Thursday, March 12, 2015

Conventional wisdom

Back in the days when there was a radio industry, there used to be radio conventions. These were put on by Billboard Magazine or Radio & Records and hundreds of program directors and air personalities would converge, usually at a hotel in Los Angeles or San Francisco, for four days of bullshit panels and schmoozing.

If you were in the hotel it was not hard to pick out who was part of the convention. Everybody pushed their voices down trying to impress everybody else. Forty buffoons at the bar, posturing, and trying to sound like Darth Vader. And of course everyone dressed in ratty jeans and leather jackets. Not a lot of fashion horses in radio. Remember, it’s an industry where no one sees you.

There were great hospitality suites, primarily sponsored by the record companies. Lots of booze, and I suspect for influential music directors, women.

Radio syndication firms also had hospitality suites. You could have a drink and listen to the AMERICAN TOP 40 demo. Needless to say, you could shoot cannons off in those suites. Casablanca Records had hookers and Drake/Chenault had demos for “Hit Parade 69.”

God knows what went on after the bars and hospitality suites closed. If Insurance Conventions are wild Bacchanals you can imagine what a radio convention must be like. Even the attendees who were single probably got laid.

The sad part of these conventions was all the out-of-work disc jockeys just meandering around the lobby. You could easily spot them. They had boxes of their audition tapes. One time I was standing with a program director, Chuck Browning, when one of these guys approached and handed him his tape. Chuck said, “So are you Side A or Side B?”

If PD’s are not going to listen to AT40 demos when they’re offered unlimited free tequila, they’re sure not going to spend their evening listening to you. On the other hand, long distance calls were expensive. Here in one place was everyone who could hire you. Why not give it a shot?

Happily, I was either employed or out of radio when I attended these conventions. And since radio people are spread all over the country and move more than Richard Kimble did as THE FUGITIVE, this was the one chance to see all your buds at one time in one place. The flip side of course, is that it was also a chance to come face-to-face with everybody who ever fired you. For me, that was everywhere I turned.

Eventually I got asked to be on panels and in one case deliver the keynote address. This of course, was after I became a full-time TV writer. I’ve always maintained that the only way I ever got respect in radio was to get out of it.

Most of these conventions have faded away. At one time they would fill the Century Plaza Hotel. There would be several floors of panels; every ballroom occupied and filled. Big name entertainment like Garth Brooks would perform. High priced motivational speakers like Rick Pitino would appear. The last radio convention I attended was in New York. It was a couple of rooms in the basement of some nondescript office building. There was one meeting room and a small reception area. That’s it. Instead of Steve Martin performing, they had Stephanie Miller. I forget the panel I was on. It might’ve been: “coping mechanisms for has-beens.” But it was very depressing; a reminder of a dying industry.

Are conventions really useful? You could make a case that they’re not. We live in such a global society now. Teleconferences can substitute for panel discussions. Airfare is expensive. Hospitality suites are not justified if attendance is low. But I think you miss something in not having the personal contact. You do learn things in conventions, and usually they’re at the bar, a suite, in the elevator, at the coffee shop. Panels are nice and they’re a good lure, but the real deals are going on behind-the-scenes. You don’t come there looking to be enlightened by the future steps your industry is taking. You go to bitch and hear how others have dealt with the same problems. Your goal is to come away with a better understanding of what you need to do, a renewed passion for your profession, and to not get caught.


Amy Alkon said...

Hi, Ken...for me, the most ridiculous conferences are blogger or science blogger conferences. Want to blog? Just write.

Richard Rothrock said...

It doesn't matter what the subject of the convention is, they all seem to have the same kinds of attendees who indulge in the same kind of activities. Whether it be radio or film or academia or writers conferences. Everybody wants to get drunk, make a deal, and/or get laid.

"Cedar Rapids" pretty much got it right.

Dan Ball said...

That pic's great.

G. Gordon Liddy, Firehouse Subs, and complimentary water.

Mike Barer said...

I have never been to one, but your description was exactly what I would picture a broadcasting convention to be.

Oat Willie said...

You could have posted a picture with naked execs cavorting and someone snorting coke off Linda Ronstadt's behind. I don't want bottled water and sensible shoes, I need fantasy!

JoeyH said...

