross to Top 40. Do you feel this trend will persist or will more guitar centric artists have their day once again at the ALT format?
The last few years have been very good for Top 40 radio. The Alternative format, and even the Country format, have produced songs that have more of a Pop feel because the Pop cycle has been so strong. But Alternative in many ways lost its identity in the process. As we know, this is all cyclical. I believe we are beginning to see the emergence of a more edgy cycle where you will see more hard guitar-driven hits on one side, and more rhythmic hits on the other, with fewer “Pop center” sounds. This is when Alternative and Hot AC formats tend to perform better (as well as Urban and Rhythmic formats).
If you could advise the radio industry on the most vital areas needed for growth to mature the medium to the next level, what would your best advice be?
Radio isn’t dead, but we sure act like it. In order to improve our position, we need to focus on innovation, particularly in the area of content. This is supposed to be a form of show business. We’ve gotten very good at the “business” and threw out the “show.” Innovation can only happen when risk-taking is encouraged and expected. We need to play to our strengths and that means opening up talent to actually entertain. It means connecting emotionally with audiences.
Radio stations have become very good at making logical arguments as to why a listener should like them, but people are emotional beings and those logical arguments are largely ignored. We need to capture the audience emotionally if we want to create true loyalty, and we need to be thinking long-term. Some of the big operators are so busy looking for an exit strategy that they’ve forgotten about the product. If we can get back to the basics and stop acting like a dying medium, radio will become a robust medium once again.
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