Saturday, June 27, 2015

How We Know Cat Knows

Should I have prefaced the title of this piece with my occasional warning:  "LISTENING TOO HARD"?  Maybe.  Maybe. 

In his Ask Me Anything on My Ticket Confession, the Western Hemispherical Catman reported his opinion that The Hardline was like a stool (not that kind of stool) with three equal legs.

He took some heat for this.

Listeners hear the same evidence that he does.  It is plain that Corby has come to dominate the show, with the aid of Danny.  Not everyone finds this a problem.  While I join those who have wearied of The OverCorby, I also think he's a terrific broadcaster who is very entertaining when taken in the originally prescribed doses.  But yeah, Mike "Short Leg" Rhyner had begun to disappear on the Ticket anchor show he founded.  Come on, now.

Cat knows.

My evidence for this is circumstantial.

It centers on an ad that The Ticket ran for quite awhile.  After I made the observation I'm about to report, I had hoped to hear the ad again so I could get the quote exactly right, but I haven't heard it in awhile.

It's an ad for The Hardline, and at one point, Conrad says something like:

"And you'll get to hear a Texas Radio Hall of Famer -- or not."   (Accompanied, I am dimly recalling, by a sound effect.)

I don't know that Cat approves internal ad copy and final product, but I'm betting he does.

If so, with this phrase he's winking at the P1.

If you tune in to The Hardline, maybe you'll hear Mike, maybe you won't.

There's something else.

My schedule has really cut into my Hardline listening in recent weeks.  I tune in when I can, but recently my PM commute coincides with the waning minutes of the show.  But on those occasions when I'm able to listen to the meat of the presentation, I've heard something I haven't heard in a long time:


Participating in interviews.  Conversing with Corby and Danny. Analyzing Ranger baseball.  Jumping in.  (Or is it "popping on" at this point?)

You all need to tell me -- am I imagining this?  Or has he picked up his game very noticeably in the last month or so?

*     *     *

One of the nice things about having a blog is that I can just dump my utterly unprovable guesses on an unsuspecting congregation.

Here is my theory about when Mike began to check out with greater frequency:

It was when he was introduced to the iPad.

*     *     *

QUICK HIT:  Pet peeve vindicated.

Mike Sirois chastised Mike "The Machine" Marshall today for calling the show "Cirque de Sirois."  The Machine was unfazed.  Made no difference to him.  

Sirois said that it was like George Dunham perpetually mispronouncing Norm's name as "Hitchges," and he sounded pretty disgusted about both.

*     *     *

A Confessor leaving a comment to the last thread noted that the incomparable Sturm and the coming-to-seem-indispensable Mike Sirois had put in an appearance on the Reddit page to clear something up.  He speculated that MTC may have lost some of its "cachet."  

I was flattered to think anyone ever thought it ever had much cachet, but there's probably something to that comment.

MTC will be six years old on Tuesday.  You are reading post number 711.  Hits and pageviews are stronger than ever.   Maybe we should have a party.

But unlike Reddit -- by the way, the guys that run that page do a terrific job and yes, as someone also observed on the last thread, they do appear to clean it up -- the topics here tend to be guided by the posts (although comments have very free reign).  And, this post aside, Your Plainsman hasn't had much original to say lately.

I'm hoping this will change.  It's a time of ferment at The Ticket.  Competition among stations is more vigorous.  The ratings on which broadcast decisions are based are equivocal and may well be faulty.  The JV 43-Man Squamish for attention is heating up.   Contracts will be running out.  Most will probably be renewed, but that day is coming when there will be an organic change in one or more of the shows. 

There's lots to think about, lots to write about.  I'll do my best to continue to find the time.

Thank you for your loyal patronage of My Ticket Confession.

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Few Observations on Jeff Catlin's AMA, If You Can Remember Back That Far

Sorry I've been away, men and women.  Couldn't be hep'd.  Next little while I might be scarce again but will try to stay quick on reviewing comments.  Really appreciate your patience.  If, that is, you can even remember what it is I'm supposed to be writing about in the first place.

*      *     *

The one thing I keep coming back to is:  Jeff Catlin is a very smart man.  Yeah, I owe him one for the day he took out of his job to answer our questions, so you are forgiven for thinking I'm kissing his ass.  But I really feel that way, and I feel that it was revealed in his answers.

