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All Audio Brands Need a Soundtrack

“I consistently hear so many radio stations and podcasts that have stale imaging…or worse yet, NO IMAGING AT ALL. I don’t understand it.”

Ryan Maguire

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Every great movie has a great soundtrack. Any radio station or podcast should be no different. It gives you an identity and helps you stand out.

It shocks and frustrates me to no end that I consistently hear so many radio stations and podcasts that have stale imaging…or worse yet, NO IMAGING AT ALL. I don’t understand it.

There are so many radio stations that just pick music beds for show opens, updates and promos that might sound good on their own but aren’t tied together in any way.

There are a plethora of podcasts that have NO opening to them. No sounders, no staging, no music, no sound-effects, nothing but a voice.

Its madness.

In a crowded (and growing) audio landscape, how the hell do brands expect to stand out operating this way?

FAILING TO IMAGE YOUR STATION IS DONE AT YOUR OWN PERIL

I recall once when I was interviewing for a PD job. It was with a high-profile brand in a very high-profile city. As part of the process, I spent a week listening to the station and then spoke to the GM on the phone to give him my observations.

One of the first things that stood out to me was the imaging…and just how bad it was. None of the music beds sounded similar enough to tie everything together. The music itself sounded stale as if it had been the same material running on the station for the last 20 years. Overall, it just didn’t present itself as big and bold as this brand truly was.

That being said, I wanted to couch my observations on the matter in a way that wouldn’t make me sound like a jerk. This particular GM had been running this station for a while and I didn’t want to come in hot by calling his baby “ugly as hell”.

I began by being tactful.

“So, in terms of the imaging, I was kind of surprised that…”

Before I could even finish that sentence, the GM groaned loudly and interjected.

“Yea, I’ve been screaming for new sonic imaging, stagers and sounders for over a year. It never happened.” He then went on to talk about his frustration over how stale the station sounded and why THAT was a key reason as to the former PD’s demise.

I grinned and felt validated. But it also drove home a very important point.

If you don’t image your audio brand correctly, you do it at your own peril.

LEARN TO BECOME A CONDUCTOR

One particular station I took over truly was a “fixer-upper”. One of the first things I knew I had to change was the imaging. It was practically non-existent.

So, I took about two months, and worked with an outside vendor to develop a full station imaging package. It truly was one of the most painstaking things that I’ve ever had to go through. The questions I kept asking myself were multifold:

“Does this reflect the market?”

“Does this reflect the format?”

“Does this reflect our personalities?”

“Will it be easy for listeners to recall?”

“Does this make us stand out?”

You would have thought that we were putting together The Beatles’ White Album. The full package required a slew of takes and re-cuts. Just when we thought we had what we wanted, I would want to go back and add something new. I felt like J.K. Simmons in the movie Whiplash. I’d listen to something, shake my head out of frustration and send it back to the vendor. I’m certain that the musicians that were working on the project had a picture of my face attached to a dartboard in their studio after a short amount of time. Eventually though, I felt that we had what we needed, and the project was finished.

Naturally, everyone in the building pushed back. Every host had an open that they wanted. I basically told them that those days were over.

After about a month or so of grumbling, something amazing happened…it caught on. Salespeople would be humming the station imaging while walking through the hallways. Hosts and producers would be signing the jingle going into commercial breaks. We finally had a SOUNDTRACK. We had an identity that we didn’t have before and it helped us stand out in a very crowded and challenging spoken word radio market.

I knew we had a hit when I stopped by a station event at a bar and heard patrons humming and singing our imaging.

“Mission accomplished,” I thought.

LEARN FROM THE BEST OF THE BEST

1010 WINS has been the all-news gold standard for the better part of the last fifty years. It’s also the ultimate utility brand. Every hour is about volume. Stories come at you fast and copy tends to be brief so they can live up to their long-held mantra “You give us twenty-two minutes and we’ll give you the world.”

What always struck me about 1010 WINS is how GOOD they’re imaged. I found this amazing video from 2017 that gave listeners a peek behind the curtain as to how they set up their top-of-the-hour news.

