No Country For Middle-Aged Men?

Last year, when Edison Media Research put forth its call for nominations in our first “30 Under 30″ spotlight, amidst the overwhelmingly positive feedback there was a lone dissent that stood out, from a well-known Top 40 jock whose greatest prominence was in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and who felt that fostering younger talent was necessarily encouraging age discrimination.
It all depended, of course, on your viewpoint. “30 Under 30″ was born from our experiences of being, in our mid 40s, the youngest people in the conference room as broadcasters wondered why younger listeners were no longer interested in radio. But that was on the management side where the world certainly appears to be ruled by middle-aged men. It certainly seemed plausible that a veteran CHR jock could feel that his place in the firmament was constantly under attack.
Fast forward to last Friday’s call for nominations for the 2008 version of “30 Under 30.” The first e-mail came back within minutes. By the end of the afternoon, we had received 10 of them, all saying essentially the same thing:

  • “I am writing in regards to your ‘Top 30 under 30′. I work with [one of last year's winners] and have seen his ‘Top 30′ designation make his career. This distinction has resulted in job promotions, higher pay and unwarranted interest from beautiful women. Since I am celebrating my 42nd birthday today, I am ineligible for this competition. Have you given any thought to a ‘Top 40 over 40′?” That one came from an air talent, but there were several identical sentiments expressed, if less humorously, by a currently prominent major-market PD, consultant, and TV executive.
  • “When you get to the “50 Over 50,” call me.” From a contemporary of last year’s correspondent, now also working in a smaller market.
  • “When do you spotlight old broadcasters who are still working and doing great radio?” This from a veteran broadcaster who was indeed still working in major-market radio.
  • “How about the 50 over 50: the top 50 programmers over 50 who have been the victims of age discrimination by corporate media?” This slightly different take from a well-known broadcaster now working in small-market radio.

The irritation in that last e-mail was the exception, not the rule, to the relatively light tone of many we received. But it was certainly a broader group that weighed in. In 2008, it’s not just a 37-year-old jock who feels that older broadcasters are being minimized: we heard from programmers and even consultants.
It’s hardly that radio has exactly become a “young person’s business” since last year. We’re not yet sitting in conference rooms surrounded by twentysomethings with radical plans for revitalizing radio. The bulk of the dial is devoted to adult-leaning formats and there is no rush to turn on younger ones or research younger listeners. (As evidence of who’s out there, a Ross On Radio column about Mainstream AC or even Oldies will be read by as many people as typically read our columns about Top 40, Urban, or Alternative combined.)
But clearly there are a lot of 50 year old broadcasters who are not the ones sitting in that conference room who feel at best underappreciated, at worst disenfranchised by the 50 year olds who are still running things. And that includes a lot of the people who were responsible for many of us wanting to join the radio business years ago.
After last fall’s latest round of budget-cut brutality, it’s not surprising that so many people should feel this way. As noted around the holiday season, we’re talking to veteran programmers of relative prominence who now wonder if they will ever again work in this business–or at least on the traditional radio side of it.
To some extent, the gulf between those in power and those suddenly on the outside began a decade ago in the busiest days of consolidation. That was the era when it was not merely enough to buy your format competition. It was also necessary to fire the programmer who had been beating you, and make sure that his non-compete kept him from showing up anywhere else in the market (assuming you didn’t already own every other station in the market). Those exiled from the business were dismissed as whiners, unable to adapt to the new reality, but often those who prided themselves on getting with the program were exiled themselves a few years later.
It is likely cold comfort to a 50-year-old programmer who isn’t working at the moment (or who isn’t running things at a group level like some of his contemporaries) to know that their employed counterparts aren’t having such a great time either right now. The job has become about sales and marketing, or about keeping your job, often about anything except programming. Content is what will allow radio to compete on other platforms, but content is not “Job One” for most people.
With or without the age spread that one would like to see in this business, fewer voices necessarily results in fewer unique solutions for radio’s issues. It also means (or at least has coincided with) a greater defensiveness from those remaining in charge. We’re very proud of “30 Under 30″ and appreciate the positive response that it has again prompted this year. But we’ve also put out, and will repeat the call to, “Don’t forget, hire a vet.” Ideally, there would be as much phenomenal young talent in this business as possible and a wide variety of veteran broadcasters to mentor them. Radio needs both new thinking and resident memory and it’s too bad if the current circumstances of our business have made anybody feel that the two are being played off against each other.

