There’s a certain symmetry that exists between Mike O’Donnell and Entercom that has lead to his nine year stint with the company. The common qualities of dedicated hard work, the art of thinking ahead, and the pragmatism of live and local, seem to have blended well and vastly contributed to this winning combo. OD has become one of Entercom’s most valued OM’s and all it took was a track record. OD’s managed to keep heritage Top 40 giant WKRZ and Country stalwart WGGY at the top of the ratings heap book after book with admirable consistency.
After nearly a decade of service to Entercom’s Northeast PA cluster, Mike O’Donnell’s approach to programming appears to be as fresh as ever. The ability to grow in positions is the nature of the game these days as the ever expanding universe of the multi-media landscape continues to breed at record pace. Fully embracing the many facets of technology is as mandatory as ever, but one concept is never lost on OD and that is the ability to relate “live and local” to his listening community and super-serve it in multiple ways.
OD arrived in Scranton Wilkes-Barre in June of 2007 to assume the programming reins of heritage CHR WKRZ and has held the aforementioned tenets of programming near and dear to his heart ever since. He knew he was taking over an essential property in the company’s arsenal of programming weapons and has continued to build on its vast success.
In February of 2010, Entercom awarded OD the OM gig of its three station cluster in NE PA: WKRZ, Country behemoth WGGY (Froggy 101), and the newly minted Rock Hits outlet MAX102. WKRZ and Froggy have consistently been atop the ratings pack a streak that OD has become very accustomed to growing, while MAX’s cume is already showing signs of a format that should have a home in this Rock-rich marketplace.
You’ve been with Entercom-NE, PA for nine years now, how do you continue to challenge yourself to keep sharp at your game?
The average gig for many is about five years, right? For some, the drug wears off at a gig and a new challenge is needed to sustain the creativity and enthusiasm, and I think that is great. However, there are many of us who have been at it for 10 or 20+ years at the same stations which is a testament in itself.
For me personally staying fresh and sharp coincides with the turn of the calendar to the new year which seems to be my reset. It’s a chance to reflect and see if I’ve accomplished my goals of the past 12 months. If I fall short, I push a bit harder moving ahead. I also know that my ideas are not the only ones that can make a difference. After 9 years, staying fresh on marketing, promotions and overall presentation can be a challenge. I like to hear ideas from my staff. Sometimes a perspective from an on-air personality, promotions director or even the GM can be insightful. You can sometimes take those perspectives and use them to your advantage with a programming state of mind to come up with something new that meets your goals and sounds fresh.
If you were to delineate between your OM and PD roles, in what ways has being an OM added to your managerial growth curve?
As the PD and OM of three stations, you have the unique experience to understand all sides of any issue or decision. The talent sees it one way. The AE’s see it another. As the OM, my job is to find a compromise that everybody can get on board with. In my early days as a PD, compromising was much lower on my list of talents. However, I learned that finding compromise keeps the staff happier which makes life easier each day. In the end, my paramount decision is to always find a solution that fits best for the station and its philosophy keeping in mind the needs of others. As the OM, everybody comes to you for the answer…your job is to find solutions that work for everybody.
Given the immense competition for listeners these days, what creative ways have you discovered to keep your audiences engaged with your respective outlets?
The answer to keeping your audience engaged in your brands is really simple, but sometimes difficult to achieve. We all play Taylor Swift, The Weeknd and Adele, etc. It’s what’s happening between the songs that makes us stand apart. In WKRZ’s and WGGY’s case, our biggest asset is our live shows. These are well established brands with personalities that are known on the street as well as behind the mic.
We have a few shows that love to do that off the wall kind of stuff. Last week, KRZ’s afternoon show with Jeff & Amanda decided to eat those jelly beans that taste like skunk spray, rotten eggs and vomit on air. If it isn’t that, look out for “stick out your tongue” trivia. If you answer the question wrong, you have to zap your tongue with a handheld mosquito zapper. People can’t get enough of that stuff! Being the guys or girls down the street is a big deal to our listeners. Additionally, our talent does an amazing job staying socially connected to our listeners. They post not only from their shows, but from the streets and what’s going on in their lives. Can you make a direct parallel to ratings from social media? I’m not 100% sure, but a strong social engagement with the listeners in your market keeps you on top of listeners’ minds.
Finally, I have always been a fan of bigger than life on-air promotions. Execute those in an original, exciting, entertaining and appointment-driven manner on-air. It makes you stand apart from the rest. Even a national contest should be tailored for your stations vibe, location or goal. Make the most of every “between the music” moment.
As more and more cars are rolling out with “connected” dashboards, what does radio have to keep in mind to face this challenge of multiple in-car options?
As technology advances, the “terrestrials” need to continue to adapt and change our game plans so we don’t get lost in the pile of choices we see each day. It’s all about multi-platform exposure for the connected car. In some cases, talent still operates in the single dimension of their craft. We need to promote our brands with podcasts and apps pushing out repackaged AND exclusive content for listeners to consume. The more places people can find us, the better chance to grab them and keep them. The key is to understand the technology and have a game-plan to marry your brands with it.
How much do think streaming accounts for listener-ship to your properties and which of your stations do you feel are steamed the most?
My CHR and Country stations have the greatest streaming numbers from 9-5. They are consistent and solid as is our station app usage. In terms of reported streaming listening, being a diary market doesn’t make a lot of difference ratings wise. However, with in-car streaming now becoming commonplace, 100% stream is the way to go so we can get credit as more in-car streaming becomes habitual.
