Radio: 1-2-3, I Beat Jerry Lee

Everybody wants to take a piece of Jerry Lee, the 70-year old FM radio pioneer who manages radio like he's 25.

The mighty Clear Channel (when they were really mighty) tried to position WSNI, Philadelphia to go after Lee's WBEB (B-101), the longtime market leader (with KYW) and revenue machine.

After a few years of giving it all that they had, Clear Channel changed formats.

The latest attack is from Greater Media which is taking its 97.5 frequency to create a younger version of Lee's soft rock station called "Now 97.5". It wasn't much of a risk because the station had been bombing with the Smooth Jazz franchise that Clear Channel gave up on.

Greater Media is one of my favorite radio companies. I only have a handful these days, but this is one of them. Peter Smyth is an outstanding radio executive and his Philadelphia market manager John Fullam is terrific. I had a couple of personal differences with Fullam when he was working in New York for Clear Channel but I'd hire him in a minute.

Everybody wants to beat Jerry Lee. And why not? He's rich. Rolling in dough that he's made decade after decade. He spends to make it. It doesn't matter that radio is dying. WBEB is super achieving.

No one asked me, but if they did I would have suggested that Greater Media find another format option for 97.5 -- anything other than Jerry Lee's WBEB. (Full disclosure for those who don't already know: Lee's station was the first to hire me when I got into radio so you may want to factor that into what I'm going to say. But don't discount all of it, there are a lot of lessons we can all learn from what is about to happen in Philly).

First, Lee is going to eat 97.5 for lunch.

Second, his WBEB is going to emerge even stronger for the Greater Media competition.

Third, in spite of the fact that radio is indeed a dying business, his station is a growth business (as I hope you'll see).

So, here's 1-2-3 how to beat Jerry Lee. My mentors Marlin Taylor and Phil Stout also go way back with Lee and were a part of his early success. They'll likely agree that this is the plan.

But for everyone in radio who wants to seriously learn what they're doing wrong, do one or two of the following right in your market and you're going to be bigger and better.

Let's begin:

1. Spend ungodly amounts of money on research. Then, research everything that isn't nailed down -- not just music (but that, too). Have a quality researcher on staff and pay him or her well. Lee was first to hire his own in-house researcher in Jhan Hiber until Hiber became ill. Now the researcher Bill Moyes (of The Research Group fame) is on the job.

2. Spend ungodly amounts of money on TV advertising. Lee buys so much local TV that the TV stations sometimes don't have all the avails he wants them to sell -- no kidding. Unless Greater Media is willing to write a lot of large checks to fund twice a year ad campaigns on television then it can forget any chance of making a dent in B-101's franchise. And assuming they will equal Lee in spending, remember -- Jerry Lee will spend more. He'll see you and raise you. In fact, he'll raise you before he sees you! If you buy TV two of the four seasons a year (Fall and Winter, say) he'll add Spring. So, number two could be named "outspend the competitor but don't waste your money". See #3.

3. The TV ad has to say it all -- researched and produced for a local, women's music station. Put them in the ad -- not actresses and actors.

4. Research all the music constantly. Remember, soft rock is a hard place because you don't want to get too old with the music -- or too young. It's demographic babysitting, if you will. Requires constant attention. Again, open the checkbook.

5. Keep the same management in place. Blaise Howard is among the best managers in radio and Lee has employed Blaise and his team for a long time. None of this cutback stuff. No running it on the cheap. Management stability is another reason why Greater Media has an uphill battle ahead against this competitor.

6. Build close relationships with advertisers -- nationally and locally. WBEB has taken an active interest in actually helping its clients succeed in their campaign goals. Most radio stations simply run spots. WBEB tests the commercials for free -- makes suggestions. They make an advertising investment in B-101 payoff for advertisers. There are a few other stations in the country that do the same -- not many.

7. Understand that radio has no revenue growth potential unless -- unless -- it can siphon money off from television. Radio sales figures are declining but things are going to get ugly in TV -- that's my prediction based on the generational media work I do. Again, Lee's willing to help TV advertisers get better results with all radio - not just B-101 -- so he can continue growth by taking a piece of the TV buy. By the way, building all radio stations up as a business instead of building just your station(s) up is good for everyone's business. Clear Channel, Citadel, Entercom and the others, please take note.

8. Run the station as if consolidation never happened. The bad habits radio picked up during consolidation, Lee didn't. This rich man could have been three times richer if he wanted to take one of the many high priced offers he got for his single FM station, but he chose to keep it. What a statement.

9. Never forget that if your argument is "I don't need to beat them to make money" think again. An also-ran is temporary. Number one gets it all. Those who argue "Now 97.5" will do better cloning B-101 than in its old jazz format is thinking like a loser. You program to win. Do what it takes to get there. There is no way "Now 97.5" beats B-101.

Of course, I could go on and on. Do any of these nine things well and you'll have a chance to outperform your market. And Greater Media could have a better chance of beating Jerry Lee.

Except that Lee saw Greater Media coming. And while they may be working on getting 1 through 9 (above) right, Lee's coming up with the next nine ways to outperform the competition. (Hint: a better morning franchise, mobile delivery of his brand not just his terrestrial stream, etc).

In other words, the only way to beat Jerry Lee is to be Jerry Lee.

So meet me back here when Greater Media morphs "Now 97.5" into the next iteration and so on and so on and scooby dooby doo-bee (as Sly Stone would say). I'll refrain from telling you "I told you so".

In fact, I didn't just tell you so, I shared some of the things this unique radio pioneer does that radio would be wise to emulate.

There is no way terrestrial radio will attract new listeners and more sales revenue without the next generation. But Jerry Lee knows how to program to the maximum number of available listeners and how to bleed ad dollars from a competing industry (television).

I always keep an eye on my old mentor because don't be surprised if he also figures out how to extend his brand to delivery systems that young people use.

In the meantime, forget the geniuses who are running their radio companies into the ground, killing their shareholders with stock prices under a dollar and who have no understanding of how to survive today let alone in the future.

If you want a success story -- a template to make things better now -- study this important battle. Greater Media's 97.5 is licensed to Burlington, NJ and used to be licensed to Trenton where the battle of Trenton was pivotal during the revolutionary war.

And like General Washington's army, General Jerry Lee will not only win the war but take no prisoners.

One more thing.

This is my long-winded way of saying: can you believe in this day and age that radio people can still only come up with the same handful of formats they programmed for the past three decades?

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