Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Problem with Ryan Seacrest

"On-Air with Ryan Seacrest" is a microcosm of what's wrong with radio right now. The problem has nothing to do with the show being created in Hollywood and syndicated to local radio stations across the country. The trouble is the show's content. It's ordinary, average, and forgettable. Mindless, soulless, lowest common denominator stuff the media, including most cookie cutter morning radio shows, are saturated with -- vacuous interviews with celebrities hyping their latest projects, a steady stream of superficial celebrity news and Hollywood gossip clipped from the pages of People, Us, and The National Enquirer and read breathlessly with much manufactured enthusiasm and amazement by Ryan and his cohorts. This is sad stuff.

Here's what's really scary. In the past few months, "On-Air with Ryan Seacrest" has spread to approximately 140 markets, including most of the 50 largest cities in America. How did this happen? The show has no record of ratings success. The content is no different and no better than the average local radio morning show. Okay, Ryan gets more and better celebrity guests, but who cares. There's absolutely nothing special about his interviews -- no intimacy and no revelations. Listeners can get the same information by reading the press release for the new movie, CD, book, or other project the celebrity guest is hyping. Make no mistake about it; these are not Howard Stern-like interviews. There are no surprises in Ryan's fawning and shallow conversations. The show is not live, but that probably doesn't matter given its content. It's just a bunch of unoriginal recycled bits from Ryan's morning show in Los Angeles, which by the way, is not even the highest rated show on KIIS FM. So, what's going on here? Why is this show spreading? It's definitely not a virus.

"On-Air with Ryan Seacrest" exists for two primary reasons neither of which has anything to do with what comes out of a radio’s speakers or making radio listeners’ lives better. First, Ryan Seacrest is famous -- not for extraordinary talent, not for producing amazing radio content, not for producing stellar Arbitron numbers. Ryan Seacrest is famous for being the host of American Idol. Ryan Seacrest is famous for his boyish good looks. Ryan Seacrest is famous for hanging out with Simon Cowell. Second, "On-Air with Ryan Seacrest" is cheap programming -- a money-saving alternative to paying local personalities in 140 markets. So radio station operators blinded by fame and celebrity and driven by the need to reduce expenses are programming this drivel. Yikes!

Radio is in deep doo doo right now. Radio needs to create relevant and original content to survive. Radio needs rebels, mavericks, characters, passionate artists and innovators. Radio needs people to challenge the status quo not perpetuate it. "On-Air with Ryan Seacrest" is the status quo -- a very ordinary and average version of it. Exactly what radio doesn't need right now.

Radio is headed for extinction if things don't change quickly. How did it come to this? Lee Abrams provided some pretty good answers in a recent interview conducted by Al Peterson at NTS MediaOnline. Here's what Lee had to say about the radio business and the source of great ideas. "Radio was one of the last great bastions of creative thinking. There were no rulebooks, you could come up with a new format idea in your basement, take it out and try it somewhere, and if it worked you were in business. Unfortunately the radio business, which was once a place with very few rules, evolved into a business with a whole lot of rules.... all great ideas start emotionally then you use science to determine whether or not you're full of it. In most big media today everything starts scientifically and the whole emotional component gets left out entirely."

Lee's description of how radio's best programming ideas came to be and where great ideas begin sounds remarkably like what's happening on the Internet today. All kinds of goofy original ideas are being created. There is lots of experimentation going on. People are creating stuff in basements and garages all over the world and putting it out there in cyberspace to see if it flies.

Big ideas like Google, Facebook, Pandora, and YouTube started as little experiments in a basement, garage, or dorm room. These ideas began with emotions, instinctive reactions to real life in the real world. The creators didn't do focus groups or seek approval from the corporate office. They just began to create stuff that they thought was missing in their lives, stuff they wanted and needed. They didn't try to predict how their ideas would be received or if they'd be accepted. They just created stuff they thought was cool and necessary. They created stuff that would make their lives and/or the lives of their friends better, more interesting, more fun.

This is exactly how many of radio's most successful formats and shows came to be. Rush Limbaugh created the show he wanted to listen to -- a show reflective of his ideals, his values and beliefs -- a show that broke the rules and challenged the status quo. He discovered there were lots of listeners just like him who were looking for a place to hang out and connect with like-minded people who shared their conservative values. Howard Stern created the show he wanted to listen to. Lee Abrams created a format with the music he wanted to hear. Both discovered lots of listeners just like them who liked what they liked.

Now radio creates stuff for some mythical target audience defined by simplistic and superficial research. No one breaks the rules or challenges the status quo. There's no experimentation. No risk taking. No new ideas. No innovation.

