by Bob Burke and Fred Deane
Mark Adams is celebrating nearly three decades in radio. Throughout his career, Adams has displayed aggressive initiative and possessed a vigorous determination to succeed whenever opportunity presented itself. From his first on-air gig at KOY/Phoenix, to his first PD gig at KBOS/Fresno, to his first major market PD gig in San Francisco, and his first VP/Programming gig in Portland, Mark’s experience repertoire has allowed him to ascend to the ranks of one of the industry’s top CHR programming minds.
Adams’ passion throughout his storied career has always been in overdrive, and he is constantly strategically thinking about that next step for his stations, the music, and the personalities. He absorbs every aspect of the radio stations he’s been a part of, which is why he’s worked for top broadcast companies like Saga, Bonneville, CBS Radio and now iHeartMedia.
Adams returned to the Bay Area in 2014 and has augmented his track record for success overseeing heritage CHR KYLD (WiLD 94.9) and Hot AC KIOI (Star100.3). This past year he has been tasked with additional oversight to rebuild Rhythmic Hip-Hop KUBE/Seattle. His sole focus remains on making the stations he oversees #1 by creating compelling content that keeps his brands top of mind and an important part of Pop culture’s everchanging landscape.
You came up in the programming ranks in smaller markets back when our business was vastly different. What are the keys to adjusting, and what rules have you followed to achieve the level of success you’ve achieved in multiple major markets?
It’s definitely changed a lot since I got my start, and the pace of change has done little but accelerate. It’s important to try and be open to new ideas and to value innovation. I’m a believer in taking well thought out risks, and trying not to view failure as anything other than a learning experience. I love to read and try to stay as informed as I can. I also have an insatiable curiosity about all of the ways that technological innovation impacts our listeners and how it affects how we all work, play and live.
The interesting thing is that all of those points would have equal merit regardless of the year or decade they were stated. We all have best practices, many of which have been vetted through years of critical analysis and empirical measurement, but nothing remains entirely static. If there’s any overarching key to adjusting, perhaps it’s just in trying to maintain intellectual flexibility and in not reflexively viewing change as a threat. While its human nature to do so, and I’ve certainly been as guilty of it as anyone at times, change often represents great opportunity as well. That’s the big positive.
Which other programming concepts have withstood the test of time?
For all of the changes our industry has undergone, many of the fundamentals remain the same. We’re trying to create strong brands that can create an emotional connection with our listenership. That includes playing great music that’s curated for our unique brands and listening audience. Help to create strong personalities that can deliver content that’s local, personalized, and emotionally impactful and connective. Work to create experiential and lifestyle promotional and marketing opportunities for our listeners and advertisers, and the list goes on and on. And today we have an incredible array of systems, tools and platforms to further those goals that simply didn’t exist even a decade ago. I think that’s really exciting.
How critical is the managing of talent function nowadays in any station’s strategic plan?
I think it has to be a top focus. While as programmers we inevitably spend a lot of time talking about music and clock architecture along with programming executables and best practices, it’s all of the things in between the music that help create the difference between a playlist and a brand. With the competition for listeners’ time and attention becoming ever more compressed, there’s a necessity in trying to ensure our radio stations are more than just the sum of their songs.
Radio at its best is still a personality driven and local medium and the emotional connections that can be created between a great morning show or other personalities and our listeners is invaluable. Our music positions are key. Yet strong personalities are an element of our brands that are both unique and non-duplicable. I’m currently working with three mornings shows at three formats, (The JV Show on KYLD, Marcus & Sandy on KIOI, The Wake-Up Show on KUBE) in addition to the other talent, and the time I spend with those personalities each week is not only something I really enjoy, but something I consider critical for continued growth of our stations’ brands.
Regarding emerging talent, what can we do better to re-ignite the farm system?
I don’t know that I have any easy answer here. The system as it was, or perhaps as we often speak about as it was, may no longer exist in the same way but that doesn’t mean there aren’t different channels available. One of the things that’s just as true today as it’s ever been is that people with passion for radio are still around. We have a very cool job, and that’s not lost on large numbers of listeners.
Here’s a cool example: three years ago, a college student from San Jose with a passion for music and media, made a social connection with The JV Show on KYLD. In turn, they showed me her social media work and arranged an introduction. Today, Crystal Rosas is the night jock on Wild 94-9. There are examples like that across iHM San Francisco.
We have a good number of people in full time roles across both the programming and sales floors that got their start in the same way it’s almost always been done. They knocked on doors, they got into an internship or part time role in activations or marketing, and by virtue of passion and hustle got it done.