20 replies
  1. JHDA
    JHDA says:

    I see no problem with celebrating 30-under-30 and 50-over-50 and so on. However, the problem I do see is why most anyone working in radio now should be celebrated at all. What’s on the radio has been so bad in the last ten years that I find it hard to believe there are enough people to highlight in any of the categories. Yes, the corporate offices must take a lot of blame but in the end audiences will listen to the radio if they find the on-air talent compelling. And we’re seeing results every day that the people on the radio today and in the recent past are simply not compelling.

    Reply
  2. Dick Carr
    Dick Carr says:

    Here is something you may find interesting. I am 65 plus. My post-dj management career had me serving Metromedia first as a PD at WNEW-AM, WIP-AM and eventually VP/GM of WIP and WNEW-FM. I went on to be Group Radio VP for Meredith Corporation. Later I was VP Programming for Mutual and the ABC Radio Networks. When it became apparent that management found me too old for their plans, I left radio and ran an outdoor advertising company quite successfully finally retiring after ten years. I got “antsy” and developed Dick Carr’s Big Bands Ballads & Blues mixing jazz with the standards and the stories behind the music. WOR Radio Network syndicated the show to over 80 stations each week for four years. Nothing lasts for ever and the WOR contract ended after four years. I now do the show targeting Public Radio FM’s. Tell your 50 plus guys and girls, that if they have a suitable income stream, take the time to develop a new vehicle or activity that employs the old radio strategies they know so well that have become “outdated”. You’ll never guess how many seniors who are old fashioned radio listeners will appreciate what you do. And even more rewarding, how great it is when a “20 something” likes it too. You might have to compromize in respect to the station you’re on or the market size but, at least you’re doing your thing. And who knows what might happen? One more tip…be very “anal” about what you produce. You’ll be in the minority among todays broadcasters…and the product will be so much better.
    Dick Carr

    Reply
  3. Bill Harman
    Bill Harman says:

    Great stuff! There are only two things that are constant in our lives. Everything changes and everything ends. It’s not fun being out of something I’ve done for over three decades but I look at this as an opportunity with many different directions to explore. There are to many things going on with the web, mobile and other off shoots that we better be prepared. Believe me that radio as we know it is changing and is about to go through a drastic evolution because it will not stay in the same sad shape it’s in. A great piece of advice is “do not go where the path may lead but go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”. I’m heading to the web, maybe into syndication and who knows where else and if I get back to a radio station then so be it. Next time it will be on my terms.
    I’m a vet and out of work and shame on me if I don’t use all that knowledge and experience to not only better myself but what I love to do also.
    I’m in communications and I like to think out of the box and color outside the lines. What about you?

    Reply
  4. Jeff Scott
    Jeff Scott says:

    I was tempted to write a sharp comment last week myself, but thought it might come off as “sour grapes,” so I didn’t.
    But now at 45, I look back on my greatest mentor when I was in my VERY late 20′s and most of my 30′s, Guy Zapoleon. He is about 10 years my senior, and thanks to his insight and support at a critical time, my career blossomed. Without Guy, I may never have learned that the wheel is round and doesn’t get any “rounder.” Instead he taught me to respect what works and learn to make the wheel “spin faster” by applying my talents toward improving what already exists by putting a fresh spin on things.
    Had it not been for other great people like Steve Rivers and John Parikhal, I doubt I would have gained the insight that has allowed me to survive–and even thrive–in my mid-40′s, despite a move after 25 years from programming to sales management. All the while navigating my way in a downsized industry that will continue to evolve in yet unseen directions. As Parikhal told me during a research presentation that went horribly awry: “surf, my friend, surf.”
    I do want to salute the upcoming 30 under 30,and only hope that there will be meneie

    Reply
  5. Lou P.
    Lou P. says:

    My guess is that some people don’t understand the concept of this fun contest spotlighting young, but talented, people in the business. In particular, with the question that oft comes up of “Where will the next stars in radio come from?”, it is nice to see a list of people who may very well fit that role in the near future, both on-air and behind the scenes.

    Reply
  6. Tom Teuber
    Tom Teuber says:

    Sean,
    Amen!
    I nominated someone for your first ‘Under 30′ list last year and was proud to see him go on to win. But I’m also in that large, growing group of under and unemployed people who still have much to contribute. You’re absolutely right, we need both groups.
    Don’t forget, hire a vet!

