By Tess Taylor
Radio has morphed from gatekeeper when it used to be the only game in town to trusted filter. And it is still the most powerful marketing tool today to expose music to the masses. Airplay can lead to fans, record sales, tours and platinum records.
Just ask Drake, Big Sean, J. Cole or Mary J. Blige.
The man behind the programming who has helped advance these artists and their careers was our guest at NARIP’s recent Radio Executive Session. Jimmy Steal, Emmis VP of Programming and Power 106 LA Programming Director, has curated Power 106 for the last 12 years and made it one of the most competed-against formats in Los Angeles today, reaching over 11.5 million listeners.
Secretly a huge rock fan, Steal has managed four stations to success and high ratings (WXXL Orlando, KEGWL / KDMX Dallas, WKRQ Cincinnati and now Power 106 LA). More than that, he has helped them sustain success over time. At NARIP’s session, he talked about trends in radio, how to get new music heard, and the station’s initiatives to keep up with technology. He also listened to several tracks and gave feedback.
Trends in Radio
The biggest shifts affecting radio in the last ten years are technology and the Internet. Disruptive technology is nothing new, Steal said. It’s how you adapt that matters.
Some stations are struggling to adapt to Personal People Meters, or PPMs, which have changed programming since their introduction a few years ago. Radio ratings used to be measured by recall which entailed people writing down what they remembered listening to in their diaries. With PPMs, ratings are now based on behavior.
Personal People Meters (PPMs)
The PPM is an electronic system which picks up radio to which you are exposed, whether listening in your home or to radio that happens to be on at work or the gas station or anywhere you happen to be. This new method of measurement favors older, wider and non-ethnic formats (such as classic rock and CHR), and tends to favor ethnic and youth demographics less, Steal explained.
Why? When groups of people get together and play music, most of the time the music that is most likely to appeal to the largest number of people will be middle-of-the-road music such as classic rock, etc.
With approximately 3000 PPMs in the Los Angeles area, Steal said that as few as three PPMs could potentially change his station’s rating dramatically, for better or worse.
This is not a large enough of a sample to give adequate coverage to all demographics, he explained, and the reason is that the PPM monitoring system is so expensive. This makes programming at Emmis, as owners of the two biggest hip hop stations in the world (including Hot 97 in New York), particularly challenging.
Monitoring systems are so sophisticated now that research is available that can show exactly how many people tune out from a song. “It’s a high casualty war!” he chuckled.
Artist Development ~ Every Song Matters
Coleman Research which Power uses says, “Every song you play is a marketing statement.” Steal agrees, just as everything you do and say, every email you send, the music you submit and how you submit it… all of these are marketing statements.
Every song matters, he says, which is why it’s so important to play music that appeals, or select music that is likely to appeal, to an audience. Even so, Power supports the community with its New@2 programming, and anyone can submit new music online at Power’s Web site (www.power106.com).
How To Get On Radio I
There are two ways to get on the radio. The first is to come up with a game changer, a song that sounds like nothing else out there and is thoroughly compelling. Having recently met Prince, Steal offered Prince’s 1984 smash hit “When Doves Cry” as an example.
The second way to get on the radio is to sound like everything else on the radio, but just do it better. “And the Me-Too’s are making a pretty good living,” he added.
“Ultimately, we don’t care which label a song is on (if any), we’re just looking for best songs possible,” he said. “If you have a great song, it really is unstoppable even if it takes a minute. Chances are it will attract radio, a manager, label and/or publisher because everything follows a great song. Equally, if you have all hype in the world, a big budget and you know everybody, it doesn’t matter because you can’t throw enough money at a bad song to make it a hit.”
“We’re label blind and the Web has democratized the music business,” says Steal.
Music genres constantly evolve, including hip hop. Power 106 doesn’t sound like it did even one or two years ago. Hip hop has gotten very electro, dance-y, pop-py and much more mainstream, said Steal, and it goes through phases, between having very broad appeal and being more “dark, gritty and street.” Today it’s going through a much more pop phase which will probably cool off at some point, he said.
Careers in Radio
Every great station is like a film, said Steal, it has a star, a supporting cast, plot and characters. So who are you? Where do you fit into our plot? Power looks for great characters. At an event or party, “I like to observe who everyone else is crowded around. Who’s a great storyteller? It’s hard to find.” He said that a budding on-air personality has to know his core three or four attributes. Radio is show biz, it just happens to be on air, but he and his staff are always looking for new on-air talent that is compelling, original and fresh.
How To Get On Radio II
“The guys [at the station] have music meeting every week, they put together a thick packet of information. This could include everything from airplay statistics from around country, including regional, to call-out research, charts and any information on how a song may be doing,” says Steal.
“If a song has no history and is brand new then it comes down to guys on my team who have the ears, because they know what it takes to make a record on Power. I tell them that they have to believe that it will end up in our heaviest rotation and get spun 100+ times a week and that it will be a smash.”
