When America reaches the other side of the pandemic, radio may sound very different from how it did in the pre-COVID era. For air talent, that may require a new “tonality or tenor,” Brian Philips told attendees of the virtual Morning Show Boot Camp Wednesday. As radio evolves into a new reality, the Cumulus Media Executive VP of Content and Audience suggested there may be “less shtick for a while and a little more humanity.”
And as personalities try to figure out what their next career move is, Philips suggested they ask: “What do I want to be in my next incarnation?” Many personalities found their voice in the past by emulating great talent that came before them. Radio’s next chapter “will be a bold new one,” where hosts communicate differently than they did in previous eras.
Philips was speaking with other radio execs and talent agents on a panel about contract re-negotiations at a time when COVID-triggered layoffs and furloughs have reduced the number of jobs, while also creating new opportunities for talent to expand their reach and take on more responsibilities. To persevere, hosts need to focus on “the things that you can control” and become more multi-faceted, said Thea Mitchem, Executive VP of Programming at iHeartMedia. Talent should be open to expanding their brand through podcasting, digital, social, and other platforms. “All of this is about amplifying your brand,” Mitchem said.
Riffing on that theme, talent agent Paul Anderson, CEO of Workhouse Media, said on-air hosts ought to view themselves as entrepreneurs and think innovatively about how to deliver content to listeners – and to partner with advertisers. “If ever there was a time to deploy your creativity to help innovate and create new opportunities for advertisers… to think out of the box and do something new, this is the time to do that,” Anderson said. For example, a morning host his firm represents used her “best-bored games” bit about family activities for bored kids stuck at home to help lure a new client to the station. After dispatching her producer to buy a horde of board games, the AC personality suggested the sales department pitch a concept to Uber Eats. “Whoever won the game that day got a socially distant delivery of a board game,” Anderson explained. “There was a buy that didn't exist before. That’s using the talent’s creativity and incorporating great content to the moment and not operating out of fear but being fearless by using your talent to do things that are needed in the moment.”
Turning to the topic at hand – advice for talent whose contract is up for renewal and how they can prepare for negotiations during the crisis – Chris Oliviero, Senior VP and Market Manager for Entercom New York, offered a “do” for talent agents: “Be realistic,” not tone-deaf, about the current environment,” he suggested. “Continue to compromise even more than you’ve done before COVID in terms of being creative.” Instead of looking at compensation as just base salary, talent and their agents should take into account bonus potential, sales endorsements and digital opportunities. “Move all those levers around to try to come to a level that makes sense,” he said. Oliviero also had an incisive “don’t” for his fellow radio execs: “Don’t use the crisis as a leverage play to get a better deal,” he cautioned. “I’ve heard too many people in my chair say, ‘You’re lucky to have a job!’ That’s the worst thing a manager can say.”
Ross Eatman, who heads up the New York office of talent agency Eatman Media Services, said it’s important that both talent and their employers understand that “we are sharing a crisis.” Personalities need to do whatever they can to advance the mission of their company, he said. “It’s time for dialogue. We’re all in recognition that there are challenges and economic circumstances that are unprecedented and uncertainty that’s ongoing,” Eatman said.
Next Gen Air Talent
Moderated by Heather Cohen, Executive VP of The Weiss Agency, the panel of agents and execs also discussed the importance of attracting the next generation of air talent, with Philips saying he was “a little frightened” there aren’t as many young people interested in pursuing a radio career as there used to be. “Radio has not done a very good job of developing a bench,” Anderson said, encouraging the industry to provide “better, more innovative ways” for young people to create content across radio's “incredibly vibrant and relevant platforms.”
Mitchem disagreed that young people aren't interested in a radio career, saying she works to ensure there is a “funnel of new people” coming into the stations all the time. “They don’t look at it as just radio,” she said. Today’s creators want their content to be heard on the air, via digital streams, and in podcasts. “They want it everywhere,” Mitchem said. “I do think there is a next-generation out there.”