Charlie Cook (President, McVay/Cook & Associations and Director of Programming, West Virginia Radio Corp) and Becky Brenner (VP/Consulting Partner, Albright & O'Malley Consulting) discuss the role of radio consultants at the Billboard Country Music Summit. (Photo: Michael Seto)
"To put fear in every program director's heart," Becky Brenner, VP/Consulting Partner, Albright & O'Malley Consulting, joked when asked to explain the role of a radio consultant at Billboard's Country Summit.
Few entertainment professionals are more feared and pilloried than radio consultants. In an effort to demystify the process, moderators Jimmy Harnen, president, Republic Nashville and Gregg Swedberg, Operations Manager, KEEY-FM/Clear Channel Minneapolis quizzed a high profile panel of country radio consultants and researchers on their roles in the industry.
The session began with a video tribute to the late Rusty Walker, president, Rusty Walker Programming Consultants, who died last month following a heart attack. In introducing the panel, Billboard senior chart manager/Nashville Wade Jessen acknowledged the empty seat on the stage where Walker was to have participated on the panel. The afternoon's programming was dedicated in Walker's memory.
"The consultant is a resource," says Brenner, former PD at KMPS in Seattle, who had spent 26 years at the station before joining Albright & O'Malley. "There's so much more that they do with a radio station than just the music. Also along with being a resource, they are sometimes the scapegoat. If a program director or music director is struggling and they have a great relationship with their label rep, but feel they can't play a song because it's not right for their market or it doesn't fit with what they are doing at the station, it's easier to say 'Well my consultant is not recommending that song right now.' It happens. I think everyone has done it at some point or another."
When asked if they visit stations in person or provide services via phone, Joel Raab, owner/president, Joel Raab Associates, noted that "with the economy being what it is, we don't travel as much as we used to, but we still travel. I think face time is really important. I have stations I've talked to for years and never met the folks, but that's more unusual... There's nothing like being in the market, seeing the town, seeing the people and hearing the radio station in person."
Harnen asked Brenner what she looked for from a consultant during her days as a program director. "Ideas," she responded. "I think ideas are always hard to come up with and many times they could share things from other markets. Nowadays there are so many ways to find out because of the Internet, but back in the day, having a [consultant] was the only time you heard great ideas from other markets."
As the panel discussion turned to research, John Hart, owner/president, Hart Media/Bullseye Research, was tasked with explaining the process. "We do call out and online," Hart said. "About 90% of all radio stations today use online research... I do research in all formats except urban, and we serve as an interface between the radio stations and their listeners. A lot of the programmers know what they want to do. We are more about, not just music research, but spotting trends with their radio listeners."
With today's playlists being so short, Hart says his job is to "identify songs that are acceptable to the country life group... for a lot of my clients I do online research to find out what their heavy users like and dislike, what they want to hear more and what they want to hear less. And then we'll do one wave of call out a month to find out what the mainstream listeners are feeling about the music we're playing."
Hart says more research is being conducted online. "In my world 90% is online and 10% is call out," Hart said. "Five years ago, I was in 46 markets with call out. Today I'm in 11 markets with call out. That's how the business has changed."
Hart said the type of music that is testing the best online right now is "contemporary traditional" exemplified by Chris Young and Luke Bryan.
RCA VP of promotion Keith Gale said he "embraces" research. "Research is the law of the land," he commented. "I'm just trying to play the ball where it's sitting."
Hart cautioned stations to temper research with their own good judgment. "Research is a tool to help you make a better decision," he said. "It should not make the decision for you."