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Dan Mason: Beyond Infinity [3/31/03]

By Reed Bunzel

Dan Mason tells it best. “I was generally what programmers call a ‘contest pig,’” the former president of Infinity Radio says. “I won everything imaginable—free pizzas, trips—you name it, I won it.” His innate love of all things radio inevitably led to a career on the air which, he recalls, “seemed like the ultimate success.” But as many young men and women who yearn to be disc jockeys discover, Mason’s broadcasting talents fell far from the microphone.

“I found out after a few years that I would be only a marginal jock compared to all the other talented people,” he recalls. “Still, I loved the business and eventually I moved into programming. That was fun and no doubt one of the most enjoyable jobs anyone could have.” It also was the start of a long path that ultimately led him to the top job at Infinity, one of the largest radio groups in the U.S.

Mason earned his first programming stripes at WZGC in Atlanta in 1975, and two years later moved on to Washington, DC, where he served as PD at WPGC as well as national program director for parent company First Media. In 1979, at the age of 27, he was named vice president/general manager of KTSA/KTFM in San Antonio. He later returned to First Media, where he was named executive vice president. When First Media became Cook Inlet Radio Partners, he was named that company’s president in 1988. In 1993, Mason joined Westinghouse as president of Group W Radio.

In 1995 Mason was named president of CBS Radio, which was renamed Infinity Radio. Following the company’s rapid-fire consolidation, he found himself responsible for the operation of the group’s 184 stations in the largest markets across the United States. As president of Infinity, Mason successfully integrated the original CBS, Group W and American Radio Systems stations, among the most venerable radio broadcasting groups in the country, by merging operations, blending business styles and increasing profitability.

Mason announced his departure from Infinity last September and simultaneously hung out his own shingle as advisor and consultant to companies in the radio industry. He currently consults such companies as iBiquity and Host Communications, and says he will be announcing other affiliations within the next 30-45 days.

Mason has served on several boards including the National Association of Broadcasters and CBS Marketwatch.com. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Dan Mason graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Broadcasting. He and his wife Pat have two sons and reside in Poolesville, Maryland, in suburban Washington, DC.

How different is radio today from how it was the first day you landed your first radio gig?
My only aspiration in the beginning was to be on the radio. I was totally hooked on the medium. I was generally what programmers call a “contest pig.” I won everything imaginable—free pizzas, trips...you name it, I won it. I would keep the radio and the telephone under my covers at all hours of the night so my parents couldn’t hear me. I was fascinated by the entire process, and becoming a disc jockey seemed like the ultimate success to me.

What were your expectations then, and how have they changed over the years?
I found out after a few years that I would be only a marginal jock compared to all the other talented people. Still, I loved the business and eventually I moved into programming. That was fun and no doubt one of the most enjoyable jobs anyone could have. A program director has the opportunity to call people to action—so many great things can be done in conjunction with the audience. I programmed both Z-93 in Atlanta and WPGC in Washington in the 1970s, and both were (and still are) fabulous radio stations. It was probably at that point that I knew I enjoyed the business end of radio more and more, and I made a commitment to myself to be a general manager within a year—no matter where it took me. Ironically, a few weeks after I made that decision, Ken Dowe called me to replace him at KTSA/KTFM in San Antonio. I was 27, had never sold a day in my life, and I was going to be the general manager as well as the national sales manager. Imagine that!!

How would you characterize the changes that the radio industry has experienced during this time?
Some things have changed but, really, most things are the same. From a business standpoint the fundamentals are exactly the same. You get a fresh set of inventory to sell every day, and you still have the ability to see the results of you work within 90 days. Of course, our technology is so much better now. Sound processing is far superior to what it was like in the ‘70s. It’s good not to hear cue burn and surface noise on the radio any longer. With improvements in technology, the listening experience is so much more pleasing to the ear than 30 years ago.

Is there anything you miss about those “salad days?”
There is one aspect I really miss. I miss hearing the elements of a small market local radio station. If you start driving on long trips, all the radio stations you hear are slicker, with more satellite programming, but many of them have compromised the localism. Maybe that’s partly because of economics, but I believe the lack of localism comes from laziness. It takes hard work and meticulous attention to detail to get content on the radio. And I guess that’s what I miss the most: I really miss hearing a commercial for the local insurance company when the town fire alarm goes off. I miss hearing high school play-by-play, school menus, and even announcements for lost dogs. I am absolutely positive most program directors don’t miss these; I hated them years ago because I thought it made my station sound hokey. But you know what? I miss them as a listener. And eventually, some open-minded program director someday will capture the beauty of local radio while using the best of technology. I see a great opportunity there for program directors of the future to make a big station sound like part of a smaller community. Small markets really execute this concept the best and if they aren’t doing it. who teaches the large markets?