Various Confessors and other observers have remarked that Cat could hardly expect to agree with all the criticism that The Hardline, T.C. Fleming, Jake, Norm, BaD receive on this site and elsewhere.  Part of what makes any manager effective is the perception by his employees that he can be counted on to be loyal to them beyond the four walls of the workplace, and probably sometimes within.  So I don't begrudge him that, even though we suspect -- I do, anyway -- that he understands why some listeners feel the way they do.  That doesn't make him a hack, cowed by the high-priced talent he's expected to supervise and direct, long-time friends he's fearful of offending.  He spent a couple years down at KCMO (Kansas City, WBAP-type format) as PD, and got the PD job at Cumulus in Dallas after an interview process.   His duties have since expanded in a very competitive market.  This isn't the story of a corporate lackey, whatever we may think of his judgment in particular cases.

So when I mull over the difference between what most (not all) of us are hearing in those particular cases, and what he answered, I keep in mind that this is a knowledgeable media professional whose judgment is respected by the CTO and in the industry.  (See Catlin a Top 20 PD a Top 10 Market, Sez Radio Ink.)

(1) Ratings.

This is the key to all the rest.

Cat could not have been more clear:  It's all about ratings, and it's not about anything else.

The least important upshot of this is that nothing, absolutely nothing, on this site or the comments, or Reddit, or other Tickety boards, or emails to Cumulus, has the slightest influence on what happens at The Ticket as far as CTO decisionmaking is concerned.  So  no point in getting uppity about Cat paying not much attention to third-party criticism of program content.  He doesn't care.  He's not paid to create radio art.  He's paid to deliver ears.

The last half-year or so have seen a change in the relative ratings of the three DFW sports-radio stations, and sometimes even in their order.  While these changes do not portray the utter defeat of the Ticket, and they vary from book to book, it is pretty undeniable that as far as the ratings are concerned, there has been a certain leveling in the positions of The Ticket The Fan, and ESPN.

What follows from this?  And from the fact that Cat is not dumb (see above)?

We'll take a look at a couple of the individual cases below, but I think there are a few things that emerged from the AMA -- and I confess (of course) that I am somewhat reading between the lines here.  (N.B.:  I do not have any secret information from anyone at The Ticket; this is my own -- yes, the old speculation.)

First:  Cat isn't quite sure what's going on.  We can see from the successive books that the ratings are very changeable; other than the leveling trend, the ratings can vary considerably from book to book. 

Second, and related:  He doesn't actually believe the recent ratings dip is real.  That is, he doesn't believe that all of a sudden, the listening habits of Cool Metro have changed to the extent supposedly reflected in the ratings, or vary in the way the dancing ratings seem to suggest from book to book.  So The Hardline sucks one quarter and sucks less to a measurable degree in the next?  Doesn't make sense to him.  Should it?

[NOTE:  While this was in draft, DP and 444 Anonymous picked upon exactly the same things that I was thinking, with some interesting information to boot.  You may want to click back and check out their comments in the last string.]

Is there any factual basis for questioning the Nielsen/Arbitron books (Nielsen bought Arbitron in 2013)?   Maybe.  They're certainly having some problems in Los Angeles, where Nielsen withdrew one of the radio books in 2013.  (Nielsen Problems with Los Angeles Radio Ratings Panel.)  The "panel" is the group of citizens selected by the ratings service to be hooked up to PPMs -- personal people meters.  In June 2014, Radio + Television Business Report suggested that Nielsen's PPM problems were potentially nationwide, having to do with how PPMs were delivered to panel members.  (How to Fix Nielsen's PLM Problems Nationwide.)

Anything up in Dallas?  Haven't been able to find anything.  In 2008-09, Arbitron switched to all-PPM from the old hard-copy "diaries," which was a pretty large change in the way ratings were collected and which I believe did result in something of a dip for The Ticket, although nothing like the 2014 decline.  I do recall something -- was it a Confessor? -- about Nielsen representatives having been seen in the Dallas Cumulus Victory offices. [NOTE:  Anonymous mentions this in a comment to the last thread, so I guess I'm not making this up.]