There is lots of cloning and copying. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern wannabes trying to duplicate everything these originals do. Nearly every morning show has a boy and a girl. Most are obsessed with presenting "pop culture" defined by superficial and sensational celebrity news and Hollywood gossip delivered by the girl. They talk about the same current events and news stories. Try finding a radio morning show this time of year that isn't talking about American Idol. Yes it's the top-rated show on television, but it's watched in less than 20% of homes with TVs. Radio morning shows across the dial and around the country use the same show prep services for their inspiration. Formats, music, and imaging -- all the stuff of radio programming -- have become fully homogenized at a time when the real world -- fueled by abundant entertainment and information choices made available by technology and the Internet -- has become anything but homogenized.

The problem with "On-Air with Ryan Seacrest" and far too much of the programming heard on the radio these days is that it's not distinctive, it's not relevant, and it's not essential to listeners because it doesn't make their lives better. That's why mobile phones, iPods, and computers are far more important in people's lives than radios.


Anonymous said...

While you're dead on in some of your assessments of radio, I find it strange that it's Lee Abrams championing creativity. He killed rock radio with his tight superstars format in the late 70's. Granted he didn't force it down people's throats like Clear Channel is with Seacrest.

shnewsman said...

I have no doubt Ryan Seacrest should be doing exactly what he's doing now. If I was being paid that kind of money to do nothing; I'd do it, gladly. Who needs "great radio" when you're making $5M+ a year from radio syndication and another $10M + expenses for saying, "this--is American Idol" and doing a few standups. Please. We're trying to find ways to pay our mortgage. Ryan's driving a Bentley. Ryan Seacrest is not what's wrong with radio. Radio is what's wrong with radio. It has been allowed to disintegrate over time because the salespeople and beancounters snuck in one night and changed the locks. While we're at it--think about Don LaFontaine's death in September...and what's it's done to the voiceover money pie. Ben Patrick Johnson must feel like he just won Powerball.

Bill's comments are right-on. But the first thing that must happen is radio must be once again willing to pay for good talent to create good things. Ryan's making huge money and doing nothing for it--because he's being allowed to.

Jim Walsh said...

Same situation in the talk format - basically it's Rush and his thousand or so clones. What frustrates me most of all about the indusry's current situation is the number of highly talented folks who are on the beach (I know many of them), while the dial is pockmarked with mediocrity...most of it in syndication.

Jay Marvin said...

God, someone who gets it. It's rough being in radio for 35 years and seeing it implode like it is.

Anonymous said...

Who needs great radio, when cheapened radio over multiple networks worked for wall street..

Cloned radio operators think nothing is wrong...

The day will change from dark to light again, when nation wide wireless comes to every dashboard..
Paid of free..the day is coming when radio will raise from the ashes....

Fake JH said...

Like there's only 1 Ryan Seacrest.

There are FIVE Ryan Seacrests.

Anonymous said...

I'm also shocked you would quote Lee Abrams... after helping to ruin FM radio, he's now trying to do the same to newspapers, he works for Tribune now, hired by Sam Zell, who didn't know that foreign correspondents filing stories with datelines really were in those foreign cities. Please, take Lee back to radio, we don't want him.

Bob Heiney said...

Radio, and it's personality, hasn't been the same since FM took over. Gone are the days of great voices and talents, like Big Dan Ingram, Jim Nettleton, Dan Donovan and a thousand more. The cookie cutter formats designed by consultants, in far away places, are boring at best. Every single morning show sounds like every single other morning show. Lots of blah, blah, blah about nothing, and very little music.

Creativity is bought now. Not produced by the great minds of the DJ's.

Our formats, too, have been disemboweled. Carved up into too many splinter formats, each striving for that big piece of the ratings pie.

Ryan Seacrest, I'm sure, is a great guy. TV people love him. Radio, however, doesn't need him. What radio needs is localism. Local DJ's who know their towns, and what's happening in them. Radio stations, on the other hand, need to rethink their lot in the big picture. Managers and sales people see only dollar signs and bottom lines. There's no room for local DJ's in that plan. That "costs" money.

Somebody, PLEASE bring back my radio stations. I really miss them.

Anonymous said...

Most of the great entertainers/shows are an acquired taste - you may not get them on a first listen. But once a listener is hooked, you've got them forever. It's just like the great TV shows that were duds at first until people got into them (MASH, Cheers, Seinfeld, Family Guy, etc.). Unfortunatly, as long as Wall Street is still in radio, the great ones would be lucky enough to land a gig - never mind given the time of MASH to develop.