It’s also really important today that if you’re in any kind of leadership role, you have a literal open-door policy and try to help create a culture where young people are not afraid to speak up and advocate for a bigger role at a radio station. That and (as was the case with our night jock’s example) trying to keep an eye and ear open for talent metaphorically waving their arms around from a digital or social channel. In some cases, it takes more work and it’s less obvious on where to look, but there are still a lot of great people coming up that are just hoping to be seen and looking for guidance.
Having worked for other major radio groups, what differentiates iHeartMedia among the rest, given both its arsenal of tools and accomplished programming minds?
I made the move to iHeartMedia at the end of 2013, at the time to become the VP/Programming for our cluster of stations in Portland, and was impressed at the onset. The resources, systems, tools, and programmers at iHM are all top of the line. I’ve always considered myself a programmer first, regardless of format, but as someone with a personal affinity for CHR it was also really gratifying to join the company that has so many of the very best CHR radio stations and programmers in the entire country like Z100/New York, KIIS/LA, WXKS/Boston, KHKS/Dallas, and on and on.
I really value having the ability to shoot an email or text to programmers at our stations, and I love hearing from other people as well. I love a good email thread where a dozen of us are having a friendly debate about the pros and cons of this song or that. I feel a great connection with our other programmers and radio stations at iHeart, and take a lot of pride in the work we do for our listeners and communities. I think a lot of that comes from excellent communication and messaging from our senior leadership. There’s a high degree of both transparency and communicativeness that I definitely value as well.
Programming a heritage station comes with its challenges. What’s been crucial in keeping WiLD a consistent player, especially in those primary demos?
Prior to my arrival at KYLD and KIOI in late 2014, Wild 94-9 was actually in a Rhythmic CHR position and that was its heritage position for a couple of decades. We fully evolved into a CHR station by early 2015 and have been a consistent top performer across the major demos for the past several years. We actually ended Q4 2018 as the #1 music station A25-54 in San Francisco. In addition, along with our sister station KMEL, programmed by San Francisco SVPP Don Parker, Wild or KMEL have generally been #1 or #2 A18-34 and A18-49 for the majority of that time as well.
A part of my approach to Wild is a combination of relentless consistency, coupled with a willingness to completely blow something up or try something different should tactical circumstances warrant. To the former point, we have worked towards creating and curating a competitive music, personality, imaging, and marketing strategy that’s specific for Wild and the bay area. We adhere to it strictly, and I try not to let myself or my teammates get thrown off that vision by short or even medium-term setbacks or conversely, complacent via unexpected successes. Yet at the same time we’re relentlessly self-critical and questioning, and if something feels off, or more positively if we come across or come up with a change or addition that might help our brand, I try not to overthink the matter. When I’m excited about a song, an imaging concept, a promotional mechanism, or whatever, I believe in moving quickly. I’d like to think that combination of discipline and dynamism is a part of what helps us succeed.
Can you elaborate on the cluster programming team in general?
I can’t say enough good things about our entire local programming team led by the aforementioned Don Parker. Don’s an excellent programmer and a great leader whom everyone enjoys working with. (Don’t tell him I said that, we like to talk smack to one another.) My APD/MD for both KYLD and KIOI is Travis Loughran, whom I maintain is the best in the industry. We work closely as a programming team and neither Wild nor Star would be where they are without him. Ricci Filiar is the PD for both KISQ (98.1 The Breeze) and KOSF (iHeart ‘80s @ 103-7) and has done absolute wonders for both of those brands over the past two years.
We were also fortunate to be able to recently welcome back Corey Callewaert this year as the PD of KKSF-A, (Real Talk 910). I’ve also found EVPP Andrew Jeffries an invaluable resource and ally. He possesses a sharp programming mind, but perhaps even more importantly, in his role as our EVPP is able to help ensure that our stations have the resources we need to execute our plans and is proactive about helping myself and my peers try to navigate through potential roadblocks and challenges.
From our on-air personalities, to production and imaging, activations and marketing, traffic, sales, and engineering, it really does take everyone. We’re fortunate to have a lot of great people across all of the departments here in San Francisco and in support in other markets.
WiLD has often been ahead of the curve on playing hit records early. What is the importance of having a strategic vision that helps in finding those next hits?
It’s critical to have a competitive music strategy. Station brand positions have never been more important as well. Both of those key points are interrelated and their importance is underscored by the changes in listener music consumption and behavior that’s an outgrowth of digital delivery as well as the exponential growth in streaming.
