Sep 30, 2013

September 30, 2013: What He Desperately Wanted to Hear, Dismissing Legitimacy, Exile on Main Street

From September 1986 to August 1995 I served first as Account Executive then later with the passing of old “Mac” as sales manager and station manager at WION as his widow worked to sell off the station.  These were the years where I changed places, moving from behind the desk, so to speak and into the streets.  Previously, as theatre manager, I had made the purchasing decisions regarding local radio, wrote some of my own radio ads, and worked with account execs in joint promotions between the theatre, the station, and some of the radio station’s clients.  Now I would take that experience and change positions, myself now becoming the ad man. It was an enlightening experience.

 My position at the radio station gave me access to main street, entre into the business decisions of literally hundreds of clients, many regulars and some seasonal. The goal of the successful Account Executive is to become a trusted media advisor of the client, with the ultimate objective of gaining so much confidence as to become familiar with and influence budgetary decisions of the client’s business. I was able to do this with several accounts and it is an exhilarating experience.

 The nature of the modus operandi at WION was, however, that the management—beginning with Monroe and continuing under the direction of his widow—to run the business out of his back pocket.  That is, business decisions were made on a weekly, almost daily basis, with little or no planning.  This, I was to discover, is the way in which many “mom and pop” operations function and the radio station was nothing if not a classic “mom and pop” operation.  Corporate America, represented by the chain stores and big boxes that were now assuming a much more prominent place on Main Street, doesn’t do business that way. To do business with them, you have to be included in their budgeting.  Mac didn’t do budgeting and assumed no else did either.  The result was that in order, for instance, to sell annual packages—like Tiger Baseball—you had to approach these companies at the beginning of the year, Mac wouldn’t make a business decision to do anything on such schedule.  We found ourselves getting funds not from the client’s budget but in its petty cash drawer. Moreover, Ad purchases are made by advertising departments, based on demographic studies in which media are chosen by the reach of each venue to certain “segments” of the market.  For this purpose Arbitron and other ratings publications are used in which to fashion a sales pitch based on each station’s appeal to various segments of the market.  Mac didn’t subscribe to these publications and did not use the numbers, dismissing instead the legitimacy of their ratings.  Instead, if he used numbers at all, they would be generated at events like the annual spring Home and Garden Show, in which the station would have a booth and invite passer’s by to fill out a questionnaire in exchange for prizes including tickets to Detroit Tiger baseball games (the station was then broadcasting these games).  As any entry-level student of statistics knows, any poll has to be completely random even to the point of having once chosen a respondent to putting said respondent back into the pool before the next selection is made.  These respondents, chosen not at random but from a select business event itself heavily promoted by the station, in which the respondent must then walk past the station’s booth and is further enticed by prizes produces, as one would suspect, very skewed numbers.  According to the results, a small A.M. radio station playing a hopelessly outdated format was drawing an audience larger that the contemporary, rock and country stations in nearby Lansing and Grand Rapids.  WION was drawing, according to some of these numbers, 97% of the radio audience demonstrating not the strength of the station but the lengths to which Monroe was willing to go to tell himself what he so desperately wanted to hear. 

 The following Sales Meetings, in which these numbers were duly paraded, would begin with a disclaimer, with Mac saying that these numbers were perhaps a bit skewed, but you could tell that he truly believed, or wanted to believe them; for in the ensuing discussion he would direct us to show them to our clients, and then wonder openly how it was that we had such a massive audience yet couldn’t sell our available air time.  The problem would, as in all sales meetings, by whatever expedient, eventually fall upon the shoulders of the sales staff.  I,  for one, would never present such a study in a statistics class let alone a corporate ad department or ad agency for I knew I would be laughed out of court.  To present these numbers to the “Mom and Pops” were likewise problematic for I would then be seen flying in the face of universal observation for none of these people listened to the station, nor did any people that they knew, for the fact was that once the local news programming ended in the morning whatever audience the station had quickly dissipated.  Once a viable local media, WION had been ravaged by changes in the local market. As local pharmacies, bike shops, clothing and hardware stores were by degrees swallowed up by the larger chain operations and as the station’s listening audience had slowly passed from youth to middle age to the area’s rest homes, the local Radio station, like the local Newspaper had begun to resemble the aging hulk hovering over main street in the form of the old Ionia Theatre, a splendid irrelevance.

 To be a salesman one must be comfortable with occasionally being embraced with all the enthusiasm of the arrival of a social disease.  I remember one such encounter, a restaurateur named Jim Thompson.  Jim was a big guy with a booming voice.  One day I called on “Germaine’s” restaurant and his wife was behind the bar.  I asked if Jim was in, his office being located just around the corner behind the kitchen.  She yelled back calling “Jim there’s a guy here to see you”

 “Who is it”?  He yelled out

 “I don’t know, it’s a guy you know…the one that when you see him you yell out ‘oh shit’”.

 At that Big Jim came out of his office, through the kitchen and when beholding my form standing in front of him bellowed out for all to hear “OH SHIT”.  I had become an exile on Main Street. 

As it turned out, however, that Jim wasn’t a bad guy after all.  In fact, upon hearing that my daughter had a severe hearing impairment and was in need of hearing aids, arrange to have me join a fraternity that he was deeply involved in and helped her get a scholarship which provided a stipend for her to get hearing aids.  He would do this for me personally, but could not find it within himself to buy the product I was selling.


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