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Legendary Top Programmers Sound Off

Arriving on the Radio Ink Best Program Directors in America list is a coveted accomplishment. Very few make the list. Even fewer are there year after year. When they cease to be a programmer, they’re no longer eligible for the list, but that doesn’t mean they their brains are not still engaged, that they’re not continuing to “play radio” and that they’re no longer interested in the medium. The reverse is true.

We selected four big names in the business who were once program directors recognized for their success, who today have either moved on to different roles in radio or are at a different point in their life. In every case, their perspective is one that comes from having walked a mile in those moccasins, and still showing their care for this industry. The objective is to hear from them as to radios’ challenges and its future.

Scott Shannon, Ed Salamon, Buzz Knight, and Mike Kennedy are four individuals whose experience and successes are worthy of exploring more deeply. There is value to Time on Earth. One of the most common arguments in favor of studying history is the famous quote by George Santayana, which states " Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It means that people who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are going to repeat the same mistakes. The saying is true of both world history and personal history. It’s especially true for all things media.

Shannon is the highly rated and highly successful morning personality on WCBS-FM/New York City. He is famous for having created the first ever Morning Zoo as he won the Tampa ratings war at Q105, launched Z100 NYC and Programmed the legendary WPLJ before moving to WCBS-FM. Scott Shannon is one of the most admired programming minds and emulated personalities in radio.

Ed Salamon, who in full disclosure is a mentor of mine, programmed WEEP/Pittsburgh, WHN/NYC, served as Corporate PD for Storer Media, before going on to hold senior level executive positions at Westwood One and United Stations Radio Network. He was the Executive Director for the Country Radio Broadcasters before moving on to education.

Salamon began teaching Mass Communications as an Adjunct Professor at Middle Tennessee State University in 2003. Two years later, he joined Belmont University in a similar capacity. While at Belmont, he was asked to develop a course on Entertainment Leadership, which he taught in their Mike Curb School of Entertainment and Music Business.

Buzz Knight most recently served as EVP of Strategy and Innovation for Beasley Media Group which he joined in 2016 upon the closing of the company’s purchase of Greater Media. Buzz was the VP/Program Development for Greater Media. He is an accomplished major market programmer and today heads-up the consulting firm Buzz Knight Media.

Mike Kennedy is a Kansas City legend who has programmed multiple stations in that market, entertained on-air, was VP/Programming for Wilks Broadcasting and Steel City Media and most recently the OM/PD for Audacy owned 106.5 The Wolf and 99.7 The Point. Mike has been involved in every aspect of radio.

I started our round table by asking the group what they see as the biggest challenges facing radio today. and segued later into what the future of radio looks like. The responses were positive and not so positive. Their responses were real, honest and open. Sometimes, reading casually, one might think that their opinions are negative. That’s not the intention of their comments. They identify our weaknesses.

These legendary programmers echoed what’s become obvious to many in regard to what the industry needs to do to improve. They point out recognized problems. They question if anyone has the stomach to take the necessary big steps to turnaround the content and entertainment area of the business.

Ed Salamon kicked off the discussion pointing to the industry’s past and the value of on-air talent then and now. Ed and I worked together in Los Angeles in the late 70s and were a part of the Top 40 battle in LA with 10Q (KTNQ), beating the legendary KHJ. A lot has changed since WHN, New York, became the most listened to Country radio station of all time. Radio's future, however, has remained bright because of its core strengths of connectivity with its listeners and its ubiquity.

Salamon offered up that “we won the Top 40 battle in LA with connectivity and personalities. 10Q's bigger than life local personalities included the Real Don Steele, M. G. Kelly, Jack Armstrong and, on weekends, Scott Shannon. The challenge is for today's personalities to connect with their audiences and for stations to connect in their communities even when they are not listening to the broadcast signal, through social media, events, alliances with organizations and local sports teams and in the metaverse. Each of those air-talent took responsibility for connecting with their audience, because they saw the value of it to themselves and their own careers.”

“The Radio industry’s greatest challenge is the fact that so many companies are drowning in financial/debt thereby forcing them to operate with a defensive posture rather than an offensive posture” proclaimed Buzz Knight. He continued “Radio desperately needs to operate with an offensive mindset when it comes to areas like: Talent Development and Retention, Innovation and Revenue Generation. The industry should operate in an offensive posture when it comes to messaging within the advertising community. This is NOT the time for the industry to have an inferiority complex.”

“Given the reality of increased competition, and the inability of new launches to achieve a large audience without massive marketing is rare. Which makes it apparent to me that it’s better to invest in what you have than try to launch something new.” Knight continued “If you have big brands and you feed and nurture them, you still have a shot to have a good business. Please don’t take lightly the notion of feeding and nurturing as in today’s competitive climate it is more important than ever to stand out. Marketing is critical now more than ever. You ask your clients to market themselves but if you don’t it looks weak and leads to greater problems such as cume erosion.”

Which begs the question … and if not? “If you have mid-pack lower tier brands your business and audience retention will be challenged more and more every year. The future for those type of brands frightens me as I fear these types of stations will never dig out of their hole.”

Mike Kennedy, a longtime on-air personality and Programmer, as well as Manager, pointed to the power of the radio star. “Catching up and recreating the bond and magic with on-air talent is critical. I say, and have said for years, that when radio loses that connection, we are done. I think in the last couple of years the powers-that-be finally saw that eliminating the talent that created the bond with listeners was a mistake. I could not believe what I was seeing back in the PPM implementation days when the then powers-that-be-thought it'd be a good idea to relieve their stations of the heritage talent because of the new PPM mentality. I fought like a mad man to keep our talent because, in my opinion, that was the only way we could keep listener loyalty.”

