UNCUT: Q&A with AllAccess.com

Recently I got to spend some time chatting to All Access about Radio, Talent Development and life in Radio. Here is the full unedited version of our conversation…

Please give us a brief career synopsis…

It’s been a while since I have been asked to remember my career. I’ve just done the math on my fingers and it’s been over 18 years for me in Radio now. Up until I moved to Canada at the start of 2012, my career was in my home of England. I started at 16 on the air at the smallest station in England (pretty sure you only needed 4 listeners to achieve a 100 share). From there I went to produce a Morning Show for Wyvern FM where we took a new show from worst to first in 6 months and I got to learn from some fantastic people. I was still – foolishly – chasing my on air dreams so from there I went on to work as a jock for GWR Group and Capital Radio for a number of years. Then one day, in the middle of an evening show, the spark just fizzled out and I realized that I didn’t enjoy being on this side of the mic anymore. I think I also knew that I wasn’t good enough to make it to the top as well. From there someone bravely gave me a crack at running my own radio station at 21 (that didn’t go so well – I was just not ready for management). I went on to program GWR FM, Red Dragon FM, Wyvern FM and then took on a dual role of Group Network PD and PD for BRMB.

In 2012, I moved to Canada to work for Newcap at 90.3 AMP Radio and XL103 in Calgary. Then a stop in Vancouver at Z95-3, LG104-3 and CISL 650 alongside my corporate duties as Newcap’s National Talent Development Director. In 2016 I joined Rogers in Toronto, where I am VP, Product & Talent Development working across our portfolio of stations nationwide to improve our brands and overall performance.

How would you describe your first radio gig?

I worked for a station called FM107 The Falcon (it doesn’t exist anymore). I started writing the news, then reading the news and quickly got moved to weekend hosting; I think they realized that I had zero credibility reading the news. It was a defining moment for me as prior to walking through the studio doors I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I did well at school, but got easily bored so found myself in trouble constantly. No question I was an embarrassment for my parents. I remember fondly the station having a sense of camaraderie and a constantly changing environment and I knew this was the kind of environment I wanted to always be apart of. It was also the place I met one of my best friends – the start of many years of fun and memories!

How much traveling are you doing in your product & talent development role? Are you visiting local markets?

I do a fair amount of traveling, being on the road and working with our teams across the country is a passion of mine – it is the most fulfilling part of the job. Even in today’s hyper-connected world, there is nothing more powerful than sitting face to face with a PD or morning show and talking about ideas, sharing thoughts, de-briefing research and building battle plans. I read that on average it takes 3 times more time to prepare and travel to a meeting than it does to simply jump on Skype or pick up the phone. However, there are many scientific studies that support the fact that being face to face leads to more synchronicity, more understanding and more connection. I feel lucky that the company empowers us to work together in whatever way will be most effective to getting results. For me, that often means jumping on a plane and sitting in the market, working with the team in their current reality. To be effective you need to build strong relationships with others and I think that involves suitable fact to face time.

Being face to face with our teams helps me in my role. I notice patterns that we need to work on. I get time to brainstorm and dream with PDs and Talent and that often leads to ideas that work for more than one team. It allows me to learn about people and spot opportunities to connect them with other people who may be able to help them or vice versa. When I am on the road, the teams get all of my attention and I am at my most exhausted when I am on the plane coming home.

Lack of talent development in radio has been a constant theme for awhile now. What are you doing to combat that?

Let’s start by underlining the phrase talent development in that statement. I think there has been a lack of talent development but there isn’t a lack of talent.

It frustrates me when I hear people say there is a lack of talent. I don’t understand that. We live in the most connected time in history, people across the world are able to become stars and build a sizeable following with just their cell phones. There are now more entertainment choices and distribution platforms than ever before and entertainment has/will always reliant on talent to create it. I think because of all the new options available to people in which to share their thoughts, ideas and creations they aren’t turning to radio like they once did. We’re not the shiniest toy for them. That’s on us as an industry to solve. We have to find a way to cultivate an environment of creativity and show a future that will continually excite today’s content creators.

There is also a lot of good talent on the air today but sadly many aren’t given the freedom to experiment and express themselves. By reducing ‘off Broadway’ shows it’s only understandable that PDs are nervous to develop new talent in peak times. All of these problems are internal; they are industry problems that we have imposed upon ourselves (often for good reasons but it was our doing regardless).