Seriously, how good was THAT? Anchors at 1010 WINS aren’t reading the news, they’re

CONDUCTING it like one would a symphony:

HEADLINE 1- BOOM (tempo picks up)

HEADLINE 2- BOOM (tempo picks up)

HEADLINE 3- BOOM (tempo picks up)

WEATHER- BOOM (tempo slows down)

TRAFFIC- BOOM (tempo picks back up)

Not only is the sound big and bold, but as longtime morning anchor Lee Harris said, “Instead of me having to match the music, the music matches me…” Those interjected stingers hold your attention as you move from one headline to another.

Look, not every news station is like 1010 WINS. But there are four tenants they really hit on that EVERY radio station and audio brand should take heed of:

1. It matches the identity of the station

2. It matches the identity of the market and/or target audience

3. It holds your attention

4. It makes you stand out.

“IMITATION ISN’T THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY, MOCKERY IS.”

Gregg Giannotti, now the morning co-host at WFAN in New York, was my morning show host at 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh. I’ve always maintained that Gregg is, by far, one of the most entertaining and creative talents I’ve ever worked with, in ANY format.

Anyway, Gregg hated our station jingle package. One day, he had enough and decided to make it a bit on his show.

“Hey,” he said to me during a commercial break as he poked his head in my office.

“Hey, Gregg,” I responded.

“Be listening at the top of the hour,” he said with a fiendish grin.

“Uhhhh, ok,” I replied pensively.

Whenever I got this kind of warning shot, I knew that I’d likely have something that was brilliant, but something I may have to answer for in the GM’s office.

Gregg, along with his producer, Ben Livingston, and our production director Steve Wilson, had managed to create a BEATBOXED version of our station jingle, BRILLIANTLY. What’s better, they were going to make our loveable (yet often surly) anchor, Jim Colony, do his update during their creation.

The result was hilarity. I was doubled over laughing in my office while listening to Jim try and get through his update. Finally, I heard Jim laugh, bang his hand on the studio desk, and say in resignation,

“This is so STUPID!”

Mission accomplished.

I called my friend and colleague Jim Graci, (who was PD at News Talk 1020 KDKA-AM at the time and now programs both KDKA-AM and 93.7 The Fan), into my office.

“Jimmy, you GOTTA listen to this,” I said as I replayed the cut from the morning show for him.

Graci fell backwards onto my couch in laughter and had a hard time catching his breath until I pushed the pause button on my computer.

Remembering that a few people in building might not share our same senses of humor, I asked, “Jimmy, what do I say for people that might be pissed off at this?”

“Here’s what you tell ‘em, Ryan,” Graci said while collecting himself. “You tell them that imitation isn’t the sincerest form of flattery. Mockery is.”

Indeed.

BNM Writers

The Cost of “Thoughts”

Jack Del Rio made a classic mistake of wondering aloud about topics that people in public positions aren’t allowed to think about on Twitter.

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The first recorded use of the expression, “A penny for your thoughts,” was made by Sir Thomas Moore precisely 500 years ago (1522). But, no doubt, a penny went much further in the 16th century.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s most recent Consumer Price Index (CPI) shows that inflation continues to increase above expectations. The current annual rate of 8.6% is the highest since 1981. The cost of thoughts, or at least saying them aloud, well, saying certain things in a public forum, has gone up far more than the CPI.

Jack Del Rio, defensive coordinator for the Washington Commanders (formerly known as the “Washington Football Team,” and before that, the Washington Redskins), made a classic mistake of wondering aloud about topics that people in public positions aren’t allowed to think about on Twitter. Specifically, his Tweets compared (what he called) “the summer of riots” to January 6th at the U.S. Capitol. As the late, great Alex Trebek would say, Del Rio’s comments were “in the form of a question.”

Faced with media scrutiny about his Tweets, rather than back down, Del Rio referred to January 6th as a “dust-up at the Capitol.”

Can I tell you a trade secret of press flacks? They all have a small can of lighter fluid and a pack of matches within reach behind a piece of glass with the words “break only in the case of emergency” scrawled on it. Certain phrases or words will cause a press person, at great personal danger and sacrifice, to break the glass, douse themselves with the accelerant, and strike a match before flinging their immolating body in front of the podium. Okay, not literally, but I guarantee the Commanders’ public relations director would think this alternative less painful than hearing those words come out of Del Rio’s mouth in front of the press gaggle.

