Urban One is a radio group that faces unique challenges. It’s the largest and most successful radio operator for African-Americans, but that comprises just a small part of the American listening audience. While it has carved a fairly successful path for itself, the financial predicaments of radio’s two largest and most mainstream groups have had a detrimental impact on Urban One’s – and all of radio’s — potential. Here, CEO David Kantor discusses how his company succeeds through the cross-currents of the media environment.
Since being named CEO of Radio/Urban One, what have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
They fall into two categories. One is Urban programming, since so much of it is determined on what talent you’re working with now and in the future. Managing the syndication end is always a huge challenge. On the other side is essentially managing the radio stations in a very difficult radio business environment. There’s not a lot of stability in some of the other radio groups, which inevitably impacts all stations.
What are the more immediate challenges – and what are you doing to accomplish your goals?
Right now, it’s just maintaining regular business in the marketplace. What we’re looking at, from a strategic point of view over the next couple years, is what we’re going to do when Tom Joyner, a dominant personality in Urban radio who’s heard on 13 Radio One stations, and 90-plus radio stations in total, retires. The questions revolve around who we’ll choose to replace him and what effect his successor will have on all the other Urban stations in the markets.
How do you expect to replenish radio’s air talent pool?
We’re looking for them both inside and outside of radio. About five years ago, we signed DL Hughley up for syndication and he’s done extremely well. Obviously, radio experience helps, but you also want to syndicate someone who’s known outside of their original markets. We’re open to finding any talent who can engage the audience and make them want to listen. We need them because radio’s #1 challenge is engaging an audience outside of the music we play. There are so many places people can get music from — streaming services, satellite and so on – that forces us to have more engaging talent beyond a great music playlist.
What do you look for in developing future on-air stars?
What I’ve always found, after years of working with talent, is that you look for talent whose essential personality is what’s engaging about them. You can go back to Paul Harvey, Casey Kasem, Rush Limbaugh and for us, Tom Joyner, DL Hughley and Ricky Smiley … their ability to be themselves on the air makes the audience want to engage with them. Anyone who can be that engaging – and they may or may not currently be doing it in radio — has the talent that can be developed into an air personality who can develop a relationship with and influence listeners.
Even though radio has a 90%-plus reach, many radio executives are upset that a disproportionate amount of ad money is still going to other digital media. Do you concur — and how would you approach this obstacle?
Radio is still, by far, the dominant reach vehicle — not just in audio, but for any type of medium, with almost 93% reach. Engaging the audience is continually more difficult because radio, like all media, is just one of a growing number of choices. When your listener can also spend time on the Net, a streaming service or satellite radio, as well as cable TV, Netflix, YouTube, and so on, TSL will suffer more than anything else. So while the amount of time people actually spend on media goes up, the amount of time spent with any individual medium becomes more fragmented. Long term, what we face in radio is what broadcast TV faces with cable, Dish TV and Netflix. In both cases, the way to succeed is to better connect with listeners, beyond the song and beyond the news story. A close relationship between listener and host, with engaging content, offers them something unique.
Is engaging the Urban audience different than engaging other listeners?
The Urban listener expects more from us. The Urban listener sees radio as a catalyst for uniting the community – both local and national. Tom Joyner succeeded with a nationalized format, because the African-American marketplace is united on issues beyond just their local issues, today; issues like Black Lives Matter and gun violence by police has united African-Americans.
Urban One dominates the Urban radio and digital arenas. Do you plan to gain even more dominance there, or are you trying to carve out a piece of the mainstream radio/digital audience?
We’d love to continue to expand in the Urban arena without cannibalizing our own audience. We were the first to come out with the classic Hip-Hop “Boom” format; we thought we found a great new format that we could squeeze into markets where we already had dominant mainstream and urban ACs – and we found out that we cannibalized ourselves, hurting our ranking position in the marketplace and not ultimately growing our overall audience. Our job is to look for complementary formats like we have done: Hispanic in Indianapolis, a Top 40 in Houston, and a Sports station in Richmond. We’re always looking to find new things that work for us.
You mentioned Sports; would you consider becoming flagship stations for sports teams in your markets?