We want our brand to have a distinct identity, and be available for our listenership to connect and interact with in whatever way works best for them. Whether in the car, at home, on the phone, on the iHeartRadio app, or on a smart speaker including Alexa and more than 2,000 other devices, Wild 94-9 San Francisco should be more than the sum of its individual hit records. That’s a lot harder to consistently actually do than it is to simply say, but it’s a goal we strive towards.
You also strive to discover those special “flavor records.” How important is it to the Wild brand that these songs are included in the mix?
A part of that Wild experience is curating a sound specific to that station’s brand and one that meets listener expectations. While most of the big hit records are songs that everyone is going to address, both competitive radio stations as well as all of the digital service providers, we strive to find records that can be creative unique points of differentiation for our station as supplementation.
While I can’t get into a lot of the details of Wild’s particulars, I can share that a part of how we approach that process is by listening to as much music as we can regardless of the source. If we think something is hot and fits the Wild brand and our competitive music strategy, I’m generally inclined to expose it and then gauge reaction. Great music always elicits an emotional response. If we feel something could be exciting for Wild’s audience, we’re all about taking a shot.
We have more research and analytics data than ever when it comes to analyzing music. Is it more challenging balancing your gut with all of the metrics, and what are some critical mistakes programmers need to avoid in this area?
While it often feels like a torrential downpour of metrics, I think there’s more upside than not. I love information and don’t think there’s such a thing as too much data. Having said that, there’s certainly a couple of things I caution people about. I’d always be wary about over analysis creating action paralysis. I’m also leery of putting undue weight upon any one individual metric, particularly when that result runs contrary to what the plurality of data indicates.
Another thing I found myself saying a lot over the past year, is that generally speaking, I don’t think stations are playing new records heavily and consistently enough to even give them a chance to succeed in callout. Which in turn creates a self-fulfilling dynamic which is predictably contradictory to consumptive data. That is becoming more pronounced, almost day by day. With increased options for consumer attention, familiarly and exposure mechanics are becoming more compressed. It’s just time economy. Anyone who knows me well or looks in detail how I program, knows I have great respect for the science and research component of what we do. But I really do try to balance that with art and emotion as well.
When I’m excited about a song, sometimes for no other reason than I think it sounds great and is a match for our brand strategy, I can’t wait to share that with our listeners. I know I say this a lot, but music is fundamentally about emotion and passion. A part of what we need to do as radio programmers, is marry that art and science in a way that can help set us up for the best possible results.
What’s your read on the current climate and trends of the Top 40 format and the various factors affecting these trends?
Both radio and the entire music industry are in the midst of an absolute sea change. The very definitions of what is “Pop” have become subjectively fluid and difficult to readily categorize. That’s due in part both to the massive audience fragmentation that’s an outgrowth of digital media, and spurred in large part by the ever-greater adoption of streaming. What people are listening to, and how they’re listening to it, are inarguably changing. That’s been the case for several years, and everything points to those trend lines continuing to accelerate.
As that relates to both music and commercial radio, I think that many of the rules we’ve all become somewhat conditioned to think of as impermeable are in the process of being irrevocably broken and rewritten. As programmers, we’re going to have to be nimbler, less dogmatic and risk averse, and become more highly attenuated to what’s happening in real time.
I don’t mean at all for any of this to sound negative or pessimistic. I actually think it’s an incredibly exciting time that represents opportunity. In my opinion, commercial radio stations are actually positioned far better than many of our streaming competitors to provide a host of services they cannot readily match and that we know what listeners want. Including personalities, service elements, and local directed content, and effectively curated local play listing. All of that, and radio’s total reach remains unmatched. To that point, at a time when digital and social media are in the headlines because of declining consumer trust, we have new research that shows radio is the most trusted consumer medium in America, and that iHeartRadio is the most trusted audio brand.
How do you see Pop music in general trending, as well as the variety of artists that comprise the format mix?
I think that while we’ll need to continue to look and listen for songs and artists that are mass appeal, in many respects the traditional model of what that actually looks like will continue to evolve. To cite a few different examples to support that contention, 2018 was the year that BTS had a pair of #1 Billboard debuts. It was a year when Hip-Hop utterly dominated streaming and many of the biggest songs of the year at CHR and the hottest Pop cultural moments came from Drake, Post Malone, Travis Scott and Cardi B. Ozuna was the most viewed artist of the year on YouTube. It was a year when some of our more well known, and traditionally modeled and produced marquee Pop stars had a much more challenging time. We also ended the year and began 2019 with a diverse set of artists and sounds topping the CHR radio airplay charts. If there’s any commonality to that last point, it’s perhaps that they’re exceptional songs that transcend their individual genres.
