Publications & Resources

Network Radio: The Four Components

A Network Radio Syndication Operation Explored

Written by CEO Mark Masters, this provides an executive summary of how the “Four Components” (Programming, Affiliate Relations, Sales and Management) work together in the “TRN” model in a highly entrepreneurial and strategic fashion.  It also provides a quick overview of the approach by Mark Masters and his team to planning, action and character. 

Basically, a network radio operation consists of four components which can best be expressed as being programming, affiliate clearing, sales and management. Each one of these components is highly specialized and has its own universe of strategic planning, timing/coordination and staffing needs. Each component below is briefly described by its functions and responsibilities to the network.

The First Component: Programming

The programming component of a talk radio network syndication effort consists of all onair talent, producers, board operators, call screeners, engineering and audio production staff as well as the traffic department. This component is responsible for everything from preplanning and show prep for each show to the actual creation of the show (which includes mixing all the audio components into the show).

It is also responsible for delivering the programming by satellite to the network’s station affiliates, complete with embedded network commercial inventory and all of the expected stateoftheart automation. These function so that the network can remotely activate the automation systems that in turn play each affiliated stations’ local commercial inventory.
The programming component’s success is dictated by the proper recruiting, training/direction of onair talent and/or news anchors and teambuilding among show personnel and production groups.  (For more on programming theory, see TRN’s programming Q&A, attached at the end of this outline).

The Second Component: Affiliate Clearing

The affiliate clearing component of a radio network syndication operation encompasses everything required to get a station to sign a contract with a network to air its’ show and commercial inventory. Once the programming component delivers a viable programming product, it is the affiliate clearing component that actually makes sure the product is distributed on radio stations.

Thus, outside of brilliant all news or opinion talk programming, I believe the affiliate clearing component is truly the “beating heart” of a radio network. This 2nd component really consists of four parts which are literally inseparable and are: 1) marketing, 2) public relations, 3) affiliate supervisors and 4) customer service.

Part 1) Marketing

The marketing piece of the affiliate clearing consists of everything from wellplanned and executed ad campaigns, designated specifically for the trade publications within the radio industry, to the creation of media kits, mass email campaigns to talk radio stations and online promotion of the shows. A consistent, longterm marketing effort starting with an “image” campaign which ultimately transitions to a “performance” campaign is the best way to create the correct marketing image when building shows. An image campaign typically touts station growth or key PD’s testimonials about a show (or format) in its early growth stage, whereas, the performance campaign phase touts powerful ratings growth or key, topmarket station additions such as “The X Show Welcomes WOR, NY LIVE Monday through Friday”.

The image campaign underpromises yet shows momentum, while the performance campaign shows how a given show, or series of shows “overdelivered” on ratings performance. This makes an all news or opinion network powerfully credible over time and creates an environment where the affiliate staff can get contracts signed.

Part 2) Public Relations

The public relations piece of the affiliate clearing effort for a network radio operation is not so much “public” as it is focused on dominating topofmind awareness of those specifically making programming decisions at radio stations through the industry trade publications. Thus, PR for a radio network in its early launch phase is mostly focused on creating, and then dominating a position in the mind of all program directors and general managers at radio stations with a consistent message about the success, power and stability of specific programming of the network. This phase is normally carried out through a very small group of radio industry trade publications and their online platforms. Over time, the TRN companies have developed very close relationships with the trades through performance and mutual respect. Such relationships are key for the intraindustry PR effort to be maximized.

On individual shows, a proper intraindustry PR effort focuses on maintaining a constant stream of “industry stories” for the radio trade journals about our programming’s successes (these are not just “puff pieces”, they must have a legitimate story of success to tell, and have “meat” in their performance track record). At the right time, when a “critical mass” of merit based success stories are in hand, they are used to procure cover stories in the trade publications on our programming’s successes (if it is a print journal, thousands of extra copies of the featured cover story for the show are then purchased in advance by the PR department) for the following reasons:

1) Both digital and hard copies are sent (with a letter enclosed) to every program director and general manager in the top 200 U.S. markets to reinforce the perception of our programming’s growing prestige, strength and power.

2) Extra copies of the cover story issue on the show are sent to the sales rep firm, in-house ad sales rep firm (we own our own in-house new business development rep firm) and top agencies. This reinforces the concept of the growth and power of the show as the right advertising vehicle to use in delivering the message about their client’s product or service. Mass mailing and electronic distribution is sent to all of the country’s main mass media press outlets to create more “echo stories” in the national media about the dynamic success of a given show or entire news only line-up.

