Zemira Jones Has A Dog In The Fight (03/13/06)
“Magical” is how Zemira Jones, vice president of operations for Radio One, Inc., describes the broadcasting industry. “It was magical to me. It captured my imagination.” Broadcasting was definitely something different for the second-semester college freshman, who had spent most of his secondary education preparing for a career in engineering: “I was good at math, good at numbers. My father was an engineer. It seemed only natural at the time.”
But engineering would serve only as the catalyst for launching Jones on the path toward his true calling. While attending the University of Maryland's School of Engineering, Jones joined Iota Phi fraternity and became the social coordinator. It was while planning and implementing the various parties, events, and activities for the fraternity that Jones' marketing skills emerged. He discovered that he had a keen interest in sales, branding, and video and audio production. He later switched his major to business administration.
Long before Jones discovered the media, he learned first-hand the message. While in elementary school, Jones' family moved from southeast Washington, D.C., to the suburbs of Prince Georges County. It was quite a social adjustment, as Jones was one of only nine African American students attending a school of 500 students. The disparity at school heightened young Jones' awareness of the social disconnect within and among the groups. Nicknamed “Freedom March” by his elementary school peers, Jones became a voice for increased social awareness. Before he could fully understand the ramifications of his moniker, he found himself defending it. The message had unfolded; all that was necessary was the vehicle to convey it.
Jones' interests took him into the broadcasting industry, where his experience has spanned 30 years - 23 years in general and sales management. He has been named one of the top eight general managers in major-market radio and “News Talk General Manager Of The Year” by Radio & Records magazine, and he has been on Radio Ink's list of “Most Influential African Americans In Radio” since its inception in 1999.
With credentials in tow, Jones was well poised to lead Radio One's new urban-focused News Talk network. Radio One, known as the urban radio specialist, has 70 radio stations in 22 markets. The launch of the News Talk network will further enhance Radio One's mission of programming to and for African Americans, and brings Jones full circle in his radio career.
INK: Tell us about the network that was launched by Radio One earlier this year.
ZEMIRA JONES: This is something I have hallucinated about for some time, even when I was with ABC. I saw a tremendous need for African American listening audiences to have the same type of spoken-word service that the general-market counterparts were getting at big stations like WLS, WMAL, WABC, etc. Even though there are a lot of Talk stations in the communities, they did not have those signature personalities, those icon-level hosts that could really cut through. That's what made Talk so compelling over the past decade-and-a-half. The African American audience was crying for it, going to stations that were basically ignoring them, but because they wanted it so badly, they would listen to stations that had only a tertiary understanding of their needs. I saw that back at my ABC days.
Even though it wasn't the only motivation to come to Radio One, I saw this company as being in the best position to deliver on that need and capture that marketplace. When [Radio One CEO/President] Alfred Liggins and I talked about it, I impressed upon him that this is the company and this is the time; and he said, “Okay, let's do it.”
RI: Did you have particular Talk show people in mind, or did you have just an idea framework?
ZJ: We have been looking to expand our mission. Radio is our business, but more important, as Alfred says, we're in the black-people business. We're constantly looking at their needs first. Alfred, Catherine Hughes [founder/president], and I all had ideas about personalities who would be ideally suited for the spoken-word platform. I had my list of people before joining Radio One. We came up with three shows that we thought were an excellent initial offering for the network, with plans to expand down the road.
RI: Can you provide a brief outline of the three shows?
ZJ: We start off with the Michael Eric Dyson Show, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Eastern. Then 1-4 p.m., we have Keeping It Real with Al Sharpton. From 4 to 7 p.m. Eastern, we have 2 Live Stews [Ryan and Doug Stewart], literally and figuratively African American brothers, who have electrified Atlanta at 790 The Zone. It's a Sports-plus show that is ambidextrous in its audience appeal - it has taken the hip-hop culture into sports. It has capitalized on the cultural flavoring of African Americans and has tremendous crossover appeal. Though it's on a general-market station, it is succeeding tremendously with a very multi-cultural audience. Here's a show that you'll see around the country on Sport stations, Urban stations, general-market Talk or News-Talk stations that are looking for provocative content, but it can hold its own in speaking Xs and Os.
Al Sharpton - well, who doesn't know Al Sharpton? His name recognition is near 100 percent. His polarizing of views in the marketplace makes him the quintessential Talk show host. Not only does he speak to the issues, but he can get to anyone, and everyone wants to get to him. This is the first time he's had a show, and he sounds like he's been doing it for years.