Anonymous said...

You've hit it right on the head, Bill. Somewhere in the mid 90s it was like a neutron bomb went off and the people programming Radio stations lost all of the knowledge accumulated over the previous 30 years. The lack of real contact between on-air people and local audiences is the reason so many people complain about Radio's "sameness." What Seacrest is doing is just reinforcing the sameness. In this week's Radio and Records there is a discussion of the People Meter that has led some programmers to begin asking the question of what "content" should be. They see the numbers drop during periods of "jabber," and they want to cure it. Will this bring about more localism and entertainment? Hopefully those who want to win, both in the ratings and in the hearts of their listeners will take grasp the opportunity to bring that station to person communication back.

Anonymous said...

Right on as usual, Bill. You describe the paradox very well...the exact things that once made radio great and exact things it needs right now, and the very, very last things the current Lords of the industry will do. There ARE a few places where these things are being done. Most I find are in public broadcasting and radio. Time are tight here as well, but it hasn't stopped good public radio broadcasters from experimenting and trying something new. Show me something on commercial radio that's as neat at "This American Life" or "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me", or some of the innovative local programming that coming out of public stations large and small. Full disclosure, I made the jump from commercial radio to South Dakota Public Broadcasting. I didn't switch because I changed. I switched because the tennants I believe in, and the experiments I enjoy being a part of, are happening in the public sector. The commercial stations have left us a hole as big as a tank to drive through.

Anonymous said...

If only all the "Bain Buddies" would read this article and understand.

John said...

Profound and accurate observation. In the continual battle cry to "get creative at the local level to save the industry" I'm curious who exactly is the creative champion waiting to emerge. Everybody thinks they're creative, especially the GM and SM. But have program directors fallen into a comfort zone of being safe robots for so long that if given the chance they wouldn't know where to start. Many of these guys haven't critiqued or inspired a staff talent in so long to begin with. And it's not like Seacrest or any syndicated show is really going to call the local PD back for a "chat" about today's show. We've grown apart.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Bill, on outstanding and eloquent insight. I am in complete agreement with every point you make in "The Problem with Ryan Seacrest." I must take brotherly exception, though, to several negative comments leveled against Lee Abrams for "killing rock radio" with the Superstars format and such. Lee only killed boring rock radio. From ABC and "Superstars" in the '70's and '80's through Z-Rock in the '90's and XM beyond, Lee has been spectacularly singular in his extraordinary vision. And, quoting the gramatically hysteric yet musically historic Blues Magoos, "You Ain't See Nothin' Yet!"

Peter Cavanaugh
Fifty Years in Radio

Anonymous said...

Absolutely great post by Bill. Radio needs less Ryan Seacrests and more localization, but, because companies like Clear Channel own more stations than they even know, they're cutting costs by syndicating total junk.

The problem is that all of the stations owned in this country are owned by a select few companies who are only concerned about the bottom line. Used to be, produce a better product and the money will come in. It's not that way anymore. Creativity and personality has gone out of radio for the most part and it's a crying shame.

Anonymous said...

All in the name of money, baby - ALL in the name of money...

Got me thinking - in 1988, when WNBC switched from music to sports, Bruce Morrow was quoted as saying "it used to be the radio business, now it's the business of radio" - AND THAT WAS 21 YEARS AGO, GUYS!! These days, it's almost like, I don't know whether it's the economy itself, or just a plain old desire to de-localize the DJ, but it's a whole different ballgame. It's like you got these consultants and money types saying "screw the local DJ, let's make it one guy where you can hear him on 1,000 stations all over the country". And that's a shame - it's like the consultant money types are saying "we don't want personality radio anymore" - and the listeners are the ones who ultimately lose, but they don't see it that way...


Colleen Cowan Dealy said...

Your recent post: The Problem with Ryan Seacrest is right on the money. One of the answers to radio’s problems lies in the hands of the people who control content. There is plenty of talent out there. There are plenty of new ideas, but the people who call the shots (the check writers and the majority of program directors) are usually afraid to consider shows that don’t fit neatly into the old formula. That’s understandable in these challenging economic times; it’s scary to take a risk. But, risk is precisely what’s going to make radio interesting.

What if a show were to be co-hosted by relatable, non-celebrity co-hosts? What if they were two women? What if the show offered tips on everything from: How to Successfully Get a Job and Work from Home—to: How to Tell If Your Partner Is Addicted to Porn? What if the hosts discussed issues that real people face every day? What if the hosts were smart and could walk a fine line between being titillating and being lewd?