But man, take a look at this, published just within the past couple of weeks on the Radio InSights website in an article titled "Radio Is to Blame for PPM Failures":

"Yes, Steve Morris, Pierre Bouvard, and others at Arbitron did a good job selling PPM insisting that it was more accurate, more precise, and radio’s perfect 21st century ratings solution.  But let’s face it. Radio really really wanted PPM.  Radio wanted to believe it was more accurate. Radio wanted to believe it was more precise. Anyone who expressed doubt was dismissed as a luddite, someone opposed to progress.  Now we know that PPM is far less accurate and far less precise than Arbitron claimed. PPM’s fails to accurately capture radio listening, and quite possibly has done more damage than good to the medium."

So it is quite possible, perhaps even likely, that radio insiders are skeptical that ratings are accurately reflecting listening trends.  This accounts for Cat disbelieving that, for example, Mike's disengagement has materially damaged Hardline listenership.  If ratings are suspect, that causes guys like Cat and the Cumulus sales organization huge problems, because advertisers are still relying on ratings in making their buys. 

Third, I think there is something to what some Confessors have mentioned about changes in the competition and even the local sports scene.  Sure, the Cowboys have been around this whole time, but they had a shocking, newsmaking season last year.  In November of last year, two "classic" hip-hop stations entered the market (Boom 94.5 and Hot 93.3).   The Fan has been building its brand far more assiduously than The Ticket over the past few years, and maybe that is paying off.   This latter is a Cumulus corporate deficiency -- other than remotes, almost no Ticket promotion to the public -- not a Ticket programming problem.

I think some combination of things like this suggests to Cat that this just isn't a problem of program content, even though, as DP pointed out on the last thread, Cat does acknowledge that program content affects ratings.  Can it possibly affect it to account for the swings we're seeing over the last year?  It's hard to blame Cat for being skeptical.    

So no matter what Cat might really think about the shows, to tinker with what has been successful when the ratings were generally regarded as more accurate could be catastrophicAnd if the ratings are unreliable to begin with, how would he know if what he was doing was "working," was accounting for the better (or worse) ratings? 

I offer this as an explanation to Cat's "everything's fine with the shows."   The ratings give him no reason to think otherwise, and no guidance as to what changes are needed to make them better.

Now, let's ask ourselves:  Are the Musers a counterexample to this "the ratings are broken" theory?  They're still pulling strong, but I don't think this is necessarily evidence that declines in the appeal of other programs are real.  The Musers have a broader appeal generally.  Shifts in who's holding those PPMs are less likely to affect them.  For example, Mrs. Plainsman (who does not, to my knowledge, have a PPM) will gladly listen to the Musers with me every morning but will not listen to The Hardline ever.

Conclusion:  Cat must of necessity be guided by ratings, but there is some evidence that they're unreliable, and that this unreliability has either increased recently, or has reached some kind of breaking point since PPMs have taken over.  And he's not going to panic about program content under those circumstances.  The flip side of this is -- he doesn't know exactly what to do, since the sales department, and The Ticket's meal tickets, need to see ratings.

(2) The Hardline.

Cat views The Hardline as a stool perched on three legs of equal length.  Whatever he's hearing, he doesn't view it as associated with the ratings flipflops, as evidence of problems with the show.

Let's grant the latter point for now.

Many readers and Your Plainsman believe that in recent months, perhaps going back more than a year, The Hardline has declined in quality owing to (in order of cause-effect) Mike's too-frequent checking out and Corby's monopolization of the segments.  With the latter being unsatisfying owing to lack of preparation, discovering content on the fly, frequent repetition of a small number of pop-culture themes, low-info commentary on current events, browbeating of Mike, Mike not bothering to defend himself, and middle-school-level hyperbole.

I mean, it's right there.  You can hear it. 

Cat hears it too.  When he listed the items affecting ratings, program content was first on his list.  He doesn't care a lot about it, he doesn't view it as decisive when it comes to the ratings, but he knows the critics have a point, and so do Mike and Danny.   In recent months the show has been tightened up with segments ending when they're supposed to end (I know, it's for the whole station, but The Hardline was by galaxies the prime offender here).  Lately, also, Mike has come noticeably to life -- he's still the short leg on the stool, but the thing is wobbling less than it has been. And even Danny and Mike have been heard putting the kibosh on some of Corby's mic-hogging.

But there's more at work here in Cat's apparent unconcern over the quality of The Hardline.

