Cecil Heftel vs. Radio Consolidators

The radio industry lost another legend a few days ago when owner/politician Cecil Heftel passed away.

It seems a lot of radio legends are leaving us lately or is it just that there are too few legends-in-the-making visible in the dark ages of radio consolidation?

What made Cecil Heftel special is that he loved radio. I’m not sure he was all that good a businessman. The Hawaii congressman didn’t post profit margins the way consolidators did before they started messing with local radio.

Heftel bought and sold his stations impetuously at time – too quickly, too cheaply.

But Cecil Heftel knew what it took to put excellent local programming on-the-air and the necessary promotions that had to go along side with it.

Cecil’s philosophies worked on many successful stations including KGMB and KGMQ/Honolulu, KIMN/Denver, 13Q and WSHH/Pittsburgh, Y-100/Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Kiss/Boston, KEZK/St. Louis, WLUP/Chicago, KLVE/Los Angeles, WAMR-FM/Miami.

I asked my friend Bill Tanner, the outstanding radio programmer who worked for Heftel, to contrast the mindset of Cecil Heftel and others of his second golden age of radio compared to the carpetbaggers who are running the big radio groups.

Tanner’s points are bolded and my observations follow:

1. Cec Heftel put programming ahead of sales, simply because he thought if you had a good product, it was easier to sell.

Today, Cumulus, Citadel, Clear Channel and their clones don’t even put sales ahead of programming. They make cost-cutting their chief management strategy with an eye towards making radio a commodity that national advertisers can throw cheap dollars at not local programming that commands high ad rates.

2. He believed that radio was meant to entertain listeners, that it was part of show biz, and listeners wanted personalities they recognized.

Oops! Lew Dickey, Farid Suleman and John “Slogan” Hogan seem to have never gotten that gene. The three blind mice actually think the more vanilla the programming the better and I guess they are right if making radio a cheap commodity is the goal. Not for Heftel.

3. He paid the best salaries in town and was the first owner I knew of who paid ratings-based bonuses to programmers and talent. He always told me, “Great talent is a bargain, a good investment. It’s the only thing your competitor can’t duplicate.”

Big salaries, bonuses, local talent? That’s a blast from the past. However, today any operator can do voice tracking – it all sounds the same even when professional talent does it. Ryan Seacrest isn’t the only repeater radio personality with no local reason for being. Heftel had it right. Your competitor has a hard time duplicating talented local personalities.

4. He thought Top 40 stations should get teens first, that teens were the basic building block of the format, and that if you won teens, the adults would follow.

And, Cec would be right again – look what happened to radio circa 1996 when it got lost in 25-54 demos and forgot the next generation coming of age. Well, they found the Internet, mobile phones and texting, filesharing and now the mobile Internet. It’s not nice to ignore 80 million listeners.

5. He believed that massive promotion was a good investment, first in building an audience quickly, and then in scaring off competitors.

Consolidators spend more money on meaningless trivia than promoting their stations. Then again, they’ve dismantled their local stations so what’s left to promote?

6. He thought it was absolutely essential for each radio station to have its own individual staff and manager.

Nothing – absolutely nothing – works better than one top gun and you don’t have to look far for endless examples.

7. He understood motivation, the psychology behind success.

Dickey, Suleman and Hogan don’t care to understand what motivates people to bring their companies success. They are self-absorbed, spoiled and arrogant. By their actions it would be hard to argue that motivating people is what they do for a living. In fact, it’s the polar opposite.

8. He believed in short playlists. When Pio Ferro and I reformatted KLVE/Los Angeles, there was a lot of bitching and moaning from some of the staff about repeating the songs too often. “How many songs are you playing?”, asked Cec. I told him it was around 320. “320? Well, I think you should play about 30!”

Hit radio is built on short playlists. Today there are many genres of music and their rotation varies but what’s popular locally should trump what’s happening nationally.

9. The programmers and jocks were usually the first people he would see when he came to visit. He would come to town and listen to the station for a few days, and would be thoroughly prepared about our station and the competition. Woe be unto you if he thought the competition had topped you. He once told a manager and PD, “You’ve ruined my radio station!”

The best managers I have ever known would tell you that the program director and personalities are the radio station.

10. He inspired pride and loyalty in his employees, but he always believed you could do better.

Proving once again that you can be a tough boss without being a son-of-a-bitch.

It’s interesting to me that one of Cecil Heftel’s original managers, David Dubose, now works for Cox and Bill Tanner believes Dubose continues to operate in the Heftel tradition.

The further away managers and owners get from Repeater Radio, the more they realize that they are operating in the tradition of some great pioneers who loved radio more than they loved playing monopoly with the people’s local medium.

There are a lot of consolidators who are going to be remembered for ruining industry.

But Cecil Heftel will be remembered as a radio guy and that is the ultimate appreciation.

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