Jokes “R” Us: Michael O’Shea of All Comedy Radio (07/21/03)
By Reed Bunzel
It seems almost elementary to introduce “All Comedy Radio” to a business whose Golden Age was built on the talents of such brilliant comic minds as Edgar Bergen, Milton Berle and Jack Benny. However, in an industry where humor now is defined by gutter-level shock jocks titillating under-matured male listeners, and where talent is relegated to droning liner-card voices, comedy has become a rare Radio species. Certainly, a handful of entrepreneurs have tried to put an all-comedy format on the Radio in the past, but the result never sounded like anything more than a bunch of jocks spinning their favorite Bob Newhart and Tom Lehrer albums.
Michael O’Shea, CEO of Hollywood-based All Comedy Radio, says all that is about to change. “For the first time, we have merged professional comedy with AM and FM Radio in a compelling, entertaining and funny, new, full-format presentation,” he says. “The programming utilizes standup routines from superstar comedians and up-and-coming touring comics, as well as exclusive interview segments from All Comedy Radio’s Hollywood studios.” News parodies, parody songs and morning show-type Radio comedy rounds out the topical and relevant programming, he says, resulting in a formatic mix similar to the playlist of a contemporary music station.
O’Shea, a 30-year Radio veteran, started as an on-air personality and program executive and grew to such positions as major-market general manager, group COO, station owner, and group CEO. For the past five years, he was chairman/CEO for Seattle-based New Northwest Broadcasters, which, during that time, acquired and consolidated Radio stations in medium and small markets in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Alaska. O’Shea previously was president and founding partner of New Century Media and New Century Arizona, which together owned and operated stations in Seattle and Arizona. Prior to that, he served as executive vice president of Cook Inlet Radio Partners. Rising through the programming ranks, O’Shea was national program director for Gene Autry’s Golden West Broadcasters; he also programmed under legendary Radio innovator Gordon McLendon.
O’Shea says that All Comedy Radio is the brainchild of four entertainment entrepreneurs, each of whom has many years of experience in comedy and broadcasting. “John Strorer is our executive vice president of business development, Kent Emmons is chairman of the company, Howard Levine is EVP/Legal, and I’m the CEO,” he explains. “We also have a new partner, Rick Lippincott, who has been a programmer in three of the top five markets; he is VP/Station Affiliations.” Additionally, the company is drawing on the genius and relationships of Budd Friedman, founder of the Improv and manager of many veteran comics.
INK: Historically, comedy is nothing new to Radio. What makes you think that All Comedy Radio can go where no man or woman has gone before?
O’SHEA: Because this has never been done before. Not that putting funny things on the Radio hasn’t been done, because it has. Morning shows around the country use humor and bits; that’s the mainstay of some of the most successful morning shows. But when we started All Comedy Radio, we looked at how, as Radio formats have divided and subdivided, nobody has ever capitalized on putting a pure comedy play on the Radio.
How did you get involved with this particular project?
I became involved back in November, when I was making a tough lifestyle decision. My blood pressure was creeping up to dangerous levels, and my doctor said, “You have to do something that’s a little more relaxing and fun.” So I left the corporate day-to-day world for this project.
What do you bring to the table as a Radio programmer to make this work where other stabs at comedy on Radio have failed?
It’s the people we have at All Comedy Radio. One of our partners is Budd Friedman, the founder of the Improv. He was Jay Leno’s manager; he also discovered Bette Midler and had a lot to do with Adam Sandler and Drew Carey. He had wanted to take a stab at something like this, but every version they came up with sounded like a stand-up comedy club — and people don’t come to Radio to get a nightclub feeling. Another partner is John Storer, who came from Comedy Central. He was on the original production crew for Evening At The Improv>, and he has huge connections. Another partner is Kent Emmons, who has been involved in professional comedy for years and is one of Budd’s best friends. He has a Rolodex with 800 comics’ home phone numbers. The relationships my partners have with the comedians are amazing, and it’s not unlike the relationship I have with Radio people.
How did you become involved?
I was introduced to Budd and his partners in September, and they asked me how I would hear an all-comedy Radio station. When I listened, I knew it was not as a comedy club. I showed them the weak points in their research. I agreed to come on board toward the end of last year and see what I could do. It was Christmas Eve. Sitting at my computer, I started playing around with formulas, just as I would do if I were designing a new Country format or AC format. I mixed different elements of programming — try it this way and tweak it that way — and I came up with a combination that tested through the roof. It took time to pull it together, but it was all done with relationships. I don’t think a traditional Radio network could get the kind of traction that All Comedy Radio has gotten.
How did you get the comedians and the record labels to license their content to All Comedy Radio?