3) A good industry PR campaign, combined with a strong image/performance marketing campaign will build an environment where the affiliate supervisors can close for signature on affiliate contracts that the marketing and PR pieces of this process have already presold for our programming.

Part 3) Affiliate Supervisors:

Affiliate supervisors each oversee specific geographic regions. Their job resembles a sales position for placing shows on stations but is really much more complex and sophisticated than sales. It is more like executive recruiting. In this case, it is recruiting stations to accept the network’s programming as a “content partner”.  They have three choices for “immediacy media” through our network divisions:

Go all news through our long (and short form) news only “America’s Radio News Network” this product is purposely opinion neutral, making it the ultimate “safe buy environment” for any media buyer.  ARNN’s tagline is “Journalism Without Agenda”, and we stay true to that premise.  As of today our combined news products approach 500 stations that carry some form of our news product (we are also proud of the fact that ARNN’s top of the hour news product was just chosen to be the news product for US Armed Forces around the world).
They can do our opinion talk, and go all talk radio.  Our new news talk initiative is, a) saleability first, b) ratings second, c) entertaining but responsible commentary from our opinion hosts – this means no boycotts for our customers and a sustainable talk line-up for our stations and d) or stations can “cherry pick” and do some talk blocks, some news blocks for the best of both worlds.

The affiliate supervisor must know the competitive ratings’ position and programming lineups of every station in every market within his geographic region  as well or better than each station’s management understands their own situation. The affiliate supervisor must use his deep understanding of the competitive advantages of our multiple shows and network products applied against the weaknesses of competitors’ products and then enter into a consultative process with each station’s programming team in each market.
The purpose of this consultative process is the maximizing of the network’s opportunities to clear its programming on the best stations, while keeping doors open to all the other stations for the future. If done properly, different programming products of our different networks can hypothetically be placed on different stations within the same market without creating conflict for the parent network.

Commentary: The best analogy to explain the affiliate clearing component’s importance with all of its well coordinated elements would be one of an army going into battle. The wellconceived and executed marketing campaign is consistent with its’ “under promise/over deliver” message along with a powerful and elegant public relations effort aimed at influencing program directors and general managers (through industry trades). At talk news radio stations, this is the military equivalent of a network “softening up the beach” with a battleship’s 16 inch guns and achieving “air superiority” with marketing so that the “army” of affiliate relations supervisors can effectively take the “beachhead” and plant the flag of victory (get stations to take the network’s programming, signed).

When coordinated in concert with a sharp programming team and programming, the affiliate clearing component takes an elegant mix of public relations, marketing, customer service and recruiting efforts and creates happy affiliated stations which will not only continue to take the network’s different kinds of programming, but will add more of the network’s programming over time.

Part 4) Customer Service:

The goal of the customer service piece in the affiliate clearing effort is to achieve a “superserved” group of affiliated stations. Happy affiliated stations become referralbased lead generators for the different network’s offerings in years to come. For any company, especially a radio network  a strategy of slightly under promising and then slightly over delivering on station affiliates expectations is a formula for profound and consistent growth, stability and brand integrity.  Thus, the customer service representatives job is to re-recruit existing stations.  In a proper re-recruitment effort, the affiliate always feels valued, response to their needs are swift, and they feel a very close relationship with the network exists.  This is key to future clearances of program product.

The Third Component: Sales

To a very large extent, the sales component of a radio network syndication effort in the national marketplace, and its ability to be successful, is a side effect of what the programming and affiliate clearing components are able to achieve. If you have no stations or you have stations without audience, then your commercial inventory has no value. Therefore, it is good strategic planning to place the most powerful programming that you can offer in the most vulnerable daypart to dominate, and position this against the weakest programming of competitors combined with a powerfully executed affiliate clearing component effort. This will create the raw material that the sales department has to work with to monetize the whole effort. If programming is weak (lacks entertainment value, paces slowly, is predictable or not dynamic) yet the affiliate component is working, sales will fizzle. If the programming is strong but the affiliate component is weak, sales will be weak. If both the programming component and the affiliate clearing component are planned properly, sales has a chance to be strong.

The goal of the sales department, then, is not just to sell out a show’s inventory, but to sell it out in such a manner that advertisers are buying months in advance. When this is achieved, a show can go from selling its inventory on the standard costperpoint basis to selling on a “supply and demand” or “branded” basis  which brings premiums far in excess of market rates.

