ABC Radio Networks' James Robinson: “Our Focus Is On Content” (11/07/05)
By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief
“As one of the best local radio station managers in the business, Jim has extensive hands-on experience and a seasoned perspective certain to benefit ABC Radio Networks and our thousands of affiliates.”
That's how ABC Radio President John Hare describes James Robinson, the veteran Washington, DC, broadcaster who last December replaced Traug Keller as president of the company's radio network division. It was a sound and logical choice, as Robinson had spent the previous 15 years inside the ABC organization in various management and executive positions. He joined ABC's WRQX-FM in 1990 as general sales manager and subsequently became general manager of the station in 1993, adding GM stripes for WJZW-FM in 1997.
In addition to building WRQX-FM's perennial powerhouse ratings with a hot Adult Contemporary format and his on-going success with smooth jazz at WJZW-FM, Robinson has worked with other formats during his career. Prior to joining ABC, he held sales and management positions in the nation's capital at WTOP-AM (News), WMZQ-AM-FM (Country), WWDC-FM (Rock), and WEEL-AM (middle of the road). Robinson also spent several years as owner of Image Management, Inc., an entrepreneurial venture that produced television commercials, cable TV business programs, and other film and video presentations. He began his broadcasting career at WDCA-TV in Washington, DC, in its sales service, production, and film departments.
In his new position, Robinson has responsibility for one of the industry's three largest radio networks, which encompasses ABC Radio News, ESPN Radio, Radio Disney, several syndicated 24-hour formats, and personalities such as Paul Harvey, Sean Hannity, Doug Banks, Dick Bartley, and Bob Kingsley. All told, ABC Radio Networks serves some 110 million listeners on more than 4,700 radio station affiliates.
During the past few months ABC Radio Networks has taken an aggressive position in the development of new programming, despite the fact that Walt Disney, its parent company, has indicated it wishes to sell the radio division. The company has launched ABC Hispanic Advantage as a RADAR-measured network and signed a deal to syndicate Reggaeton phenom Daddy Yankee, and announced a joint relationship to distribute Spanish Broadcasting System's morning shows. In addition, it has formed a new business unit dedicated to creating radio properties exclusively targeting women listeners, inked a deal to market SparkNet Communications' Jack format in markets 41-plus, and launched several news and/or entertainment oriented featuring everything from commentator Brian Ross to Desperate Housewives.
“The focus of this business is to assure our place as the first choice for programming,” says Robinson, who recently sat down with Radio Ink to discuss a wide range of network and new media issues. “Without question, the marketplace has been driven to contemplate innovative new approaches. We're there to drive that, and partner with our clients as these opportunities present themselves.”
INK: After several years of stutter-step economy, are you optimistic that next year we may see some traction in economic growth?
ROBINSON: I'm the eternal optimist, and I tend to see the plusses and the minuses in different sectors. It's in my nature to look for the bright spots, and hope that's where the momentum is. But we've seen enough in the past few years to not over-commit to that feeling. This has been another tough year, and there's not a lot of assurance of any upward momentum to the economy. Still, I continue to be hopeful.
At this time last year, would you have expected radio to be as sluggish as it has been in 2005?
Radio has suffered an unreasonably soft marketplace due in part to the economy, and in part to advertiser demand as driven by Madison Avenue and Wall Street. Neither tells the full story of our value, and that's hurt our growth rate.
To what degree has the advertising community's interest in new media shifted dollars out of radio's pocket?
Clearly, there has been a distribution of ad budgets to new media, very much as an experiment. But what do those experiments mean? For instance, I'll read a story about the great promises of click-thru, but no one questions the research or the accountability that people refer to with radio. People say that Internet advertising is the great salvation of all time because you know exactly how many people clicked on your ad, but there's no real accountability of anything else, including how the click-thru relates to the purchase of a product or service.
Yet interactive tracking is valuable to advertisers. Is radio at a disadvantage here?
I believe the future offers radio the opportunity for interactive commerce, but even then you won't be able to judge our value only by the number of people who complete a purchase. Remember, with advertising you're building brand identity, brand awareness, and the prospect for a future purchase by that consumer. In this regard, I believe some alternate media are getting unfairly valued in comparison to radio's effectiveness.
Has this enthusiasm for new media had an impact on network radio ad dollars?
From a network radio perspective, we have a great value proposition for advertisers that's been diminished in the rhetoric of the assumed values of new media. The problem is, the media are always looking for the next great thing, and they forget that it might be sitting right beside them. The other day, a press person asked me, “Is there a new story to tell about the value of radio or network radio?” I realized that a fair amount of the “new stories” seem like the same ones you've heard before. But something doesn't have to be new to be great. Our reach and penetration in the marketplace by age/sex cell, by geography, at the value proposition that we offer is phenomenal.
Is it possible to create a re-evaluation of radio?
Yes, but it would take a concerted effort from the industry on a shared message. We seem to have a number of messages at different times, with different responses from different sectors regarding competitive media. In response to the presumed threat of iPods or satellite, we send a message back saying, “Hey, we're free.” The value and measure of all the linage written in the past year about the greatness of other platforms is unreasonably disproportionate, and we need to respond in ways that really mean something to the consumer.