“This goes back to ‘every record is a marketing statement’ because we don’t have time for stuff that’s not going all the way. If they have consensus, they’re all feeling it or even if they go on pure gut, I defer to them. The diversity of our crew is fantastic, our youngest mixer is 17 and we have tentacles out in so many areas. So if they have consensus it’s not my job to out-vote them, then we put it on the air.”
Submit New Music to Power 106
Again, you can submit new music to Power 106 online, just click here: www.power106.com.
Says Steal, you can also reach out to Power’s receptionist and ask when music meetings take place. You can email links to Power’s MD (“E Man”) or mix show coordinator.
The best way to get music to Power is to just send one track, and make sure it’s a track that blows YOU away. If it doesn’t blow you away, don’t expect anyone else to be blown away. Send a link and not an MP3 – lots of attachments don’t get past Power’s firewall. Get to the point, just a few sentences describing yourself in the email. “And I hate to say this,” says Steal, “but if you’d don’t hear back, that’s an answer. It makes us sound smug, but it’s just impossible to get back to everyone. If you sent a link, WE GOT IT.”
“We want new music, we want hits, especially hits that are local or regional and come from this area. That’s great for everybody, it builds artists, tours, ticket sales, ratings. WE WANT NEW HITS. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of stuff we get is not all that,” he said.
I think our audience wonders what’s next too, says Steal, and there are people waiting for hip hop to go back to the way it was, but that’s just not a good business to be in.
“As a company, we’re morphing our products out across other platforms now. For those of you on Facebook, we have a partnership with Jelli – go to jelli.com/Power106 you can log into an entire channel of Power 106’s New@2, and it shows up in your data stream if you’re on Facebook. Jelli is an online platform that syndicates to radio. It’s interactive radio, so you can vote a song up or down, and affect how much (or little) a song plays in a stream. It’s all new music, all the time.”
Does Jelli affect terrestrial radio?
It’s too soon to tell, says Steal, “but a a hot song could eventually earn its way on the air, that’s ideally the way we see it, if something blows up online, it would be nice to have our own farm team, it would be good for everybody. We’re not there yet, but if you like a song, you rocket it. If you don’t, you bomb it. It’s a combination of gaming and social listening.
In the next phase of the Internet is social TV, which Steal predicts will be massive game changer. An example of social listening is Turntable FM, a “really cool site,” he says. Since record stores are dying out, so too are the kids behind the counter with encyclopedic knowledge of music who used to point people to great new artists. Sites like Turntable FM are the new “curators.”
It’s an exciting time for the digital side of music delivery, “but I don’t think anyone knows how it will shake out. New media companies have all the R&D, all the technical expertise and venture capital funding. But we have great programming expertise and huge loyal audiences.”
“We know we need to be where our audience is, and that’s everywhere they go with this [holds up phone],” he said. “We also know huge amounts of people use our app and stream us online on their phones. Someday soon when you log onto our site – or maybe it will live on Facebook, or maybe it will be built into your browser – we know there will be 15 Power 106s. The All Big Boy Power 106, the All Mixing Power 106, the All Throw-Back Power 106. We know what it looks like, we’re just not quite there yet, the audience demand isn’t there yet. We’re trying to evolve our brands at the same speed as technology. We have an idea of where it’s going but trying to get there in a cost effective way which at least fulfills if not exceeds expectations of our audience is the tough part.”
“As Steve Jobs said, you can’t ask an audience what they want, because they don’t know! You have to know what they want before they do. He’s right. You can do focus groups, but there’s a lot of stuff people just can’t articulate but they know it when they see it or feel it. If you rewind to two to three years ago, did you know you needed an iPad? No, but today it’s a run-away bestseller, it’s changing the game, even cutting into lap top sales. It’s a category killer. We know people want Power 106 custom channels and we know they want them to go everywhere, so how do we monetize and do the R&D to get it done and not cut into our terrestrial ratings?”
“I remember reading a book years ago about an artist in a band from England that came over here and was trying to make it. He said, ‘We re really trying to get to everyone here, but America you’re so big!’ And he was right. You could be huge artist in one sector of country and never spread to another.”
“We know everything is going digital, and terrestrial signals will be complimented by all these digital counterparts. We have to move forward in a way that’s complimentary to our brand and fulfills or exceeds expectations of people consuming our brands, and that’s a lot easier said than done.”
Integrating Live Performances Into Power 106 Programming
We started on a limited basis to stream shows online, there is an appetite for it. Our sister station in New York, Hot 97, does a Summer Jam every year and this year we streamed the show for the first time and got about 400,000 views. Power has a 3 million cume almost every week, we have more ears than many TV shows. We have early adopters, people who run out and buy the digital single, we have cutting edge listeners and an active consumer-oriented audience. Our future is bright but we have a lot of technology hills to scale.
