Infinity’s Becky Brenner: Heeeere’s Becky! (02/23/04)
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-chief
That’s how Becky Brenner always imagined her dream job would begin, with Ed McMahon introducing her as the host of NBC’s The Tonight Show. “I was absolutely convinced when I was in high school that my job was going to be to take over from Johnny Carson when he retired,” she recalls. “That’s what really drove me to major in Radio, Television and Film in college, plus one thing I always excelled at in school was talking — just talking, talking, talking and then talking some more.”
In fact, Brenner says she never was one of those “contest pigs,” who called request lines and played deejay in the bedroom. Like any other teenager, she listened to the radio, but it wasn’t until she got to the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh that the radio bug first began nibbling at her. “I had to pay my own way through college. The very first day I came into the Radio-TV-Film Department, a guy said to me: ‘What you need to do is get a job in radio right now — it will pay your way through school.’” The suggestion took hold, and for the next four years, she held down afternoon drive on WOSH/WYTL Oshkosh.
Despite her work at the AM/FM combo, Brenner still had visions of hosting The Tonight Show — until a TV producer of Evening Magazine in Green Bay wrote her: “I love your writing, your interview skills are great, your story was good. Now, if you really want to do TV, you’ll have to lose 20 pounds and cut your hair, and you need a much better wardrobe.” Brenner says she sat there looking at that letter and thought: “Why would I want to go through my entire life taking abuse like this in such a backstabbing industry when I’m having so much fun doing radio?” She never looked back.
A Seattle native, Brenner returned to her rain-swept hometown as soon as she got the chance, landing the 7-midnight shift at KMPS one year after graduating from college. “I did every job there ever was at KMPS from 1982 to ’92,” she says.
Brenner left the station to become VP/programming and country consultant for Broadcast Programming and the BP Consulting Group, which later became part of Jones Radio Networks. She returned to KMPS in 1995 as general program manager for American Radio Systems in Seattle, responsible not only for Country stations KMPS and KYCW, but also Classic Rocker KZOK and CHR-formatted KISS 106. Today, Brenner is program director for both KMPS and KYCW (for which she voicetracks an airshift) and continues to do voice work for JRN.
“What always amazed me about radio was how much a part of people’s lives you are,” Brenner observes. “People think of you as their best friend, when you don’t even know them. When I was in school, they would come up to me and say, ‘Did you pass that class? I listen to you every day.’ I also had the opportunity to work with charities, local communities, and do live remote broadcasts. I just felt it was the most amazing service industry there ever was.”
Radio Ink recently sat down with Brenner, who has been identified this year by her programming peers — and the editorial board of this magazine — as the Number One Country Programmer in Radio.
INK: Many people wouldn’t think of a major market like Seattle as a strong Country radio market, yet KMPS consistently has been the Number One station 12-plus. Why is this?
Brenner: One advantage we have in Seattle is that we do have a rural component. Washington is the Dairy State, and that makes a difference, because there are people who are more inclined to live the country lifestyle. But in our six-county metro, there are only two or three pockets like that. It’s amazing to me that people still perceive Country as being only for that group of people. Microsoft multi-millionaires and BMW-driving lawyers from Bellevue love the radio station. In our Scarborough indexes for owning multiple dwellings, for post-high school education and income, results are more middle-to-upper-class than middle class.
So why does Country have a hard time playing in New York or Los Angeles?
I’ve never programmed in those two markets, but it’s always surprised me that there hasn’t been more Country impact there. Maybe it has to do with how it’s presented. From my limited knowledge of it, I have a sense that they always try to do not just Country. Instead, they try to do Country for the urban people. They try not to play anything with too much twang — they add a little bit of the Eagles or other music that might be more hip Country to those people. There’s some fear of actually doing Country and being Country. There’s a big difference between being Country and being Country/Western.
The audience for Country radio often is described as a “family reunion,” but who is the format’s primary demo group?
Our primary target has always been 25-54. That’s the money demo, and it’s what the salespeople look at. A narrower focus for us is 28-44, and in all the time I’ve been doing this, it’s never shifted more than two to three years on either side. We have enough people who come into the format that, even when the older people pass on or move to something else, we still have a really good core. That’s different from formats such as Oldies or Classic Rock. We seem to be able to grow because we have so much new music available to us. In the 18-34 demo, we’ve been in the top five for a number of books, thanks to artists like Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts and Toby Keith.
Is this the same demo that’s buying records?
While I still believe radio helps sell records — it’s the primary source for people to find out about new music — one of the challenges facing Country is that the format is a little older. The younger demos tend to buy pop music, and they’re also much more into buying. A Country listener who’s a 25-54 year old adult wants to know an album has two or three hits before they buy it, and it takes a lot more to motivate them to buy. It’s not that they don’t buy records; it’s just a different buying cycle, and that makes it a little bit slower on the Country side than on the pop side.
In his recent “state of the format” address, Country Radio Broadcasters Executive Director Ed Salamon said that the format lost 95 stations last year. Is this a concern for you?
