by Fred Deane
Greg Strassell has been a diligent programmer his entire career. Always on point and ready for the next challenge, he has crafted quite a track record of success over the years including productive stints as SVP/Programming at each of CBS Radio and iHeartMedia.
While based in Boston throughout his career, he had also previously served as VP Hot AC/Programming for Infinity/CBS, VP/Programming overseeing WBMX, WODS and WZLX, and PD at WBMX. Strassell’s diverse background also includes VP/Product Development for American Radio Systems, as well as various programming and on-air posts at WLOL/Minneapolis, WROK/WZOK/Rockford, WSTO/Evansville, WEAG/Indianapolis and WOKI/Knoxville.
In June of 2015, Strassell joined Hubbard Radio as SVP of Programming, which offered a different slice of company intimacy and culture versus the larger radio groups he had previously grown accustomed to. Today, Greg’s multi-format involvement has him working with thirty-four brands in eight markets including major markets as divergent as Minneapolis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Phoenix and Washington DC, among others.
After spending several years at larger-based radio groups, what attracted you the most to Hubbard?
Hubbard Radio’s values were really attractive. I had competed with Hubbard over the years, and viewed the culture and commitment to both the products and the local teams from across the street. You don’t have to be the biggest group to be a great group, and under CEO/Chair Ginny Morris, COO/President Drew Horowitz and CFO Dave Bestler, Hubbard had established a terrific culture.
A call had come in one day out of the blue from a number marked “unknown.” I almost didn’t answer, thinking it may have been a telemarketer. It was Ginny Morris calling…glad I answered.
The long-term view is something we are committed to. Each one of our brands is important, regardless of the market size or format. Our collective ratings have grown nicely over the past few years, and we are proud of the many competitive programmers and talent, and new members who have joined the team along the way.
How does the overall company culture at Hubbard reflect your programming philosophy in general?
Great programmers can breathe amazing creativity and life into their radio stations. Combine that with strong personalities, along with the research and marketing at Hubbard Radio, and you come up with winning brands. We give the programmers a pallet to create their art and do what has always been key to engaging local brands, start the creative process locally. We are always asking how we can make our brands more compelling, and try our best to be a destination for difference-making talent.
How do you navigate around the similarities and differences among the wide spectrum of formats you work with?
Well, you can’t be an expert at every format, but most of the winning basics are the same. We do have nearly every major format within the Hubbard portfolio. My background is CHR and Hot AC. Anything other than that requires a learning curve, personally.
Hubbard, also has WTOP News, Urban, Sports, Country, Rock, Alternative, Talk, and more. We have expanded our Country presence in the last year with the launch of 98-9 The Bull in Seattle, and the acquisition of WIRK in West Palm Beach. That is now combined with our powerhouse brands B105 in Cincinnati and New Country 92.3 in St. Louis. Country is Top 40, so while the music is different the DNA is very similar.
Identifying a problem and turning it into an opportunity is always a rewarding challenge. I’m a big believer in the book The One Thing by Gary Keller, which stresses focus on a key growth element.
Hubbard has some powerhouse HAC stations in the fold. How has your previous experience in HAC allowed you to grow these stations to even greater heights?
KS95/Minneapolis, Q102/Cincinnati, WTMX/Chicago and Hubbard’s newly acquired WRMF/Palm Beach are winning brands with great programmers in Leighton Peck, Patti Marshall, Jimmy Steal and Leo Baldwin. They, along with their market managers and on-air personalities are behind the growth.
The Hot AC format can go down two distinct paths. Either It’s a lean-forward, passionately executed brand with talent; or a lean-back brand to a sister CHR. The former is what we do. This was how I programmed Mix in Boston. My job is to share best practices with our teams and assist them when needed.
How have these stations expanded your horizons given their consistency of success?
It reinforced the power of community involvement, high personality, and serious commitment to time-spent-brainstorming. My learning curve also increased from seeing the commitment Hubbard Radio places on community involvement.
The company was founded in 1925, by Stanley E. Hubbard. There are documents framed in the corporate office that were authored by him always stressing the importance of serving our communities. He was Ginny Morris’ grandfather, and the Hubbard family continues to expect that commitment. It’s a big day for us when our brands win an NAB Crystal Radio Award.
What have been the major changes in the HAC format over the past decade or so and in what ways are you still bullish on the format going forward?
Many Hot AC’s have moved to be extremely contemporary. 2008 to 2016 were great years to ride the strong Pop music cycle. Now Hot AC can draw music from CHR, Alternative and Country; a true variety of contemporary music. It has adjusted to various music cycles, and always does. But the successful ones are still entertaining and engaging their audiences, supported by digital tools. Hot AC has to work very hard to be essential to our listeners. I believe we will see more commitment and many new ideas from this format as the future plays out.
Has the recent Pop music cycle been more HAC-friendly where the sharing ratio has been favoring HAC to an extent?