The controversy that followed was swift and certain: as was the reaction from Commanders Head Coach Ron Rivera. He promptly assessed a $100,000 fine on Del Rio for his comments.

Two points here: First, this is not a sports story. Talk Radio observers should be far more concerned with the consequences of this story than NFL or sports fans. Second, it doesn’t matter what you think happened on January 6th. You should still find the fine issued by Rivera chilling, whether you call it an insurrection or a dust-up.

I used to believe that comedian Bill Maher and I were about as far apart on the political spectrum as any two Americans could be. Maher and I, however, hold similar views on freedom of expression.

On his HBO show, “Real Time,” Maher defended Del Rio by saying: “In America, you have the right to be wrong. They fined him; the team fined him $100,000 for this opinion. Fining people for an opinion. I am not down with that.”

Because this is where we meet, I’d like to buy Bill Maher a drink and have a laugh over all the times he’s been wrong, or we can share that drink and a smile for understanding that freedom of expression IS the foundation of democracy – no matter who’s right or wrong. Freedom of expression is an issue where liberals and conservatives must find common ground.

The football team currently known as the Washington Commanders may need another name change. Perhaps the “Comrades” would reflect the team’s philosophy better? Levying such a hefty punishment for stating a political (and non-football) point of view because it is out of step with what is apparently official policy seems more reminiscent of the Politburo’s posture than a free society.

Del Rio’s words are understandably offensive to many. At the very least, they were ham-handed for someone who has been in the public spotlight for so long. But a $100,000 fine? Stifling political opinion is far more dangerous than anything Del Rio said.

Taking the Del Rio incident into context with the “Cancel Culture” of the past few years, Talk Radio hosts should look over their shoulders. Del Rio is also an excellent reminder to think twice before posting a politically unpopular opinion on social media.

Inflation has eaten away at the value of a penny and increased the cost of making politically incorrect statements, including on the air in recent years. What inhibits individuals from expressing their thoughts, beliefs, opinions, and emotions is a threat to Talk Radio and democracy.

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BNM Writers

Joe Pags’ Dream to Work In Media Started Early

Pags knew a career in media was for him ever since he was ten years old, even before his vocal chords did.

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If you’ve ever been required to interview someone for a segment or article, you know pretty quickly when it’s going to be a bumpy ride. 

Joe Pags was answering my initial questions as freely as Ebeneezer Scrooge hands out Krugerrands. Teeth have been pulled from the human head with greater ease. It just wasn’t happening. 

After a few minutes, I think I grew on him.

I discovered we actually had a few things in common; both of us lived in Lake Worth, Florida, we knew a lot of the same places and faces, and we both understood that summer heat in Florida is like purgatory. 

However, Pags and I will both have a fond devotion to The Noid. We will always share the memories of being a manager at Domino’s Pizza. 

“I worked at Domino’s when pizzas were delivered to your door within 30-minutes, or it was free,” Pags said. “After a while they went to 30 minutes or three dollars off the price. Too many people were getting into accidents trying to beat the clock.”

What Pags did not mention was that even when you legitimately made it in less than 30 minutes, you had people questioning your delivery time. I guess that’s human nature.

Soon, pizzas were just for eating, not working; Pags started his radio career in 1989 in Palm Beach County, Florida.

After that, it was a stint as a television anchor from 1994-2005 in Saginaw, Michigan, and then Albany, New York. From there he was called back to radio and landed at the Clear Channel Talk Flagship, WOAI, in 2005. The Joe Pags Show has been a fan favorite since its debut in 2005.

For Pags, the media dream started early on. 

“I grew up listening to talk radio at a very young age and was determined to make my living doing it one day,” Pags says. “I actually have a tape somewhere on which I erased the DJ’s voice and recorded mine over the songs.” 

Pags is probably thrilled that the tape will never be released.

Years later, he found he could pay the bills doing something he loved. “I’m lucky enough to work with great people on both local, and national radio and television,” Pags explained.

As a kid, Pags listened to Neil Rogers on WIOD. It was consistently a top-rated show in the MiamiFt. Lauderdale media market and had been since his Miami debut in 1976.

“I also remember Steve Cain, Rick, and Suds on that station,” Pags said. “It was a lot of talk radio, but it was fun. It was entertainment. Rush Limbaugh was doing the politics stuff back then.”

