Find the Road Home for Success

Mark Ramsey on the death and (re)birth of personality radio
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Radio stands at a crossroads; to move forward, it needs to rediscover its roots. So says Mark Ramsey, media strategist and critic of radio-as-a-jukebox formats.

Like many other things, formats have a cyclical nature; Ramsey believes it’s time to bring personalities back. We asked him to explain how we got to where we are and how we get back.

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From its birth in the 1920s, radio programming was synonymous with personalities. Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Amos n’ Andy, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and Jack Benny were welcomed into households across the nation via that radio in the living room. Later, as rock ’n roll was emerging in the 1950s and ’60s, a new generation of personalities in the form of top-40 DJs sprang from the clear-channel AM stations around the country. Alan Freed, Hunter Hancock, Robin Seymour, B. Mitchell Reed, Dick Biondi and Arnie Ginsburg entertained a growing audience of teenagers, especially ones listening in car radios.

“All of those DJs had a ‘schtick,’ something that made them unique,” said Ramsey. For some, it was howling into the microphone like a caged animal; others used sound effects or had conversations with imaginary sidekicks. Common to many was an anti-authority tone that only increased through the 1960s.

Beginning in the late 1970s and continuing into the ’80s, the number of formats increased, and the emphasis began to shift away from the personality and toward the music. This trend reached its peak with the birth of syndicated radio formats in the early 1980s, such as “Music of Your Life” and “Hot Hits.” Now, in his view, announcers had little to do but play a tightly formatted playlist and read liner notes word for word. Nothing more, nothing less.

“It became a reliable recipe for success,” said Ramsey, “getting by on the easy and the familiar.”

Today, we are surrounded online and on mobile devices by music channels that are essentially jukeboxes.

“Radio can’t succeed by building a better jukebox,” Ramsey feels, “because listeners will just seek out another jukebox that has no commercials.”

For radio to thrive, he feels it needs to differentiate itself from the jukebox by doing something entirely different, namely bringing back the personalities.

“It’s a long road back, but it’s only going to get longer. Now is the time to start, while radio is still in every car, and while it is still listened to by most everybody.” It’s also key to do this before personalities are forgotten altogether.

“I did a flash study with 1,000 consumers in the U.S. aged 18–54,” said Ramsey. “And I asked this question: ‘What are the names of the three most famous DJs, hosts or shows you can think of from radio, online radio, satellite radio or podcasting?’ Among the most-recalled were Ryan Seacrest and Howard Stern. All the rest of the names on the list were of people who are dead. Will Howard Stern be the last, best-known, non-political air talent?”

Ramsey said that other forms of media and entertainment have rejuvenated themselves with younger talent. “Late-night television hosts, ‘Saturday Night Live’ and the film industry are all running with younger talent. So where’s the next generation of radio personalities?”

That being said, what makes a great radio personality?

“A ‘personality’ isn’t simply a voice on the air,” says Ramsey. “For a personality to matter, he or she must be a genuine talent, someone with ‘star power’ who magnetizes an audience because he or she is just that good. Anything less is just a voice.”

What does the road back look like? First, he feels, management needs to recognize the problem and be willing to spend some serious money to find and retain good talent.

“They would easily spend $100,000 on the technology to upgrade a signal, rather than spend that money on getting the best talent in town. That’s a shame because no one listens to the radio for technology; they listen for the personalities because the songs are freely available everywhere now.”

Second, management has to actively seek out new talent. “I would feel sad and morose if I thought there was no new talent to be found, but that’s just not the case.” He feels there is a huge pool of untapped talent doing top-quality podcasts.

Third, these new personalities need to be promoted heavily. “Listeners are creatures of habit. They have their favorite stations, and they stick with them. They’re not very likely to discover your new format or personalities unless you vigorously promote them on several media channels.”

The importance of talent is not lost on all stations. Ramsey points to legendary rocker WMMR(FM) in Philadelphia (a Mark Ramsey Media client) as a place where talent is valued; he notes for example that it still uses a live announcer on the overnight shift. Ramsey asked WMMR Program Director Bill Weston to explain why.

“Personality is everything,” he said. “If you’re running 13 songs an hour and 6 minutes of spots on the overnight, then you’re not as good as Pandora. Those guys are running 15 songs per hour with no spots and the element of surprise. The ability of talent to make that connection with someone who is feeling isolated or unappreciated is very powerful. Those people will tell the tale of why ’MMR has this guy on overnights who connects the dots between the music, them and their lifestyle.”

Ramsey concludes that it’s all really an exercise in marketing strategy.

“Programming is not about doing what everybody else is doing; it’s about doing what nobody can do as well, namely managing a well-run radio station that emphasizes localism with engaging, live personalities.”

Comment on this or any story; write toradioworld@nbmedia.comwith Letter to the Editor in the subject line.

Tom Vernon is a longtime contributor to Radio World. Find more of his articles by searching keyword “Vernon” on radioworld.com.

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