Podcasting Isn't Special


Here’s a fuzzy memory.

In the late 90’s I was in Portland, Oregon, doing music testing for a Smooth Jazz station. KKJZ, I think (the call letters belong to a non-commercial station in SoCal now.) It also might have been a Smooth Jazz station in Kansas City. The Smooth Sounds made that whole period of my life blend together. Anyway, I recall listening to the station in my rental car on the way, being appropriately smoothed and relaxed, when I was suddenly jolted from catatonia by this:





YOU WILL DIE FRIENDLESS or something like that. We’ve all heard them. Screaming car commercials. I shrugged it off, but the Smooth Jazz consultant I was working with was peeved. When we got to the station, he read them the riot act, and I will never forget this: We work very hard to make 48 minutes an hour the best it can be, but the other 12 minutes can ruin the whole thing. Why wouldn’t you give those 12 minutes the same care as the other 48?

I’ve never forgotten this lesson. In radio, as in podcasting, sales and content are separate. One side produces the program; the other sells it. They have very little to do with each other, and in podcasting are frequently not even part of the same company—the two functions are well and truly siloed.

But they aren’t siloed to the listener. It’s all one product as far as they are concerned. A friend of mine sent me a link to a podcast that brought me right back to that meeting in Portland or KC or somewhere in smoothlandia (more on this below.) In the middle of the content, there was an absolutely screaming insurance commercial that was easily 50% louder than the podcast. And I am hearing these more and more, inserted without care. I am here to tell you, my friends, that anything can be ruined with advertising, and podcasts are by no means exempt.

Programmatic advertising doesn’t concern me. Podcasting will get better at this as the years go on. Dynamically inserted ads don’t have to be terrible—not having them host read, even if they aren’t “live,” is just a failure of the imagination. But terrible ads do concern me. Here’s the thing—we’ve ground through well over a hundred brand lift studies in podcasting over the past couple of years, and I can tell you this: crappy ads don’t work. They just don’t. We can tell ourselves that podcasting is a special environment and it reaches receptive audiences and blah blah blah, but those receptive audiences are listening to podcasts and watching Netflix precisely to avoid these kinds of ads. The Share of Ear® for AM/FM radio has gone down by nearly 20% in five years—this is not an accident.

I know this is just a rant. The jokes will return, I promise. But believe me when I tell you this: podcasting is not special. The content can be. The medium is not. What is special, at least for now, is the audience. I’ve talked to over a hundred thousand of them over the last few years in various projects, and I can assure you: loud, crappy pre-produced spots don’t work. Here’s what happens when you put a bad ad in a great podcast: you get a less-than-great podcast. And you still have a bad ad.

I don’t hate ads, by the way. I love them. I saw this one on TV the other night and rewound it twice:

What I’m Listening To: It’s not Smooth Jazz. I published this a while ago on Medium, but I bet it’s new to you. This requires a bit of background, but that’s what makes this story so delicious. It’s the payoff of a joke with a 15-year setup. Indulge me.

Back in the early 90s, when I got out of grad school, my first “real” job was with a radio consultancy called Broadcast Architecture. I started there as an immature project coordinator, and left six years later as an immature Vice President. While I still had a lot to learn, that surely wasn’t the fault of the two men I worked for there, Frank Cody and Brian Stone, who to this day have had an immeasurable impact on my life and career.

My main job at BA was audience research. We used wireless dials with a digital readout of 0–100 to test music and other forms of radio programming with radio listeners. Two to three days a week, for nearly six years, I was in a different city, testing new and old songs in front of 100 new people a night. Between that and a steady barrage of focus groups, I believe I talked to 40–50,000 people over my run at BA. Each night, I’d have to keep them motivated for as much as two hours while they used their dials to respond to hundreds of 8–10 second “hooks” — the most recognizable part of a song. If people flagged, the scores went down, which would give us flawed results. It was doing this for hundreds of nights that taught me how to engage a crowd and read a room, skills which have come in pretty handy in my life as a speaker.

This was a fun and rewarding chapter in my life, and I got to see the world and meet lots of celebrities. I did the research for the launch of WKTU in New York (which featured RuPaul in the mornings!), one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of. I did music research for stations ranging from Z-100 in NY to KFOG in San Francisco, and tested audiences all over the world from London to Tokyo. I also worked with a bunch of top morning shows, from Howard Stern to The Bob and Tom Show to (pre-syndication) Elvis Duran. But most of all, I got to hone my skills as a researcher, and really understand how audiences work. This work gave me great insight into what I call “the Bon Jovi problem.” Whenever people would say something to me like “I don’t understand how Bon Jovi could sell 50 million records,” I would reply that the problem is they don’t understand 50 million people.