Once Alfred said, “Let's do it,” I told him immediately, “I'm calling Michael Eric Dyson.” Here is a Ph.D. from Princeton, a professor who is the quintessential African American social critic. He can talk about geopolitics and interpersonal dynamics between African Americans, men and women, young and old. We position him as the bridge-builder because he is intellectual; he embraces hip-hop culture and the people who drive it. Sharpton and Dyson are ministers, as well, so they can speak not only to the spiritual part of African Americans, but also the practical part.
RI: What makes you expect success with these three shows?
ZJ: We're doing something that is going to travel through the country and confound the wise. That's what I believe is going to happen with this News-Talk offering. These three shows are completely different than anything on the radio. I was the first general manager to help form the format for ESPN in Chicago. We created the template for the network, 300 stations. Back then, people said, “Nobody wants a national sports radio station; all sports is local; it can't work.” And look at it now. I am equally confident about Michael Eric Dyson, Al Sharpton, and Two Live Stews.
RI: What type of stations are you going after with this programming?
ZJ: We're marketing these shows in a modular business model. From an affiliation standpoint, they are designed to fit together perfectly - a full broadcast day of primetime solution for someone who wants a News-Talk position in the market. At the same time, they're designed to operate separately, just like most of the successful syndicated individual shows. But they're ideally suited for a News-Talk, Talk, or Sports environment. The vast majority of our affiliates, whatever they were doing before, have migrated to a News-Talk position. We have more than 20 affiliates, and there's only one or two that haven't taken the full complement of all three shows.
RI: Are the business and advertising communities finally waking up to the power of Urban radio, or is there still a challenge?
ZJ: It depends on what part of the growth process you're focused on. The advertising community was thrilled to hear of this impending launch, and we're getting great response from it. Remember, this is historic. Yes, we have had African American-hosted, African American-targeted shows that have been very good. But we haven't had a complete complement of programs that you could build a full format around and that are syndicated nationally. We have our own in-house news, top and bottom, for the entire format.
The ad community has all kinds of general-market and conservative offerings out there, but they haven't had anything that can target the African American audience like this. They haven't had anything that could help pinpoint a more active, upscale, engaged, well-informed African American audience - until now. Advertisers in the major markets in New York, Chicago, and Atlanta, and all those markets that buy national and network, have been thrilled at what they're hearing thus far. We've started to get real buy-in. The challenge is that News-Talk in general gets the highest conversion of ratings to revenue share of any format. Urban radio tends to lag behind. We're getting the buy-ins; the question is, how much of the share will we get, and will it be at the rates that it really deserves?
RI: Has the Urban radio sector been able to shed some of the stigmas - such as the no-urban dictates - that advertisers and agencies have held against the African American community?
ZJ: The marketplace is a lot more sophisticated today. When I came up through sales, it was commonplace to see no-urban dictates - just like once upon a time, it was okay to say, “This water cooler is for white folks, and this water cooler is for black folks.” Nobody had a problem with saying it. Today, we recognize it's not the right thing to say; it's not the PC thing, so there is a split in consciousness in the advertising and business communities. Some have recognized that the future of their business has everything to do with embracing all of the marketplace. They're looking for those markets they ignored, bypassed, just missed, or took for granted. At the top of the list is the African American consumer.
More and more advertisers are buying in. More and more advertising agencies that ignored the buying motivations of African Americans are saying, “Wait a minute; look at all these emerging-market ad agencies making money in this marketplace. Let's create our own department.” The advertising industry on the agency side woke up and smelled the coffee. Their future was hanging in the balance; they needed to target this audience because, in the future, we won't be calling non-whites “minorities” anymore, because they won't be. There's an acceptance and an aggressive decision to target them. With that, urban stations have benefited; our growth is double-digit, where our general-market counterparts have low single digits. We like to think we're double-digit better, but it's really that the marketplace is starting to have an “aha,” and they're shifting their dollars in places that should have been shifted 10 years ago.
RI: If you were talking to an advertiser, what would you say about the growing power of the African American consumer or household? What still may be a secret or a mystery?
ZJ: It's a good question. I co-chaired a symposium, "The Power of Urban," for Interep early last year. This is my first time back into urban after 12-15 years, so I was very respectful to those stalwarts who'd been in the fight way before me. I said: Let me give you some fresh eyes here. We as a people or a format in radio have done a great job of embracing our history, of showcasing our history to the general community, to the business community, to the nation. We have a month named after our history. We've done a great job of selling our history to the marketplace, and it's important for us and other people to know. There are 16-year-old white kids in the suburbs taking African American history courses. The average radio station targeting African Americans works hard to capitalize on the buying power of today.