If CHR produced a few more break-out songs that are distinct, like Gaga/Cooper, the format would be healthier. So much of the CHR chart in the past year or so feels similar in style, and that usually occurs during a down cycle until a few hits from left field are created that break up the log jam of sound. We’re coming out of a down cycle in the past month or so. Ed/Justin is a great, unique song. Great to have Taylor Swift back, and the Jonas Brothers song stands out. Ariana Grande is another core artist that has been awesome to have in 2019. Labels that are most focused on deep artist development should lead the way in the next resurgence of CHR music. Emotion and feel must not be over-run by big data.
Many Hubbard stations are big brand, long-term success fixtures in their respective markets. How much of a role does digital and tech platforms contribute to brand enhancement and growth?
We have dedicated apps for each brand, complete with podcasts, the ability to leave voice messages to our stations, and other brand-centric features such as listener rewards and push notifications. Plus, our apps are designed for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. So, in that world, if you have downloaded the Movin’ 92.5 app in Seattle, or The Drive Chicago app, it’s on your dashboard with a great looking logo display. We have built skills for Alexa, and have a terrific in-house digital department led by Jeremy Sinon, our VP of Digital Strategy. I’m pleased with the google home experience. Google can quickly find a radio brand as easily as you can google it on a computer. We should see that continue to be an opportunity.
We see the industry has a hurdle, as about 50% of radio listeners don’t know you can listen to a favorite station on a smart speaker. Our stations are training listeners that your smart speaker is a radio, and they can listen by asking for the name of the brand. That 50% awareness issue will come down in time. Hubbard also has the resources of our 2060 digital agency to promote these brands.
How deeply involved do the brands get in podcasts?
Our entry into podcasting occurred in the early 2010’s at KSTP-AM. Along the way, we acquired a minority stake in PodcastOne and partnered with Norm Pattiz. We are producing over 150 podcasts now. Wheeler Morris joined us last fall as Manager, Corporate Podcasting Strategy. Wheeler has been working with our markets to build-out local podcast strategies and help bring new shows to life.
One recent digital launch was for our on-demand sports brand in the twin cities. SkorNorth and SkorNorth.com were born out of 1500 AM, KSTP. This was the radio station that started Hubbard Radio. It’s only fitting that we launch a digital sports brand from this radio station. We see SkorNorth.com and SkorNorth’s app as the hub, with the 50,000 AM signal as a part of the many ways to consume and promote SkorNorth.
Our success metrics for SkorNorth include 8 digital goals and 2 Nielsen goals. Kudos to VP/Market Manager Dan Seeman and Brand/Content Director Phil Mackey on the launch. We have a long way to go there, but the vision is outstanding.
In what ways have you witnessed lifestyle tendencies affect your formats and how have you used these propensities to enhance audience engagement?
We have to take any change and make it work for us, turn it into a positive. We are no longer just in the business of AM/FM. We are AM/FM/Digital Content. How can we use the changing audio world to draw back to our radio brands? That is a question we must continue to work on. We also must ask, what original digital content can we create that may not be related to our radio brands? We have seen research that shows our on-demand podcasts of the on-air shows usually fulfill a listener’s need when they couldn’t listen to it live. We have also seen research that shows those podcasts help promote the live show even more.
What should the message be to our medium with respect to the competitive disruptors threatening our core business?
A lot of audio content has emerged as competition. We raise the bar and ask, “What must we do to be sought after?” in an on-demand world. Don’t forget, we are radio, and great radio is best when it’s “in the moment and compelling” to our audiences.
What does radio have to accomplish to remain a competitive quality choice for listeners?
Be remarkable and stay top of mind. We have rebranded our program director titles to re-think the future. The former title just implied that we are scheduling programs, a byproduct of network radio days. Our adjusted title is “Brand/Content Director.” The brands must be so exceptional that they are asked for in a voice-command world or sought after in an app world. The content portion of the title obviously focuses on the unique on-air content that we produce. Both the brand and content should be sought after in an on-demand world.
How important is it for programmers and air talent alike to be more innovative to create more unique listener experiences?
We have to do things that create attention, and that requires setting aside time for thinking, brainstorming, and planning. I call it the “Shiny Object Theory.” If we aren’t creating passion and talk, and if we aren’t creating events that the audience can be a part of, then we have plenty of work to do. Also a basic thought is, stay visible with outside media. Radio must be seen on TV and outdoor.
Given the depth of your experience, and the many people you’ve worked with, what can you say about your individual learning curve along the way?
You learn from everyone throughout your career. You also learn from watching successful radio stations and what they do. You learn from failures, both your own and others. You learn from numbers, as numbers tell stories and can predict where the puck is going. I’m still learning from our programmers, market managers and ownership. We will keep raising the bar, keep attracting the brightest programmers, and let them create their entertainment art. But the most satisfaction I get is hearing the magic of great air talent. My goal is to look back someday and feel we brought in more great radio talent and made a difference in our listeners’ lives as a result.