BA had an excellent reputation for this kind of research, but it wasn’t the only thing they had a reputation for. One of the founders, Frank Cody, has a credible claim to being the “Father of Smooth Jazz” from his work developing it at The Wave in Los Angeles, WNUA in Chicago, and other early pioneers in the format. Soon, the company established a national, research-based consultancy in the format, and new Smooth Jazz stations started cropping up in cities all over America. And I was right in the middle of it, with my little cases of dials, testing 8-second hooks of Sade from Seattle to Naples, Florida.

Now, I didn’t love the format — it’s not what I listened to after work. But I didn’t hate it, either. To many, Kenny G serves as the butt of a terrible joke, but I could see, night after night in the hotel auditoriums in which I plied my trade, that his music would invariably be in the top 10 of any music test in any city, with otherwise normal-looking humans cranking their dials to 100 whenever I’d play “Songbird.” See the Bon Jovi problem, above.

Smooth Jazz had quite a run until Arbitron (now Nielsen) began to change the way in which it collected radio ratings in major markets. In the paper diary days of radio ratings (still the way they are done in smaller markets), Smooth Jazz was often a top five format with persons 25–54, and a gold mine. But when the top 50 markets switched to PPM, a passive, electronic measuring system that picks up an inaudible signal encoded in each station’s broadcast, Smooth Jazz died a very quick and painful death. If you are interested in the prevailing theory around that, FiveThirtyEight published a great article on it a few years ago: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/did-nielsen-kill-the-radio-star/

Anyway, while I worked in all formats, it can fairly be said that I helped to install Smooth Jazz all over the US in the 90s. Critics of the format would complain about it being “heavily researched.” Of course it was, which was why it was a top five format in so many cities. Today, when people talk about radio being “over-researched,” they couldn’t be more wrong. Radio does less research than ever, and when you hear a station playing the same songs over and over, or hanging on to that once OK hit a few months too long, it’s because they aren’t doing research like they used to. But I digress.

Today I am still a researcher, and still very connected to the worlds of audio and entertainment. And much to my delight, I am also the proud owner of a 15-year old human boy who looks a lot like me and seems to be growing up just fine. One of the coolest things about my son is his incredible passion for music — in particular, big band and jazz. He currently plays the trumpet (his main instrument), euphonium, cornet, and is now just picking up the trombone. He has made every “all-star” band in his school system this year, and he often falls to sleep each night to his Spotify playlist of big band music. He’s taught me about Lucky Chops, Sammy Miller and the Congregation, and James Morrison. I LOVE how much he loves music.

Yesterday, in the car, we started talking about jazz, and I asked him if he also liked straight ahead, improvisational jazz, and of course he does. I should stop being amazed by his big, wonderful brain. We chatted about my favorite, Chet Baker (don’t do drugs, kids) and Miles Davis (OK, maybe do a few but not too many.) I told him Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” was probably my desert island jazz disc. He prefers James Morrison, but he digs Coltrane, too.

“In fact,” he told me in the car, “I pretty much like all forms of Jazz. Except Smooth Jazz. That stuff is…horrible. It’s not even music.”

It was then that I told my son what a monster I am.

For the next 30 minutes, I gleefully watched him surf from Wikipedia to Reddit to various Smooth Jazz history sites, and each time he confirmed a fact I told him, more of his youth drained away. “You were a paid employee? Not an Intern? You did this? BAD. NOT GOOD,” he said. While he is doing this, I am joyously texting my wife the details. “This is all so spectacular,” she texts back. “GLORIOUS.”

He finds a page on Frank. “This is who you worked for? This is the Frank you always talk about? This says he is the father of Smooth Jazz!”

“Yes,” I tell him, “But Frank is a very, very good man, Sam.”

“He might be a good man, BUT HE HAS POOR CORE FUNDAMENTALS,” my 15-going-on-35-year-old comedian son tells me. I’m dying at this point. This is why we have children. It took 15 years to set up the punchline for this one, and I savored every minute.

So now, my son has to go through life coming to terms with the fact that this man whom he has previously called Dad was witness to and one of the facilitators of what might as well have been genocide. Truly, the Charles Manson of music.

In the words of the poet Bruce Weigl, sometimes what we pass on to others is not always a gift.

Have a great weekend.



Photo credit: By minds-eye - Kenny G Live (poster), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2160756