Friday, July 9, 2010

Friday Media Rant: Wrecking Great Radio and TV Stations

The famous marketing IQ question goes something like this: you have one of the world’s most recognizable products. It has a nearly 40% share of its market. What do you do with the product? The usual optional answers go something like A) leave it alone, or B) change it. The correct answer is A, and the question here refers to Coca-Cola, and the huge gaffe the company made in 1985 by introducing “The New Coke”. The new Coke was pulled off store shelves three weeks after a multi-million-dollar rollout ad campaign.

New Coke is certainly not the only example of boneheaded corporate decisions. Anybody remember the Cadillac Cimmaron? It was introduced in 1982 when the suits decided to listen to Cadillac salesmen who said they needed a gas-sipping car to sell. It failed immediately. People who buy Cadillacs don’t give two hoots in hell about gas mileage.

Right now, one of the greatest radio stations in the Midwest is dying, at the hands of a new group of radio executives who have fired the veteran on-air talent and replaced them with out-of-towners. I speak of WGN in Chicago, a station once iconic to every broadcaster in the heartland, which has become just another spot on the radio dial with lukewarm talent and a failed baseball team. Wait ‘till next year, indeed.

The new guys came in and took one of the most successful radio properties that’s ever existed, and tinkered with it. Wally Phillips and Bob Collins are rolling in their graves, and Spike O’Dell, who followed in Collins’ and Phillips’ footsteps on the morning show until he retired a year or so ago, has publicly expressed his disgust with the ongoing destruction of a once-great radio station. Phillips, Collins, and O’Dell were Chicago institutions. Kathy and Judy? Gone. The new guys said the station was “going in a different direction”.

The same thing is happening right now, as far as I’m concerned, at The Weather Channel. It went on cable in May of 1982 and at first was watched only by weather geeks like me. It grew to be the ultimate weather authority, and soon after it reached the pinnacle of success, the owners started to add programs like “Storm Stories” and other feature stuff, diluting the franchise. For a short time, they tried to become “personality TV” with stuff like the ill-fated “Abrams and Bettes” show.

What got the Weather Channel its huge audience was its round-the-clock live forecasts. No matter what the time of day or night, you could turn on the Weather Channel and get a live meteorologist giving a real-time forecast. Now, not so much. Too many “fill” programs take up time that was once devoted to live real-time weather reporting and forecasting.

Now that NBC owns the Weather Channel, they’ve taken marquee weather names like Jim Cantore and Mike Seidel – who earned their reputation by covering horrid weather for the Weather Channel – and made them just a couple more network TV personalities. And yesterday morning when I tuned to the Weather Channel to get the forecast, I saw that aging buffoon Al Roker yukking it up with a couple of puppets on a new morning program the Weather Channel calls “Wake Up With Al”.

I don’t want to wake up with Al. I just want someone with a current AMS seal (Al’s is expired, sports fans) to give me the weather. I’d rather wake up with Elmer Childress giving me the weather. And Spike O’Dell on WGN. I don’t want to turn back the hands of time as much as I want the corporate suits who know nothing about the product they manage to learn to leave well enough alone.



    Those bozos are going to lose their financial asses.

    I switched to one of the local TV stations' radar thingie, which can be local, regional, or national, has a 3-day forecast, and no advertising.

  2. So, to sum up: Old stuff = good, new stuff = bad.


  3. Jason, please read the last sentence of my post. Please note the ref. to Al Roker (old = bad). I think you proceeded from a false assumption, hence your summation is flawed. Not only have WGN and TWC lost audience share and ratings points, revenue is down. They're doing things wrong.

    And - if you're old enough to remember Elmer Childress on the air, could we agree that his style and accuracy were better than the people doing it today.

  4. I agree with our blogger. Painting this as Old Stuff vs. New Stuff is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

    Clinging to the old stuff can be bad, especially if that clammy grip is driven by a desire to avoid the new stuff. That approach nearly killed Detroit.

    Once upon a time the Apple board of directors got the collywobbles from Steve Jobs' penchant for betting on new stuff, so it canned him. The company quickly devolved into irrelevance and came within a cat's whisker of disappearing. Then Jobs returned (was it really down from the clouds?), smote the doofuses who had taken over the board room and ... well, imagine life today without products with names that begin with the letter i.

    Change for change's sake is always a bad idea. If you didn't know that, then you heard it here first. Next on the bad idea list is change based on bad information or "gut" feelings. We're again fighting hopeless wars because of that approach.

    The WGN wrecking crew would probably say they based their changes on demographics analyses - probably purchased at great expense from consultants. (Remember that no consultant who wants to be paid will say "Do not change anything.")

    Change brings the Law of Unintended Consequences into play, but many of those surprise turns of fortune could be avoided if the change-makers really understood what they were tinkering with.

    Let us focus on one of our blogger's examples: There was a time when a big, powerful radio station like WGN could be all things to all listeners, but those days have long since gone away. Now every media outlet of whatever sort must find a niche if it is to survive. So it is with WGN. While the rest of the media worked themselves into a frenzy trying to hook the 18-35 demographic, or this mercurial bunch or that fickle group, WGN had the advantage of a stable supply of listeners who were not mercurial or fickle. They value tradition and familiarity, and take comfort and place trust in that which they find solid and reliable. They were of the youth demographic once, but have since moved on.

    Now they find the rock they relied on is suddenly being led "in another direction" by confused managers who think they can attract more money by trying to appeal to a broader audience.

    The move will inevitably fail, and WGN may fail as well. It is a sad story for our time.