We co-hosted such a show and we were wildly popular on the internet. We were told over and over by program directors, however, that our show didn’t fit the longstanding formula of “successful” radio. (We applaud 92.1 FM/The River for, in our case, being the biggest exception to this rule and in fairness, Lifestyle Talk Radio did give us a platform, but they were unwilling to pay us). In general we were discouraged from being creative and original.

The examples that you use to illustrate new and “Big ideas…” are Google, Facebook, Pandora, and YouTube—all internet based. It’s easy to find a station on the radio—we are still amazed that so many people found us on the internet—but they did because we offered something new, useful and entertaining.

Radio can survive. Advertisers still need to advertise and money is still out there. The smart deal makers will embrace what’s exciting about the internet and translate it into a radio format. It’s time to think outside of the box and try a new strategy. Radio’s new frontier will be pioneered by people who are willing to buck conventional wisdom and depart from tired, formulaic radio. It requires courage and pluck! Any takers??

Colleen Dealy & Taylor Baldwin

Anonymous said...

OK....but I'll give you this much... at least Ryan Seacrest
had the moxie to try daily TV
first... then bounced 'old aged'
Rick Dees out of his KIIS chair...
radio, unfortunately, is a bunch
of innovators, based in the age
group of 50+...make that 55+.
In my market, make that 74.

But, what I don't really understand
is Billy Bush doing the same show
night after night, and those
exciting Mutual Broadcasting tones
being heard for commercial breaks!

Ryan Seacrest is the 2009 version
of NBC's Monitor, minus the
weather and sports update. And,
not many enjoyed Monitor when it
played in the 1960's.

You can turn on your TV tonight,
and see the exact same programming
from Access Hollywood, The Insider and Entertainment Tonight... and I don't see anyone
complaining about 'copycat' programming, especially since two of the shows are owned by the same company!

I miss Boss Radio, but nobody is doing it. I miss Cousin Brucie, but his day has come and gone with the Beatles. I miss Musicradio, but they sold out.

Innovation will come, but with a different generation of folks, that are not now spinning the dials. Sorry about that Grandpa!

Anonymous said...

Well said, but Bill's point needs to be remembered: That "different generation of folks" IS spinning the dials. The dials just aren't connected with RADIO...the young rebels ARE innovating in many, many other places. Yes, Seacrest is better than an aged Dees, but ALL undershoot the real innovation going on in places other than radio.

Ken Matthews said...

Bill- Outstanding article. Add to that the fact that NOW PDs are terrified of doing anything that could risk their losing jobs- like creativity originality; and there goes a once great industry. Great points about Seacrest...who my friend calls the luckiest man in show biz.

Anonymous said...

WE Need to get rid of Seacreast and go local in all markets...even small ones need to be local. It makes home, home.

Anonymous said...

Peter Cavanaugh wrote:---And, quoting the gramatically hysteric yet musically historic Blues Magoos, "You Ain't See Nothin' Yet!"---

I think Peter Cavanaugh has gone senile after 50 years in radio. I don't know a song called "You Ain't See Nothin' Yet".

BTO did "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" and Blues Magoos did "(We Ain't Got) Nothin' Yet"

But yeah, Seacrest is helping nail the last few nail in radio's coffin.

Anonymous said...

Call me old fashioned, but before I say the hula hoop is a stupid idea, and responsible for the death of culture in America, I wait to see how the public responds.

Same with Seacrest. Before I run out and say it's bad for radio, and that the public doesn't care, I'd like to see a few local books. If the show sucks and doesn't connect with listners, I'm sure it will go the way of Whoopie. However, if it doesn't, and it actually connects with someone, then let's all get over it, and move on.

Truthfully, when Casey Kasem started, all he was doing was reading bio material on the radio. What was so revolutionary about that? Nothing. Anyone could have done it. But it took one guy to start, and he had a lot of doubters back in the day, and he turned a single idea into a 40 year career.

Let's show some patience and restraint. There are enough knee-jerk people running radio companies right now. Let's stand back and look at this over the long term, and see if it has any legs. Then pile on if it fails.

Bob Heiney said...

Absolutely! Local, is what radio has always been, and should be. I don't care if you do a remote from the local cemetery, it'
s all about the home town. Ryan can't do that from LA.