It was because of the relationships our partners have built over the years. We worked with George Slaughter, who started Laugh-In and who is on our advisory board; Bernie Brillstein, one of the top comic agents; and Lorne Michaels from Saturday Night Live. In fact, we have the entire SNL content licensed for All Comedy Radio. The reasoning we presented to the record companies and the artists themselves — as there is no ASCAP or BMI in recorded comedy — is that comedy sells probably one-tenth of one percent of all recorded audio. One reason is that comedy gets no exposure. Our mission from the beginning has been to be a friend of comedy; with the kind of exposure we think we can build out, we know we can increase comedy’s share of the recording pie.
What’s your formula for on-air presentation?
One third of our programming is recorded comedy, to which we have exclusive network rights. Another third is locally generated by All Comedy Radio. We opened a studio on Sunset Strip, where we have comics come in to work on material. These are mostly touring comics, the next generation. It’s five minutes from the Comedy Store and the Laugh Factory and seven minutes from the Improv, and we invite these young comedians to come by. Kent Emmons and I do the interviews. I’m the Ed McMahon, while Kent, who knows all of these people, does the interviews. We find out about them personally, and we ask them what they want us to ask, to essentially set up their routines. It’s really sit-down stand-up. We throw up some questions, and they knock them out of the park. It has great comedic value.
So you have comedy cuts and some interviews. Is that enough?
No. Any time we started mixing this, it still sounded too much like “comedy club.” So we put together the mortar for the network, what I call “Radio comedy.” We met with Bob Hamilton, who, through New Radio Star, has 125 morning disk jockeys collaborating and contributing to his service. He runs an elaborate bulletin-board system so jocks can share bits and other stuff, and we enrolled those guys with the idea of also being featured on All Comedy Radio. We have payment schedules for them and contests every 60 days to bring a couple of them to Hollywood, giving them stage time at the Improv or taking them back stage at The Tonight Show, and giving them a level of recognition they normally would not get. In return, they contribute bits. When I sign on my intranet every morning, I’ll have from 15 to 55 brand-new MP3 files of stuff that’s as topical as can be. If Michael Jackson’s nose falls off, we’ll have it on the air. That element of Radio comedy makes up the third piece.
Did this crack the “Radio comedy code?”
My partners think so, because we weave it throughout our programming. It’s short (30 seconds to 90 seconds), it has a lot of high comedic content, and it’s as topical as can be. It makes the station or the network or the program sound very relevant, very “in-tune” with today. We basically merged the stand-up, the interview segments, and the Radio comedy, just as music [formats do]. We treat every element as though it were an oldie or a current or a recurrent, and give it codes as to daypart or gender or ethnicity. I give every element a comedic code of one to five — one meaning it’s amusing, five meaning it’s a gut-buster. Then I put it right into RCS Selector, telling the computer to mix me an average of 3.5 on the comedic scale. If that’s not funny enough, I’ll tweak it to 3.6. Then I get a content log that’s generated daily, tweak it a little bit, time it out properly and put it together.
Do you have live personalities — regular DJs — to bring it all together?
That was the final piece that gave me what I was looking for in a Radio station sound: comedy jocks. Casey Kasem’s daughter Kerri and a few other notables come in and track out their shifts. Because the content is not locally relevant, they can introduce various bits, talk about what’s happening in comedy, talk about what’s coming up in comedy on television this week, who’s touring where, promote the website and promote the 800 number. This gives the programming a companionable feel, with the sound of a Radio station, rather than a comedy nightclub.
This all sounds good. But — to use an over-worked cliché — if you build it, can you be sure that they will come?
We’ve taken an approach that has filled in a lot of holes. We focus-group tested it pretty elaborately. Edison Media Research says it’s the only concept that they tested that got a 100-percent-favorable response — not the product, but the concept: all comedy on the Radio.
What’s your target demo?
The target is Adults 25-54, but we are expecting — and programming for — a 60-percent male lean. It’s not all bathroom humor or camp-fire humor; it’s funny stuff, but it’s probably funnier to a guy. We have tested it with women to see what the repulsion factor might be, and it turned out to be very low, because we don’t get into the gutter with the fart humor or excrement humor. We do get sexual, but we’re FCC-friendly. We also get into a lot of relationship stuff that’s funny.
Do you daypart for “mature” audiences?
We do daypart, but the more intense stuff will be dayparted later. I call it the “garlic bread theory” — I like garlic bread but not for breakfast. So we will daypart, and that’s written right into the codes we use in Selector.
Radio programmers tend to prefer risk-free, tried-and-true formats. Are you meeting with much resistance to 24/7 comedy?
You’re right — people in Radio are reluctant to try new things. Fifteen years ago, I was part of the group that started All Sports Radio at KJR. WFAN-New York had a bit of a head start, but KJR in Seattle was one of the very early Sports Talk Radio stations. In those days, it was not uncommon to have a station play oldies during the day and then play football on weekends or baseball at night. For a station to go All Sports 24/7 was uncommon, and we found that many people were very reluctant to try that. Now, any market in America can have several All Sports Radio stations — and some of them are taking their feeds from Sporting News Radio or ESPN’s syndicated product. We think All Comedy will grow on a similar track to All Sports. People will take a wait-and-see approach in the beginning, and then we’ll start getting some traction.
