Tom Owens Is Clear Channel’s Master & Commander Of Programming (10/18/04)
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief
Clear Channel Senior VP/Programming Tom Owens had his radio epiphany when he was a 13-year-old junior-high student in Bain-bridge, Georgia. He had joined a club that had been granted 60 minutes on Saturday mornings on a local AM station as a public-service gesture. “Members of the club were supposed to host the show on a rotating basis, but no one else was interested in getting up early on Saturday morning to go down to the station,” Owens recalls. “As a result, I did the first weekend, and it turned into a school year. When that ended, I started doing the evening CHR show on the other AM in the market, WMGR.”
Block programming was the small-market norm, Owens says, and WMGR was no different. “The station was AC and Country at various times through the day, and I did two hours of CHR in evenings,” he says. “This was just before the chief engineer came in to host Beautiful Music through a midnight sign-off. I had a paper route in the afternoon, and the program director’s house was on it. It wasn’t until years later that I figured out that Phillip Yarborough was Bill Drake, on his way to WAKE Atlanta.”
Owen says that his first “real” radio job was with WKSJ Mobile. “We took the AM Top 40 against WABB for about six months,” he remembers. “When management heard enough, they flipped it to an Easy Listening FM simulcast. From there, I recorded news and weather and watched the automation system. The chief engineer and I were major fans of WLS Rock of Chicago, as well as many of the historic Top 40s — KILT, KLIF, KCBQ, WAPE, WTIX. We were constantly listening to airchecks through the cue system. It would be impossible to estimate how many times promos for Jack McCoy’s Last Contest were mistakenly aired on WKSJ-AM and FM Bonneville music broadcasts in the mid-’70s.”
When he was 18, Owens landed his first program-director position at WVAF Charleston, WV, converting a religious FM to AOR. “I spent four years there before E. Alvin Davis hired me to program WSAI-FM in Cincinnati against WEBN,” Owens says. “I was as surprised as anyone when we defeated them in 16 months. Frank Wood recommended me to a consultant who was looking for a new PD for KZEW Dallas, and I spent two years there, before leaving for WQMF Louisville to work for Frank. I later relocated to WEBN.”
To fill the weekends, Owens consulted a number of great stations, including WDVE Pittsburgh, where he says he first met Gene Romano. Wood became the COO of Jacor in the summer of 1986 and merged the company with Republic Broadcasting, which was run by Randy Michaels and Bobby Lawrence.
Following the Sam Zell bailout in 1993, Michaels became the CEO of Jacor, and Owens followed Michaels into his former corporate programming role. “I joined Clear Channel when the company acquired Jacor in ’99, and we worked from Cincinnati for several years, joining John Hogan in San Antonio in November 2002,” he recalls.
In this issue of Radio Ink’s annual list of “Best Programmers in Radio,” we thought it only appropriate to present the man who possibly has the greatest programming challenge today. Meet Tom Owens, senior VP of programming at Clear Channel Radio.
INK: What are your responsibilities as chief programmer at Clear Channel?
OWEN: I oversee the programming operations of Clear Channel’s U.S. radio interests, supervise the programming of the Premiere Radio Network and oversee Critical Mass Media, Broadcast Architecture and our Traffic Network. With the volume of stations we have, there has to be a huge reliance on local decision-making. That puts a significant pressure on our ability to identify, recruit, hire and maintain the most competitive product workforce in the industry.
I work with five senior vice presidents of regional programming — Marc Chase, Gene Romano, Jack Evans, Bill Richards and Steve Smith — to provide direction and resources as required. At the most fundamental level, we assist local managers in improving their ratings, optimizing their cash flows and protecting their licenses.
In the everyday world, we focus on problem markets or properties, helping them identify their opportunities and implement solutions. This could be new format identification, talent recruitment, rating and/or research analysis, promotion campaigns, marketing plans or budget preparations.
The corporate office is the company’s largest non-revenue producing division. We see our role as providing support and solutions to the most important individuals in our company, our local management teams. They are the last line of defense and contribution. They put the numbers on the board. Our function is to help them achieve their goals; in doing so, we achieve our own. We constantly have to find the balance between our need to manage, and respect for local autonomies.
What is the structure of Clear Channel’s national programming unit? Is it regionalized or delineated along format lines?