Talent Development hasn’t been prioritized as much as it should have been. The problem is that coaching is a little messy and unpredictable. Training someone to work with talent, guiding, nurturing, growing, challenging them, is harder than teaching someone to schedule music (not that I am saying that’s not important). It requires understanding people and a desire to stand in the background and push someone else into the spotlight. We need to start training people on coaching techniques and then give them the chance to practice. It takes a long time for this stuff to click. The coach needs to build their confidence. Too often we promote the best on air talent or the best music director and then they start the learning at the point of having the PD title. That’s often a little too late.

We are doing lots of things to try and combat the lack of talent development:

(1) We talk about it all the time. It’s a key part of all our plans. Developing and acquiring the best talent. We see talent as the center of our business, and believe the company with the best talent (on and off the air) will always have the competitive edge.

(2) We have an internal talent mentor program. We are giving our PDs the chance to work with different shows and formats across the company; the PDs get exposure to different talent and programmers as well as feedback on their performance. The talent gets exposed to new perspectives and more feedback. We have just started using key talent to mentor new shows across the country too – teaming shows up with talent who have experience and can really help shape new performers is exciting.

(3) Some of our stations are working with local broadcast schools and offering on air shifts off peak to students to practice and get feedback. Imagine your first job being in a major market as a result of this program – we have someone now who went through this program and landed their first job in market #1.

(4) We believe in developing our own. We’re focused on moving our own talent through our pipeline. We are always working with our talent to have career conversations and promote them up through the company. That’s a priority for us – it talks to our belief in partnering with talent to move forward. There have been so many examples of talent moving up for us over the last year.

(5) Our corporate programmers spend a lot of time working within their formats to offer feedback, guidance and mentoring to their PDs.

(6) We ask our PDs to actively look for and work with new talent – I have a strong belief that it’s our responsibility to be working with talent both inside and outside of our company. It’s just the right thing for the industry, the better radio becomes, the better the future for us all.

That’s just the tip of what we’re up to. Ultimately we have prioritized the development of our teams in all roles. It starts at the top and our Head of Radio sets the bar high on ensuring we do all we can to support our talent and ensure they achieve their career goals.

The important thing to remember with talent development is that it’s messy and unpredictable. You have to experiment and take some risks, which means we’ll likely fail often. We are constantly working on building an environment that allows for that. That’s key to building a coaching culture in an organization. We probably don’t get it right all the time but we’re trying.

What advice would you give to talent who would like to receive more direction, but work for a company that doesn’t have a guy like you?

Your career is your responsibility. Don’t wait for someone else to help you. Take control, take action and go after what you’re seeking. The job title I have doesn’t mean anything. Truly it doesn’t. Titles are over-rated (in fact most people can’t remember mine and I struggle to as well if I’m being honest). How companies structure themselves, where they focus their efforts and how they behave makes the difference. If you work for a company or someone who doesn’t prioritize your development then you need to find someone or people who will.

I encourage talent to reach out to PDs at stations they respect and would like to work for one day and ask for advice and input. You’d be surprised at how many PDs will get back to you. It’s also a great way to cultivate a relationship that may lead to a job in the future. One talent in Canada comes to mind who regularly reaches out to a group of PDs asking for feedback and it’s been amazing to hear her name come up from multiple PDs thinking she’ll be a big star. She has also benefited from the input and has grown hugely in the last year.

It doesn’t have to be someone in management that helps you. It could be a peer, another talent in another market, a family member – ask everyone for their opinion and use what resonates to help you.

If you aren’t getting feedback and would like some, we’re always happy to help. Reach out. If I can’t get back to you promptly, I will ask someone on our team to offer some advice.

Ultimately, if you’re working with a company that doesn’t believe in your development you should find a new home that will invest in you. But there’s lots that is in your control that you can do now.

Who are some of the great personalities that you’ve had the privilege to work with?

I can’t answer this. There’s simply too many to mention. I would forget someone. I have worked with so many amazing talents. I feel incredibly fortunate. I love working with and learning from all the talent we have at Rogers. I often feel like the stupidest person in the room, and I think for now (until I’m found out) that’s a good thing.

Are you wearing more “hats” than you have in the past?

Sure. But that’s life right? We can complain about the changes but it won’t make any difference. Far better for us to roll up our sleeves and get on with it. I love the variety in my job although my wife Amy has to endure the odd day where my head is spinning and I come home moaning about something. She’s the one person that always makes a bad day better.

In the UK, I worked with some fantastic people like Duncan Campbell, Dirk Anthony, David Lloyd and many more who shaped my approach. Wearing more “hats” means prioritizing our attention and our focus. I focus on (or at least try to) the things that make a difference… and that means I may not be the speediest on email or the one attending every meeting. When there’s more going on, we have to be more disciplined on what gets the majority of our attention.