Has the culture of radio been compromised by the “big business” aspect of today’s broadcasting “megaliths?”
I haven’t bought into the concept of a universal company culture in radio. Over the years, I have tried to educate radio people that the culture isn’t about a parent company; instead, the culture is developed within the four walls of the radio station. I can’t remember any station receiving an award that gives credit to the company culture. They primarily give credit to the people within their own radio station, and rightfully so. Maybe this is a long winded way to say that cultures can be controlled from within each individual station or cluster of stations. I’ve seen so-called “great companies” that have terrible station cultures and, conversely, “bad-companies” that have stations that internally were on fire with passion—with a dynamic leader at the top. I’ve also seen some not-so-good general managers blame their problems on the “culture thing” when, in fact, it is because of their own poor leadership skills.

Might executives and managers forge better avenues of communication with their people?
Great communication comes from great leaders, and that’s true whether it’s a program direction, a general manager, or a group head. The best leaders are those who simplify. They make complicated issues easy for people to follow and deal with. On the other hand, the inexperienced manager takes something simple and makes it impossible to understand. I don’t buy that notion that “big business” causes lack of localism and poor communication, just as I don’t buy that “big business” controls all of the internal culture of radio stations—good or bad.

What aspects of your position as head of Infinity Radio did you enjoy the most?
The best part of my job was being able to work with some of the greatest properties ever assembled in one group. In my opinion, Infinity’s news stations are shining examples of near-perfect execution of broadcast journalism—not only in this country but in the entire world. The best parts are being associated with the people and the properties.

Conversely, what did you like the least?
The part that I liked the least was the daily struggle of grinding out revenue in the worst advertising economy since the Great Depression. That was about 90 percent of my job. The period from about October 2000 until March 2002 was as difficult for me personally and professionally as it was for every group head. We all had to go home every night knowing that what we did that day wasn’t good enough. I was burning a ton of fuel but not getting any traction, and I felt like the captain of the boat in The Perfect Storm. But we made it through and by April of last year things began to improve—and going forward, I believe radio companies should do well. The industry saw some excellent results in the 4th quarter and, with the economy improving, I felt like the timing was good to make some personal changes.

Ultimately, you have to take the bad with the good. There are peaks and valleys in everything we do. You can’t get too high on the highs or too low on the lows. Hard to do but it’s good advice.

Do you think today’s managers—whether they’re in sales or programming—are forced to spread their time (and their attention spans) too thin? How can these people better cope with the pressures and challenges of the job?
There is obviously more demand on people to do more. The only way to keep up is to be incredibly organized and to stay focused on actionable items. It's really all about focus now. Remember, today's manager not only needs to focus for his/her self, but that individual controls the emotional energy and focus of everyone else.

What would you say to those people—both inside and outside the business—who are vocal about how consolidation has changed the industry they grew up so passionate about?
Imagine the last typewriter salesperson in the pc world. You don't want to be that person. You have to adapt and increase the spectrum of your skills. Know how to perform several jobs...not just one. We aren't going back to live shifts 24 hours a day and we are not going back to one general manager per station.

Are you at all concerned with where the next generation of talented on- and off-air radio professionals are coming from?
This is one of our biggest problems. Most people won't be following the same career path as I did several years ago. The beginner level jobs are drying up. It's not that they're gone, just not as many. The competition for those positions has never been greater. The chain reaction goes all the way up to the group head.

Did you ever imagine yourself being considered one of the industry’s senior statesmen (not to be confused with elder statesmen)?
Now, that’s funny. A senior statesman at 51! Seriously, I love to teach and preach. I have a ton to share with anyone who wants to listen. No doubt, I have opinions on just about everything—especially when it comes to radio programming, sales and management. I’m looking forward to this era of my career.

I’d like to get your thoughts on some of the most pressing radio issues today. Let’s start with HD Radio…
It’s a wonderful system that provides digital listening while preserving the commercial broadcasting industry in this country. The data applications will be mind-blowing. Working with iBiquity, it puts me close to the action. We will have the same “Tivo-like” capacity for radio. I would also recommend that everyone read Nicholas Negroponte’s book Being Digital. It is a must-read for a glimpse into the digital world. The book is also very user friendly and not over-technical.

What about the Portable People Meter?
It needs to get back to the factory for an overhaul. Right now I think the logistical issues are overwhelming—would you take the people meter in the shower with you every morning?

Independent record promotion…
I think it is a legitimate business. It began 30 years ago as a way to help an independent artist who didn’t have access to a major label’s promotion staff get representation in a radio station—a pretty simple idea. When I think back to my programming days, there were several small labels that took advantage of someone representing them who would also co-op with other like-kind small labels. I have never understood why the major labels would need this sort of service, except maybe in the smaller markets where the label people may not go because of economic reasons. The major labels have the resources to get the best of the best as far as promotion people.

