Crisis Prevention Vs. Damage Control

This article was originally posted to AllAccess’ “Consultant Tips” series, written by Charese Fruge on July 21, 2021 

The only way to fix the problem is to go back and re-do everything that was done, returning the brand to its original strategy that is consistent with its listeners’ expectations
I just recently went to a dentist appointment where one of the dental assistants, knowing I had history in the Las Vegas radio market, asked me what happened to his favorite radio station? Knowing the history and how the industry works, I knew what he meant. Sadly, I went to dinner with friends the other night, and I got the same questions about the station and a genuine curiosity about why the station had changed so much and why it no longer felt local.

We’ve seen a lot of casualties when it comes to radio brands across the country in the last few years, even before the pandemic hit. The bigger broadcast companies have been downsizing, consolidating and managing from the “Ivory Tower” for a while now because of the simple fact that, financially, they bit off more than they can chew, which led to a lack of ratings, decreased revenue on a local and national level and a need to cut cut cut, in order to answer to shareholders.

This in turn has led to Format, Management and Talent streamlining in order to cut costs, and a constant grasp for power among the select few left making the important decisions. It’s blatantly obvious that this is bad for the future of radio, especially since things are continuing to get worse. The definition of “Insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. And radio tends to continue to do this. As proof, last week’s massive streamlining of the Top 40 Format hitting one of the major companies again, resulting in massive layoffs and more national programming.

I did my best to explain to my non-radio friends about the business decisions companies have to make to hit their numbers that have impacted stations across the country. It was a difficult conversation for me because I didn’t want to ruin their perception of the “magic of radio” for the average person, but they needed to know that radio is like any other business, and it’s about the bottom line.

The station my friends and my dentist’s assistant were referring to was one of the few Alternative brands across the country that survived and flourished after Howard Stern left for Sirius XM, and after the “Free FM” debacle. The station quickly catapulted to the top. It was an easy sell and revenue was good, particularly thanks to a winning morning show with history in the market.

After a few years of being away from the market and being unable to hear the station daily, I returned to Vegas. Like many others, I noticed the changes immediately when they went down. The station was re-branded, practically re-formatted based on a corporate strategy, and stripped of all it’s local talent, except for the morning show. This was a devastating blow to the brand, it’s ratings and revenue and a set up for failure for a successful morning show with history in the market.

Why would someone make the decision to fix something that wasn’t broken? Not only was this a death sentence for the overall brand, but it was also bad timing. The pandemic hit a few months after the rebranding, and a new Classic Alt Rock station entered the market. Between the Classic Hits Station, the Rock station and this new brand, the bottom fell out for one of the few successful Alternative stations in the country.

Here’s what happened: The station’s name and brand was changed to match the rest of the stations across the country, which was the first mistake. The brand was already a market fixture. Again, why fix something that isn’t broken? Then the station’s new music strategy was to move to a more pop leaning playlist, dumping all the gold records that matter in the market and going after a TikTok audience. FYI, a TikTok audience is not listening to radio and definitely NOT carrying a meter. These music changes allowed for the Classic Hits, Classic Alt Rock and even the Rock station to pick up all the gold that mattered in the market, particularly from the 90’s Grunge era, you know, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Chili Peppers etc. Next, Middays and PM drive were syndicated, and a new show that has no business being in the market and is practically all talk was put into PM drive, while the new competitor brought in “The Woody Show” from LA, for mornings, a highly successful show, potentially perfect for Vegas not only because of its success, but because of the familiarity, connection and proximity between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Then, there’s the “2 Minute Commercial Promise,” which in theory sounds like a good strategy, except when you break four times an hour because you can’t reduce inventory and it becomes practically impossible to get 5 minutes of straight listening “within a quarter hour” from a meter holder in order to get credit in the ratings. Also, breaking for commercials that often feels like a lot of interruption which interferes with time spent listening, and when you are literally promoting a “2-minute commercial promise” more than double the times you’re promoting the Morning Show, your cash contest or even your music, what will the takeaway be from the average listener (if there are any left)?

I’m pretty sure this isn’t the only station impacted by the streamlining of a format on a national level. I only hope its not too late for the format to bounce back. Last year I wrote a column about Programmers’ “Knee Jerk Reactions” to a bad book, especially in the middle of a pandemic, and the severe damage it could do to a consistent brand. I’ve said it before, “The only way to fix the problem is to go back and re-do everything that was done, returning the brand to its original strategy that is consistent with its listeners’ expectations.” But without marketing, local talent or talent that makes sense, as well as local Programming with knowledge of the market history, format and landscape, and a true investment in the success of the radio station, no one will know that the brand is back.

Last week’s Top 40 re-branding was a big blow to the industry, and the word on the street is that more streamlining and national programming is sure to come. If that’s the case, I hope companies have done, and are doing their research to prevent the “Radio Pandemic” (Streamlining) from taking out the traditional signals all together. Haven’t we learned our lesson yet? Take a page from history, if you want to win, it’s all about crisis prevention, and not damage control.