We have looked at it, but it really depends on the marketplace. To broadcast sports play-by-play, you need to incorporate additional sports programing beyond the games themselves. Any play-by-play is ultimately controlled by the team; the place for stations to make their money is in the peripheral product, such as coaches’ shows, a team minute, and so on. It allows us to tie sponsors to them. But we’re primarily music stations except for just a few AM Talk and Sports stations, so it would be hard to do play-by-play on a music station and be able to maximize dollars on it.
The ownership of the L.A. Dodgers acquired a 49% stake in iHeartMedia’s KLAC as part of its flagship station deal. Is that something you’d consider?
It depends on the economics. Obviously, we’ll look at anything, but we would need to have multiple stations in the markets and be able to pull out more revenue with it. Ultimately, both today and going forward, for any type of programming – be it radio or TV content – you need to have a lot of content, especially in sports. Without rights, you have nothing. It comes down to capitalizing on opportunities. Quality content is always the most important thing; for example in our Urban syndication business, our shows have over 1,000 affiliations across the country – not just the 58 stations we own.
Describe the impact of streaming and digital have on Urban radio and radio in general.
That trend is going to continue. Obviously, we put a lot of resources into digital, both locally and nationally. We’re the Urban leader in the digital space for African-Americans – and it certainly will continue to be a growth area. The difficulty in that respect is all the different competitors outside the radio arena, where we’re facing Google and Facebook, the online versions of newspapers and even local TV websites. We have found a balance between our national product and our local digital offerings; they work hand in hand.
Do you look at your digital efforts as a complement to stations or as a wholly separate entity?
It’s both an original content and an extension of our on-air product. We are developing digital content on things we may not cover on the radio, but we also use it for on-air content, such as when we have someone in-studio for an interview; we can expand the interview online where we may only have five minutes of it on the air.
Are you satisfied with how PPM monitors Urban listeners?
I’ve been in radio for over 30 years, and I don’t think anybody in radio is necessarily happy with the way PPM works, nevertheless we all have to work within that system. One of my national talents complained that the PPM doesn’t truly reflect the size of his audience. I said, “Even if it doesn’t totally reflect your audience, it’s not totally reflecting other Urban radio talent either, so it’s the same. Whether or not it’s the ultimate monitoring service isn’t at issue. It’s the service we all have and use to measure our audience and gives us the ability to generate revenue. It’s not like we have any other choice.
Nielsen says that it can generate a bigger sample, but radio doesn’t want to pay extra for them to do it. Do you feel a bigger sample is worth the extra expense?
It’s not just a bigger sample, but how that sample falls. There are a lot of variables to it. The problem we have as an operator of a format that targets a small percentage of the population is that we’re not like a mainstream AC or Top 40, which are going to hit a lot of meters and generate a bigger cume. Smaller formats like Urban, Hispanic or Sports target a narrower cume, so you’re going to have less meters out there to sample and have bigger deviations. If I knew that a larger sample would get rid of those deviations, could I justify paying for it? That’s something I don’t know.
What are the keys to future success… are you bullish on Urban One and radio in general?
I’m very bullish on radio because I still think, as we talked about earlier, we are a reach medium unlike very few others out there. As long as we continue to provide engaging content, we’ll be fine. Good shows almost always get good numbers, and bad shows always get bad numbers. The challenge is that people have plenty choices out there find good content; that forces us to do everything we can to put engaging content on-air. Our goal is to be the best at doing it for our audience. Be it on-air or streaming, you’ll hear some things that sound like stations are throwing things against the wall to get their listeners’ attention. We have lot of experience in engaging our audience and we will continue to do that.
How has the financial situation of the two largest radio groups impacted Urban One?
It impacts the individual markets and the direct competitive situation. Whenever you’re under financial constraints, you’re choosing and making decisions to satisfy whatever short-term restrictions you have, as opposed to making decisions that would ultimately be best for the long term. Once they go through restructuring, they’ll come out as more healthy companies that, in combination with those of us who are already in good financial shape, will have the ability to create a much more robust marketplace that makes radio more attractive to advertisers.
Power Player is courtesy of All Access Music Group. Our thanks to All Access Music Group, Joel Denver and Sam Weaver.