You have two perennial winning properties in WKRZ and WGGY. Conceptually speaking what commonalties do the stations share that help contribute to their winning ways?
Live, local and engaging! We have heritage brands with well-known heritage shows. For example, Jeff Walker, afternoons on WKRZ, just celebrated 35 years! Other shows have been here over 20 years. But it’s so much more. Our talent is invested in the listeners, the advertisers and the community. Our stations have signature charity/community events that we present on an annual basis and we are inventing more. Listeners know if it’s happening in town, WKRZ and WGGY are somehow involved. It’s a bond that cannot happen with piped in programming.
How much dominance have these two stations displayed over the last several books?
Historically, in the last 10 books, WKRZ has been #1 with both 18-34P and 18-49P, while holding the #1 spot 25-54P for 9 consecutive books. As for Froggy, it has scored a 10-book average of: #2 18-34P, #2 18-49P and #3 25-54P.
How much music overlap exists between the two, presumably Country crossing to Pop?
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton is a unique market in itself. You really cannot program it without understanding it. Both WKRZ and WGGY use research which is vital to maximizing rotations. In terms of Pop and Country crossover, we have some but it’s not huge. WKRZ did extremely well with Sam Hunt crossing over from Country last year. However, the bigger picture is the huge 18-34 numbers that WGGY has been pulling recently. As the Country format continues to cater younger, WGGY’s 18-34 numbers have increased 25% in our market over the last three years. The best part is you never have to wait more than ten minutes to hear a song about drinking.
When does a Country crossover work best on KRZ?
From my perspective, I have to rate a song that a label is trying to cross from Country exactly like I would any record. Yes, I will have the benefit of the record becoming familiar in the market before the Pop station will play it. However, I ask myself is the hook strong? Does it sound too twangy? Any crossover has to be able to fit in the framework of where it’s ultimately going.
Turning to KRZ, the station has such a rich Top 40 history and brand, how do you keep a heritage Pop station relevant with the younger end to keep them connected?
WKRZ has always leaned a bit adult. With that, we are able to almost always be #1 in adults 18-34, 18-49, and 25-54. We are blessed to have a CHR station poised in this position. The key for WKRZ is to make sure we are really hitting the right new songs in the right dayparts for the younger demos. Again, we use our research to hammer the right songs and really cater to the market taste versus a consolidated chart. Our MD, Fishboy is also live on the night show which brings some positives in terms of phone interaction at night. The competition is tracked out of market. The theme through this interview citing our strengths as winning brands is live and local. It’s is the biggest factor overall for success.
Do you feel stations that are less live and local are at a distinct disadvantage in a given market, or do national programming initiatives, when done right, overcome that?
It all comes down to the market makeup. If you are a market with all national programming, the playing field is leveled. The best wins. In the end, a great show is a great show. If you have live and local radio that sucks, but have a great national competing product, you will probably lose. Live and local has to come with entertainment and trust with your listeners. That only comes with time and talent. We are fortunate to have both of these here.
You tend to use research to a fair degree, but you also use gut feel for a song as well. What are the over-riding factors that mostly influence what new titles you add on a weekly basis?
The song needs to satisfy the core sound of the station and market taste. Core artists get priority. Songs that are a bit more out of the pocket for us usually wait a few weeks. The last thing we want to do is add a stiff that wasn’t even our core sound. As a PD, you need to invest a little gut into your programming. Hopefully you can call more hits than stiffs.
You converted a station last year to a male Rock format (MAX102) that emphasis the eighties “Hair Band” sound. What was the catalyst behind the move and how much did you enjoy the process?
We love our “hair bands” in Northeast PA! Bon Jovi, Poison, Def Leppard. We saw an opportunity to create a station that was an 80’s, 90’s early 2000’s “Rock Hits” based station utilizing Pop/Rock and Rock/Alternative crossovers. A typical hour may have Green Day, Journey, Sheryl Crow, Fall Out Boy, Motley Crue, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alanis Morissette and Coldplay in the mix. This fits in nicely between the traditional Classic Rocker and Hot AC in the market. We are off to a great start. There is nothing more exciting than being part of a station startup. This is my third and it never gets tiring. The stunting, the market buzz, and finally the launch is a complete adrenalin rush for me.
How’s the station doing these days?
Cume and TSL have more than doubled over three books and we are off to a good start. However, it is more challenging to get new brands off the ground without a lot of multi-platform marketing dollars. People don’t scan the radio anymore and with so many choices, you can get lost in the gray area. Taking advantage of WKRZ’s huge cume to cross-promote in stop-sets is the next step along with some grassroots marketing on the street. Using our existing social platforms can only help as well.
What makes Entercom a special place to be, can you describe the company culture as it relates to you and your staffers?
Entercom has encouraged my creativity over my 9 years here and has continued to give me the tools I need to help us be successful…no bull! As with every company, people matter too. We have great people that have made this market cluster their home much longer than I have and they all love their gigs. We have been fortunate enough to pull great ratings and make budget here with all of the hard work from each department. Management has worked to reward our people and highlight the good stuff happening whether it is a station lunch, employee of the month, or even a raffle for a non-management team member to win a vacation (that stinks for me). That’s probably why I still come to work after 9 years and that’s why we have great people living their dream by choice year after year here at Entercom.