Pags knew a career in media was for him ever since he was ten years old, even before his vocal chords did.

“When my voice changed at 13, I developed more of a bass tone; I knew I was on my way. I had a New York accent and had to shake that.”

Before he embarked on a career in radio, his music career was going well. Pags played French horn and saxophone; apparently, he was pretty good.

He played gigs at the prestigious Breakers Hotel, among many others. “I used to play at the Backstage lounge adjacent to the old Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter,” Pags said.

No word on whether Reynolds ever caught Pags live or not.

As a kid, he played baseball. Pags said he was pretty good. What took center stage for Pags was music. It was the French horn and saxophone that captured his heart. 

“I played professionally on the Empress Dinner Cruise on the Intracoastal Waterway,” Pags said. “I also did gigs at The Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. We made some good money.” 

Before Domino’s and radio and music, it all started with a strong desire to succeed. That often comes from your family’s belief in you. Sometimes it’s not there.

“I knew that if I worked hard enough, if I showed the love for the work I was doing, then I’d succeed,” Pags said.

His family lived in Lake Worth, Florida, from 1973-74, and Pags returned every so often. “I got back to Florida recently when I went to Mara Lago and watched 2,000 Mules.

San Antonio has been home for the past 17 years for Pags and his family. “I’ve been here at WOAI. I’ve got my own studio in a great area.” His daughter Sam is his executive producer. I asked Pags if there was any nepotism when it came to hiring Sam.

“Darn right, there is nepotism,” he said. “This is Joe Pags media. I get to hire whoever I want,” he quipped. “Sam has always had a love of broadcasting. When I became syndicated in this business, I told her I trusted her more than anyone else I knew and asked her to produce my show.”

The other day I spoke with Will Cain for a piece. He told me if I visited Austin, I should also see Texas. So I asked Pags what Cain was trying to say. “He means Austin is a city like Portland; only it’s in Texas. There’s a lot of homelessness in Austin. A lot of crime. The University of Texas in Austin goes far to the Left.”

Where does Pags’ tough demeanor come from? 

“My father was 100 percent Italian. We had some good pasta dishes around our house with my grandparents around,” Pags explained. “We didn’t have a good bakery in Lake Worth, so I remember my mother and aunts bringing great bread recipes over from the homeland.”

Pags has always been interested in what takes place on the periphery, not just the core of matters. He’s done a lot of things throughout his life. That experience has helped shape his radio show. Pags said his show tends to be white-collar, but he grew up blue-collar all the way. 

“I liked the Superman movies. I enjoyed Rocky,” Pags explained. “As a car-buff, I loved the Burt Reynolds films with Smokey and the Bandit. Stuff like that.”

Lake Worth, like a lot of other Floridia areas, has been known to be a little rough and tumble. Just watch Cops for a week if you don’t believe me.

Pags said other than a little shoving match at the bus stop, he didn’t encounter much rough stuff. “I was a musician, I wasn’t in that mix. Perhaps a scuffle in little league.”

When he was a teenager, he thought music would be it. “I’d played with some big-hitters at the time, like The Coasters,” Pags said. 

“Music career opportunities really didn’t come along as I’d hoped. In some ways, people in the industry were full of it. I still did some freelance work on the saxophone.”

Pags said he was always willing to work for what he got. “I poured coffee and ran errands for $4 an hour,” Pags said. “I had my car repossessed, and got evicted from my apartment. I still kept at it. I never was deterred from what I wanted. I knew what I wanted, but never really expected things to happen the way they did.”

Pags said if some youngster asked how to be what Pags is today, his answer was succinct. “Pour coffee, run errands, whatever you have to do.” 

I asked Pags what he does in his downtime? Let’s just say he’s not running to tee-off at 7:00 am with the guys at the club on his day off.

“I’m a domestic sports car guy,” he says with pride. “I’ve got three Corvettes, a Camaro Super Sport. My Camaro was a 1967, red with white stripes. I sold that car so we could afford to adopt our daughter. I got the better end of that deal.”

He doesn’t do any weekend racing on local tracks like other aging Indy wannabes. “I like to look at those cars in the garage,” Pags said. “My dad was a big car guy. My dad is probably why I’ve succeeded in my life and career. Not for the reasons you’d think.”

