Exclusivity Ain’t What it Used to Be

| November 20, 2012

By Jeff McKay
Special Features Correspondent

NEW YORK — Superstar singer Taylor Swift has Clear Channel Media & Entertainment seeing “red,” and for the media platform giant, that’s a positive.  CCM&E rolled out their multi-platform partnership deal with Swift to launch her much-anticipated CD, entitled “Red.”  The platform “layers” included a Clear Channel and Ryan Seacrest-hosted national special album release party carried by a large number of Clear Channel radio stations and their iHeartRadio internet platform complete with exclusive interviews and music clips, with an “Artist Integration Program” allowing listeners to download a copy of “Red.”  Add to that their exclusive “24-Hour Dream Life” contest where a lucky fan and three of their friends won a private jet trip for a behind the scenes tour of Taylor’s new show, front row seats at two shows, a backstage meet and greet with Taylor and a signed guitar.

In addition, this month Swift hosted the 2012 CMA Awards Preview Special, carried by Clear Channel’s Premiere Networks, a four-hour radio show aired in advance of “The 46th Annual CMA Awards.”

Clear Channel radio stations from Maine to Hawaii also had a number of different Taylor Swift-related packages on their websites, offering everything from info about Swift on the news pages to exclusive video interviews with Swift describing what the song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is about, just another facet of Clear Channel’s multi-platform promotion approach.

It’s a win-win for Clear Channel and their platforms of distribution, but what of the rest of radio?

Back in the “good ‘ole days” of radio prior to group ownership changes, stations in the smallest and largest markets would fight and claw to be the first to report a headline on a music act, or play a new record, or get a music star in their studio so they could trump their opponent station.  Did ownership deregulation change all that?  Do exclusives no longer mean much?  Are PPM’s a factor?

However, while Clear Channel is basking in “Red,” other radio stations not owned by Clear Channel who play Swift’s songs and don’t have the media platforms they possess may be seeing “red” for other reasons.

What does a multi-platform deal like this mean for Clear Channel’s radio competition in major cities like New York or Los Angeles, or middle-America and small market stations not part of massive radio station groups that cannot provide a contest or promotion, or lack the same access to Taylor Swift and once-in-a-lifetime contests?

It seems in the PPM world, with large companies and far less overall competition, the feeling may be more of maintaining your own base and worrying less about the competition.

It’s all about the listener

“At the end of the day, it’s all about the listener.  There’s nothing I can do about my neighbor.  I keep my own yard clean.  Just because someone else got a promotion doesn’t mean we can’t do our own,” says Steve Davis, PD of WIAD-FM (94.7) and operations manager for CBS Radio in Washington, DC.  “In these competitive days and times, if we or any station plays games and holds artists and labels to different standards then we won’t have anything to play, and in the end it’s the listener who will suffer.  We play Taylor [Swift].  If it’s a hit, we play it because that’s what the listeners want.  Labels don’t tell us what to play or how much to play a song.”

Davis says each broadcast company, such as CBS, Entercom, Cumulus, Clear Channel and others all have something unique to offer their listeners.  He also believes it’s not in the artists’ or labels’ best interest to play one company against the other – and they know it.

“If labels get into playing sides and politics, they will be the ones to get hurt.  We [broadcast companies] have our strengths, each does things well, and playing one company against another would be a big disservice.”

A PD who asked to remain anonymous in the Detroit market took it one step further, saying that despite the promotion Clear Channel is doing, it won’t impact his listeners at all, and when programmed properly, his station’s listeners may benefit more.

“We’re going to be playing the very same Taylor Swift songs.  While they [Clear Channel Radio] are using inventory, running a large number of promos, being cheesy on the air about their promotion, we’re going to be playing more music.  And that will resonate with PPM’s.”

When asked about song exclusivity and if record labels dictate what to play or frequency, the PD added, “Our listeners dictate what songs we play and how much we play a song.  As for exclusivity, when a song comes out everyone has it in seconds.”  If a label held out, the PD added, “they would only be hurting themselves.”

