“Do you want to follow the rules or do you want to win?”
Being able to bitch and complain about our legal departments is almost a rite of passage, a badge of honor; something that can allow us to one-up our radio peers, i.e: “You think your company is bad? They’re nothing compared to ours….”
And there is no question that they often give us plenty of fodder to work with. But there’s a group of people out there people like Michael Martin or Rick Thomas, who if you say “United Broadcasting” will get that tiny, almost imperceptible post-piss shiver.
If you believed the lore that was doled out at corporate meetings, the founder was an innovative, albeit insane man who would hold meetings in phone booths, and yes it’s possible that tin foil was involved. But only a truly insane man in the 1950s would have realized that there was a place in the marketplace for “Black Radio”. Thus became United Broadcasting with a network of stations from Baltimore and Atlanta to Los Angeles and San Francisco. And when he finally died and went off to the loony bin in the skies he left his heirs with a group of radio stations that they wanted absolutely nothing to do with… except for the profits. So the company was turned over to a consortium of lawyers to run the thing and mail checks to the family.
Sure your company has lawyers but imagine if your company was run by lawyers? That was United Broadcasting. The most simple of tasks required a 17 page form be filled out and sent to Bethesda, Maryland for revisions and rewriting. So it was no surprise that almost all of their stations were getting euphemistically gutted in the ratings. I once ran a legal promo that was a minute and 44 seconds for a simple Coca-Cola promotion based around the Summer Olympics. That’s some great Radio.
One of the reasons that Wild in San Francisco was actually winning as opposed to their other radio stations was that we are on the West Coast and they were on the East Coast, and there was a certain point in the day when we knew that they wouldn’t be listening. It was no surprise that at the corporate meetings we were awarded number 14 out of 14 stations in the corporate Legal Compliance awards category. (I’m not joking)
Spending 3 to 4 hours a day filling out forms was a tough environment for somebody like me to operate. Time spent filling out forms, often for the fifth or sixth time, as opposed to time finding ways to beat the competition, was soul sucking.
I don’t think I ever realized how truly competitive I was until I got to KSOL, soon to be Wild 107, and went up against one of the greatest radio stations ever : KMEL/San Francisco. I looked at everything as a battle to be won. Morning show contests. Remotes. Appearances at concerts. And weekend contests.
So it came to be that I found myself driving home on a Friday afternoon at 6:50 after launching a weekend contest of movie tickets for something called “Blame It On The Bellboy” featuring cinematic superstar Bronson Pinchot. I tuned over to KMEL and heard them doing Prince tickets every hour. They were winning. And that was unacceptable.
I didn’t have a cell phone in my car but I did have some quarters, so I pulled over at a place called Golden Bear market and using their payphone phone called the Program Director and told him that we needed to get our thing off the air and something, anything better, on. He agreed and I called Jo Jo Wright on the hotline and told him to pull the contest , which had only run twice, and that I would be back at the station in 20 minutes. By the time that I got backthe PD had called the label and gotten commitment for Prince tickets, enough for every hour, plus a trip to see Prince in LA.
I quickly pounded out a promo JoJo recorded it during songs in the research director who was still at the radio station and laid in some Prince music. We had it on the air by 810.
And we won that weekend. If you string enough wins together, eventually you’re going to win the overall battle. And that was the goal. Every opportunity that we could take a win away from KMEL was an opportunity that needed to be seized
Could I have spent three hours pounding out a 17 page form and sending it off to with scripts included to Bethesda Maryland for them to revise and send back? Sure, but they didn’t work on weekends. And besides the methodology was the same. It was caller number 10 and the only thing we added was that people were qualifying for a trip, it seemed like not that big of a deal.
You would’ve thought that I’d suggested we put puppies in a blender; corporate lost their fucking mind. And I got called on the carpet to explain why I had changed a weekend contest early on a Friday evening. I explained that it was simple: the competition was beating us, and did we want to follow the rules or did we want to win. The overwhelming response was “follow the rules.” It should be noted that the Program Director ran for cover on this one and I was the one stuck holding the Prince tickets. This episode took about a month to finally blow over and eventually was a distant memory in a rearview mirror. But yes, that was the weekend that I almost lost my job because of a Prince ticket giveaway. And I would do it again.
Do you want to win, or do you want to follow the rules? I think you can do both, but sometimes you have to make a tough decision and beg for forgiveness.
In 1994 United broadcasting finally sold off the errors got rich and all of their stations did dramatically better in the ratings once the shackles of the lawyers were taken off them.
In about 2002 I saw Prince at a Jamba juice in Minneapolis and was tempted sorely tempted to go over and tell him the story, but nobody else was bothering him and I didn’t want to be that guy now. I wish I’d taken the chance.