In our current economic situation — and the number of short-term business plans out there — many people are looking for the quick fix, so it doesn’t surprise me that that many stations change format. Flux in the number of stations is normal, but it still stays at a high level in terms of the total number of Country stations. The biggest challenge is on the budgeting side, not on the audience side. Many markets could still support multiple Country stations, but the challenge is that buyers are willing to buy four AC stations or five Rock stations in a marketing mix, but only one Country station. The buyers are young, they don’t understand the format, and they don’t understand the audience — we end up with a Country station that’s pretty successful in the ratings but not able to make the revenue needed to meet the current demand.
Why does Country still have such a stigma with media buyers?
I’ve never figured out why they insist on only one Country station on a buy, especially because Country formats have a much better exclusive cume, a very loyal audience and high TSL. The listeners are very active with the station, so it’s an audience that’s right for buyers. The audience is so interactive with the station — they believe we tell them about only good things and support only good products and events — so advertisers can take advantage of that loyalty when advertising on Country. I just can’t explain why they don’t go more than one deep.
It’s not just a perception among media buyers. A lot of non-Country fans seem to view it as an extension of the characters on Hee-Haw.
The stigma that people place on Country music just drives me completely insane, because it’s coming only from the people who don’t understand the format. People always say, “Why is KMPS so successful up there in Seattle?” Well, it’s because we all live the lifestyle, we love the format, and we have respect for the listeners. We don’t believe that our listeners are pickup-driving, trailer-park, no-teeth people. None of us believes that, and the audience knows it, so it just drives me insane when people lump Country in that stereotype.
Is Nashville at risk of losing the unique edge that for so long has defined it to its fans and listeners?
There are so many great songwriters in Nashville, and so many great musicians and talent coming out of there, that I’ve never feared Country will lose its edge or lack something to offer. Whenever it starts to look that way, something great always comes out. Lyrics make Country great. They must have some depth, there must be a story, and there must be a connection. It can’t be just fluff, like you hear in pop music. In some cases, Hip-hop probably has more meaningful lyrics than does AC, if you can understand them and can stand to listen long enough to figure out the message. That’s the challenge for parents who have to listen to it.
How do you develop a solid working relationship with a record label?
As long as you’re either a music director or a program director who loves to listen to music, give feedback, listen to full albums, enjoy live shows, and participate in the process of trying to break and build new artists and maintain the ones we have, the relationship is great. At the same time, [Music Director] Tony Thomas and I are not for sale, so we don’t wheel and deal on things. I believe promotions have to work for the station and benefit the artist, but we need to be on the song already.
For the last few years, Country radio listening has decreased significantly. Is this due to Country music, or is it part of a greater issue of increased competition from other media?
Time spent listening has gone down over the years because people have so many other choices. Today, it takes more time and more repetition of the message in order for people to figure out something. Familiarity used to be easy to build and maintain, as when people would become familiar with a song and an artist. Now, with supposedly 3,000 daily messages that people try to absorb, it takes longer for us to build that recognition.
Nashville record labels complain that Country radio playlists move too slowly for them to expose new artists, while Country programmers are trying to meet the tastes of the listeners. How do you balance the needs of the labels and radio stations?
It is a tough balance. In the last six months of 2003, we attempted to move on things faster, increase spins, and raise the familiarity rate faster, so we could determine what are hits and what aren’t. That’s working for us, but it creates a situation: By the time the labels are able to get a song in the top 10, we’re done with it. We need to play the best songs, we have to play the hits, we have to get the songs familiar, and we have to be able to move them to “recurrent” and “gold.” There’s a little science and a lot of art. For the science — which is 60 minutes an hour and 13 units of commercials and service elements and everything else — you can play only so many songs. That’s where the balance becomes so difficult.
There is talk that Nashville may return to a single-based business. How would this affect radio?
The opportunity to have one or two singles available before the album is out really drives the listening. We love it if our station is the only place you can get the song if it’s not available for sale. I’m sure the labels will find a way to get the singles out more quickly. Of course, online services will have ways to distribute singles very quickly, so we may not have that exclusivity any more. Having said that, I would hate to see a business based on singles, because there is still a value for albums. People want to listen to their favorite artists and hear some of the tracks that are not the “radio hits” but are just great music.
Consolidation has caused many programming decisions to be developed at the regional or national level. Have individual programmers lost the influence they once had?
We’re so fortunate that at Infinity we’re still autonomous. I’ve never had a mandate from our company to play a single, and I hope that continues. Every country station is a little different, because it’s based on the feel of the program director, the music director and the audience. However, some PDs and MDs feel their hands are tied because programming is done on a mass level from a regional or corporate office — and that’s bad. It shrinks the farm club, which already is so small. That has been my concern for the last five or six years — new people who never get an opportunity to experiment and learn and do their thing in a smaller market. That’s the way good talent was always developed, but it doesn’t exist anymore.
Spot loads have increased steadily over the past few years. What’s your take on this?
It’s very challenging. We are competing with the Internet, with satellite radio, and all the other entertainment options that people have in their homes. People are so inundated with commercials wherever they go that we have to be very careful about going beyond their tolerance level.