Responding to a question from Vanessa Gomez about Emmis’ corporate culture, Steal said that “emmis” means “truth” in Hebrew, “our CEO is Jewish,” he said. “I never worked for a company that meant ‘truth’ and I think our company does the right thing for the right reasons. I’ve been there a long time, and have never been at another job in radio as long as I’ve been in this one. I can line up behind these people and feel good about it. We very lucky to answer to people who say, ‘It’s on you!’ And as long as you succeed it’s all good. You screw it up, that’s a different conversation! For a lot of stations, the ads and imaging comes in from another city, MP3s are sent to you and you’re nothing more than an implementer. I’m proud of our whole crew at Power, we have our hands on the clay, we make the sculpture every day.”
Trade Publications & Conferences
Steal says Friday Morning Quarterback is well done, and AllAccess.com which is run by Joel Denver (former R&R editor) is the most comprehensive source for news in the radio industry.
Important conferences to attend include Convergence produced by Radio Inc. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has gotten more tech savvy, he says, and another that tags onto NAB is called RAIN – Radio & Internet Newsletter – which is organized by a company run by Kurt Hanson who owns a digital online radio platform called AccuRadio, “Kurt’s a brilliant guy,” he said. Steal occasionally attends Conclave in the Midwest.
How do radio stations report songs?
Spins are detected, BDS (Broadcast Data Systems) does electronic monitoring.
“We’re not in the counting spins business, that’s their [BDS’s] business,” he says. And every week when we add records, E Man or our music director will email that information out to the few trades that left. It’s very straightforward, not like it used to be back in the day when it wasn’t monitored – just playlists – that was not as transparent. Transparency today is great for everyone. You may not always get the answer you want when you’re working a record but at least you can see real spins, real records going up, songs going down. Really, there is no place to run and hide today. If you have real hit song reacting in other markets, we’ll know about it. That’s good for us.”
“The hype business has died, and the marketing biz has matured”
“There’s not enough hype in the world to get a stiff to work, but if you got a real song and you know how to market it then you got a real hit. It’s a good time,” says Steal.
Future of Radio
“Radio is here to stay, to the chagrin of some people who, because they can’t get airplay, blame their misfortune on radio, big brother, or big conglomerates. No doubt we could always be doing a better job as an industry. But in most cases when song doesn’t get on radio, it’s because the song just isn’t that great, and that’s a bitter pill for people to swallow.”
“As we morph to digital platforms, the future may give us opportunities to exposure even more new music. We have a channel online now that’s all new music 24/7 so the future bodes very well. It could be a subscription model in the cloud for a few bucks a month hear new music you’ve never heard before. That’s very exciting.”
“A study came out a week ago which said that people with subscriptions are buying more digital purchases than people without subscriptions. People getting exposed to more music also purchase more. I’m very optimistic about the future. Radio has great brands, people will follow those brands across all platforms because they trust our curators whether it’s a Big Boy or DJ Felli Fel or Yesi Ortiz. It’s our job and my job to convince people I work for to make expenditures to take our brands and products and line-extend them across all these digital platforms so we can make sure our audience can consume our product where they want it, when they want it and how they want it. We’re not there yet but we know where THERE is, and I am very encouraged by efforts I see radio companies making to make their product more accessible to an upcoming generation.”
“You’ll find a lot of stuff online that’s just music playlists, but it’s not curated, there’s no passion. You can go online and assemble playlists, subscribe to Spotify, Slacker – they’re all great products –but it’s not the same as listening to the radio and hearing Big Boy come on and say, ‘This is the dopest track I’ve heard in 5 years!’ It’s the new Snoop or whatever. That’s not going away. Will the dashboard get more crowded? Absolutely! But everything that came along – the CD was going to kill radio, everything was going to kill radio. Nothing is going to kill radio. Competition continues to be there. I believe we’re the most competed against radio station in LA, we’ve got 8 or 9 stations going directly at our demographic. Do we suffer attrition from time, ratings ebb and flow? Absolutely, but our brand is driven by people who love it, live it, and always bounce back. The present is challenging, it’s not all blue sky, we know where it’s going not sure of its exact path.”
“I met the guy who started MP3.com [Michael Robertson], he told me he met every CEO of every label [in the beginning] and responses he got ranged from ‘thanks but no thanks’ to being kicked out of their offices. Finally he went to artists and their managers, they totally got it and bought into MP3s and MP3.com went on to make millions as the explosion hit the Internet. Instead of embracing this and figuring it out, labels left it for Steve Jobs. Hindsight is 20/20, I’m not blaming them, when you have huge tech disruption like the internet everyone’s business models imploding by the moment. I am not faulting them but you’ve got to understand that your business model gets dated and have to do everything you can to morph into the present. You see what happened. There are already courses being taught at Harvard and Yale about the implosion of the music business because it was so dramatic and quick. In less than a decade it’s been decimated, and that’s a ugly lesson from the inside.”
“Make hits, it helps everybody! Hopefully you’ll have platinum record, plaques on your walls, and big cars and all good stuff that goes with it!”
Sources for More Info
(C) 2011 Tess Taylor. All rights reserved.