Over the past few months RFFocus has taken the initiative to honor those in urban radio who have made our industry great. The first contest was The Top 10 Urban Radio DJs of All Time which had a phenomenal response and the second one was The Top 10 Urban PDs of All Time which also has had a phenomenal response and both continue to. Our number 1 winner in the Top 10 Urban Programmers is industry vet Lee Michaels. We wanted to speak to him about his programming philosophy along with his thoughts on today’s radio. Enjoy…
KEVIN ROSS: How is it possible that the industry would choose a person who is presently NOT working in programming as the number one pic in The RFFocus Top Urban Radio Programmers of All Time?
LEE MICHAELS: I think it speaks volumes for the frustration that most people in the industry feel. When you become frustrated you tend to gravitate towards a time when things were prosperous, innovative, motivating and exciting and I guess when you look through the last 30 years I’ve been fortunate enough to have my name resonate with all of that. That’s the only thing that I can think of.
I talk to people all the time in the industry and there is a great frustration. They don’t like what’s happening. They don’t like being under the gun and being told not to do anything creative or edgy. It’s a pushed down cookie-cutter programming philosophy that exists in this industry right now.
KR: Is that the reason that you are NOT working right now?
LM: Yeah, it’s just frustrating. I’ve lost a lot of interest in having a”job” as a PD, OM or GM because the industry, to be honest, it just sucks right now. It’s not exciting. I got into this business because it was exciting and it gave me goosebumps. The chills and the thrills that you once got from hearing a great break or capturing that true theater of the mind is what excited me about the business and it doesn’t exist anymore. Some people will take what I’m about to say as a negative. I just think that a lot of the talent on the air today is not really talent. It COULD be talent but the lack of coaching from program directors and upper management, ownership … it doesn’t help. You get a guy off the street or out of the club and he’s a hip hopper and you throw him on the air, he speaks the language of the streets but he has no clue as to what radio is all about. He doesn’t know how to take that rawness and put it into creative mode and make it entertaining. And then Urban AC is boring and dead. No real creativity. The jocks are not allowed to be entertaining or to perform. It’s frustrating and I think the listeners are frustrated.
What radio better understand is the listener has many choices, radio, satellite, the internet, iPads, iPods, iPhones and they can create any kinds of stations they want. I constantly see people everyday with those white headphones and they are not listening to a Walkman (laughs) they are listening to their own creativity.
KR: Why do you think commercial radio is not threatened by the possibilities of internet radio.
LM: Internet radio is the new frontier. A lot of the internet stations are not creative but the opportunity is there. Many are just jukeboxes now but people are gravitating to that because they hear the songs they want to hear. Commercial radio has short playlists. We beat the hell out of 30 songs for 16 weeks and it’s a shame (laughs).
KR: So you’re doing your own online talk network USTalkNetwork?
LM: Yes, it’s on hiatus and we started it in June of 2008. We’re going to incorporate the syndication of the programs into terrestrial radio and we’re seeking additional investments to expand. We’re rolling out our first show very soon with Andre Eggelletion, who is the main fill in host for Al Sharpton. He’s creative, intelligent, entertaining and he can talk about any subject. This is what’s missing, creativity and someone willing to put in the time for a great show, which is called show prep.
KR: Several programmers that I talk to on a regular basis admit there is an effort to “dumb down” programming for urban radio’s audience. With that in mind, do you think urban radio is interested in an intellectually stimulating talk format for the listener?
LM: Absolutely. I think people are tired of being “dumbed down.” What we experienced at USTalknetwork.com when we had a peak of 100,000 people a month come to the network, were great comments, such as: “What a fresh mindset,” “I’m learning something” People have told me “I didn’t know the Federal Reserve was not a government owned agency” It’s not it’s a private entity. You know when you can tell people things they don’t know. They become sharper and they become more intelligent Americans.
KR: How important is it for Urban radio in 2011 to be the voice of the community.