But how do you get to supply and demand rates? One answer lies in putting internal pressure on the network’s commercial inventory. The preferred method of doing this is having two different sales teams internally compete to sell the network’s inventory. The first sales team is the inhouse “new business development” sales department and is managed directly by the network sales manager. The second sales team is the network rep firm which sells to the larger radio advertising marketplace very often on a costperpoint basis. The stronger the sales effort that the inhouse new business development team puts out, the less inventory there is left for the institutional “outside” rep firm to sell. Thus the institutional rep firm must increase its rates or lose more inventory (and their chance to make sales commissions) to the inhouse sales team (in this case, our wholly owned subsidiary, National Advertisement Company, Inc., or NAC for short).  This kind of strategy puts pressure on the network’s inventory and drives rates up into a supply and demand scenario where premium rates can often be obtained. The sales department is also responsible for affidavit retrieval from radio stations and providing network level affidavits for the network advertisers. Both are forms of proof of performance.

The Fourth Component: Recruiting and Management

I put the management component last because the first three components quickly illuminate what managements job would be. Strategic planning, coordination, oversight, timing and, perhaps most important of all, staffing through precision recruiting are management’s duty. Perhaps the best way to explain our perception of this first management component is to use a military analogy.

Whether it was Hannibal, Scipio, Napoleon, Wellington or Stonewall Jackson, the greatest generals of history always had at least two things in common: First, they built and staffed armies with highly capable men; second, they always placed their greatest strengths up against the greatest weaknesses of their enemy.

For network radio, the Management’s goal is similar. First, recruit a brilliant staff composed of people with ability and character that love to work. Then, after analyzing the needs of the marketplace and the weaknesses of competing programming  put that team to work placing the strongest possible programming in dayparts vulnerable to being dominated. Then, dominate daypart by daypart with growing momentum, through use of the four network components as described herein.

What made Apple the giant it is today or helped Fox News crush CNN were a few inspired visionary “generals” of business. Excellent executive management, like the great generals of old, will build a great team. Scipio or Wellington could build you an army that would defeat Hannibal or Napoleon. But, great armies without those generals experienced recurring defeats at the hands of Hannibal and Napoleon until the right generals came along. Procure the right general and that general will recruit the right army.

Management job #1: Surgical Recruiting and Staffing

To build powerful network radio operations, everything begins with building the right staff (over 14 years we have done just that). In network radio, most of the people you will come across will interview quite well, but functionally do nothing other then protect their own jobs. The goal, then, is to staff a network entity with the best people from our radio network competitors and as a supplement, bring in decent types who have character and are trainable. Obtaining your competitors pearls is done through surgical recruiting. When this is done in an elegant fashion, the result is that the best staff of the finest competitors will become our network staff  and the resulting “brain drain” at the competitor will have the side effect of leaving the competitor even more dysfunctional than normal.  The recruit prospects the TRN companies would target are those which are well liked by our network’s core customers the radio stations we will be serving. At a radio network, there are few staff members that actually “touch the customer” and even less that really care about quality. It is on the shoulders of these few that our competitors’ radio networks function.

By finding out who the stations like at the competitor networks and strategically recruiting them away, the layer of doers will be removed from the competitor and reappear under the TRN companies’ leadership. It is, however, critical to have the right type of people recruitedand to make equally sure that the wrong types stay with the competitor, continuing to gum up their works.
When I say the “wrong types”, I mean those individuals in radio which are either devoid of real character, or those that have been contaminated with “bad knowledge” as a result of being trained in a sickly corporate radio culture. Unfortunately, most of the resumes we will be receiving will be coming from these two types. It then becomes managements’ job to make sure these wrong  types stay at the competitor, while you remove only the true pearls from the competitors’ midst.

The “Curse” Of Bad Knowledge In The Radio Industry

One of the real problems I’ve encountered in radio is that often wellmeaning people have been trained within corporate radio cultures which have simply destroyed the entrepreneurial or innovative instinct that an individual may have once possessed. Within such network radio cultures, they have often trained their people on why almost everything can’t be done  thus why even try? I call this training background “bad knowledge”. People trained within the network cultures at Premier, Westwood One or even ABC have developed a high degree of confidence in such bad knowledge  simply because few have ever seen their companies ever develop new breakthrough network programming ever.

The larger networks have become mostly inventory sales operations  they have left the development of breakthrough programming to smaller entrepreneurial operations. As a result, those trained in nonentrepreneurial cultures have developed confidence in what they know cannot be done  which (in their view) is almost everything that we think can be done.