Currently, we have five senior vice presidents of programming paired with operating senior VPs by region. At the local market/regional level, we have regional vice presidents of programming paired with 44 operating regional VPs nationally. We also have 10 format directors who work with like-kind formats on a weekly basis. As with the regional VPs of programming, these individuals hold local market responsibilities. Sean Compton works with me in San Antonio, primarily supervising our network and syndication interests.
Some foes of consolidation say that radio has become too formulaic and less creative since deregulation began in 1996. What’s your view of the level of innovation and imagination in radio today?
It’s hard to always know where enthusiasm for generic “Big is Bad” criticism leaves off and well-founded criticism begins. The truth is that we offer very diverse and generally highly rated products.
Despite the efforts of John Hogan and other Clear Channel executives, the company still seems to bear the brunt of anti-consolidation sentiment. Is this difficult to work with on a daily basis, or have you learned to let it roll off?
As the largest and least anonymous radio group, we come under a great deal of scrutiny and criticism. We constantly must find the balance between public relations, politics and compelling products. Unfortunately, Clear Channel has become defined by things it didn’t actually do, in most cases. The simple truth would be a significant public relations advancement.
Is there a specific, set method in the way your stations are clustered in their specific formats? Do you try to achieve an across-the-board spectrum of formats to cover a broad demographic range, or do you sometimes seek to build critical mass in just a handful of cells, such as Women 25-54, in order to own that target demo?
There are no mass-market formulas or generic templates. Every market situation tends to be unique and must be individually assessed on its own merits. Also, the stations that are “first-in” define the remaining opportunities. Everyone would prefer to align their properties in idyllic synchronicities of demo/gender/ethnic criteria. The reality is that, in most of our markets, we must go where the competition isn’t, by introducing a product not currently offered or by identifying the most attractive vulnerable incumbent.
The circumstances of consolidation also play a role, as we acquired many successful stations that operate in somewhat disparate format positions, and we build around them. In a market such as Los Angeles, we have a traditional FM “wall of women” with Kiss, Star, Big, and KOST with our News/Talk and Sports AMs providing male deliveries.
On the other hand in Denver, our position is designed to service a male of just about any age. In other markets, we also service the ethnic component. In New York, Z100, WKTU and WLTW are focused on the female spectrum with Power 105 balancing ethnic and Q104 balancing males for a highly qualitatively attractive audience composition. In Detroit, we have a powerful urban presence with WJLB and WMXD, a strong female position with WKQI and WNIC, complemented by a 25-54 male product in The Drive and two AM Sports positions. In many of our southern markets, we tend to pair the powerful Country and Urban positions.
A very important current programming initiative is creating solid ethnic product footholds in the appropriate marketplaces. For years, we have focused on the African-American opportunities, launching more than 30 of these products over the past five years. Currently, we are focused on converting less-profitable stations in Hispanic-friendly markets to Latino format variations, taking advantage of this exploding sector of revenue and its relatively under-serviced audience.
When you own six or more stations in a given market, they can’t all be number one. What do you do with those stations that are at the bottom of the heap? Do you try to flank your other stations to protect them from the competition, or do you sometimes try something experimental?
Ideally, they would all be tied for number one, I suppose. Any time a full market signal is being employed, we expect it to achieve cash flow parity with more mature Clear Channel standard-setters within the market. If lesser contours are involved, we will use them to target a highly specific audience the signal might efficiently deliver or augment the performance of our primary products.
To what degree are programming and sales encouraged to work together? Do they interact like a team, or is there still some lingering suspicion about mixing “church and state”?
I think there will always be a necessary degree of healthy and productive departmental friction. The solution to this is driven by communication and understanding the challenges. We have a number of managers who expect their program personnel to accompany sales talent on calls so they can experience harsh objections first hand, or they might sit down with the director of sales for a Tapscan perspective of how their product ranking impacts an ad agency’s cost-per-thousand expectation. At the same time, they might put account executives in the program environment for a day to help them understand the difficulty of reconciling the vested interests of 10 account executives with an overriding mandate to deliver a competitive audience. Today, our program-management bonus incentives consider both rating production and cash-flow production, which improves these relationships without compromising product integrity.
