Monday, November 26, 2012

Some Comments on the Death of WTDY


Last Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, 8 employees of MidWest Family Broadcasting who worked in news and on-air on WTDY-AM, including my friend and long-time radio partner, John “Sly” Sylvester,  were summoned to a meeting and fired by General Manager Rick McCoy.  The station now broadcasts continuous Christmas music, and indications are that sometime after the holidays it will switch to a sports-talk format.

While last Wednesday’s mass firings signal the death of WTDY as a local talk station, it also signals the death of any credible news effort on the part of MidWest’s group of radio stations in Madison, leaving Clear Channel’s cluster of stations (WIBA-AM, et.al) the sole surviving active radio newsgathering operation in town. Without news and traffic reporters, MidWest has ceded local coverage of winter storms, tornados, floods, and other such events to the other stations in the market.

WTDY’s death actually was a long, drawn-out drama that began in July of 2003 with the death of William R. Walker, who took his father William E. Walker’s small radio operation and turned it into a thriving group of more than 40 radio stations in 4 states.  His death was a blow still resonating in the group, which departed from his template for success that involved serving the community with a strong news presence and local on-air personalities.

I was a shareholder, manager, consultant, and on-air performer in the group that employed me for the better part of three decades, until November 18, 2008, when Glen Gardner and I (we were doing the WTDY morning show at the time) were thrown under the bus.  Glen’s analysis of the death of WTDY is better than anything I could write.  This is what he posted Sunday:

In my opinion there are two types of (commercial) broadcast operations; those that are sales-driven and those that are programming-driven. In a sales-driven operation the sales department in effect runs the station. If they can’t or won’t sell a particular product it goes away. In a programming-driven operation it’s the product side of the company that drives the business model. The Sales Department is given a product to sell and they sell it. MidWest family used to be a programming-driven organization with people like Bill Vancil, Dick Record, Jonathan Little, Tim Morrissey and many others calling the shots.

Then superior sales people like Robert Lewin would go sell it and be compensated well for their craft. At MidWest the tables have turned and that is bad for local radio. Sometimes good programming takes a much higher skill level to market. It takes product knowledge and passion. It takes more work. Lazy sales departments are much more comfortable selling large chunks of commercial matter across many frequencies because it takes virtually no skill, which means a bunch of low-paid flunkies can sell it by the truckload. That also drives ad rates down which provides less resource for local programming. It’s a truly vicious cycle.

The other major problem with a sales-driven model is a lack of regard for the real implications of the loss of solid local programming, news and personalities. In these times radio is really not needed as a music delivery medium. I’ve got 60 gig of my favorite songs on my Galaxy III. It’s 24 hours of WGLEN. Every song I ever wanted and about 20 gig of songs I can’t even tell you why I have. I just don’t need radio for music anymore (that’s coming from a 56 year-old guy, can you imagine what the 25-year-old-thinks?). So, what goes between the songs on a music station is critical and the real future for radio is the spoken word format as music importance fades.

What MidWest did with these and other firings is got rid of not just people, but local product. All those news people not only supplied WTDY with product, but all the other music stations in the building. When the weather got bad it was Tim and I and other newspeople who broadcast across all the signals to supply the local content that people depend on. I can’t wait to see what happens the first time there’s a blizzard, tornado, flood or other disaster. That’s what they fired! They fired their local product and will be left with a bunch of jukeboxes that will be worth less and less as music becomes less important to the radio listener. They fired what goes between the songs!

They also fired their best shot at survival.

Let me give a quick example of sales-driven versus product-driven that you may be old enough to remember.  During the gasoline crisis of the 70’s, gradually Americans shifted to smaller and more fuel-efficient cars.  Cadillac sales personnel whined to GM that they had no small, fuel-efficient cars to sell. As a result of the constant din from the sales folks, Cadillac put the Cimarron into production in 1981.  It was one of the biggest failures in auto marketing annals, right up there with the Edsel.  A mere 132 thousand Cimarrons were sold during its 7-year production run.  What the sales people didn’t realize was that Cadillac buyers didn’t give two hoots in hell about fuel economy or smaller cars.  They loved those big gas-sucking barges with the giant V-8 engines and tons of chrome.  That was Cadillac’s market niche, and they dominated it.  This is why sales people don’t make good organizational leaders.

