Radio's New Media Masters
WAAF & WMKK - Boston
Beantown's Web Content King
WAAF is not only a Boston radio institution. The station's call letters are synonomous nationwide with legendary Rock radio. So, it takes a special kind of talent to channel that on-air innovation and make it translate properly online. Al Beuscher has done just that and raised the stakes considerably by also overseeing the web presence for WMKK (Mike FM), the irreverent Adult Hits stalwart in Boston. Like many of the industry's emerging Digital Content Managers, Al's not a radio guy by trade. Prior to coming on board in Boston, he boasted an impressive 10 year resume in web design and development. He also worked for a time as a club DJ and is even the proud benefactor of a BFA in Creative Writing for Children. Somehow, that skill set seems to make perfect sense at WAAF & WMKK. Al was kind enough to share some thoughts with us about his role at the stations, internet philosophy & zen, radio and new media and BBQ.
Tell us about your CMS. What are you using to work your magic in Boston these days?
We use Intertech's Vortal when we must and Drupal when we can, plus good old fashioned direct text editing whenever possible.
What about your staffing situation? Do you have anyone on your team or are you a one-man operation?
I have a great digital team who administrate our corporate services, like our online stream, playlist, and our image management. Locally I work with a multimedia production expert and another graphic artist as well. We are also in the process of training a lot of our staff to film and edit video to spread the work out and, of course, to build peoples’ job skills. We even have one of our on-air guys editing and filming video, which is great.
What seems to be your primary focus these days: graphic design related work or content management or are they both equal?
Content management is the bulk of the work, with a good deal of video production thrown in for good measure. In any given week, my job can focus on stats and traffic, long term planning, small development projects, or just basic web layouts and graphic design.
In comparing traditional medias (radio but also television and print), do you feel that any one medium has an upper hand when it comes to multimedia?
Well, my experience has been that radio is indeed a little behind the curve ball when it comes to multimedia, but I think TV and print haven’t done a much better job, to be honest. The people I think are best to learn from are the people who are killing it on the web: FOD, Gizmodo, and even the biggest players like YouTube, Facebook, and Craigslist can teach us a lot about how to package information in a way people want to consume it. They’re the ones setting the standard. I feel comparing ourselves to the next tallest midgets in media isn’t providing us with a good enough model. I spend a good deal of time checking out sites in the Alexa Top 100 and watching the most watched video on YouTube and FOD and trying to figure out what they’re doing that I can mimic or learn from.
Other than your own, what are a few of your favorite radio station websites? What about them do you like most?
Well, I may be biased because they’re down the hall, but weei.com is doing a great job with their stuff. I learn new things from Tim Murphy, who is the VP and General Manager of WEEI.com, every day. I also like z100’s site a lot, to also put in a good word for our competition, who I think are also doing very well with some really hot partnerships and content aggregation techniques. I don’t think anyone could argue that NPR does a ridiculously good job with their content as well.
In many markets, other media competitors (television and print) tend to outpace their contemporaries in Radio in terms of technology and sales initiatives. That doesn't seem to be the case at your cluster.
I feel that in Kansas City and with many Entercom websites around the country we have already surpassed our competition. We are proud of the fact that our local digital department is always researching new technologies and keeping up with what is going to be available. We are also making our websites a destination for information not only for artists, news, weather and station information but also for community information, contesting and Hyper Exclusive content that can only be seen on our websites.
Beyond radio, same question as above. What websites do you recommend that other Digital Content Managers visit for inspiration? Why are they so cool?
I don’t think you have to look very far. The most popular sites are usually popular for good reason. Youtube, Craigslist, Facebook, Google, and Gizmodo are all great people to look to for what’s hot. I think the simplicity in presentation for some of those sites and a lot of others that everyone visits all the time can be learned from. For design and development, I spend a lot of time on alistapart.com to keep my markup skills sharp and know where the web design world is at. And for good online video, I think vbs.tv does pretty well.
What are the biggest challenges you face in the day to day maintenance of your websites?