Even though in a market such as Lincoln, Nebraska there is no direct Clear Channel radio competition, the question of “David versus Goliath” still hits home for NRG Media, which owns country KFGE-FM (98.1) and AC KBBK-FM (107.3), stations that play Taylor Swift.

“We let the music stand on its own.  If it’s good, we play it.  If it’s bad, we don’t,” says NRG Media Lincoln, Nebraska OM/PD Steve Albertson.  While the music is just one facet, the question of how this promotion could potentially affect a competing station brings up the point of relationships, and how the Swift/Clear Channel relationship could impact another station.

“Some PDs might think that way.  I think it can impact relationships with a record label.  Her management company hitched their wagons to something big, and you have to wonder how that would play with a station and a record label they normally work with, and you have to wonder making these allegiances if it is good for the marketplace.  Ultimately, you have to think about what is best for the listener.”

Interestingly, both Davis in the nation’s Capital, the PD in Detroit and Albertson in middle America all say the same thing when it comes to exclusivity – being first doesn’t necessarily mean being better.  Accordingly, each seems to concern themselves less with their competition’s events or “once-in-a-lifetime” promotions, and instead focus on their core audience and how to reach them better.

However, the further you get from top 10 markets, the more “ground-level” competition seems to still exist.

“It’s not an issue for us, since none of our station’s formats coincide with Taylor Swift’s music. If we did play her music on a format, we certainly wouldn’t call attention to a competitor’s promotion, but might hold our own local ‘download release party’ and give away local prizes, says Charlie Ferguson, general manager of Northern Broadcast of Traverse City, Michigan, in the Arbitron-rated Market #197.

Ferguson believes a promotion like the Clear Channel/Taylor Swift deal isn’t bad for radio. He looks at it from the music label’s point of view, saying “they will do what any business would do and try to impress the big operators like Clear Channel with special offers to tie in talent, appearances and special opportunities.  If you can get one decision maker to play your artists’ songs and they control 200 stations, that’s a pretty good economy of scale.  The only thing we get from the record labels is a request to sign Elliot Spitzer’s form every quarter, swearing on a stack of bibles that we haven’t taken any payola!”

Can’t fool the listeners

When asked further about promotions that could be considered “grandiose” by small market standards, Ferguson believes the listeners can see right through “national contests” and know better.

“Clear Channel was doing ‘national’ contests back in the late 90s. Randy Michaels would wax eloquent on conference calls with the managers and PDs and hype us all on what a fabulous thing it was. The truth is the audience didn’t believe they had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning – and responded with a yawn.  Our rock station will write checks to over 600 listeners over 10 weeks this fall in our ‘Workforce Payroll’ game and our classic hits station will have 10  $1,000 winners on ‘Thousand Dollar Thursdays.’  One station is taking a TSL approach and the other is working to build cume. Don’t anyone be intimidated by the ‘national’ contest.  Only the feeble-minded believe that Publisher’s Clearing House is coming to their door with a big check!”

Exclusivity isn’t what it used to be

The overall feeling of music station PDs contacted by RadioInfo for this story believe exclusivity isn’t what it was a generation ago, as radio has evolved with less overall competition, more group ownership, and the presence of Arbitron’s Portable People Meters which changes the ratings landscape.

Technology has also leveled the playing field.  Gone are the days of driving to meet a record rep for a copy of a song and then breaking all driving laws to race back to your station to play it first.  Now, if they don’t email you an mp3 file of the song, it can usually be found on YouTube.  It seems like the labels matter — but they don’t dictate programming.

To the PDs, it’s less of what a competitor such as Clear Channel is doing and more about how their own radio station and their own cluster is servicing their listeners and advertisers.  As Davis said, “They have their promotion, we will have ours.”

For Ferguson, it doesn’t seem to matter whether his competition has multi-level distribution platforms, or just a record player and a cart machine.  “They [Clear Channel] have a unique ability with their footprint in both broadcast and digital to offer broad reach for an event like this – good for them.”

Jeff McKay is a special features correspondent for RadioInfo.  He can be e-mailed at Mckayway@aol.com or phoned at 732-617-7840.

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Category: Features