The Country Radio Seminar and the Christian Media Convention still seem to be doing quite well. I would suspect not as many hookers at the Christian show...but I could be wrong.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Amy Alkon: Speaking as a journalist, I vastly prefer to go to conferences in the fields I write about rather than conferences for journalists about journalism. That said, however, there are few professions in which you have nothing to learn from your peers, and neither blogging nor science blogging is one of those few. Science in particular is a demanding subject to cover, partly because the subject matter is difficult and partly because it can be very challenging to convey why something is or is not a story worthy of coverage. One of the panels at the last science journalism conference I attended was how to turn obscure scientific research into a story people want to read by a couple of authors, a publisher, and an agent who had shaped successful books out of what seemed very unpromising material. I thought that was quite valuable.

"Just write" is rarely good advice, even in fiction. If bloggers want to be taken seriously - and many do - they need to do more than just spray words around.


Diane D. said...

As usual, something very thoughtful and interesting from Wendy Grossman. The panel she refers to at the last science journalism conference she attended could not have dealt with a more important subject. I am so frequently astonished at reading about some important scientific discovery or event in a small article buried on page 5 of a newspaper, months after it occurred. Often it is of such importance that it seems to me it should be a front page headline.

If a conference can spread the kind of information she describes to peers, I would say they have significant value in spite of the booze, boffing, and debauchery.

Perry Michael Simon said...

And I have to go to Every. Single. One. of those radio conferences. Practically every one. Someone has to cover them, and it's... me. NAB, NAB Radio, Talkers, Talk Show Boot Camp, the Conclave, shows whose names I forget even when I'm there. Some are better than others -- some of it is actually quite interesting, some not so much -- but the main thing is to meet up with people, not the actual content of the shows.

It is as Ken says -- and the problem is that they're gatherings of people who, mostly, want to preserve a status quo that's being battered by forces they don't understand, namely digital competition. Doesn't mean radio can't survive, but it has to adapt, and they don't really understand why they have to change.

The running joke has been that the talk radio conventions have been doing the same "Is FM Talk Coming?" panels for 25 years, although that's morphed into "Is Non-Political Talk Coming?," as if those things haven't existed since the '80s. The panels themselves are, therefore, mostly useless. (I'm sometimes on the panels, which makes those especially worthless.) The value is, as Ken notes, in the schmoozing, getting face time with people you don't otherwise see. And I spend most of the time in the back row near a power outlet, tweeting sarcastic comments just to stay awake and relatively sane.

And talk radio conventions bear no resemblance to the old R&R or Poe conventions. You want parties, blow, and hookers? You're on your own. At least, as far as I know. I try not to hang around after hours.

DBenson said...

Eons ago, when I worked for a company that exhibited at early high tech events, I proposed a display of The World's Largest Free T-Shirt. It would be an actual shirt, six feet tall, with our company logo and a suitably outsized hanger to display it.

This would be presented as the Holy Grail of swag and given away in a raffle.

I thought, and still think, it was a brilliant gag that any seasoned convention goer would appreciate. But coworkers just looked at me funny and knowledgeable persons I've pitched it to since had the same reaction.

Richard Y said...

You hit the nail on the head in your last paragraph for (mostly) what EVER kind of convention one may be attending. Sure some of the subject headliners/conferences may prove to be worthwhile but it is the behind the scenes activity where you really learn something.

Greg Ehrbar said...

There was a conference here at Disney a few years back and one of the speakers was the great Jean Shepard. What a thrill! Hearing him do a monologue, live! Maybe he'll offer his observations about The Vacation Kingdom!

With the excitement of Ralphie finally being able to use his Little Orphan Annie decoder ring to its fullest, I took my seat. The great man entered to thunderous applause and began to recite.

Recite -- not speak off the cuff. He read the section of the famous essay that inspired "A Christmas Story". It was the part about the Little Orphan Annie decoder ring and how all it turned out to tell him was to buy Ovaltine.

Though it was wonderful to see Mr. Shepard in person, I felt like Ralphie. But I didn't put my eye out.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

DBenson: If you're not someone involved with the company, think of taking that T-shirt home. What are you going to do with it? You can't wear it. It doesn't have enough personal connection to display it (that's a lot of wall space). About the only thing you can do really is cut it up and make something out of it. The idea might work if you got a decent graphic artist to paint something on it or a bunch of famous people to sign it...