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Dan Mason – “What Differentiates Radio is what Personalities Bring to the Table”

So is radio’s future something that happens “between the songs” or across a variety of traditional and digital platforms?

Dan Mason thinks the answer is “both,” and of course, he’s right.

Dan is the president and CEO of CBS Radio and has great advice for any broadcaster trying to strike the balance between their on-air tradition and their digital future.

What follows is an abbreviated transcript of our chat.  For the full conversation tune in to the video or the audio.


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Dan,  I heard you make an address about a year ago.  The topic was the importance to radio’s future of the content between the songs.  I know one thread of conventional thinking is to simply take out as much expense as possible and just play the songs because in the short run, that theoretically maximizes profitability.  But you had a really refreshing take on that.

I believe that radio is such an intimate medium.  It’s all about what’s between the lines.  Everybody plays the hits or at least they should, but what differentiates radio stations are what the personalities bring to the table.

It’s so refreshing to see radio stations who are part of their communities. Whether it’s a large market or a medium market or a small market, especially in times of crisis – specifically if you look at the jobs that radio broadcasters did in the markets where tornadoes hit recently.  Radio broadcasters were there and just to hear some of the stories that have come out of those communities, the role that radio plays, it’s just incredible.

I still believe that our industry has that fastball.  We just have to throw that constantly because we’re really the backbone, still, of a community, especially medium and small markets as well as large ones.

What does that mean about the other things that come between the songs, namely personalities, entertainment, as well as the information? Almost anybody can create a music radio station today, whether or not it has any listeners.  Anybody can build a custom station on Pandora or IHeartRadio.  Isn’t the competitive advantage of radio really not only how we weave that music together but what else we do besides?

Yeah, absolutely.

If you look over the last 20 years, the disc jockey’s role has been watered down so much by the dictate: “Don’t talk, don’t give the title and artist of songs, play hit after hit, don’t give anybody any chance to tune out.”  But the role of a disc jockey is to introduce people to music that we all like, to share information about weather and traffic in the city that we live in.  It’s not uncommon still that you drive for several minutes up to an hour and don’t even hear the name of the city that a radio station is broadcasting from – that’s something we’ve really pushed hard with our program directors.

There are a lot of programmers out there probably who feel like the time and the temperature are not key elements of what goes on in the community every day.  But there’s a reason there were great “time and temp disc jockeys” 30 years ago, it’s because that was needed then and is still needed on the radio.

It’s about encouraging our people to be a great disc jockeys.

The temptations, Dan, must be overwhelming for someone in your position to say “I could wring extra money out of this particular brand if I take all those extras out,” at least in the short run.  How do you overcome those?

Mark, I don’t think the temptation is there to extract talk to add more commercials.  I think the temptation is there that you would extract talk for a clear pathway to get ratings.  That’s where it’s at.

I believe there’s a fine line, there’s a balance that can’t be tilted to one side or another. But just playing 20 songs in a row may not get you ratings.  If you have a combination of great content between the records and you play the right songs, I believe that’s the ticket to success.

I want to shift gears a little bit and ask you about the digital front.  CBS is very active on the digital front.  It is certainly a leader in that space. And you have a new app out recently and are just back from the Borrell Conference.  Can you talk a little bit about what you experienced at that conference and what the strategy is for the company and why the digital integration with the broadcast assets is so important?

We have shifted our strategy here over the past couple of years.  The lesson we have learned is that we are not so much interested in taking our radio stations and shifting listeners to a different platform through digital tools.  But what we are interested in is taking the digital tools to engage our listeners more.

A perfect example is the app we created called Audio Roadshow.  It’s used at WFAN on afternoon drive on the Mike Francesa show.  On a big sports day we estimate that up to 10% of Mike’s audience uses that app. We’re excited, and we believe that app will draw more listening out of Mike’s audience to increase ratings.  We don’t look at driving Mike’s audience necessarily to another platform, although I do believe that making our product accessible in other places is a good thing.  But it’s not about building another platform. It’s about building apps to get engagement and longer time spent listening out of the existing product.  So that’s what we’ve been trying to do here at CBS Radio.

As far as the Borrell Conference, it was great.  It’s always fun to listen to the other businesses, but one of the takeaways I got was there was a lot of skepticism over the different media that are supposedly “dead.” During the course of that conference you hear that newspaper is dead, you hear the Yellow Pages are dead, you hear radio is dead, a person had mentioned that television is dead.  The comment I made was that next year, these guys are going to come back and say the Internet is dead and then you won’t be able to have a conference! [laughs].

There’s so just much skepticism, but the truth is no one is dead and everybody is alive.  You could argue about how well they are doing, but everybody is still in this game and with the use of digital products that can extend that time and engagement we bring to the business.

It seems to me that what you’re doing with your digital products, including the new app you recently released called YourDay, is leveraging the relationship your stations have with your consumers or the relationship your personalities have, and allowing them more places to do more things in the presence of those station brands which, of course, creates new opportunities for your advertisers at the same time, right?

YourDay is very exciting because it’s 24 sites that are launched, all contained locally because CBS is about local commerce whether it’s radio, television or, now, the digital applications.  This is all about local commerce.  It brings together advertisers; it brings together listeners with trusted brands that they know.  It’s just a fabulous collection of digital assets right there.

Dan, reading the trades day after day, there is some sense from some voices on the radio industry that as an industry we’re better off “sticking to the knitting” and not investing resources on the digital front.  Given the leadership that CBS has and given the success you’ve had in this area,  how do you respond to voices like those?

I would say that that’s pretty easy for us because we too believe that we stick to the knitting.  We feel we are great radio broadcasters.  We’re still involved in our communities.

However, the use of these digital applications in a medium like radio – take a one-to-one medium (i.e. mobile or digital), and combine that with a one-to-many medium (like radio or even broadcast television) – you get a talk-to/talk-back medium – a hybrid that brings both of those great technologies together.

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