Although I do enjoy some of the Sirius/XM music channels, the one complaint I have, is that it's not local radio. They try, but it's not the same.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree here. While I think there are a lot of things wrong with radio, but the Seacrest show at least offers an alternative to the mindless "10 In A Row" philosophy that has plagued our business. Is Seacrest fluff? Hell yes.... but is the content on TV talk shows like Leno or Letterman any deeper. It ain't NPR and doesn't pretend to be. With the success of the aforementioned TV shows, not to mention TMZ, Entertainment Tonight, American Idol and the dozens of wannabees, it's obvious that there's an audience out there for idle chatter. Time (and a couple of ratings books) will tell whether Seacrest translates well into radio.... but everybody lighten up. Would you prefer some B-list jock reading liner cards between the next 10-in a row of the same 200 songs?

Anonymous said...

Ok we get it you don't like Ryan Seacrest. Just because you happen to hate him doesn't mean everyone else does. and sorry, like it or not celebrity news is big right now, a ton of people love it.

How old are you anyway? I bet over 50, which means advertisers don't even care what you think.

Bob Heiney said...

I don't hate Ryan Seacrest!!! All I'm saying is that I'd rather hear local radio with local personalities.
What's wrong with that. It's a cheap way of keeping your license to broadcast.

And yes I am over 50! What about it. I still go out and buy neat stuff, just like you. Advertisers should pay attention to me because I buy lots of neat tech toys.

Anonymous said...

There is a cycle at work when it comes to radio-creativity-formats-the future. There was a time when the creative types, created programs. They were called Program Directors, but they were, more accurately, program creators. With the rise of "format radio" there was less and less need to create something new. Program Directors became part of the money-regulation-people management side of the biz, and programming gurus created formats based on music. Give that a few decades to mature and what we have now is a vast pool of Program Directors who have little or no idea how to "create" a winning local radio station that responds to its specific market with its own unique programming. The larger question is, even if there was truly "great" radio available... would anyone listen....?

Anonymous said...

While I agree mostly with the core of the argument (the content isn't special, but there has been some ratings success in mostly bigger markets), the comments are hilarious. Somehow I have a feeling not one of the commenters hating on Seacrest have ever said the same about Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, and I guarantee not one of you have said the same of Paul Harvey.

Now, I expect the reaction is "Well of course not, they're LEGENDS." They weren't at one point. They were upstarts with a show that took over a local daypart or news service in a few markets, the product was better than whatever had already been on the station, and it blossomed from there.

I challenge any of you to supply, in a comment, a contemporary major market Top 40 radio station personality lineup that doesn't consist of people already working in a major market. And I don't mean 50 year olds talking to 20 year olds, either; that's a large portion of what's wrong with Top 40 specifically today. If you can, tabulate what the expected salary would be for that lineup, and shake your head.

It's awful easy to program a fictional radio station in your head, from behind a keyboard at your house, when you don't have to stick to a budget or look at actual ratings for the available talent you can afford.

And for the record, live, local, GOOD content is not dead. There's a lot of it. It just doesn't sound like it used to.

Anonymous said...

Steven R is absolutely correct with his observations on The Blues Magoos, BTO and my senility.

Yours truly,



Never mind.

Anonymous said...

1-the internet KILLED RADIO!!
2-corporate america KILLED EADIO!!
3-consultants KILLED RADIO!!
4-25-45 year olds can build their own radio station..they DON'T CARE about local radio and never will
is doing WELL again!!

Anonymous said...

This is dead on .. the same could easily be said for Billy Bush, the Cumulus version of RS.

Radio is in a world of hurt right now with lots of people to blame. Many of us have lost their jobs, others have have taken salary cuts and/or lost their 401K match -- Why? The current, handy excuse is the recession. The reality is that the Corporations with their format generals bland reasearched to death "safe lists" and the 50%+ cash flow goal have killed the very thing that makes radio viable in tough times -- creativity and localisim. We can't afford to be local, and we're not allowed to be creative.

The "Golden age" of radio was in the great depression... the folks in San Antonio, Atlanta and elsewhere need to take a look at what they've created and say "we have met the enemy and he is us".

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm waiting to see the "success in some markets" for Ryan. Nothing against what he does, but the station he's on in our market has lost a full share since he started. What's that tell you? It tells you that in middays -at work-most are there for the MUSIC not the drivel. Our two biggest morning shows are still local. For now. Middays both stations tank. One has -- (I can't even tell you who)-and the other has Ryan. Nevermind what's local or not. I can still remember the first time a PD reminded me how "relating" to the listener made sense. No one's doing that now. There are people interested in Beyonce, Akon, Jennifer (woo hoo)Aniston. But these days there are more interested in hearing good music, and a "friend" who shares the time with them-with fun, decent things to say (that make sense) and a couple of interesting things to say that make sense to the listener. If RELATES, it works. If it don't relate- forgetabout it.