What is Clear Channel’s current relationship with the record labels and independent promoters? Have you eliminated the issue of “pay for play” within the company to your satisfaction?
Our policy prohibiting station relationships with independent record-promotion firms has not changed. We have never sold spins in any form. That practice is questionable at best. I can’t speak for the labels, but from our view, our relations are greatly improved.
The music industry is going through many of the same challenges radio faces in managing consolidation and responding to new technologies. We may have never had more in common. Our format directors work closely with the labels in developing mutually beneficial promotional opportunities. We have also made our digital audio distribution platform available to them for the purpose of distributing new releases.
Voice-tracking provides considerable cost efficiencies, yet it still draws the ire of “traditional-minded” programmers and DJs. In what way can voice-tracking be a boon to radio, and how can it damage its overall sound?
It’s just a tool that can be used well or poorly. Unlike any satellite or syndication’s predecessors, the technology allows for complete customization to each individual market application. The concern is disproportionate to the usage. This tool is used by a small percentage of the on-air workforce of a company that owns only 9 percent the stations in this country.
The reality is that we import less than 10 percent of our programs. Air shifts recorded by local talent constitute another 8 percent. The same programmers who appreciate the importance of providing good direction to their local talent are generally those who excel with this technology.
Many program directors like the ability to set the localization priorities and having final edit on the programs. It’s also a useful tool for extending full-time air talent presence into weekends and non-prime, or auditioning talent from other markets, etc. The platform is also a great opportunity for quality talent to grow their compensations without the risk of relocations.
How important is it for the radio industry to convert to an all-digital, in-band, on-channel (IBOC) delivery system? What programming hurdles do you face in Clear Channel’s recently announced mass-rollout of HD Radio?
It’s critical for the industry to exploit every technological advancement and advantage. With IBOC, we will enjoy the flexibility of multiple streams of programming on one channel, creating more listener options as well as creating new bandwidth applications in text, storage and retail. It will also bring many AMs back into the competitive matrix. The FCC voted iBiquity as a standard two years ago. The hardware conversion will take years, which is why Clear Channel felt it was important to step up and commit to converting 1,000 of our radio stations on an urgent timeline. Our challenge will be developing products that fully leverage the capability of a new delivery system.
Earlier this year, on-air indecency took center stage following the Super Bowl. To what degree do you think some radio companies looked the other way as programmers tested the envelope on indecency?
I don’t think they looked the other way. They were probably just looking at their rating returns, which at the time were a reasonable reflection of market standards and preferences. I think owners, managers and programmers proceeded in a manner consistent with prevailing regulatory expectations.
Is Clear Channel’s Zero Tolerance Policy enough to keep your more zealous air personalities in line?
From Clear Channel’s perspective, it was a business imperative. License revocation was no longer theoretical rhetoric. As operators of the nation’s largest broadcast company, Clear Channel could not afford the view that the FCC was simply wrong. The debate isn’t between Clear Channel and the FCC. Ultimately, it’s between the voters and the individuals they elect to represent their interests.
Clear Channel has flipped a few of its properties to Liberal Talk radio. To what degree do you think there’s a “progressive” audience that can make this a cash-flowing format?
It’s early to say definitively. We thought it would be interesting to apply the format in markets with the proper political components, using NPR shares and voter registration records as indicators. Through this process, we identified a large number of markets; we added Ed Schulz to the line up, which was key.
So far, our only measurable success is Portland, which improved its 25-54 rank position from 16 to 3. It’s too early to evaluate the San Diego, San Francisco, Miami, Grand Rapids, Denver and other markets. It will be interesting to see whether the rating positions are maintained and whether interest subsides after the polarized noise from the election fades.
Likewise, Clear Channel just revealed plans to flip two dozen stations to Spanish-language programming. What are you seeing in the Hispanic audience to warrant such a move?
Para el proximo año, las estaciones de radio en español obtendran unas ganancias de 700 milliones de dolares. That is to say, it’s clearly the fastest-growing broadcast sector of opportunity in America. Today, it constitutes 13 percent of the U.S. population — 35 million persons and rising, with geographic concentrations expanding beyond the traditional California, Texas and New Mexico borders.
Hispanic radio usage is very high, and their buying power is approaching $600 billion, accelerating at a rate double that of the non-Hispanic purchasing power. At our station count, we always have cash-flow-negative properties, and this is a wonderful option for many of them to grow their share and revenue positions.