Advertisers still don't understand that they'll buy some research off Scarborough and see that the spending power is $50,000 for the African American household and $75,000 for their non-African American counterparts. They're selling upscale products, and they say the black audience won't buy it because they have $15-, $20-, $25,000 less in their household. They could walk into that African American household they bypassed and they'll see all the same stuff and probably more, but they looked at an index.
Unfortunately, we have a disproportionate number of lower-income African Americans, and that brings down the average. But the amount of product that is actually being sold in those households is as high or higher, because we tend to buy more, spend more for dollar earned. Advertisers miss that, so they miss a great selling opportunity.
RI: It's the old sociological question of mean, median, and mode. They're going for the mean, when they really need to be looking at what is most common. If you eliminate those in the lower income group, that middle-income group will be able to purchase the same goods as any other general market consumer.
ZJ: Absolutely. Advertisers use indices that mislead them, and they misread the tea leaves. Combine that with what their mother taught them, and they come to the conclusion: “This audience doesn't fit this product; therefore, I'll bypass.” That is one of the bigger challenges.
But what's happening now is that more and more of these advertisers have smarter, more in-touch leadership. Some weren't that much smarter; they just got so bloodied by their low single-digit growth that the marketplace has forced them to look in new places - and guess what? They discovered this new marketplace that they had been ignoring.
RI: Is Arbitron doing all that it can to solve sampling problems among the African American community?
ZJ: I don't think so. I think they are genuine in their efforts to solve it, but they're hampered by the belief that if you throw a couple more dollars at this sample base, you'll get them. They've been under-sampling African Americans, and they have the same issues with young white males.
RI: How are new technologies and new media affecting the urban audience in particular, and the radio audience in general? Are satellite, iPod, or other personal entertainment media having much impact on listenership?
ZJ: There's evidence that the under-25 audience, the teen audience particularly, is spending less time on radio than they did a decade or two ago. The decrease in those younger demos hasn't been at the same rate for African Americans at that same age group, but we are concerned about it, and we're making sure that we don't lose touch with our audience. One of the advantages is that African Americans have a different relationship with radio than non-African Americans. There's a reason why the time spent listening for black folks has always been longer than their white counterparts. There's a deeper connection on more levels of human experience with our format.
RI: Why do you think that is?
ZJ: Radio historically had been a primary source of news and information for African Americans. It was the one electronic medium that actually recognized they were there. Television didn't for many years. You had black radio and radio personalities in the '50s and '60s that weren't represented in general-market television. There was an early connection, not only from the entertainment standpoint, but spiritually. News about the community had a cultural and political perspective. Ministers and preachers on the air allowed these stations to develop instant credibility and connection that you didn't see with non-black radio.
A lot of non-African American people I know talk about the great stations they grew up with, but they don't talk about them passionately. It was a one-dimensional relationship. They remember their favorite music and their favorite DJ, but there was no favorite preacher talking about their church.
When I was in elementary school, radio came to our church and broadcast a program every week. I think that's why I have the affinity for radio that I have. That relationship is replicated in major cities where black people grew up. When your relationship is on a political, community, spiritual, and entertainment level, there's a much deeper connection. It's one of the reasons you see longer time spent listening.
RI: Have race relations improved or stayed the same in the past few years?
ZJ: I believe that in many segments of our society, race relations have improved. They've improved because they're speaking the same language educationally and economically. That is the great dividing line, much more so than color itself. Racial divides have always had economic underpinnings, and as more African Americans have become more educated, have made more money, have had an impact in society that people can see, you have a better relationship. But the divides still exist, and the work of bringing people together is clearly not done.
RI: How did urban or racial concerns affect you professionally?
ZJ: The reality is that I left urban radio. I was a sales manager at an urban station; I had been a GM, moved back to Washington, and taken a GSM job with United Broadcasting Company to get back to my hometown. United was going to be sold, and I knew that it was time to move on. I had offers to be a general manager in other markets, but all the offers were urban.
I really enjoy urban radio, but I had a problem. I thought I was a good manager, and I thought I had talent, but none of the general-market stations would even consider me. I called ABC and told them I had been a GM and GSM for 10 years, and I wanted to do it at ABC. I knew I wasn't going to walk across the street and be a GM, so I asked for a chance as a sales manager. They told me they didn't have any sales manager jobs. I said, “Why don't you give me a desk and a phone?” - and I took a rep job; that's how I started with ABC. After five months, the GSM left. I took over the job and blew out the numbers, seven figures over the budget, way over what they expected. They said, “Wow! Where'd you come from?” When I reminded them that I wanted to be a GM in the company, they said, “If you keep doing this, we'll find you a station.”