Former MidWest Madison Vice President and General Manager Bill Vancil agrees wholeheartedly with what Glen says above:

You are spot on Glen! The scenario you've described is the reason I retired from the business. But, hats off to the determined programming pros like Pat O'Neill, Tim Moore, Jim McGaw and others who keep a flow of relatable programming finding its way to the remaining listeners despite the encumberance of the sales driven forces you've so well described. The convulsions that have taken place within broadcast management have opened "Pandora's" box even wider.

Here are some additional very articulate and insightful words about the demise of WTDY from Deana Wright, who was a news and traffic reporter for WTDY until last Wednesday.  Her statements will have real broadcasters shaking their heads in amazement.

I was often amazed when I would speak at events or attend community functions, that so many people had never heard of WTDY...didn't even know where it was on the dial. You can have the best product but if nobody knows it exists your audience will not grow. And, if folks were listening to Sly...the emphasis on 'If"...then what was being done to recycle those listeners and keep them listening to Kurt's "Forward" show and beyond? I was there for the last 3 years and none of us in the newsroom were ever asked to do a personal appearance for a client...at least to my knowledge. That's another way to attract folks who don't currently listen.
 The way I see it several things needed to happen including more focused positioning of the station (positioning statement was non-existent), the creation of promotions aimed at increasing station awareness, much more community involvement, goals should have been set with the staff involved...and a plan implemented to reach those goals, and the station should have been more concerned with servicing our core listener...hard to do, though, when that either hadn't been identified or we just weren't privy to that information. You know I once asked our PD what the station's cume was...I wanted that info to include in a talk I was giving at the state capitol and later at UW-Madison...he replied, "what do you mean, cume?...smh. And I followed that question with another, "who is our core listener?"...the answer?..."I'm not sure, you'll have to ask Randy". As you know, I've worked in major market radio for more than 15 years...and syndication and voice tracking is now the norm at most stations, which contributes to the demise of local programming.

Deana is the daughter of the late Reverend James C. Wright, the Madison civil rights pioneer, and her radio credentials are top-notch.  She came back home to Madison a few years ago to join the WTDY staff after a successful career in some of the largest radio markets in the nation.  What her post so dramatically illustrates is that people who were clearly out of their depth in running a news-talk operation had been appointed to positions of power by a management core that had so clearly abandoned the concepts that Bill Walker used to build MidWest.

Many former MidWest employees posted on social media sites after hearing the news of the death of WTDY comments like “Bill Walker is rolling over in his grave”.

Best of luck to all the people, including my friend Sly, who are now looking for work.  Trust me, better days are ahead for all of you, but the same can’t be said for the company that fired you.

33 comments:

  1. A personal, up-close, inside look at a once-viable broadcast property's death rattle.

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  2. Jim McGaw, Pat O Neil, Bill Vancil...those names bring back a lot of memories. The original WTDY/Today Radio also featured names like Bill Short, Boyd R Brittan, Even Clyde Coffee was still around. I remember MWF as a VERY people oriented employer that attracted great radio people who were motivated to produce quality "infotainment". This concept is missing from todays model. Very sad.

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  3. A great piece, Tim........lots of depth here. It helps me to understand the situation better.

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  4. Thanks for this incredibly insightful post. It kills me that community involvement isn't part of the business model of stations like WTDY anymore. An operation like that cannot exist in a vacuum. The whole point of local programming is that it's LOCAL. The people in the community should know who you are and what you do, and should feel like they have a stake in it, too.

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    1. That's the way it used to work in MidWest, until Bill Walker died.

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  5. Give a man enough rope!

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  6. That was very well written. I remember listening to you a lot Tim. A good job as always.

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  7. WTDY's house-cleaning is just one more banner decision in a long line of brilliant moves by our new titans of broadcasting.

    The old Mid-West Family Broadcasting pretty much killed Clyde Coffee when they fired and humiliated him, but not before, of course, he built the fledgling company with the number one morning show for ten years running, on WISM, Madison.

    The current Mid-West Family? Well, as crass as Sly can be, one is hard pressed to find anyone more knowledgeable regarding Wisconsin politics, and then to combine, for a half-hour each morning, with guest John Nichols?! What does MWFB want, exactly, in a talk show? (More meaningless, senseless sports banter from full-grown men I suppose).