To some extent, he approves of Corby's role.   The guy's a lightning rod; lightning rods attract lightning, and while no one wants to be struck by lightning, everyone wants to watch it.  In the past, I have likened Corby to Howard Cosell as an -- yes, an abrasive -- personality with an annoying voice people could not stand but whom they also could not stop watching. 

And here's a flash for all of us on MTC:  A lot of people like Corby, and Cat knows it. I am pleased that we've heard from several Confessors lately who are perfectly happy with The Hardline just the way it is. Despite the changes in the shape of the DFW market, The Hardline is still in first place in its market segment or within sniffing distance of it.

Who are these Corby likers?  (Well, I'm one, but we're talking about The OverCorby here.)  I don't have any numbers to back this up, but I'm thinking it's likely listeners who are  .  .  .  younger  .  .  . than the MTC demo.   Corby's not young, but he's younger than Mike, he sounds a lot younger than Mike (who is not that old, but looks and sounds older than he is).  And he's living the affluent kickass life that a lot of younger listeners probably find attractive.  And those young ears are the ones Cat covets for now and for the future.

(That paragraph could just as easily have been written about Jake.)

Cat's commentary has me thinking about the way I listen to The Hardline.  If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that while there is more Checkout Mike and OverCorby than I would like,  the show is not that much worse than it used to be and I don't enjoy it that much less.  I think I probably am guilty of some good-old-days syndrome.  And I don't mean Hammer time, I mean the years after his departure when Mike and Corby, aided tastefully by Danny, were really working it.  When it wasn't at all clear that the Gregless Hardline was going to work.  While The Musers remain at the top of my list, I laugh out loud more at The Hardline.  I switch over to ESPN's Afternoon Show when I've had enough of what The Hardline's throwing out in a segment (Ben & Skin -- almost never; seems like every time I punch over they're playing one of their awful games, or about to), but The Hardline is still my default drive tunein, and after a little of Tim and MattI usually switch back.  And, as noted, there are listeners out there who find The Hardline's balance entirely acceptable.

So what I'm saying here is that there is a pretty fair chance that Cat does not view MTC, and in particular the commentariat, as representative of the views of the majority of Hardline listeners.  Or, more likely, he views the criticism one sees on this site is overstated.  And he may be right about that, although wrong to dismiss it entirely.

There's something else.

Everyone who might know a little about what's going on behind the scenes at The Ticket will swear that Mike will be Hard until they pry his cold, dead claws from his iPad, but he's not going to be broadcasting forever.   It is at least possible that the gradual takeover of the show by Corby and, to a lesser extent, Danny, is deemed preferable to a more abrupt changing of the guard.

And finally:

Mike loves The Snake.

So where does this leave us with Cat's attitude about the show?   He's going to defend his guys, and he did so in these pages.  But he knows; he knows.   To my ears, the show is inching back to some semblance of balance -- not there yet -- and I'm guessing this has more to do with Cat's professional suasion than it does with Mike's pride.

3) T.C. Fleming

There was a lot less T.C. questioning than I expected from Confessors, so Cat didn't have much to say about him.  That suited me.  So this segment won't have a whole lot to do with Cat's view on the lad, other than my guesses.

I don't believe that T.C. has much of anything, and quite possibly has nothing, to do with BaD's ratings.  Yes, Cat acknowledged that he needs some coaching up.  I don't think he's under any illusions about T.C.'s performance.

I personally don't find that performance terrible, but I don't listen to BaD as much as some of y'all.  He's not horrible on the weekend shows he sometimes anchors.  It's not a voice I like a lot, but that's cosmetics.  He's prepared, he doesn't browbeat his co-hosts, he's OK.  Maybe a little talky, a little balky.  But eh, it's the weekend.  He's kind of a guy.

I am very reluctant to doubt the sincerity of Confessors who criticize his performance, but I continue to think that a lot of listeners have simply never forgiven him the manner of his departure from Cool Metro when he decamped to Pensacola.   Which was undeniably graceless, stupefyingly tone-deaf for a guy whose walls display no skins.  That leave-taking makes us think we know what kind of guy he is, and he'll never broadcast himself out of that impression.