Consolidation also meant an increase in voicetracking. Is this good or bad for radio?
It has a place when it sounds live and local. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Classic Country 1090 listener who thinks that it’s voicetracked. We’re live in morning drive. The rest of us doing the daytime shifts do them either daily or maybe two days at a time. We all look for live and local elements to talk about. We have a feedback line, so people can call in and we can interact. When voicetracking is used properly, it’s a great tool. It helps that station, because it’s an AM that wouldn’t have the kind of advertising volume that an FM would, so we can keep the expenses down and still operate a really successful radio station.
Arbitron just announced that it would be conducting further tests of the Portable People Meter, this time in Houston. What’s your opinion of the PPM?
It scares me a little, but it will be exciting to see how much more exposure people have to radio than diaries would ever record. There’s a possibility that stations could get a stronger sample if people use it right. The experiments in Philadelphia have had plusses and negatives, just like any measurement methodology. I’m not afraid of it — it’s going to be interesting. We won’t get quite the TSL we have right now, but we’ll probably get more cume.
How do you balance the needs of the sales department and the music product that KMPS listeners want to hear?
My job is to protect the product. Still, I serve the advertisers, as well, so from a programming and promotions perspective, we try to make the best marriage that we can. On the flip side, I said in the sales meeting this week: “I don’t want to hear one more person say, ‘We owe them a promotion a quarter.’ Why do we owe them a promotion a quarter? When salespeople responded, ‘Well, that’s what the agreement was.’ I asked, ‘What are they bringing to the table?’ Their answer: ‘Uh, well, nothing.’ At which point, I said, ‘Well, then, there’s pretty much nothing we can do.’
Does this create friction between programming and sales?
I’m on a crusade to move it back in a direction that’s more manageable. That puts us a bit at odds with the sales department, but we come up with some great, creative things that work well for the stations and the client. I love those. It’s just that the volume and the pressure on the sales side have become so tremendous that those requests have increased exponentially — and that’s hard to keep up with.
How critical is music research?
We use it as a tool. When it’s used right, it’s great, because you get a feel for what the audience wants. It can’t be just my decision and Tony’s decision. Initially, our gut instinct must say whether or not this is a record we’re going to expose, but once we move beyond giving a record some airplay, something must tell us what the audience likes and doesn’t like. We use call-out research, and we do at least one music test a year for our whole library, just to be sure we’re still on track.
There’s a perception that Country artists are more “touchable” than artists in other formats. Why is this?
Country artists are more human than you find in most other formats. Their songs touch people so deeply. We also do a lot to promote who they are and what they’re about. These people are willing to do a lot of things on the air and off the air to make sure the audience gets to know them. Because we have multiple stations in this building, it’s amazing how many times other PDs will say, “Wow, your artists are so cooperative — they do so much for you guys.” In pop or hip-hop, the artists seem to be doing it because “I’m going to be a star…it’s all about me.” Country artists are more about the music and making it happen for the audience.
When Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks made her now-infamous comments about President Bush, how much of a programming challenge was that episode?
The incident with the Dixie Chicks wasn’t as much about political persuasion as it was where Natalie said it and when she said it. Our area has the third largest U.S. military installation, behind Norfolk and San Diego, and it was a very challenging situation. We never banned the music, but we did slow it a little bit. I took hundreds of phone calls and got hundreds of e-mails, and I tried to walk them through it. It was a 60-40 split for us: 60 percent of the audience was adamantly against having the Dixie Chicks on the radio, and the other 40 percent was a mixture of “I hate what they said, but I love their music” or “Right on, they had a right to say that.” There was no way in the world we were going to win in that situation.
Despite all that, the Dixie Chicks sold out their tours last spring.
Country listeners are very forgiving. Over time, it’s getting better. I hope the Chicks come out with another Country album. I love them, and I want them to be part of Country. I just wish they would sing and do their concerts and not make comments — then nobody would know, and that would make my job a lot easier.
How concerned are you about competition from new technologies and new media?
Terrestrial radio is not going away. Look at the threat of television, then cassette tapes, CDs, and now satellite radio — we’re still the free service, and we’re still considered local and part of your community. As long as we’re doing our job, getting out in the community, doing public service, and super-serving the local situation, there will be some life for us. Obviously, it’s all competition, and it chisels away, very slowly, some of the audience. Hopefully, it will never be down to the point where you can’t hear us anymore.
What part of your job makes you want to get up in the morning and go to work?
I’m very passionate about radio. People who are in my position have an amazing amount of power and responsibility to do good with what we have. I once saw a motivational speaker who said, “If you do good, you’ll do well.” That really encapsulates everything that we believe at KMPS. If we’re out there doing good for the community and looking at truly being a service for our listeners and our advertisers, we’re going to do well. Some people don’t take that responsibility very seriously anymore. As with artists, you know the people who are in radio just to be a star and make the big money. Then you know the people who do it because they love radio, they love the audience, and they love the responsibility that comes with it.
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