    As we used to say when I was working the biz: "Are you sure the owners aren't simply using the station as a tax write-off?" I'm still wondering.

    Radio, much like newsprint, is dead or dying all over this land. It’s a wonder the sales departments can get advertisers to pay anything for spots anymore, as no one is listening.

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  8. Sad to see the local radio presence get even worse. The lack of local news coverage in Madison is really disappointing. I didn't know the Wright connection. My son is a student at Wright Middle School. Hopefully these good people will land on their feet soon.

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  9. I started listening to WTDY during the 2011 protests. I dedicated a button to them on my car radio and would listen to Sly in the morning. Then, I came across Amy's show in the afternoon (as well as Smerconish) and really enjoyed her interviews. The advertising really got me thinking more about buying locally. Well, it's all over now.

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  10. Thanks for this write up. It is a beautifully insightful piece. I'm someone who spent a lot of time with WTDY on my radio (local AM dial and then streaming when I moved to San Antonio and then back on the dial again when returning to Middleton). Found your bloglink on MadisonRadio.com by the way; I always appreciate when I know where my traffic comes from. I handle ntr/online creative content for CC corporate so as such I'm posting anonymously.

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    1. Thanks! I avoid going to the MadisonRadio.com board because too much of the content is juvenile or insultingly personal. Surprised that somebody linked this blog post to it. Google Metrics does a fair-to-middlin' job of pointing to traffic sources, but specific info is much appreciated!

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  11. Tim - I have grown to admire your candid, if not occasionally 'too real', observations and insight. You seem to cut right to the marrow of an issue and 'turn the light on' to have a look around. Radio HAS changed dramatically. I always hoped, in the back of my mind, that MWF would stay... "different". That it would stay rebellious in it's own way. Hopefully leadership (has/will) emerge to bring it back there again one day. Good blog!

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    1. Brad, by the time we met, MidWest was already in the post-Bill Walker decline. That was a pretty frustrating period for me; Tom, Randy, and that woman did NOT want to hear anything I said, and they'd shuffled me off to the sidelines a long time before you arrived. In the 70's, 80's, and 90's, MidWest was an exciting place to work: people who had come up through news and programming, like Gayle Olson, Dick Record, Paul Layendecker,and Glen Gardner (in Springfield, IL) were running the show. Much money was spent on training the sales staffs to understand WHY the programmers were doing what they were doing, the "unique selling proposition" of the programming, and if you couldn't sell what the programmers put on the air, you were assisted in finding other employment. Now, as Glen points out, it's all sales-driven, and that is not likely to change. Given the company's precarious financial state (Tom's personal issues; the impending passing on of huge shareholders like Phil Fisher - God Forbid - and their ever-diminishing market share, they're panicked into thinking that sales is everything. Another tangible sign: instead of taking an office upstairs, when Rick took over as GM, he selected an office downstairs in a corner of the sales area. Spoke volumes to the programming staffs: they then realized they were second-class citizens.

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  12. This is why sales people don’t make good organizational leaders.

    Ummnnhhh.....

    I was often amazed when I would speak at events or attend community functions, that so many people had never heard of WTDY...didn't even know where it was on the dial. You can have the best product but if nobody knows it exists your audience will not grow.

    Perhaps you see the contradiction between those two statements. I certainly do.

    It is fair to state that "some salespeople are [bad] general management material."

    But it is also fair to state that "some product people are bad general management material."

    Gehr ste'he?

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    1. Yup. For the insiders, Dad, the scores of people who used to work at MidWest (and many who still do) who read my drivel, the sales/programming thing is really what swung the entire group into its present difficulties - that, and an unsustainable ownership model that depended on CONSTANT sales growth to generate new employee/shareholders. When I was Station Manager, back in the 80's-90's, the core corporate management group had all come up through news or programming - every single one of them. That's what the founder (Bill Walker) wanted - because the programming and news people had a far better understanding of the community than the sales people did, or ever would. Plenty of money was spent in sales training, helping the sales staff understand why programming was doing what it was doing, and selling the unique benefits of the audience - the "consultant-sell". Since the dawn of the 21st Century, every single MidWest Family market manager has come up through sales - NONE of them have a programming or news background. That swing, combined with the economic downturn of 2008, and the advent of free online advertising (Craig's List, et.al.) hit broadcasting just as hard as it hit print. The car dealers left, and several other huge business categories simply abandoned radio advertising and never came back.