In 1993, the average Spanish-language format share production was 4.3. Ten years later, it was 8.3. With at least 10 material format variations, most of the Hispanic-friendly markets are underserved.
What’s your take on the Portable People Meter? How far must Arbitron still go before this methodology is ready to be launched?
We support any effort to produce more accurate and reliable listening estimates, and we are working closely with Arbitron in its development. The Philadelphia field test clearly indicated that there would be substantial differences in rating outcomes. Whether measuring detected embedded watermarks in a signal produces a more accurate measurement of actual “listening” than top-of-mind diary recall is still in question. I think that our advertisers would and should distinguish between a consumer hearing a noise and listening to a product. Perhaps some combination of the two systems would reduce bias and improve reliability.
To what degree will PPM change programming, promotion and marketing strategy since measurement will be based more on so-called “real” listening, rather than aided recall?
One important advantage would be the ability to actually measure opportunity cume. If we knew how many consumers were actually exposed to our products, as opposed to reported listening to them, we would be operating on much more solid ground as we develop and invest in programming and promoting our products. This would probably promote better-funded products, as those with potential would be aggressively and more confidently pursued. Those whose opportunity-cumulative audiences peaked at low levels would be quicker candidates for providing a different format service to the marketplace.
Terrestrial radio is based on localism, but many critics claim that the industry is losing that local flair. How critical — really — is remaining local (and live)?
I don’t believe that criticism is valid. So much of it originates with those who have conflicting interests or agendas. In the real world, we spend $70 million a year researching and responding to local-market music preferences. We are operating 110 newsrooms with 400 employees in local markets, and their only function is to provide highly localized news and information to their markets.
Multiple surveys show very high levels of satisfaction with that particular facet of station programming. Late last year, Zogby produced a study that showed 81 percent of the respondents highly satisfied with the job local stations are doing in providing news, entertainment and information that matters to them.
The truth is that radio’s agility in providing highly localized and time-sensitive information to our markets continues to be our most powerful and unique advantage. We should focus our energies and attention on the real issues. The number-one terrestrial radio negative is clutter. Our “Less is More” initiative at least begins to address that vulnerability. I’m sure other broadcast groups will follow.
Radio arguably is not the first choice among younger demos for getting new music and lifestyle information. Is radio in danger of losing the ears of Generation X or Y? If so, how can we get them back?
We need to stay attentive and focused. There have always been fragmentations of disposable time, whether it was broadcast television, cable, cassettes, books, Internet or films. The current subscription models, even as they realize strong percentage gains in penetration, have relatively small audience caps, relative to the reach of our properties. Up to now, radio has always successfully co-existed with self-programmed entertainment devices.
In my opinion, we should be most attentive to portable broadband. Once mobile consumers are able to access the Internet with multiple-purpose devices — beginning with cell phones that are capable of delivering full spectrum audio and video — you have to believe that it will have a material impact on all existing entertainment distributors. Our goal should be to determine how we will become a partner in the process, not a victim of it.
How much competition do you envision coming from such emerging technologies as iPods, satellite radio and broadband. Should radio be scared, concerned, wary or simply focused?
There’s no question that radio’s greatest strength continues to be its unique ability to program to very specific local preferences with highly immediate content. Most of us failed to appreciate the political and public relation ramifications of consolidation. Obviously, many larger companies consolidated much larger business sectors with much less fanfare.
Perhaps it’s a testament to the powerful emotional attachment that the medium continues to enjoy that the relatively small concentrations of ownership in our industry have been subjected to such intense scrutiny. The top 10 radio groups constitute 43 percent of station ownership, while the top five music labels have an 85-percent share of all recorded music sold, the top 10 cable operators have 67 percent, the top 10 film companies 84 percent — and so it goes.
What do you see as radio’s greatest strength today?
On a practical level, I would say it’s our significant advantage in on-air performers, but maintaining them is one of our most important challenges. If we maintain these compelling, difficult-to-duplicate attributes of our stations, we can weather a great deal.
What do you foresee as radio’s single greatest challenge over the next 10 years?
Planning to fully exploit new delivery systems is a key to confronting competitive technological advancements.
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