With music consumers having more options than ever before, it’s going to be incumbent upon radio programmers to take a forward leaning role in attempting to curate local brands with unique points of competitive differentiation. As I shared a moment ago, while we’ll continue to need mass appeal songs for CHR, there’s a real competitive necessity at times in identifying and exposing great sounding music that’s in line and specific with your local station’s brand strategy. Music is about emotion and passion; sometimes what’s simply different or interesting or challenging has every bit as much competitive value to a radio station as the next mass appeal Pop hit.
You also program Star 101-3. How important is the HAC format today, and how important is it for the HAC format to have a position distinct from CHR?
As a whole, the HAC format is in a great position and coming off a strong year. A year that in many cases saw CHR stations continuing to grapple with performance issues often tied to weaker core product. In short, I feel having a distinct position apart from Top 40 is a critical component of most successful HAC stations. While core Pop is typically both a highly effective and cohesive component of HAC architecture, being perceived as a more recurrent based Top 40 station via an overreliance on that product can create challenges.
That’s a bit of a blanket statement, there are certainly individual competitive or specific local market conditions that warrant a more contemporary based strategy, but broadly speaking many of the top performing HAC’s have worked to create a more unique brand identity that’s less reliant upon current based Pop. That’s been of necessity here in the bay area as the AC/HAC competitive space is among the most congested in the country. Including KLLC (HAC), KOIT (AC) KEZR (HAC), our own sister station KISQ (Soft AC), the sharing from the two major CHR stations in San Francisco (KYLD and KMVQ) as well as half a dozen other tertiary brands. Without sharing anything overtly proprietary, Star 101-3’s competitive music strategy is a bit more recurrent and gold based, and we’ve been consistently successful in that position.
In what other ways is the brand augmented?
Music strategy aside, it’s critical that radio stations today are more than a sum of their individual songs and have a strong brand. For our part, we’ve established a consistently, top performing morning show with Marcus & Sandy. Midday’s is held down by Lisa Foxx whom is based in the same daypart at our sister station KBIG (My-FM) Los Angeles. Afternoons are anchored by Ryan Seacrest, who at one time was actually a local market talent in afternoon drive on KIOI, and evenings are hosted by Jon Manuel, who is also based out of our LA cluster.
It’s a great team of personalities, and we try to accompany that with the right promotional and marketing elements, a distinctive imaging scheme, and a number of other tactical elements. While we inevitably share a lot of the current Pop product with a number of other radio stations and other competitive outlets, we work very hard to ensure Star has its own music and brand identity.
You’ve always had a tremendous passion for radio. What’s it like programming in what is arguably the most competitive market in the country?
I love the bay area for a host of reasons both personal and professional and was really excited about the opportunity to return at the end of 2014. This is actually my second tour of duty in the bay. I also programmed CHR KZQZ in the late 90’s when ironically I battled with both KYLD and KMEL.
To say it’s complicated is a bit of an understatement. It’s a sprawling, multicultural market with challenging geography and demography which includes another major market (San Jose) embedded within our own. There’s a lot of great radio stations here programmed by some very smart men and women. We actually have more radio stations here than either New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. With Silicon Valley in the south bay we’ve also been more or less ground zero for streaming. To that point San Francisco is often ranked near or at the top of U.S. markets for music streaming adoption.
Can you describe the cultural and economic factors of the market and how they may affect programming?
We’re a tech and digital market with a number of the biggest names in that space making their corporate headquarters here, including Twitter, Tesla, Apple, Cisco, Netflix, Zynga, Google, Facebook, and too many others to list. Those booming technologies have spurred vast economic growth, though in turn have created a host of issues. Including skyrocketing housing and cost of living expenses. San Francisco is often ranked as the most expensive city in the country, which is a number one we could certainly do without.
While those factors are all contributory in creating some steep challenges, culminating at the very top with the accuracy of listener measurement, it’s those same circumstances that make programing here so endlessly fascinating and fulfilling. I don’t want to overstate the differences; to a certain extent all of the things that help create a great radio station in any market are equally applicable here. Yet, I’d share that in being forced to contend with our somewhat unique circumstances, that helps spur a culture that values both experimentation and innovation. I’m not afraid of trying something and failing, and I try to encourage and support that same dynamic across our teams. We’re not always going to get things right, but we’ll keep trying new things and figuring it out until we do.
