I was lucky to have a great consultant on my first programming job. It could have been awkward. The late Chicago R&B radio veteran Richard Pegue was a former PD on my station’s frequency. He had also applied for the PD job himself. What he would have done at the helm would have undoubtedly sounded different. And yet, he enthusiastically helped me execute my own vision of the radio station.
Okay, mostly enthusiastically. It was from Richard that I first heard the phrase, “It’s not my radio station.” Sometimes, I think he said “… our station” and was saying it to commiserate with me after a tough day. Sometimes, I’m sure he meant, “Okay, if you insist.” With more time around radio stations, I came to understand this as the thing that a lot of radio people said after a tough day. The phrase “s—t happens” was just becoming popular around then. “It is what it is” was years away from its current usage. So if you meant, “I don’t like it, but I can’t change it,” you said, “It’s not my radio station.”
The intervening years gave broadcasters a lot of chances to feel that way. In 1995, when I started to hear “it’s not my radio station,” it might sometimes be amended with a cheerful “it’s the audience’s radio station, and I do what they want.” As often, the second half of the sentence was “it’s the owner’s radio station.” It wasn’t much longer until the sentence ended with “… it’s Wall Street’s radio station.” And that was if you were lucky enough to still be in a radio station, because many weren’t.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in a lot of great projects over the last 15 years or so, usually helping other people flesh out their vision for a broadcast property. Occasionally, somebody will ask the question, “So what would you do if it was your radio station?” I can always answer that, but I know that the right answer for most owners and programmers depends on the life they’re willing to live, and what they feel they can correctly execute. Country’s 2-to-3-share New York niche wasn’t right for many major groups; Cumulus was comfortable with the format and looking for a flagship.
Consultants and researchers have a reputation for being didactic. Over the years, I’ve come to understand how it might happen. A decade or so ago, a station’s consultant and I both left a medium market thinking we had a clear game plan, then watched a PD (with major-market experience and no small level of his own accomplishment) put on something that in no way resembled what we had discussed. The consultant in question was and remains one of the industry’s most respected. He wasn’t the type of consultant you’ve heard about who badgers, or comes to the station and sits at the client’s desk, or plays other mind games. But at that moment, I would have understood if he’d wanted to.
In that case, the PD heard a station in his head, but it was the wrong one, and it didn’t last very long. As often, the issue is that the PD doesn’t hear any ideal station. Today’s cluster strategies have also ensured that somebody will be programming two, three, four or more radio stations. Inevitably, one of them will be a format that the PD does not personally like, or understand. While we like to think that a good programmer can program anything, it’s hard to camouflage not liking a certain format. After a while of trying your best tricks from the format you do like, you still have to have a considered opinion on the music that you schedule, and it’s hard if you don’t like the songs.
Sometimes, liking the songs has been my job. Sometimes there’s somebody else in the programming department who brings the passion for the format that the PD doesn’t have. But not always. It’s an equally old saying that a station is an extension of a PD’s personality, but some stations sound more like a composite playlist of other stations. Or a music test in search of a radio station. And having somebody over four radio stations even saps the energy for the format the programmer does like.
In other words, somebody has to say “it is my radio station.” And mean it. Because these days, listeners effectively have the ability to program their own station. Right now, that station will be an unhosted collection of records somewhere online or on their desktop. But give Alexa time. Rather than provide the second-best approximation of the listener’s personal playlist, it’s okay to offer your own. That doesn’t mean don’t play the hits. Think of it as putting on music for company. You want to play something they’ll like; you want to make your own statement.
“It is my radio station” doesn’t have to just come from one person. Recently, I helped somebody sign on a unique radio station. It was the owner’s vision, but I’ve had a wide latitude to help fill that in. I’ve been gratified both by how happy he is with what he’s hearing, and with the reported response in the market. Paradoxically, because I know how much trust I have, I’m particularly interested in the owner’s thoughts and tweaks. In other words, we’ve reached the best place. It is our radio station.