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Tuesday, Jan 31, 2023
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Doctor Dial



Dave Van Dyke’s journey in radio took him from Miami to Detroit to Chicago to Dallas to Denver to Portland, back to Dallas, then to Boston and finally to Los Angeles. His broadcast career ended in 2001 at KCBS in Los Angeles, when he became disillusioned with corporate cuts and formulaic programming initiatives. In 2002, he founded Bridge Ratings, an audience measuring service that provides feedback to station managers who are going through format changes or believe their audiences was undercounted by the nation’s largest radio ratings company, Arbitron Inc.



Question: With music downloading and the advent of the iPod, what do you think of the future of the medium?

Answer:

The business isn’t dead. A lot of what’s been written in the press in terms of the demise of traditional radio has been overstated. It’s a tough business that’s recovering from a downturn in the last five years and it’s a mature business, so you’re not going to see the same kind of growth as before.



Q: So what does traditional radio need to do?

A:

You need more variety and less repetition and better talent more interesting and entertaining people. Traditional radio can be part of the community and help you connect with the community, which you can’t get from satellite or an iPod. I’m also excited about high-definition or HD radio. HD radio is not only going to allow broadcasters to have better sound quality on their signals, but they will have the ability to have multiple signals on one channel.



Q: What do you think of new “jukebox” formats like Jack-FM, as a way of recapturing the audience?

A:

The Jack station sounds fresh. Many of the songs sound familiar but they haven’t been played on L.A. radio for a long time.”



Q: How about its predecessor, KCBS, the classic hits station?

A:

It needed to be put out of its misery. We’d been tracking it and saw that the passion for that station just wasn’t what it once was. It was better to put it to sleep.



Q: Is radio consolidation behind the industry problems?

A:

There were perhaps more negatives than positives overall. Certainly, it has affected the creativity of the people running those stations. It also has resulted in a lot of people being terminated simply because their positions were duplicative. From a Wall Street perspective maybe it’s been better, but I think it’s better to have more separate voices in a community.



Q: But haven’t research outfits like yours also been culpable, providing data that leads to heavily scripted formats?

A:

At some point, research began to take over the creative side of the business. It became more formulaic and researchers started to come up with lists of songs that tested well and you began to see stations that only broadcast those top 200 songs. It really has to be a combination of relying on your gut instincts and then researching it with the target audiences in the market to determine if your guts were right.



Q: So who has gotten it right?

A:

There’s NRC Broadcasting out of Denver and Susquehanna Radio Corp. Also Emmis. They all seem to have the same approach to running a successful business. I wouldn’t say it’s what they’re doing at a microscopic level. They treat their people with respect, allow them to manage their stations at the local level and give them a lot of support. The broadcast business has gotten distracted from what it used to be, and they are pretty much doing things the way they used to be done.



Q: How does the Los Angeles radio market compare with other places you’ve worked?

A:

Los Angeles is a microcosm of what’s going on in the whole country. It’s beginning to get more creative again and there are some really smart operators. There’s more variety lately with more musical formats. What’s strange about Los Angeles is that the news stations don’t seem to have the types of audiences they deserve to have.



Q: Any particular local favorites?

A:

Have you heard of Mancow (Erich Muller)? I think he’s good. He used to get into trouble like Howard Stern but he’s retooled his program. He still is very cutting edge and he still is very interesting to listen to, but he’s not going for that obvious sexual joke. His discussion of politics is provocative. It’s interesting and different and controversial.



Q: What effect, if any, does the car culture of L.A. have on radio broadcasting?

A:

With all the talk about people listening while traveling in their cars in this market, people still spend more time listening in their offices. I wouldn’t say it’s made a huge difference in terms of the types of programming stations have.



Q: What stations do you listen to and for how long?

A:

I listen to JACK, KFI, KNX, classical 105.1 K-MOZART, KROQ and NPR. I also listen to CDs and an iPod. I listen to radio all over the country for my job. In all, I listen to probably 25 to 30 hours a week, with 90 percent of that being for my job.



Q: What was radio like when you began your career in the 1970s?

A:

You could just walk into a room and come up with an idea and have corporate and management support. When I was at KGON (a rock station in Portland, Oregon), we did a lifestyle event at the big convention center called Rock World. We had a large community of listeners. We even had our own brand of beer called 92 Brew. That kind of creativity and innovation began to get lost in the 1990s.



Q: How did you break into audience research?

A:

We would gather people at station events because we figured they were people who listened to the station. We didn’t call it focus groups then, but in a way it was a focus group. We also would hitchhike with people just get into their cars and observe people listening to the stations. If they changed the stations, there would be a reason for it because you had to turn the knob. It wasn’t like it is now where you just push a button.



Q: I bet it’s much different today.

A:

It has become more sophisticated. You can now do these kinds of music tests over the Internet and over the phone so people don’t have to leave their homes. There’s all sorts of ways to measure audience reaction, but it’s harder to reach people, especially young people who can only be reached by cell phone, which you just can’t random-dial.



Q: What exactly does your firm do?

A:

Smaller markets may have only one or two Arbitron surveys in a year. We were trying to come up with something more immediate in the interim, hence the name Bridge Ratings. Then the larger companies began to call us and wanted a gauge for a format shift. In larger markets some broadcasters are looking at poor ratings performance in the Arbitron books and they want a health checkup on the station. We look at whether they get the right age of listeners, the right gender mix, etc.



Q: What made you leave broadcasting?

A:

As the industry became more competitive and the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, the industry changed substantially. When all these companies that were spending money like it was going out of style to market their business went out of business, radio began to feel that. (Former Viacom President) Mel Karmazin directed Infinity to trim payroll and promotions, marketing and research. We were being told to accomplish more than we ever had before in terms of revenue and profit gains but with fewer resources.



Q: For a brief time, you had a radio “psychologist” business.

A:

I left in early September 2001 to form an operational consulting company called Radio Mentor. I was working with general managers who were in the same mental state as I was in. It was very much a psychological role. These people had no one to talk to. They couldn’t go to their bosses to complain and they couldn’t go to their employees because that would be unprofessional. They had no one to talk to. It was almost like I had them on the couch.

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