LM: Well, that’s part of what’s missing. In the beginning of radio you were licensed to serve your local community. Deregulation that started with the Reagan administration and evolved with each administration after that… made it less and less important. News, public affairs and the things we were required to do we don’t have to do anymore. The problem Kevin is the federal government did not inform the public that if you don’t like what you hear on the radio that you can complain to the FCC and say “This operation is not serving our best interest” and the FCC will pay attention to that. Nobody informed us (the community) that the power is in your hands. So the owners have had a free run to ignore the community. Every successful station that I have programmed, I was ALWAYS involved in the community. If you are programming a station today and you don’t know what’s going on in the streets and in the various communities that you can be heard in… shame on you. You have something there that you can massage and benefit from, help grow your radio station, feel the pulse of the community, be a part of that community and more importantly, a competitor can come into the market dump millions of dollars to try to unseat you and they can’t because you are entrenched and embedded into that community. Look around the country at OMs/PDs like Bobby O’Jay in Memphis at WDIA What he is doing in Memphis with an AM station in 2011 is incredible. He’s in the community and people know who he is. A competitor can’t come in and stop him.
KR: What do you think about syndication?
LM: It has a role, it can be positive or negative. The big problem with it is the broadcast industry chases names instead of talent. They are looking for instant success. They will grab a singer, comedian, TV star and try to turn them into a radio personality and it doesn’t always translate. No matter how much money they pour into it. That person is not committed, they don’t understand the theater of the mind and they don’t have the right coaching. Too many times they are paid a couple million dollars but the company doesn’t pay a hundred or two hundred thousand for a great producer nor surround that person with a great support staff.
KR: There is a general consensus amongst radio people that Bucke Wilde who was just hired then demoted at KKDA in Dallas was destined to fail because he was not allowed to bring his team with him. Many state that he was hired as a replacement for Skip Cheatham instead of replacing the entire show and the chemistry between he and the previous staff was not there. Nobody can blame him for taking the position but what are your thoughts?
LM: When you take a guy out of his comfort zone he will fail. This is a bad decision from management. They want instant success. I submit to you that this is unrealistic.
When opportunities like this come up, I personally, would rather take a person who has the fire and desire to do a great show and to be a great personality who has no name but they will come in 2 hours early and stay 3 hours after they are off but they are willing to do all the things necessary to become a star.
KR: I am pro local talent. One of my greatest frustrations with the industry is that syndication in the mornings is on so many stations that it has interrupted the cycle of local jock progression..
LM: You are right.. when Tom Joyner launched his show and he began to spread all over the country and I saw all the people being bumped off…. the morning guy was bumped to afternoon and the afternoon guy was bumped to nights and the night guy bumped to overnights but the overnight guy lost his job. Somebody lost their job. In many cases, with high profile syndicated shows, you have to pay money and give up a lot of inventory. Some of the shows are not saving the station money. The station is hoping the person’s name will bring instant success.
KR: That’s odd most people are under the impression a station saves money by running syndicated shows.
LM: Sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. I know of one station for example where they spent $750,000 and gave up 2 to 300 units a week. You’re probably looking at almost 2 million in a combination of cash, out of pocket and commercial avails. You give me that kind of budget… I will give you an ironclad local morning show that can’t be beaten.
KR: Is it possible to localize a syndicated show in order for stations to garner revenue from local businesses?
LM: It’s very difficult but not impossible. You can’t truly localize it but it’s not going to work for a local advertiser who wants your personality to endorse his product and do live appearances.
KR: What I find incredibly ironic is that the syndicated host is given everything the local host should have, budget, the opportunity to sell and program his or her own show, creativity etc. Today’s syndicated hosts are treated like jocks were in the 70s… if local jocks are given the same tools, I don’t see why they can’t be motivated and successful too. I admire your philosophy, have you been offered any opportunities recently?
LM. No because I have taken myself off the market and focused in on being an entrepreneur and being on the cutting-edge I enjoy doing something new and I’ve always been in front of the curve or creating the curve.
KR: I can fully relate. You’ve been a leader…
LM: That’s what I am. I think it’s important to always think about what’s next or you will be left behind.
KR: You are one of the very few black PDs who has had the chance to program CHR radio. One of the greatest things that disturbs me about the industry is the discrimination. This is a rhetorical question but I’d like your take on the subject as a person with experience. What is the problem?