What are your favorite showprep sources?

Life! The best shows come from people who are interesting and complex. Nothing compares to living an interesting life and bringing that to your show every day. I often say the secret to the best shows is “they are doing a show they are interested in rather than a show that they hope the audience maybe interested in” – they are people with things to say and thoughts to share, and the audience finds them.

What is your favorite part of the job?

Strategy creation. I love working with our teams to dissect research and build new plans for our brands. I love the sense of collaboration and the passion that fuels our planning. There’s some magical about sitting in a room and dreaming, challenging and deciding together.

I love monitoring our stations too. I seem to have always been fortunate to be able to hear the big picture challenges and the small details with ease. I like hearing what’s working (and sharing that with others) and identifying areas (big and small) that we can improve.

Working with our teams to make s@*t happen. I don’t do well with rules and processes – I know they’re important – but they can slow us down. So I love saying to our teams “screw it, just do it… send whoever my way when we get in trouble”. I’d rather help our teams get to yes. Mind you, I haven’t had my performance review yet this year so maybe this will come back to haunt me.

What is the most challenging part of the job?

Giving each project the time I want to give it. I am a thinker, and need to ensure I find time to not be always ‘doing’ but instead ‘thinking’. I constantly have to remind myself of the importance of prioritizing thinking.

What was your favorite station to listen to when you were a kid?

Radio 1/UK. It is a station that has always allowed personalities to be themselves. The station has always been an eclectic mix of unique talent. I loved that fact that there was always something different happening, but in a way that made sense to the overall mission of the station. It’s still one of my favorite stations as they have always been at the leading edge of adapting to the audience’s tastes. They have created the most compelling digital content of any station in the world. That’s one team I’d love to be a part of one day.

Who were your mentors? Who would you say has influenced your career the most?

My closest friends all work in the industry, Dave Coull, Ian Downs and Tom Probst. They have had the most profound impact on my career as they have challenged me, supported me and called me on my BS. If they hadn’t believed in me I certainly wouldn’t have come close to doing what I feel fortunate to have done so far.

I was fortunate to work with a variety of exceptional people. In the UK, John O’Hara and Nik Goodman at Capital Radio taught me that radio is a mix of science and art but if you favor the art you’ll achieve far more than if you favor the science. Duncan Campbell and Dirk Anthony (GWR/GCap) taught me how to be laser focused on the issues that really matter; they taught me how to monitor products and build strategies for improvement. Nick Davidson taught me how to do business with style and in an authentic way when I was at Red Dragon (I loved working for him). David Lloyd (Orion) taught me how to be better working with talent, and helped me embrace my uniqueness. He also taught me to see the bigger picture. Phil Riley (Orion) challenged me to think beyond my limited perspective (and he was surprisingly supportive of my move to Canada).

In Canada, Steve Jones (Newcap) taught me a lot about how to inject creativity into brand building. He also reignited my love for this industry and taught me that believing in people and letting them try things is always a good approach to take. I feel fortunate to work with Julie Adam (my boss at Rogers), who has taught me so much that I think I could probably write a book about the lessons she teaches me daily. Some of the most prominent learning’s include kindness is essential for authentic leadership, pushing ourselves to be better is an always thing and that the pace of the leader determines the speed of the pack (and we move quickly here).

What is it about our industry that keeps you wanting to do it for a living?

Entertainment is escapism for people. We help people escape from their lives for a moment or two when they need it most. Our job is to make people smile, to inject some lightness into their days. To keep them company. While people need that, on whatever platform, I think we can and will do meaningful work. That’s what keeps me going, knowing that we can have that impact on our audience.

What is the one truth that has held constant throughout your career?

You control your destiny… but it helps to surround yourself with positive, supportive and smarter people!

What advice would you give people new to the business?

Email me with any questions you have. We’d love to support you as you start out in your career.

What music do you listen to when you’re not working?

I’m a country fan. I think many people would be surprised to learn I spend more time listening to country than anything else.

BONUS: What’s the best sweeper/liner you’ve ever heard?

I heard one today that made me smile on JACK 102.3/London. “Sometimes people come up and ask us, exactly how many songs are in a ‘Bunch of Songs’ and we say… ummm… it’s somewhere between 2 and…get a life! It’s a Bunch of Songs In A Row… on JACK 102.3”

UNCUT: Q&A with AllAccess.com