Now, I have a hard time accepting the allegations of some artists who say they are being purposely excluded from airplay. Any professional program director is going to do his/her research and play the hits. We have to get ratings. We reflect an audience’s taste in music—we don’t dictate what that will be. No station has ever gotten ratings like that. There have been stations over the years that have tried to program by texture, or simply by the programmer’s feel for the music—but the eclectic zone rarely gets ratings. Contemporary music programming lives by the cardinal rule of “play the hits.” If it’s a hit, who cares what the label is or who the artist is? You just play it. If there is a program director who doesn’t live by that creed, they should not be in the business.

Voicetracking…
By far the most sensitive and emotional issue in our industry. As a programmer, I always had difficulty making the station sound consistent through weekends and vacation relief. The overnight show was always a pain to find and keep good talent. Voicetracking solves that problem because you get a bigger talent pool to draw from. I think “6a-7p” is a different issue, and on a youth station nights are obviously a key daypart. I would like to think every station can find people to put on the air who can contribute something to the community.

How do you feel about the unemployment factor that voicetracking has introduced to radio?
It is disheartening to see some very good jocks out of work because they made too much money. However, I will tell you that in the pre-voicetracking days, I heard many jocks who didn’t bring much to the table other than “time-and-temp.” Some even slept through their shows. I remember hearing the same song two times in a row, dead air because the monitor was turned down, records skipping (which dates me, I know)—all because the jock was talking to his girlfriend on the request line.

Then there were jocks who step all over the intros because they’re not prepared. The list goes on—just plain old bad radio from folks who didn’t put much effort into their show. Without naming names, I hope that those who were really good communicators can find their way back to a market to continue to be on the radio. I would like to explore this further to identify who those people are and maybe help their cause in some way.

Spot overload…
That’s a function of the sales department—though I will say that any format should be able to handle a minimum of 12 units an hour. So I don’t have much sympathy for program directors who demand 9 or 10 unit limits from management. That is unrealistic in today’s business climate. On the other hand, I’ve seen weak sales managers who think they can manufacture more inventory at anytime and have little-to-no backbone when it comes to raising rates on a hot station. Inventory management separates the great sales managers from the mediocre ones.

How do you envision the radio industry 10 years—maybe 25 years—from now? Will it look anything like the industry we know today?
We can speculate all we want, but there are a couple of things we can count on. Radio will still be primarily advertiser-based, with some secondary benefits for data transmission. There will still be account executives on the street selling commercials and promotions. Most of the listening will still be done in the mornings. Competition will get tougher as it is easier to receive music in other places. Essentially, most of the fundamentals of this industry will still be in place.

On the technical side, we will make greater strides in sound processing as we begin to benefit from HD Radio, and we will see the biggest improvements coming on the AM band. It is possible as technology develops that the radio itself goes from a “dumb” receiver appliance to a very intelligent appliance like a microwave oven. A microwave has many different cooking programs. It can sense meat temperature, and it knows the difference defrost and low, medium and high. The radio receiver just picks up whatever the transmitter sends its way. Technology should reverse that process, making the transmitter itself just throw millions of bits in the air while making the smart receiver capable of distinguishing what the listeners’ preferences are. Technology and digital will make exciting times for radio broadcasters. With digital it should be possible for stations to localize commercials to different trading zones much like the newspaper does.

How have you “re-invented” yourself after stepping down as president of Infinity?
I continue to take tremendous pride in my role and relationship with Infinity. I know the people and the properties well. Some of the history goes back 10 years to the Group W-CBS days and some even 20 years to the Cook Inlet days. I speak with Jacques Tortoroli (CFO) and John Fullam (President) on a regular basis.

I’m also seeking out smaller companies to be of strategic help. Strategic help may mean a numbers of different topics….exit strategies or maybe an entry into our business. It may mean trying to help one company find another to do smart deals or mergers. It could also be as simple as assessing the management and helping identify their future stars right there within…or identify someone outside the company. Most of the people I’ll be working with will be broadcast or broadcast related companies both domestic and international. I would also like to break into the television industry. Our radio business skills are transferable to that industry also.

Back in January you announced that you were working with iBiquity on the roll-out of HD Radio. What are you doing for them?
I am assisting iBiquity in preaching the digital message to radio broadcasters. It is imperative that we support and promote the IBOC system. Digital is the future. I love what WOR/New York is doing. They promote digital broadcasting to the listener. They are the model in how it should be done.

What other clients are you working with?
In addition to iBiquity, I work with Host Communications. They are one of the leading sports marketing companies in the world. They are doing more and more with the radio industry.

Beyond the business, I am really enjoying spending more time with family. I am here most days when the kids get home from school. For the past few years, I have been the scorekeeper and webmaster for the high school baseball and basketball team…and I love doing that. My youngest son is senior and every afternoon at 2:30 the car pulls up with a carload of high school kids. It was a little strange at first as they were trying to adjust with me around but now I think they look forward to it…....or at least they tell me they do.

By Reed Bunzel, Editor-in-Chief



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