People trained in bad knowledge unknowingly or knowingly often masquerade themselves as being industry realists  many are actually nice and wellmeaning people  but often they are just convincingly parroting back what they’ve heard from a superior who heard it from someone else. These types are inadvertently dangerous because they will help “educate” those staffers around them as to the “reality” of the radio business. They will help everyone around them come to realize the many reasons why things can’t be done. These are the types that need to be left at the competitor.

If we accidentally recruit someone that brings the bad knowledge culture of a competitor with them, but they seem trainable, it might be worth it to attempt to train them, however, for the most part, it is best to get rid of them before they infect others with their donothing brand of “industry realism”.

As I mentioned earlier, some positions are best filled by decent individuals who still have “get up and go.” Uncontaminated by bad knowledge from a competitor’s toxic culture, it might be easier to train specific positions from the ground up.

Now, I quickly need to digress back to the subject at handrecruiting the “best of the best” of the competitors’ people.

Recruiting The Magic 20 Percent

In the early 80’s I spent some time studying W. Edward Deming’s works (the man who taught Japan their entire quality program back in the 50’s and 60’s) on “building quality into the process” of production or services. I loved his logic so much that I bought his video training series. I still own a hightech company which I formed in the ’80s and wanted to eliminate much of the preventable time and material waste that was occurring in the company at that time. Back then, for three months, I invested my mind and heart in training my staff of 50 people on Deming’s simple logical processes.

What I discovered was that only 20% of my staff wanted to improve themselves (the candoers). The other 80% thought it was just another management gimmick (the paycheck people). After three months it was clear to me that the “Deming method” was not working in my company. The same people that had always cared about my customers continued to care and the same staff who had technical knowledge continued on with their “paycheck” mentality but did not care.

Then it hit me. The two groups  the 20% that cared and the 80% that didn’t care, both had the same knowledge base  the only difference was in their character. You can train someone with character (and a caring disposition) to have knowledge but it’s almost impossible to train someone with knowledge (but a paycheck mentality) to care about your company its impossible to train good moral character and loyalty into someone – either they  have it or they don’t.  We don’t want these types, regardless of how “smart they are”.

That caring 20% that made my company work had character and the other 80% that caused most of my management problems did not. So I decided to recruit based on character first. During the next six months I eliminated the uncaring, characterless types and replaced them with the “ownership mentality” people. I then put the entire company back through the Deming management training and the results were impressive.

What I found was that the 20% that cared did around 50% of the work and only made about 5% of the mistakes. The 80% that didn’t care did the other 50% of the work, yet made around 95% of the mistakes. When I eliminated the 80% which did the 50% of the work (and made 95% of mistakes) and replaced them with caring people  that company shot forward to great success. I needed less staff to do more work and got back almost all of my management time from that company.

This is the way I staff now and I would look for only that magic, caring 20% to staff a growing network operation for our networks. If we can surgically recruit that magic 20 percent from companies like Premiere and one or two others, we would immediately claim the knowledge and relationship reservoirs that come with such recruits.

At the same time, the goal would be to leave the competitor with the 80 percent that don’t care  the paycheck people. Without the real doers, the competitors would flounder while our network entities would shoot forward with the momentum of its competition’s best people.

Premiere and Cumulus to the same degree, are either highly bureaucratic or fearfilled environments. Thus, the doers in such companies rarely get recognition or advancement, yet it is they who keep those companies running. Such environments are ripe for surgical recruiting.

Take one excellent person out of Premiere or Cumulus – train the person right and reward his or her performance properly and that person will become a conduit for the recruitment of the rest of the top producers within 6 months. The goal is to recruit one wellrespected “doer” so that person becomes a “key influencer” to help set up recruitment appointments to recruit the other “doers”. Recruit the core competency away from a competitor and that competitor’s ability to respond competitively will begin to collapse, while our mobility becomes even faster.

A radio network’s ability to be successful is based almost entirely on proper recruiting. The most successful entrepreneurial companies have had dynamic success because of a focused and uncompromising vision of what they wanted to achieve. But, that vision can only be carried out if you have the right people who “get it” and care. Great companies often require character and likemindedness (as it relates to professionalism and quality) as a common denominator among staff. At TRN, we seek to recruit the best and brightest in the radio industry  people who really care and have character  to staff each one of the components discussed above.

Management and oversight

Once recruited, each recruit will be given specific tasks. Those that can achieve their assigned tasks are doers, those that cannot will be provided training and given another task  if they are untrainable they will be terminated. Those that are trainable will be advanced. Thus competency and loyalty are rewarded, and a true meritocracy flourishes.