    Reply
  7. brianCarter
    brianCarter says:

    TIMELY!
    Would be nice to get some shine for those of us that are still in the game.30 years and counting.
    and i’ll be 51 in July!
    brianCarter XM satellite/WBLS Nyc/Mix 106.5 Baltimore

    Reply
  8. Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine
    Michael McDowell/Blitz Magazine says:

    The only thing of consequence that comes from statistics is that statisticians remain employed. To infer a broad generalization in terms of train of thought solely by virtue of chronology is anathema to the creative spirit that embodies artists of all demographics.
    That said, those who continue to program “by the book” are still denying a number of active and still creative veterans the airplay and accolades that their most recent accomplishments deserve.
    Many of the current crop of pretenders to the throne still pay homage to the likes of George Jones, Bill Anderson, Merle Haggard and others.
    As such, as long as “modern country” continues to program with no sense of or appreciation for those who laid the foundation for them to reap the rewards, then there will remain a sizeable percentage of their potential audience that will satisfy their musical appetites elsewhere.

    Reply
  9. Bob Christy
    Bob Christy says:

    A million years ago I guess I would have been one of the “30 under 30″! (If there had been one at the time.) I was 28 years old, a PD in a top 10 market, on fire and winning against the “big guys” of the time. So I get to ask the relevant question: “If you owned a stand-alone big signal FM in a top ten market which of the “30 under 30″ would you give it to?” Think small budget, small staff, start-up operation and you have to win right now…or the bankers take the station back! Many of us from the age of dinosaurs lived through the win or die (fired)days. I took my first major market PD job at $400 a week and an additional hundred a week salary for every share I added 12+. I worked my ass off and loved every minute of it and in short order (8 books) I was making $1,000 a week. I figure that 52k in 1976 is worth somewhere between 300-400k today…any of the “30 under 30″ willing to take a deal like that? I’m still trying to remember what I did with the money.
    Bob Christy
    Amaturo Group of LA
    (In those days you could buy a great house for 50k and a dynamite car (911)for 5k)

    Reply
  10. Edie Hilliard
    Edie Hilliard says:

    You think it’s tough being a middle-aged man in this industry, try being a woman of any age. Check the stats. Only two of last year

    Reply
  11. Mike Sheridan
    Mike Sheridan says:

    I haven’t worked full time in radio for about 14 years. I did do some part time recently for a couple of years and I was surprised how much radio had changed while I was gone. Mistakes are made and no one seems to care as long as all the spots run. There isn’t much respect for talent either. It’s read the liner quickly and get out. Stations in large markets are hiring people who can’t even do that well when they are voice tracking!
    There are lots of pros who have moved on to other things because there was no room for them in radio and no money. As great as he is my mentor isn’t even doing that well even though he was a big name both on the air and in programming circles. Yes things change but not always for the better. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything by not listening to the radio. That’s the worst change of all.

    Reply
  12. Jim Owen
    Jim Owen says:

    When I got your email asking for nominations under 30 I was going to shoot back the 50 over 50 idea. You mean I wasn’t the only one to think of that? Damn!
    I find it curious that veteran broadcasters would have a problem acknowledging up and coming broadcasters. Personally, I don’t think about my age as a limiting factor. I will have been in this business for 40 years in 2009 (I had to stop and calculate that number so I could put it in this email) and still don’t really feel like a “veteran” broadcaster. BTW – the word veteran makes us sound like World War 1 survivors:-)
    The age and years-in-the-business thing is an advantage in that I have seen a lot of research and a lot of good and bad situations.
    Experience is a great teacher of patience and crisis management. Wisdom, if you will. A lesser level of experience and “youthful” energy help an individual ask “why not” instead of “why” when new ideas are presented.
    We need both people sitting around the conference table.

    Reply
  13. JJ Marks
    JJ Marks says:

    I have to chuckle at Edie Hilliard’s comments. First she has managed to run several different syndicated networks. Second: While there are exceptions I have rarely seen women in this business who were ready to take a chance on a job across the country, or do all the little things to stand out. More often than not women are content to be co-anchors or do mid-days at the same station for years. Sure there have been some tremendous exceptions but behind closed doors many radio veterans will tell you the same thing. In the past decade I’ve seen women with little or no on-air or programming background score major market PD jobs. Now some of these gigs are based on downloading orders from HQ, but I think while years ago it was tough for women to break into the business; today it favors them.

    Reply
  14. skip finley
    skip finley says:

    What a cool concept. I remember back in 1971 when I got started in Boston thinking about all the “old” guys surrounding me. How ironic that most were around 40 something — no one got old in the business in those days. I spent a lot of time with young ones over the years telling them to avoid the 3 “D’s”, drinking, drugs and divorce–and they’d last longer. Following my own advice I’m looking at 60 this year. That means with that 25-54 demo, and 55+ that I’m just plus. So when I have comments about our radio group’s programming people are allowed to laugh and ignore me. And if I recommend a song and someone actually plays it they should be fired. Fact is, though, in my humble opinion that we ancients need to be encouraging of not just under 30, but identifying those under 20 in an effort to perpetuate ourselve and industry. Hell yeah, maybe we were making radio receivers out of nails wrapped in wire and listening to transistor radios at night under the blanket trying to win that Good Guy T shirt–but the folks we need are enamored with MySpace and Facebook and Second Life and YouTube (Damn if I have aother one of my ‘old’ buddies tell me about ‘Chocolate Rain’ again…) and trust me, radio is fading from the radar screen. Edie makes a point–and since I’m Black see the numbers (or lack thereof) too. The relevant point though is youth. I’ve been there, dione that, got the T-shirt–and now we need new. Simple as that. WOW! Dick Carr! Great thoughts. Crossed paths at Mutuial Black network, bought stations from Meredith, small world. Pros stay pros; let’s identify and motivate the new/next ones. Thanks Sean!

    Reply
  15. Scott
    Scott says:

    Although I get the marriage between the “science” and the “art” of radio, deregulation has caused the boat to list heavily towards the “science” part in recent years. This has precipitated the “cookie cutter” accusations hurled at like formatted stations nationwide. An additional, and more grievous(IMHO), result is that cost cutting measures due to deregulation have necessitated the trend towards younger(albeit talented), less expensive programmers.
    I’ve worked with Randy Kabrich, Jan Jeffries, Dwight Douglas in addition to several other great programmers cum consultants. I have nothing but great things to say about them. However, not all of us want to become consultants. Some of us still gain satisfaction from the battle and the strategy required to make our respective stations victorious. Moreover, many of us can still bring the heat and spank the younger, less experienced PDs. Knowledge is power(supposedly) and younger PDs generally don’t have the experience to trump the crafty ways of veteran programmers. Sure, the youngsters might be able to use Microsoft Office better and be able to construct interesting Power Point presentations, but do they have “in the trenches” experience to combat not only terrestrial radio competitors, but satellite and internet competitors as well? Maybe. I would submit that, by and large, they do not. Broadcast company bean counters are doing their respective employers/companies a grave disservice by discounting the tools and weapons that the veteran programmer (be he/she 30, 40 or 50)brings to the table. Besides, who will teach the up and comers that are new to radio? You know, the ones that will cause today’s twenty or thirtysomething PDs to lose THEIR jobs in 10 to 20 years? I wonder.

    Reply
  16. Jane
    Jane says:

    And yet those 30 under 30 were brought in to the business by the older talent. I’m in my (late) 30′s now and have spent my whole adult life in the biz. I have heard for years I was too young, and now I’m too old? I have spent time arguing the mertis of newer technologies and communication methods to the higher ups over the years. I still do. Somehow your glorifying the unexperienced as the champions of the new thought and the way to save radio means everyone in my age category will be discarded at exactly the time we should be seeing returns on our career investments. (But then again, the industry is doing that to everyone aren’t they?) Just dont hasten and champion the demise of my industry contributions and worth.

    Reply
  17. Buddy
    Buddy says:

    I believe in celebrating talent of any age yet I will say that older employees are often overlooked in favor of the young. Encouraging what we now refer to as developers of content, no matter their age or gender, is the only way radio will survive. But I believe that broadcast radio as we know it will be soon be vastly different.
    It is a fact that radio listening continues to dwindle. On demand programming is where we will be in 10 years (more or less). The Podcast and it’s various companion delivery systems will replace much traditional listening. You are paying attention to what Ford Motor Co and Microsoft are doing with SYNC aren’t you? The listener won’t be the type we think of now. They will want what they want when they want it. This is one reason why HD radio will continue to be a waste of money and bandwidth. Uuuh no one’s listening because the content is unattractive and when you say “HD” people say, “oh, Television, I love my new HD TV!”
    Radio used to be a great content provider…before deregulation and before the internet. Highlight the 30 under 30 if you want, but also ask them how the under 30 user wants their entertainment delivered….my money says traditional radio ain’t at the top of their list.

    Reply
  18. Steve West
    Steve West says:

    As usual, on the money, Sean!
    Every day I’m reading articles, blogs, news media reports about the “Death of Radio”. How many times have we heard that? Well, this time it might be true, because the one problem that WON’T go away is current owners, (CC, Citadel, Cumulus,Beasley, et al) lack of respect, ability, foresight in that critical area…CONTENT and it’s architects.
    I’m a 40 something who’s programmed, jocked, and I have worked with very few “30 under 30″ candidates. The simple reason? They don’t think of radio as a career anymore…it’s all about TV/reality TV(!) and you tube.
    If we can’t attract talent TO the industry, can we attract LISTENERS UNDER THE AGE OF 30???
    Who’s to stop the madness? Where are the McLendons and Storzs for the new millenium? We need them NOW!

    Reply

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