Pags’ relationship with his father had the typical ups and downs. Same as it is for most men.

“My father didn’t think I’d amount to anything and had no problem relating that to me,” Pags said. “Conversely, my Mom was always extremely supportive of my interests and goals. I knew if you were good at what you did, people would take notice.”

Pags said his father excelled at being a naysayer. A glass is a half-empty kind of guy.

“He was so negative. He thought I’d never succeed at anything,” Pags explained. “I was out of the house at 17, and I was determined to become something. To prove him wrong.”

Before his father passed away, Pags believes his father became aware of a lot of things. 

“A light went on in his head, and he was just so surprised I could make a living doing what I did,” Pags explains. “When I became a big enough success, he recognized my drive and determination. I’m still not sure if he was hard on me because he thought it would help me in the end. Whatever his reasoning was, it gave me the drive and determination to see things through.”

Pags’ father became so proud of his son that he’d tell friends Joe was going to be on Fox News and how they should tune in.

“It was my mother, with her ultimate support, that really made me want to succeed. For her,” Pags explained.

“I learned that if someone disparages you or makes you feel small, you have choices. You can go into a shell and take it. Believe what people say. Or you can go out and knock down some doors. If you want me to do something, tell me I can’t do it. Soon I will be syndicated on 200 stations. All that came from believing in myself. I’ll prove it to iHeart. To other broadcasters.”

Pags said at some point; you’ve got to find some kind of edge. 

“I knew I wasn’t going to agree with things my father believed and said, just to shut him up. I had to stand up for my own beliefs.”

I can relate to a guy like Pags. He’s got a tough exterior, not easy to crack. But like me, I know in the center is a soft, creamy nougat. 

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BNM Writers

The Rise of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

According to BNM’s Pete Mundo, Ron DeSantis sounds an awful lot like someone who is gearing up for something bigger than “just” being the Governor of Florida.

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For at least the last six years, the long-standing belief is that talk radio has been the home for Donald Trump sycophants. While I’ve always viewed this as an overly-simplistic analysis of tens of millions of weekly talk radio listeners in this country, it’s fair to say that certainly, from 2015 through 2020; the news talk audience was supportive of the 45th President. 

And now, as time goes on, there are signs that the dam is breaking. There’s anecdotal data I can share and then more scientific data to touch on.

This past Monday, I spent one segment of my show saying I would burn through as many calls as I could over 8-9 minutes on Trump or Ron DeSantis to be the 2024 Republican Presidential nominee. I brought this up in the wake of DeSantis’ criticism of Joe Biden’s energy policy from late last week. He sounded an awful lot like someone who is gearing up for something bigger than “just” being the Governor of Florida.

Over those 8-9 minutes, I fit in 14 phone calls. Going into it, I told my producers privately that my guess was that the calls would split fairly evenly but probably lean towards Trump. 

That’s not what happened. 

Instead, we ended up with nine of the 14 callers in favor of DeSantis, with five going for Trump. 

Then there was some interesting polling this week. One poll of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire found DeSantis edging out Trump 39 percent to 37 percent. The most telling fact about the New Hampshire poll is that while DeSantis leads Trump by just two points overall, he leads among Fox News watchers by 14 points and among conservative radio listeners by 16 points.

As is always the case, one poll should not be viewed as an absolute, but there are clear signs that Donald Trump’s stranglehold over Republican voters is waning. And from my perspective, it’s waning faster than I expected. 

Politics move fast. One day you’re hot; the next day, not so much. And to see DeSantis rise this quickly when all the focus is on Joe Biden and the 2022 midterms, not the Republican primary in 2024, makes this poll even more surprising.

And while I have no interest in getting ahead of myself, talk radio is likely to be the battleground for this issue if and when it does ultimately come to fruition. Talk radio is obviously far more interactive than cable news. Callers, texters, and Facebook/Twitter users can all be participants and have their perspectives shared with thousands of listeners at any given time.

And if those most in tune with the news cycle of the moment find themselves shifting to someone like Ron DeSantis, then the run-of-the-mill Republican voter is likely to follow suit when the time comes.

But, if we do end up getting a Trump vs. DeSantis primary, then 2024 could end up making 2016 look like child’s play. But I’ll stop here because, once again, I’m not looking to get ahead of myself.

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