The Awesome Power of the Radio Personality

You often hear me lament the shortsightedness of today’s radio CEOs for plundering personality radio in the name of financial budget cutting.

Radio personalities are the one local asset that cannot be duplicated on a web stream or the mobile Internet right now.

It is lunacy to waste them.

And in light of the recent loss of two radio giants, we come to appreciate not only how important personalities are, but the role of the local radio station as well in helping them find their loyal audiences.

I speak of the death of Bill “Wee Willie” Webber of Philadelphia radio fame over the weekend and several months earlier, the loss of Ron Lundy – the WABC and WCBS-FM icon in New York City.

I worked with “Wee Willie” in Philadelphia at WIP and, as you would expect with his career longevity, he was the real deal – nice, engaged, loved his fans and loved his trade. Until his death, Bill Webber was working in Philly radio on smaller stations and the local PBS outlet in recent years but nonetheless at 80 he kept going.

Gerry Wilkinson, Philly Broadcast Pioneers President (and classmate of mine at Temple University) said it best: “Bill used to tell the students at the Broadcast Pioneers Career Nights and Symposiums that the broadcaster loves his craft so much that he'll continue to play his trade to the last breath” – and Webber was doing that”.

I did not personally know Ron Lundy, but because Philadelphia was almost a suburb of New York radio during WABC’s glory days, I felt like I knew him.

Bill Kehlbeck, Sr. VP at the Mahlman Company did a poignant tribute to the consummate radio pro when he talked of the common touch, like Webber, that Lundy had with fans and workers.

Here’s how Kehlbeck put it:

“What stands out in my mind is there were two entrances on our floor that got you to the WCBS/FM on air studios at Black Rock. A lot of newer on air guys slipped through the back door. Not Ron...he entered and walked through each day through the main or "sales entrance." And stopped office to office along the way, loud, joking.... talking it up with everyone and endearing himself to both the rookies and senior sales staff everyday. You looked forward to it!

It was a miracle that Ron made it to the studio in time for his live 9am shift start, as everyone "stopped him" along the way!”

Lundy was an adopted New Yorker (from Florida) and Webber, born in Cuba, settled in Philadelphia, the city he and a lot of other people find difficult to leave.

Webber and Lundy loved radio.

Loved their audiences.

Lived in the cities they loved.

In an era of Repeater Radio, CEOs think it is okay to import outside programs and use technology to create unremarkable voice tracking, but that’s not radio.

In fact – that’s what’s killing radio.

I’ll make this statement flat out. I don’t care if you could only listen to Ron Lundy or Bill Webber on a tin connected with a string from the studio, the hell with technology, you’d listen.

This is not about a call to relive the past nor is it a naive denial that all things – including lives – must come to an end one day.

Just simply a reminder of the awesome power of the radio personality at a time when the industry really needs a wake-up call.

Radio can’t compete with Pandora if what listeners want is customizable music radio.

Can’t compete with the mobile Internet if what listeners want is their own portable iTunes music library on call at a click, swipe or touch.

And it’s even getting harder lately for radio to compete with Blackberry devices, iPhones, iPads and smart phones in delivering information on-demand to the palm of consumers’ hands.

But if you want to be entertained by a person who is living in a local market where the personality is likely raising their family and dealing with everyday life the way you do, then there can never be a digital version of a radio personality.

So we may mourn the death of two great radio personalities here, but part of the radio industry is also dying when new age CEOs have, in their infinite wisdom, found a way to eliminate the one thing that can carry radio on its shoulders for many, many more years to come.

Local personality morning shows deliver up to 50% or more of the total revenue of radio stations.

My friend Dick Carr, the WIP General Manager who employed “Wee Willie” Webber when I was there as a young upstart as well as an entire lineup of legitimate radio personalities could teach radio CEOs a thing or two today.

Personalities are a unique part of the appeal of radio but always in the context of the local radio station. That is, a station without local personalities is just a station waiting to lose audience and a station in need of personalities is waiting to attract its maximum audience.

When some of Carr’s personalities later left the popular and highly rated WIP for more money to defect to a lesser signal and less magical mix of format elements, that station WPEN laid an egg and eventually switched to oldies – with no personalities.

As we appreciate the lives and careers of these two radio personalities – Lundy and Webber – how timely to understand the importance of the local radio station – involved in the community, the source of news, information, entertainment and comfort.

Because without all that, great talents would still be looking for a place to connect with local audiences who eventually loved them in life, missed them when they left the air and mourn them in death.

The secret to radio's financial recovery is not waiting for spot advertisers to come back.

It is bringing personalities back first -- the missing ingredient to an industry turnaround.

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