I could use a dedicated producer or two. I split my time between direction, development, and execution for two different stations and it’s distracting and I know I’m not doing as good a job as I could be in any of those areas as a result. Entercom has done a great job with prioritizing digital, which is awesome, but the monetization is still difficult, just like it was 10 years ago when I was working at startups. As a result, while I’m sure I’m in a better position than other people in smaller markets and with less capable companies and teams behind them, I still see a lot of missed opportunities every day. The resource that I’m lacking, in short, is people.
Social Media has been the buzz of the digital side of radio in 2009. What current social media application does your site utilize the most and how?
I mean, it seems absurdly apparent but Facebook is where a lot of our focus is. We do a healthy amount of stuff on Twitter as well, but by the nature of the two beasts the Twitter content is straightforward and the Facebook stuff is more complex. We are just beginning to crack the ice on contesting through SN sites, and so far the response has been good.
What, if any, services do you use to email your audience (i.e. Constant Contact, MailChimp, etc.) or do you utilize a self contained program within your own infrastructure?
We use Triton digital (formerly Enticent) as our email marketing back-end.
How do you feel our industry is doing when it comes to email marketing?
There is a lot of potential with email marketing, but that explicit advertising through email causes people to stop reading their email, and that in general webvertising has done unfortunate things to the way we visually filter information. I find myself reading an email advertisement or looking at a website and just automatically filtering out buttons because they’re in all caps or italics because my brain reads advertisement and passes over it. I do know that email marketing that’s targeted well does work. The only email ads I read regularly come from LEGO.
What about text marketing?
Text marketing is a cool idea, and I like mobile couponing as a theory, though I haven’t seen it executed really flawlessly that often. I think its very product / promotion dependent. I do not think that it is nearly as generationally divided as people seem to perceive it. My mom sends text messages just fine. Older people like passive participation too.
Let's talk about your department's relationship with Sales. Traditionally, there is a divide between the creative-types at a radio station (say Programming or New Media, for that matter) and the business-driven Sales department. What challenges have you faced in working with Sales?
Sales pays the bills, and I respect that. There is of course some healthy debate (yes, I’m being polite) over what constitutes worthwhile content and what constitutes crass advertising. I like to hope most of our stuff falls into the former category. I think Facebook just announced profitability last week, so I think everyone needs a little bit of perspective when it comes to monetizing the web.
I think after last year’s economic downturn 2.0, or whatever they settled on calling the new economy thinger, we should all take a moment to hug an account executive, because they have had a tough time, and need to realize that it’s not them - it’s the economy. So yeah – there’s been some deficiency in that area, but to me that means that money is becoming outmoded by the internet along with telephones and paper. Being a hippy with tax problems, it’s very easy for me to say that.
Do you think that salespeople in the industry are being directed to sell digital content as much as they should? From your perspective, are they selling it properly?
Yes – they definitely have quotas to fill. I think depending on the savvy of the individual sales person, that often becomes a “fill-in-the-blank-banner-campaign” which does little to boost the client’s position. I do wish that some more time was spent developing interesting sponsorship packages and also that sales did a lot more to learn from outside their industry, which is where the web-monetization success stories clearly lie. I think a lot of folks here are still struggling with what is possible on the web, and I try to explain to them that I’m still in that boat too. The web is about learning and evolving, and those things are notoriously hard to sell and monetize. Just ask any of our underpaid public school teachers.
What about the Programming department? What are the greatest challenges/rewards you face when working with your PDs and on-air talent?
I have nothing but positive things to say about my PD and all of the on-air talent and programming department here. I have heard horror stories from other people in my position around the country about the on-air talent not blogging, or whining about their salaries, and all that kind of stuff. I’ve seen nothing but great cooperation from everyone here. Everyone here really gets that the web is where the future is and if you’re not embracing it, you’re going to be left behind. They get that here to a person, and it’s really been a pleasure learning with them how we can best tie together the on-air and online products.