So, I had to back-door my way into ABC. If I hadn't stepped back and become a rep again, I wouldn't have gotten that, and I probably wouldn't have gotten this position, because there was no mechanism to evenly look at someone like myself.
RI: In the radio industry and elsewhere in business, are minority ownership and leadership opportunities growing or dwindling?
ZJ: In our effort to be more profitable, we have lost some of the assets that could continue to make us more profitable. There are fewer African Americans in senior management or general management positions today than there were a decade ago. When I left ABC, I was the last African American general manager ABC had. They don't have any, not one. I'm not beating up on ABC - it is throughout the industry. But the real problem is the malaise about it. If we want to expand and diversify through HD, we must be in touch with the sub-segments of the marketplace and know their language. To do that, you must have senior management that is multi-cultural.
RI: It also appears that African Americans automatically are slotted as being involved with an urban radio station.
ZJ: It's unfortunate. When I went to the R&R Talk radio conventions, there were one or two African Americans in the entire room. Don't tell me that I was the only person interested in Talk in America. Systemic problems with our process give the industry that scotoma, or blind spot. We have a blind spot that causes us to draw erroneous conclusions and miss opportunities.
I'll give you an example: This morning, I was listening to a non-African American Talk show host on a non-African American-targeted station. He was trying to figure out why Coretta Scott King's funeral lasted six hours. He had no cultural reference to recognize that that's what happens when a top leader dies. That's why four presidents were there. It's a cultural thing; if you knew how important it was, you would set your programming up to cover as much as you possibly can. As small as that sounds, he was saying on the air, “I don't understand why it was so long.” And just as easily as he misunderstood the importance of that situation, how much more would he or his management have overlooked by misunderstanding other opportunities?
RI: Every year, Radio Ink recognizes the Most Influential African Americans In Radio and the Most Influential Women In Radio. How do you feel about singling out two minority groups for recognition?
ZJ: I am torn by it. I've been in this business for 30 years. I started in sales, selling an Urban AM and a Top 40 FM, so I had that ambidextrous skill-set baked in early on. The problem is, we don't have enough people being taught to manage. Your publication does a service by reaching decision-making, senior-management people who have scotomas of their own, who don't see the African Americans out there in the community. All they have to do is read Radio Ink. That is one of the many benefits of showcasing. At some point, if you're ultimately successful, you'll find that this column is no longer necessary.
I believe it does pose a service, but let's not pigeonhole them. African Americans get pigeonholed that all they can do is run media companies targeting their own people. They can't possibly understand non-African Americans - which is crazy. Black folks, in order to survive, had to be expert about white folks. Talk to any black person, they'll tell you the same thing. When we were growing up, what did our parents tell us? How to deal with white folks, how they think, how they operate. Remember, we were raising white people, so black women understood white folks. While raising their kids, I don't think many white folks were telling the kids about how black people think. But white folks don't get that.
RI: What about being singled out in advertising?
ZJ: I got a call from someone on the committee for a major awards center, which was considering creating a category for advertising to showcase urban. I told them that we were flattered that they were focusing on us, but think about the impact. Urban radio, the artists that we play, and the cultural impact that we've made on America is so pervasive that it drives pop culture today. It is the quintessential engine of pop culture in America and quickly becoming that for the world. The artists, the music forms we're putting out, hip-hop and beyond - there is no more powerful driving force in pop culture than that.
The general-market stations, which don't profess to target black folks, have all had to embrace it. You can't even tell sometimes by casual listening whether or not a Top 40 station is an Urban. We have been embraced by the broader media, and we should be brought to the same table. By saying, “In order for the advertising that is put on these stations to compete, we have to have a special little corner for them” - now, does that sound Neanderthal or what?
RI: What is the greatest challenge to urban radio in the coming years?
ZJ: I believe that radio as an industry will figure out the next several steps we're about to go through, and the ad community and Wall Street will follow suit. In that process, urban radio runs the risk of catching the same cold that its general-market counterparts have caught, and it doesn't deserve the germs. Urban radio is growing exponentially, even in the 1-, 2-, 3-percent market growth sector that radio finds itself in. We're experiencing double-digit growth, but because the sector is perceived to be less sexy than the new media, or behind the curve of innovation, the most innovative format out there is being penalized unduly. If you look at what is coming out of urban radio today, it really is no longer considered a niche.
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