Having spent most of your career on the station side of the business, you're now responsible for one of the largest radio networks in the world. How much of a shift has that been?
It was a significant change in terms of the number of employees, which is in excess of 600; the hours of programming we produce; the number of affiliates we have; and our international business. It's a big change from the station and market level, and a great change. I work with a lot of great people; it's just an entirely different dynamic.
Within that dynamic, what is your number one objective?
Our focus is primarily on content development. We're a content provider, principally to radio stations, but it's clear that the growth opportunities for radio programmers and content companies is to provide profitable partnerships with any new platforms that present themselves as opportunities for our clients. The focus of this business is to assure our place as the first choice for programming, including podcasts and 24/7 formats. We provide the content to your model of how you monetize your business. The marketplace has been driven to contemplate innovative new approaches, and we're there to drive that and partner with our clients as these opportunities present themselves.
To what extent are the ABC Radio Networks really the Paul Harvey Radio Networks?
As much as ever. He intends to keep doing what he does. He has no interest in retiring, and that's very satisfying to us. It is not my job to deny what he wants.
How will ABC remain competitive in the changing radio marketplace?
We're trying to grow each genre of music programming or talk in order to increase our menu of offerings within each of those disciplines. We recently named Corny Koehl as head of women's programming, reporting to John McConnell, who is SVP of all programming that's not multicultural. Darryl Brown is in charge of all multicultural programming. We've accelerated our development of Hispanic programming so that we now are the first RADAR-rated network reaching Spanish-speaking Americans, with a reach of 75 percent of the population. We just signed Daddy Yankee, and we have the Spanish Broadcasting System's morning shows and the Hispanic Advantage Network. We also are licensing the Jack format in the 41-plus markets, which has been a great jump-start in growing that format.
How is your partnership with ESPN?
We just passed the 300 mark for fulltime 24/7 affiliates in the U.S. That's a landmark that a lot of people probably didn't expect. It's a great partnership, and I believe 60 percent of the sports stations in the U.S. are ESPN. We have the BCS for several years again, and we have Major League Baseball, as well as the NBA.
What is your greatest ongoing challenge on the advertising front?
Let's face it, this hasn't been a very dynamic year. It's been reasonable, but the weakness has come in what we describe as the “selling networks.” To many people, this is viewed as “unbranded” inventory that has cleared but runs within programming that is other than Sean Hannity, Paul Harvey, or ESPN. Unfortunately, there has been considerable misunderstanding of the value of that inventory. I've tried to share with people that every single commercial we clear runs within the program that the listener has selected at that moment. It is their favorite show. While that in many cases is not a national program, it still is their favorite local show. They're listening to radio intently, passionately, and that's the promise that radio delivers on. Within that reference, it's not important whether you think a program is better than another; it's your ambition to reach those customers, no matter what they're listening to.
Is this a problem on the media-buyer level?
This has simply been a misunderstanding of the comparable value of inventory. Some of the branded national programs clearly have the very best talents available in the world. That's why Sean Hannity is on nearly 500 stations. Sean is one of the greatest ever, and the value of a commercial in his program is exceptional. But again - all commercials reach customers who are listening intently to the program they're listening to. Unfortunately they don't all listen to my shows all the time, but that doesn't mean they don't reach qualified prospects on another program. One of the unfortunate things when we place radio in the context of new media is that there's an expectation that something, somehow in this industry should have grown, or changed, or morphed. The simple fact is that people choose music by emotional expectations and they listen to it enthusiastically; we, in turn, measure the audience with some degree of accuracy, and we have millions of dollars worth of clients who attest to the value of it. Whether it's cool or new isn't as important as the fact that advertisers really know it works.
Has Clear Channel's initiative to reduce commercial clutter had any effect on network advertising loads?
Reduced inventory is beneficial to the listeners' experience. At ABC, we never had an increased commercial load. For companies that did, a reduction of excess inventories improves the experience for the listener and the environment for the advertiser, and that's good.
For decades, radio has lamented its small slice of the total ad revenue pie. Is it reasonable to assume that this slice will ever get bigger without significantly changing our sales efforts and our outlook on what business we're really in?
After a lifetime in radio, I would have to agree that we don't get our fair share. But until we in terrestrial radio have the opportunity for more interactivity with the customer, we won't really see a jump in ad spend to share. When you see interactive commerce take place through the dashboard, a tabletop radio, a website, or a cell phone, that will definitely accelerate the values in radio.
What's your take on the Portable People Meter?
The information I've seen unfortunately has not been strongly supportive of a race to change the methodology. I support improved measurement, because I believe people use radio more than we've measured. But I don't think they've mastered it yet.
Is radio doing all it can to ease its accountability issues with advertisers and agencies?
ABC is in fast pursuit of the ability to provide very detailed, timely information that will complete the loop of accountability on what was ordered, when it ran, and who heard it, and responding to that day by day in the marketplace. We've spent a good deal of capital toward that specific point.
