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The Hobbs Report from NTS Media Online Monthly

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NTS Media Online Monthly by Al Peterson

February 7, 2014


From my very earliest days of covering the Talk industry, I learned quickly that Gabe Hobbs was a guy who definitely knew a thing or two about the radio business in general, and specifically about Talk radio. A former music radio programmer who eventually made the move to News/Talk/Sports, Hobbs spent more than a decade overseeing the programming for some 275 Clear Channel-owned News/Talk/Sports stations nationwide, while also serving as the in-house consultant to Premiere Networks’ roster of nationally syndicated Talk radio stars. Since leaving that post in 2008, Gabe has put his energies into his own venture, Gabe Hobbs Media, a consultancy with a stated mission to “advise and advance Talk media talent.” This week, Gabe is cohosting (along with Don Anthony) the 5th annual Talk Show Boot Camp in Dallas. On the eve of that event, we sat down with the industry veteran to get his views on the future for the format and for both veteran and would-be talk talents.

Tell us how Gabe Hobbs Media has evolved since its launch.

When I first started the business it was the first time in my life that I had ever been self-employed. At first, when anyone wants to hire you to do just about anything you say ‘yes.’ But after some time, as I gained more confidence, I began to narrow my focus and hone in the things I enjoyed doing most. And I learned how to say ‘no.’ That is tough; because there’s always that fear when you are self-employed that if you turn down one opportunity, it will be the last one and that will be the end of it all. The net result is that I learned the privilege of being self-employed allows you to pick and choose to work on things that your true passions. In the corporate world you sometimes get to do that, but you also have to spend a lot of time on things that don’t interest you. So the focus of what I do today has narrowed a bit to my passions -- dealing with talent, creating content and working on the evolution of our business toward more digital options and distribution platforms beyond traditional radio. I can honestly say I’ve worked harder since being on my own than I have in a lot of years, but I am also having the most fun I’ve had in a long time -- probably since my Jacor days. And one of the great pleasures about being on my own is that I no longer have to do things like take weekly classes on how to run an Excel spread sheet!

There’s a lot of grumbling out there about today’s corporate radio world. What’s your take having been on the inside for so many years and now being able to view if from the outside.

I don’t criticize any companies, big or small, because having been on both sides of the table I understand and know why they sometimes operate the way they do. There’s no one size fits all model. Saga or Hubbard, for example, can operate differently than Clear Channel or Cumulus. You simply can’t say the best way to run a radio company is this way, or that way. If you have 800 stations you are going to run things differently than if you have 22. There are things like debt and Wall Street pressures that handcuff companies from doing things they may want to do or change things they want to change. You really see that when you move to the outside and get a better understanding of why some things are the way they are. I see it as one of my jobs to teach talent to have a better understanding of just how the business works today, and how it works differently in different companies. They all have different cultures and different pressures they work under. I’ve learned how to tailor what I do and what I can offer to the various needs of different companies vs. trying to tell them what they’re doing is wrong and they need to do it another way.

Several years ago you said at a conference that you didn’t believe that, as the result of corporate downsizing of staffs, there were necessarily a lot of great talents out of work but rather a number of maybe not-so-great talents out of work. Do you still believe that?

Yes, to an extent, but there have been changes since I said that several years ago. I think at first there was probably a lot of cleaning out of some dead weight and narrowing it down to the cream of the crop. Unfortunately, as time has marched on I’ve seen that in too many instances companies didn’t necessarily prune and keep the best talent, they pruned and kept the cheapest. And that is very concerning for the future of the business.

Is Talk radio still a good business, in your opinion?

Absolutely, 100% with no question in my mind and here’s why. If you look at Talk as part of the entertainment business -- show business -- then you will quickly come to understand that Americans, no matter their age or interests, are always interested in being entertained. They want something that stimulates them, makes them laugh, or moves them emotionally. That will never change. One hundred years from now it will still be that way. So if we look at radio -- and Talk radio specifically -- as something that exists to generate engaging and compelling content, then you see clearly that the business is as wide open as it has always been. In fact, it’s even more wide open than ever because there are more ways to distribute that content to reach the consumer.

How do you advise up and coming Talk talents, as well as those who are looking to transition from their experience in music radio, to prepare for the new reality of the Talk radio business. What do they need to know now, that they didn’t have to back when you and I were just starting out?

First and foremost you need to be very knowledgeable about all the different ways there are to reach and touch consumers. But you can’t use them as substitutes for good old-fashioned reaching out and touching listeners personally. Unfortunately some talents and radio executives believe that they can replace all of that personal stuff by being really active on social media, or tweeting 87 times a day, and that is just not the case. You still need to reach out and touch listeners personally. Listeners need to be able to see you and talk to you in person. You also need to understand that we used to tell the audience when and where they could get your content, but those rules have changed dramatically. The audience now demands ‘this is what I want and where I want it, and if you can’t do that I’ll get it somewhere else.’ If you don’t learn that -- and learn it very quickly -- you will not succeed.

What’s the first question you ask a talent who wants you to work with them?

What makes you different, what makes you unique and what is your signature? What can I hear from you on the radio that will lead to people someday saying, ‘I know who that is’ without even saying your name? When you hear ‘half my brain tied behind my back,’ you know that’s Rush Limbaugh. If you see a swoosh mark, you know that’s Nike. What do you do that is the equivalent of that? What makes you stand out in a crowded media world? Most people can’t answer that question and it is one of the things I can help a personality identify in a world where branding is more important than ever.

How has electronic audience measurement changed the playing field and what do talents need to know about PPM?

The smart ones will learn everything they can about the metrics of ratings and how their content is being measured, be that through Nielsen or Triton Digital, or whoever it might be. You need to know how it works and use that knowledge to help you succeed. As much as people criticize PPM and sample size and all the other stuff you hear, the fact is the meters don’t really lie. And as a talent you simply must arm yourself with everything you need to know about how the ratings system works. My goal isn’t to help talents learn how to ‘game’ the system, but rather how to understand human behavior and the fundamentals that attract an audience, keeps them there longer, remember your brand and come back more often -- all of which will lead to better ratings by almost any metrics.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Most Talk stations today are on AM, while most of the cume is on FM. Why are so many operators seemingly so reluctant to put Talk on FM?

Because they haven’t done it correctly and made the mistake of taking exactly what they had on AM and plopped it down on FM -- much the same as many have done with digital platforms. So they don’t think it worked. They don’t understand it’s a different medium with a different available audience and demographics and psychographics. You have to make some major adjustments in the way your content is packaged and delivered when you move from AM to FM,

but most don’t. They don’t understand that the audience that doesn’t like what they get on AM is suddenly going to like it just because it’s now being simulcast on an FM. Some stations have made the transition successfully, but too many just don’t yet get it. That said, done right, Talk on FM works.

Finally, this is your second year teaming up with Don Anthony to produce the Talk Show Boot Camp. What do you hope attendees will take home with them from the talent-focused conference?

I got involved because I still think our industry will always come down to identifying and nurturing talented people and teaching them the fundamentals and a broad understanding of our business. So many of the industry’s conventions have, I guess somewhat understandably, turned their emphasis to economics, sales and efficiency of operation Those things are clearly important, but we still need to focus on growing talent and developing program content. We want people to go home with information that is valuable to their career and maybe a few contacts, or a mentor. And hopefully we’ll also send ‘em home with some optimism about our business.