LM: There is absolutely a problem. It’s nothing more than protecting territory. Some of it is competition and some is race based. I’ve experienced general market radio in several different situations, in my early years in VA I worked for a Top 40 station and used to get death threats. I worked at 99x in New York and I programmed KMEL. I’ve seen it from different perspectives and eras. It’s the same and I don’t know that it’s gonna change. It’s nothing more than ignorance. If a person is the best in what they do they should be hired.
KR: The corporations have strict rules about radio employees talking to the press. In this age of marketing, social networks etc. How do you feel about this?
LM: That’s a tough one. The station is trying to protect their brand. There’s all kinds of pressure being placed on personalities to brand the radio station on and off the air without an opportunity to brand themselves, thats’ unfortunate because if you lose your job there goes your brand. I’m one who is an advocate for protecting everybody‘s brand. I may be wrong Kevin but I think slavery was abolished? (both laugh) I think everyone should have the ability to brand themselves. That’s a very important part of their survival in today’s environment.
KR: Many in the industry complain that we are hearing the same station every market.
LM: Yes, that’s true there are regional differences. If you are going to force feed a song to someone in the southeast or more importantly exclude something what I submit is that programmers have to find a way to inject that into their programming because that’s what the audience expects. If you don’t live up to their expectations the audience will find it somewhere else.
KR: What is the greatest impact that corporations suffer when tying the hands of programmers who are not allowed to “program?”
LM: The programmers fear losing their jobs and their lips are zipped. The greatest impact is the corporations kill the creativity. It’s a shame. You shoot yourself in the foot as an owner. Let people be creative, let them express themselves and bring something to the table that YOU don’t know. This is what’s missing from radio today.. creativity and variety.
KR: What do you think about the lack of conferences. Are they/were they important?
LM: I remember when Elroy Smith was new to the industry at a conference. He didn’t know anyone and he was very green. There were people that took him into their fold and showed him the ropes.
KR: That’s so ironic, when I was green to the industry and didn’t know anyone, it was Elroy who invited me to the table to have dinner with all the industry greats at a Jack the Rapper conference. Everyone was so welcoming (except one person) and I never forgot that. The people who welcomed me and the one person who shunned me. Where do you see yourself five years from now?
LM: I’d like to be the chairman for a company that is about advancing the careers of others. I’d like to develop web applications that market and help promote new product.
KR: What is your advice to those who are not working who are depressed and drained..
LM: You can’t let that last job be the stop to your life. In every negative there is a positive. Look at what you have learned from it. Make sure you have a Plan B. Even if you are at the top of your game. Make sure you KNOW what you will be doing… next. We’ve already seen the way this industry is there are no guarantees.
KR: What are some of the other things programmers or jocks can do when they are out of work. What are some of the things that you have done?
LM: I was the press secretary for the prosecutor outside of Chicago. We can do politics. A spokesperson for a politician, corporation etc. Anything that inspires you. Learn how to make money on the internet. You can make money with a lot of things.
KR: Speaking of online. Most urban radio stations are ignoring their websites. Programmers have informed me that it’s the last thing anyone wants to do besides three other jobs at the station.
LM: That’s unfortunate but a good point. There is some relevance to that. A large portion of radio’s audience lives on the internet. Radio should have a programmer for the internet site. I’m going to put something out there… why not add several channels to your website? There is an audience for it. If you have a hip hop station. you’re only playing new hip hop music. What’s happening to the old hip hop music? Why not create a channel on your site or HD channel with categories of music that compliment what you already do. The response is always, why would I want to do that when I want them to listen to what we are playing? Well, if they don’t get it from you they will get it from somewhere else. You can monetize it, insert commercials, get announcers to voice-track etc. Let your mind be free.
KR: Great idea! Thanks Lee for the time and congratulations on your win in The RFFocus Top 10 Urban Radio Programmer of All Time.
LM: Thanks Kevin. I was very moved by the win and when Maxx Myrick called me and told me I won, I didn’t believe it. I started at the top of the post and kept scrolling down and once I got to Frankie Crocker, I didn’t think I was in the Top 10. When I saw that I was Number 1 it brought tears to my eyes. It has had such an impact on me. My wife was just as thrilled.