How does this translate to tracking an advertiser's return on investment?
It's reasonable for advertisers to want to measure the specific response to every dollar spent. The more I can measure the response to the performance of a broadcast or the response rate to ad copy, the better we can help the advertiser target specific demos in specific markets. It might be more than we can expect to track every single dollar to an immediate response; that's what they call direct-response advertising, and it's not necessarily what all advertising will ever be. But advertisers certainly should be able to expect to realistically measure their return on investment.
Has the explosion of new technologies sent a wake-up call to the radio industry?
This is an exciting time. There's a brave new world out there. We've worked through a period of post-consolidation doldrums, where perhaps too much work was assigned to too few people, and there was too much dependence on methodologies that narrowed some amount of surprise element for the listener's emotional experience. The upside is we're being innovative again. We're creating new things and daring to be different in order to compete with a much bigger universe that offers choice to consumers. Rarely have we seen as much innovation in radio as we've seen in the past 12 months; people are reaching out and saying, “I have to do something different.”
How do you think the people you work with would describe your management and leadership styles?
I think others would describe me as fair, consistent, and valuing people as the primary asset of the business. I create an environment that encourages innovation, where ethical risks are taken and people are developed to their highest potential for advancement within the organization. We all should encourage that environment, and I believe that has been a great contributor to any successful business that I've been a part of.
Would you say most radio managers are similarly encouraging to their employees?
The majority of folks in radio have the competency to be excellent, although sometimes the people they report to don't encourage them to be that way. A number of years ago I asked my general manager whether it was my job to make budget or to do the very best I could do to win in whatever marketplace I faced. If my job is to do the best I can in any marketplace, I will take chances and drive rates higher during a strong market. Too often, management responds to Wall Street and quarterly earnings, and that distracts from what's important to building a business for the long term.
What is important, then?
Ultimately, do the right thing. That's what will pay off in the long term. You can't build a radio station by trends, by quarters, or by decisions that are only bottom-line. That's not how you build an organization of people who will give and give, who will cross the line in the sand for you as an individual. I believe there's a reawakening to that approach, because in stagnant times people look for other ways to move their business, and they recognize that attracting the best people is fundamental to growth.
What was your general manager's answer to your question (above)?
He told me to do the very, very best I could in whatever marketplace I was in.
With both the NAB and RAB facing new leadership, what would you urge both organizations to focus on?
The RAB has done a tremendous job of evolving its services and products over the past 30 years. They do a terrific job developing material for salespeople at all levels locally. Still, I hope that the RAB will consider the radio network business a valued partner in the advancement of radio ad sales. As for the NAB, without getting into legislative issues, we need strong leadership in the roll-out of digital radio - how we address it, how we market it, how we partner with automakers and receiver manufacturers. That is vital.
Is radio in danger of losing the ears of Generation X or Y? If so, how can we get them back?
We need to create programming - that's what radio does and always will do. It is beyond the control of radio stations to decide where and through what platform consumers will make their listening choices. Look at wireless communications: We need to understand that there are billions of cell phones in the world, and consumers can receive television and radio on them for $10 a month. Our responsibility in the battle for our share of ears is to create innovative content. That's the only way we can maintain or improve our business share. The risk is there, but the opportunity is there.
How does HD fit into these consumer choices?
We talk about this constantly. Digital radio offers something new to the marketplace: two to three times the variety - in higher fidelity - of what currently is available in the same free model. HD is an opportunity we have to grasp. This is technology that is within our control. It's a tool in our battle to fight back against alternative platforms. To do this, we must convince businesses to stock these receivers on their shelves. You still hear broadcasters saying, “There aren't any HD radios in stores yet.” My response is: We need to tell the community that we have something special here, so that Best Buy will stock them in time for Christmas. Everybody in this business wants to wait for someone else to go first, and we are the ones who can least afford to wait.
Can a network play a significant role in providing programming for HD Radio multi-channel stations, or does that run the risk of radio just being “more of the same”?
Absolutely, there's a network role. Right now we're rolling out ESPN Desportes, which would be a good fit for a lot of stations. Meanwhile, Washington, DC, doesn't have a Radio Disney station; that's available today to put on your side channel. We're definitely developing new programming for HD, and we also have partnerships with some broadcasters in the development of new content. This should be our greatest opportunity in years, and our charge is to create an economic model that makes a profitable partnership opportunity for us and our operators.
What will be the most significant competition for radio in the next decade?
Telephones. The only thing nearly as ubiquitous as radios today is cell phones, and people are willing to buy new ones every few years. If you look at the world marketplace, nothing competes with the technology that is available on a hand-held, pocket-sized telephone. You can get radio, television, downloads, news, alerts, text, data - anything and everything - for under $300. That's significant.
What do you foresee as radio's single greatest challenge in the next three to five years?
We need to fight harder than ever to demonstrate that we still are the best information and entertainment value in the marketplace. We're not the only technology in town anymore.
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