Comedy is not easy to sustain day after day. Can you be sure that your content won’t get stale?
That is the big question that I get from affiliates: “How can you sustain it?” And that’s the code-cracking that I think we’ve done in putting together this format. Is it a format that people will tune to and listen to for 10 hours? Absolutely not. It’s not so much that we’re going more for cume, but rather a Mother Nature factor. This will be a mood button. People are stuck in traffic in Omaha just as they are in L.A. If they’ve checked the weather and the traffic, they’ve gotten their dose of classic hits. There will be a time when they’ll just want to laugh for a while. I expect the format to be very high cume and relatively low TSL.
What sort of stations are you looking for as affiliates — facilities that have nowhere to go but up?
We have looked at this 27 ways, taken every devil’s advocacy position. I’ve been there on the other side of that desk. I’ve had vendors pitch new ideas to me, and I think we have addressed all the issues. Still, it is something new, and it is like that first person to open an oyster shell and say, “I think I’ll take a bite of this.” It’s going to take a little bit of traction, and it’s going to take some time to convince managers to try this. But when it does, we will obviously offer market exclusivity. We are looking for the best in every market for the best obvious possibility. At first, this will be a tough sell. I have created the Oyster Award to be presented to GMs who sign on with us. It’s called that because it probably took a lot of guts for that first GM to eat that first oyster.
If you don’t get enough people willing to eat those oysters, who will pay the bills?
We are not going to traditional advertisers initially. We know we will get traditional advertisers on a cost-per-point basis after we deliver “X” number of Arbitron listeners.
What John Storer did very successfully with Comedy Central was to go to New York, Los Angeles and Chicago ad agencies that specialize in special marketing and promotion — you might even call it product placement. There’s a whole division of advertising commerce in this area, and John has done a great job with it.
So you’re borrowing a page from the Golden Age of Radio?
Sure. If you think back to the original era of commercial Radio and TV, there were the Hallmark Hall of Fame and the Milton Berle Texaco Theater. So, prior to having any salable Arbitron numbers, we’re forming alliances with significant national advertisers that want to be a part of something on a national basis, even though they know we’ll debut with a limited position. We’re writing contracts that will let these people join us on the launch and have confidence in what we’re going to do. It’s very much like investing in product placement inside a movie. That’s a piece of the revenue pie that is very non-traditional, and because we’re self-funded, we don’t have huge overhead. None of us is taking a salary at this point. We’re able to get this product to market for dimes on the dollar, compared to what it would take a traditional broadcaster.
So — all things being equal — why hasn’t anyone done this version of comedy Radio before?
There is a homogenization, a sameness, a boredom factor going on in Radio today. But we’re going to come in and give people something that’s really fresh, something that is different and compelling and that has a pop to it. It will take entrepreneurs to do creative things like this, because the big public companies aren’t out there testing new formats; they can’t afford to.
ABOUT ALL COMEDY RADIO
Launch: “We're planning a ‘soft launch’ in late July,” says CEO Michael O’Shea. “That means we will be broadcasting 24/7 programming from our studio in Hollywood via satellite uplink. We will have a few beta-test affiliates, nights and weekends while we ‘smooth’ the product and tweak the rotations.”
Programming: “We will be offering 24/7 from the get-go, although most stations we're signing want to put a toe in first with daypart clearances,” O’Shea says. “Right now, it looks as though most affiliates initially will pick up specific dayparts, though it is our very strong intent to develop All Comedy as a 24/7 Radio format in short order.”
Short-form Features: “We are also offering short-form programming features that can run easily on music stations, AM/PM drive, nights and weekends,” O’Shea explains. “Our short-form products are 1 to 3 minutes long, and are driven from the comedy content we currently manufacture.” These include:
» Drive-By Comedy — 3-minute compilations. Fast-paced, upbeat, funny, topical. For morning shows or afternoon drive.
» Freeway Threeway — 90-second to 2-minute stacks of three comic stand-ups, tightly edited, upbeat, funny, big punch lines. To run in afternoon drive on music stations.
» Sitdown Standup — 3-minute interview segments with touring and star comics doing their routine in a living-room setting.
» Incoming Comedy — 60- to 90-second “blasts” of comedy material, highly produced and edited with strong comedic content.
All Comedy Radio also is developing a late-night/overnight comedy show, airing from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. Pacific Time. Hosted live from Hollywood with Radio and comedy “legends,” the program will feature live drop-bys of touring comedians, live phone calls, comedy bits and parodies.
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