Technology continues to develop at a rapid rate. Is radio doing a better job at embracing trending technologies these days?
I certainly think so. That’s one of the main reasons I was excited to come and work for iHeart. Quick story: It was sometime around 2009 when I first really began hearing the promotion and marketing for the iHeartRadio app on what were then my competitors. Even at that time, I distinctly remember thinking how smart that was, as it was such a forward leaning representation of where the listeners were increasingly moving towards.
It wasn’t that long afterwards when the listeners of my stations began sending us unsolicited emails asking why they couldn’t find them on the iHeartRadio app. I knew we were in trouble. I also knew that was a company I’d like to work for.
Now here in 2019, I don’t know how anyone could argue that the development of that platform has been anything other than both visionary and transformative. More generally speaking, I think there’s close to consensus agreement upon the importance of streaming, the effective curation and development of social platforms, the increased importance of podcasting, and trying to stay informed about all of the new and evolving ways that listeners can interact with our brands.
In addition to KYLD and KIOI, you were involved with the revitalization of KUBE in Seattle and the current PD. How has the progress been evolving at KUBE?
My main responsibilities are focused here in San Francisco with both Wild and Star. I also added programming duties for KUBE Seattle when we re-launched that station in Q2 of last year. We received an overwhelmingly positive response in returning that iconic brand to the market, and our results to date have been very good. Particularly in PMD, evenings, and on the weekend where the station has often been near the top of the rankings in many core demos. Late last year we added a local morning show at KUBE, anchored by Strawberry and co-hosted by Lizette Love and on-air/producer Jenna. It always takes time to establish a new morning show, and it’s particularly complicated in Seattle where there are a number of heritage shows with significant and dedicated listenership, but we’re really pleased with the product coming out of the speakers and their hustle and drive are second to none.
I’d be remiss in not mentioning and crediting the rest of the local team. Our APD/MD, who also does afternoons for KUBE is Eric Rosado. Eric’s a solid programmer with seemingly limitless energy and passion and is utterly dedicated to helping ensure Hip-Hop in Seattle is here to stay. I’m also fortunate to be able to work with Seattle RSVPP Rich Moore, Regional SVPP Tim Herbster, RCHR format captain and Boston SVPP Dylan Sprague, and EVP Maynard. They’re all very smart, good people whom I like and enjoy collaborative relationships with. Building up and out any new radio station is a challenging and long-term project, but we’ve already laid a solid foundation and have a lot of exciting plans for 2019.
Additional responsibilities include being a member of the iHeart national CHR brand team and other special projects. Can you give us a quick overview here?
As part of the CHR brand team, I’m grateful to have the chance to work more closely with John Ivey (President of Top 40 Programming and KIIS PD) and really enjoy the relationship with the other CHR coordinators as well. At the end of the day, we’re all really just Top 40 PD’s running our own local stations. That shared experience and having the ability to share information and critical thoughts is invaluable. In turn, we’re really just there as a resource to help support other programmers within the format.
There are a number of other programmers I speak to each week and it’s often similar peer-based conversations that run the gamut from troubleshooting an issue, ideation to surmount a challenge, or something as simple as comparing notes about various songs. While I often have strong and critically supportable opinions, I’m well aware there’s often an array of equally sound approaches to any number of situations. To that point, no-one is going to know as much about a station or market as the day to day programmer of that brand. I probably learn more from talking to our other programmers than they do from me. The conversations themselves have value for all of us.
Any constructive advice for up and comers who want to move their careers to that next level and excel within their own companies?
As a topline, I’d reiterate some of the same points I shared in response to your question about some of the rules of success. There’s a lot of fundamental business truisms that continue to have value, including insatiable curiosity and a genuine love of and pursuit of learning. A willingness to assume calculated risk, embrasure of innovation, and viewing errors as learning experiences that can be built upon.
I’m also a believer in trying to forge collaborative working relationships that are founded upon honesty as well as candid and open communication. There’s nothing wrong with constructive disagreement and critique, and good leaders not only recognize that truism but try to foster it. I understand that at times it can be frightening to speak up and offer a conflicting opinion. Yet in my experience having people on your team that are outspoken are often the best resource we have.
Maybe as a way of trying to tie all of that together in some fashion, I’d also share that I’m keenly aware of what I don’t know, and try to approach others with both empathy and respect. All of our jobs are terribly complicated, almost no-one is willfully trying to cause a problem, and there’s often many different ways to approach a challenge that has varying or equal degrees of merit. Taking the time to try and help others, is always the right thing to do.