Here's T.C.'s problem:  I'll bet almost every Ticket JV has some T.C. in him:   burning to get more air time, resenting adverse listener and colleague criticism, thinking he's better than the other guys, and ambitious.  They all want to get ahead.  T.C.'s problem is that he's terrible at disguising it.   It's obvious to the listener.  It was apparent in the podcasts from Pensacola.   The guy says he has problems with authority, and his self-regard drips from the earbuds.  It's just a quality of his broadcast style, and he can't suppress it.   There are broadcasters who have made successful careers out of public attitudes not that different from T.C.'s.  It's just not what you want to hear from a tyro.

But it is legitimate to ask why he is favored over some of the other JV who don't cough into the mic and stumble memorably over copy.

If we're not prepared to take Cat at his word that of all his choices, T.C. was the most experienced, the logical choice, then I don't know the reason.  My guess is that it has something to do with the fact that hosts get a lot of authority over how their shows are run and probably have a great deal of influence over decisions Cat makes about program staff.  Of all the shows, Bob and Dan seem to require more care and feeding than any of the others, including Norm.  One seldom hears anything about anyone else's interns, but BaD's are the subject of frequent grumbling by other shows.  T.C. wended himself into their affections with his helpfulness long before he was a presence on the air.  Hey -- smart career move, no? Bob and Dan like and support him in the face of listener and colleague disdain.  And let's not forget the intimations that T.C. has some special skills, seeming to relate mostly to the his expertise in operating of electric computers, not a small thing. 

(Speaking of T.C.'s colleagues:  I'd love to know what goes on behind the scenes at The Little One.  I think T.C. may be as divisive there as he is to the P1.   Take Mike S's on-air scolding of T.C. for coughing into the mic:  Mike obviously feared no reprisals for smacking T.C. around pretty severely within the hearing of Cool Metro.  And I get a flavor that he is not a favorite of some of the other hosts.  What impression do you get when George says, attempting to deflect some T.C.-critical vote for the E-Brake:  "Hey, we love T.C."?)

Sometimes I wonder whether Bob and Dan get some, shall we say, special consideration.  They turned down bigger dollars at The Fan to stay with The Ticket.  They did Cumulus and the P1 a true solid by re-upping when they did.  It wouldn't shock me if Cat is sensibly showing some corporate gratitude by supporting their wishes to favor T.C. in Ticker and popping-on and other assignments.  I have no support for this.

And, as I've suggested above with the Corby/Cosell comparison, Cat may well view T.C. as the JV the listeners love to hate.  Cat doesn't care if listeners dislike him -- as long as they keep tuning in to hear his next drop.  Again, not to impugn the sincerity of my precious readers, is it imaginable that all the Confessors who claim they're being driven from BaD by T.C.'s presence aren't still tuning in?

That is not to say that BaD doesn't have its problems, just like we're proceeding from the assumption that The Old Grey Hardline ain't what she used to be.  And even Cat acknowledges that program content affects ratings.  But like Corby's creeping influence hasn't destroyed The Hardline or sent it to the depths of the Nielsen book, T.C.'s and Jake's participation in the middle of the day is, if a factor at all in what's going on with the ratings, a pretty tiny one.

And Cat gives every indication of having the same impression.

*     *     *

(4)  Summing Up.

We were appreciative of Cat taking time out to respond to questions.  His vigorous defense of The Ticket was expected.  A lot of us probably find ourselves either not believing him that he's not hearing any on-air problems that might affect ratings, or just disagreeing with him.

But I have to say that the entire flavor of his responses got me asking myself whether he's right and I'm wrong; whether it's The Ticket that's declined, or instead that after more than ten years of listening to programs that are pretty much unchanged in talent, tone, and content (Greg Williams's absence being an exception, although, after all was said and done, not as big an exception as we might have thought), I've just flat grown bored with it, and I'm nitpicking at the fringes -- and unfairly at that.

The AMA forced me at least to consider that what's grown stale to me may be sounding fresh and appealing to new listeners and younger listeners -- the Ticket's audience for the future and Cat's prey.

CORRECTION, probably the first of many:  Anon 316 notes that in the first edition of this post I misidentified T.C.'s Florida destination as Tallahassee.  I regret the error and thank Anon 316 for the correction.

AS PREDICTED, ANOTHER CORRECTION:  Anon 734 notes that  in the first edition of this post I misidentified Matt Mosley as "Mike."  I regret the error and thank Anon 734 for the correction. 

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