What would you say is the biggest misconception that other members on your team have about the websites?
I think the thing that people tend not to realize about websites is how integral forward planning is in making content easy to manipulate, add, and aggregate. I think also that the 30 second shelf life which is inherent to radio causes people to run around making a lot of hacks, temporary fixes, and snap decisions about what priorities of the moment are, and as a result a lot of opportunities for archiving, indexing, and aggregating our online product have been and are being lost.
I wish I had a couple of months to go hide ion a log cabin somewhere and build out a proper CMS with feeds, appropriate content templating, and a wide variety of other features which I think would really help us to be more timely and in-the-moment with day-to-day content creation.
Also, perhaps more importantly, all of those comments I just made are relevant to online video even more. Understanding what goes into the production of video should be written in stone on my door (not that I have a stone door. Which would be awesome) for all to read. If it weren’t for the fact that I have the hardest working video guy in the world, I would have been canned from this job 6 months ago for that lack of understanding.
What has been your biggest success online? Any big promotions you care to share?
We did a reality series called “Wing Man” with our morning show which was ridiculously ambitious but also hugely successful – we had listeners come in and try to help Spaz, who is the butt of our Morning Show and its producer, get lucky with the ladies. It was just a very funny end product and it was a way in which we were able to really connect the on-air and online products in a satisfying way. I advise no one in this position to ever try it, as our video guy and myself lost a lot of sleep trying to keep up with the deadlines and shooting for a mere 6 episodes. But it was a great time.
Radio today seems to fall into two camps: traditionalists who maintain the radio should stay the course and that no new gadget is going to make or break the industry…and the "chicken littles" of the world who scream that if radio does not evolve into the the digital world, it will surely die. Do you feel you fit into either of these camps?
I think that terrestrial radio is going to stay popular, and I have come to that opinion only after entering the industry and interacting regularly with listeners. The fact is – radio’s cheap, and people like it. Since I’ve been here, I’ve paid a lot more attention to how often in the day I hear a radio, and it’s a hell of a lot. I also think that unlike television and print, radio is a great compliment to computer use, rather than a replacement. So the speakers we’re listening out of may change or become more various, but I think people will keep tuning in, possibly in greater rather than lesser numbers.
Look into your crystal ball and tell us where you see Radio in 10 years as it relates to the internet?
My crystal ball app is till downloading from the iTunes store. I’ll give it a shot without it. I think the line between media forms is just going to get blurrier. I think on-demand will probably grow slightly, but that honestly, programmed radio will likely be very similar to what it is today. I read somewhere recently that someone figured out how to make an AM radio that is thinner than a piece of hair. That may not be relevant to this question, but it’s pretty cool.
Are there any companies/particular programmers/GMs, etc. that you would like to give a shout out to? Who have you worked with that has really ‘got it’ when it comes to Radio & New Media.
Yeah. My PD, Ron Valeri. Also, Mike Hsu (Weekdays 10a – 3p) who’s been really killing it online with his stuff – blog, vlog, and also editing his own stuff now. And my trusty video guy, Stephen King (yeah that’s his name). Joe Rosenthal, who is the digital content guru for Entercom, has provided a lot of really great direction as well.
What advice would you give to someone who has just been given the responsibility of overseeing a radio station website?
Look outside your industry for competency and inspiration. And when you confront a digital feature / CMS / badly constructed anything and ask yourself “is it really set up that way?” if the answer is yes – don’t bother following up. Just fix it and move on.
Finally, we're coming over to your place after work. What can we expect to find on your iPod and on the gaming system? And what's for dinner in Boston?
Grateful Dead, Kinks, Parliament, Christopher Cross – that kind of thing. I’m embarrassed to say I still play GTA San Andreas – not because I don’t have the new one – just because it’s awesome. And East Coast Grill in Inman Square. Go there for the hot sauce. Stay for the best unique seafood and BBQ entrees in the city.
93.7 MIKE FM
Check the links above to take a look at Al's handywork!
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