Entercom’s $16 Million Lesson

Entercom's “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” promotion at KDND, Sacramento is more than a costly mistake.

It is a lesson about running radio stations in the new age for those who will listen.

A jury last week found for the plaintiff, the surviving family of Jennifer Strange who died hours after participating in the radio contest in which she was asked to drink so much water as an unintended consequence it killed her.

The staff of KDND (known as “The End”) show “Morning Rave” was canned following the contest because the on-air personalities did not get required corporate approval.

The family got nearly half of the $44.3 million they sought alleging that Jennifer Strange’s death was due to radio station dereliction of duty. That was apparently never in doubt with the jury. Just the amount of money.

So what’s wrong here?

Of course, no one at Entercom wanted Strange to die from a radio contest. I believe they are sincerely remorseful. Jennifer Strange could have been one of their relatives and nobody should die of a radio contest.

Let’s break it down.

At a local radio station, the local manager is the fiduciary for the owner. He or she is compensated to take that heavy responsibility that includes spending money responsibily, making a profit, protecting the license and yes, making sure programming product doesn’t kill anyone.

In the past, when the FCC took seriously its role to award licenses to fiduciaries that were judged on their ability to serve the public interest, convenience and necessity, you could not have had the “Wee” contest happen.

If the manager of Entercom’s station’s defense was that he didn’t know what his employees were going to do on-the-air, I’m sorry, but he’s the one you fire.

If the station he was safeguarding caused harm, he caused that harm and the corporation must pay. (We still don’t know if Entercom will appeal the Strange verdict but if they do, they will likely lose again and get even more bad publicity. Maybe they will take a page out of Clear Channel’s playbook and try to settle with the family by offering less than $16 million in return for not filing an appeal).

So far Entercom is actually saying all the right things like “we respect the jury’s decision and hope that it will assist the STRANGE family in coping with its loss”. If they do not appeal, I’ll give Entercom a hell of a lot of credit.

The bigger issue is that many radio stations are accidents waiting to happen.

Managers are spread thin.

Some radio groups have managers that commute to their assigned markets. I’ll bet a plaintiff in some future case would love to use the argument of absentee management because that’s what radio has become – absentee management.

The obsession with cost cutting and efficiencies of scale are just considered to be the price of doing business in this age. Even in the future when stations are sold back to local groups, don’t be surprised to see these folks adopting a lot of the management techniques that ruined radio in the first place.

Voice tracking will remain in some form.

Combined and small sales staffs will carry over instead of the big, local sales forces that build relationships and make money.

A few years ago when I spoke out against Google’s AdSense program for radio (I called it Ad Nonsense), I took some brickbats from radio operators who thought they could just sell their remnant inventory to online bidders for low prices.

I didn’t trust them.

I knew if Google radio ads worked, the expense-conscious consolidators would soon be outsourcing radio ad sales to Google and cutting the costs of having a sales staff in the first place.

It didn’t work.

Google got out of the radio ad business because as any good radio person could tell you, radio sales is a relationship business.

I get into this because radio operators have tried just about everything to get costs down and efficiency up and whether its sales, programming or their audience, they put themselves in jeopardy.

Their efforts have killed innovation (as repeater radio, voice tracking and networking have replaced local programs and talent).

They’ve killed sales by removing salespeople from the streets, taking away accounts and handing them to fewer people who do less servicing.

They killed off the next generation by assuming that Gen Y would be avid radio fans as preceding generations always were and failing to account for new technology that spawned iPods, music filesharing, social networking, and even the Internet.

They killed off the morale of great radio people who really work for the love of what they do instead of the love of money – and abused the privilege of employing them.

Some robber barons make their employees feel badly about having a spouse, family life, parenting duties. One former Cumulus employee wrote me yesterday to say that Cumulus hit man Gary Pizzati asked him to change his wedding date to be more considerate of the station. Not too long after -- you guess it -- his Cumulus career was terminated.

And every once in a blue moon, in my opinion, absentee or in Entercom's case, lack of proper managerial oversight even kills a listener.

It wasn’t merely lack of oversight.

It was waiting to happen but folks took their eyes off of what was important.

Bad management that came from consolidation and working for Wall Street instead of Main Street.

The two are connected, but they can’t see it.

The jury is still out on radio's consolidation, but if local managers are not given control and forced to take responsibility for their stations, the lesson of Entercom’s $16 million personal injury judgment will be lost on an industry that was commandeered by a handful of executives being led around by their bankers.

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