      Soooooo.....yes, it is fair to say that SOME salespeople are bad general management material - in a general sense; same with some product people. But in the LOCAL broadcasting industry, or what's left of it, it's still a generalization that holds. Let the sales people run the sales department, but let the content creation people run the business model.

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  13. Thank you for this insightful blog piece Mr. Morrissey. I found WTDY on September 11, 2001. I remember the continuous broadcast of CNN that day that eventually gave way to the local programming that got me hooked on this station. Being a radio junky, it was my first foray into talk radio. I'd heard about Rush and all prior, but never bothered. WTDY was all I listened to all day, every day for many years. I always appreciated your wit and professionalism on the air. It had to be hard that day filling the remainder of Krok's show when he was pulled after the whole Gene Parks thing. I drifted some with the whole O'Reilly, Hanity, Beck era, but always found my way back to mornings whether it was Glen and yourself or Sly. It really hit when I was driving to work and found myself listening to Bill Press on the Mic yesterday morning. When the top of the hour news started, I expected to get a local dose of news as I always had on TDY but found Doug Limerick instead. I too wonder what will happen during the next ice storm or blizzard that strands thousands on I-90. Will it be much like the whole Minot train derailment ala Clear Channel? I remember Murph and Prebil dedicating their whole show to keeping those informed as to what was going on during the '08 blizzard. Kudos to all who worked hard to keep this station going all these years. It's my hope that somehow local news/reporting can be rekindled in the Madison area.

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    1. Thanks, Andy - I still vividly remember that day that Krok was pulled after insulting Gene Parks. And yes, MidWest in Madison is headed down that same trail as the Minot Clear Channel cluster, except in Madison, the Clear Channel cluster will shine during a local disaster or emergency; MidWest will....well, they'll have a sidekick telling jokes about whatever's going on.

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  14. Tim, thank you for this entry. I listened to WTDY in the old WISM days and then from the "Today Radio" days when they were music and info right through to the end, especially after Sly started there. I enjoyed you and Glen as well.

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  15. Nice background post, Tim.

    There's a movement to get Sly on The Mic. Info here:

    http://www.giveslythemic.com/


    Mayor Soglin just got on board:

    http://www.waxingamerica.com/2012/11/silencing-a-progressive-voice.html


    Barry (not the Alvarez)

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    1. Thanks, Barry. Well aware of the petitions to get Sly back on the air. Sure hope Clear Channel picks him up, but, each day that passes seems to make the odds of that happening diminish. They (CC) sure missed a huge publicity opportunity by not picking up Sly right away, and tooting their horn about it.

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  16. Excellent post, Tim.

    I do think it's important to note that the WTDY that was taken off the air a week ago was, quite frankly, just not a very good radio station. After Sly, it was mostly unlistenable.

    I realize that comes off as a shot to the people who were working hard to put on a good product, but I don't believe it's their fault. Instead, it was the inept management that put an inexperienced, non-News/Talk person in charge. Because he was out of his depth, that PD was not capable of helping the local airstaff improve, so the station faded away.

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  17. I would like to add my "I agree" to Hector's comment.
    Ghess.

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    1. I think Deana Wright's comment in the post speaks clearly to the utter failure of management. First, they shuffled me off to pasture in '95; then, they stopped listening to Glen in '06. The result was inevitable. Critical content decisions were being made by a triumvurate of people, one of whom is essentially a rock station DJ, and two of whom had never EVER been on the air or sold a radio ad at any time in their "career".

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  18. Reading this is a bit like watching a barn fire - terrible but riveting.

    I can relate to Deana's experience. I once asked the boss, during news meeting in which he was describing his intention to revamp the way we reported stories, what audience we would be writing for. Who is the reader we hope to reach?

    He admitted he had no idea. (The changes he was talking about never happened, but probably not because of my question.

    Not to downplay the seriousness of losing one's livelihood, especially later in life and career. But I can imagine worse fates than being put off a ship of fools.

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