The legendary programmer noted something that I’ve said in the past and that is that on-air personalities are the one programming element that can’t be easily copied. Kennedy added “We all know that you can get music in many different ways, but local talent is a special asset that needs to be fought for and protected. And all of a sudden … in the last couple of years … the industry has started to figure that out. I still think that is one of the biggest challenges - fighting for your local talent and nurturing talent. Obviously, it's not feasible or affordable, in most markets, to have wall to wall local talent, but I sure think it's smart and feasible to have strong anchors in AMD and PMD.”

“I am personally a music guy and love all kinds of music but when I go to "my" radio I go for the personalities. I'm not crazy enough to think the youth of today are using radio the same way but sadly they don't know any different because radio made the decision years ago to take that important element away from them. " Can that type of relationship be created again? I don't know but what I do know is when I listen to my local stations, they spend a hell of a lot of time directing local listeners away from their own product to "personalities" and "talent" being delivered in other forms. So, it seems like the companies believe in the power of talent just not their own in many cases. I don't want to be perceived as making blanket statements as I know not all companies are the same.”

Scott Shannon, one of the best-known personalities in America, and recognized for a highly successful career as a programmer, shone a light on one of our problems. That is that we’re not teaching PD’s as we once did. He said “we no longer have the minor leagues to season a program director or a talent. Because of syndication and voice-tracking, there are fewer opportunities for a talent to practice-practice-practice. Just because you are syndicated doesn’t mean that you’re good.”

He continued “That’s not to demean syndication, because a balance of local and syndication works for the ratings, but it eliminates the training ground in smaller markets. Like an athlete, practice makes perfect. We’re not teaching talent what to listen for when listening to a station or talent, ether. We’re not encouraging talent to learn from listening.”

“If you want to blame someone for the mess that radio is in today, it’s Bill Clinton. He pushed for deregulation. That led to consolidation Radio, at its best, is an artform. Little by little the artform has disappeared. That’s one of the things that’s changed because of consolidation.”

Similarly, you can see that other business were deregulated and they contracted, but still focused on customer service, maintaining key employees, and growing their business. Radio’s deregulation hasn’t played out that way. We used to have plenty of research, which was important to understand your audience, marketing dollars were available to attract an audience. That’s not what we see universally today.

Scott added “Commercial content levels have increased at a time when we’ve never had more competition than we do now. We’re competing with other stations in the market, 100 channels on SiriusXM, Spotify, Pandora and podcasting. Our business isn’t the only business going through this. Other mature businesses are experiencing the same thing. Competition levels for our competitors is going to increase, too. That will further water down all of media as we know if today.”

“The elimination of jobs, and having many employees multitask, is a change that’s helped companies cut costs, but you can’t tell me that a PD can be as effective programming 5 stations as they were when they programmed one. Same for promotion departments. They’re understaffed and underfunded” closed out Shannon’s thoughts on radios problems as they stand today.

When it comes to the future, he noted that the operators in this current wave of ownership aren’t at fault as were the first wave of consolidators. He said “I’m not castigating the people who have bought stations from the early aggregators. They’re doing what they need to do to save an industry. The first wave of aggregators created a lot of the problems that today’s owners are dealing with. Many good people became collateral damage because they were paid a fair salary for their performance. Which someone somewhere decided was too much. For so many companies now, every programming decision becomes one where the monetary factor, is the main factor.”

When it comes to predicting the future of Radio, Mike Kennedy said “The future as we know it? My “gut feel” is that media companies better start reinvesting in their talent on a larger scale. It "feels" like the music battle, and appetite for music, is shrinking so we better think of another option. Like expanding the spoken word on those expensive FM sticks. Yes, I still call stations sticks. This is certainly a bigger issue than I make of it but maybe it's just time to stop wasting the resources on AM stations that nobody is listening too? We know that obsolescence happens, so sadly, why not embrace it? If that can help stop the drain of resources maybe it's an option.

Kennedy stated “radio companies can quit pretending that they are here to serve the "local" community and provide those "services" they were licensed to do. We all know that's just not the honest truth. (There is that brutally honest part). Apps are great. I love them and use them, but let's use them as an extension of our radio station brands - not the place to go find something else that competes with you.”

When the question was posed to Ed Salmon as to radio’s ability to ever reach the heights of the past, he pointed a finger at the level of increased competition and the weaknesses of the rating service. “Given the changes in ratings methodology since WHN/NYC became the world’s most listened to country station, it's unlikely that its record will ever be broken. There are more listening platforms available now than only the over the air signal from a broadcast tower.

Ed said “Radio is more ubiquitous than ever; today nearly everyone constantly carries a "radio" receiver with them as a function of the apps available through multiple smart devices. In addition, "radio" is available on-demand as podcasts, streaming stations and videos. The challenge is measuring all of that listening and properly crediting it as radio. Better measurement has always been an issue, but it is now worth fighting for more than ever so radio can be monetized as it deserves. That’s what is important for our future.”

Kennedy added “I'm not smart enough to roll out any mind-blowing remedies for radio. I just know that we got away from what made us successful. Whether that was greed, the need to use radio cash flow to fund the app game or just the fact of business that when you pay too much for something, you've got to find a way to pay for it, and you end up reducing your best assets.”

There is a big tech effect on on-air personnel. Companies like Apple and Amazon are adding air talent at a time when radio is eliminating them. Why? They know that great talent creates a connection with the audience. They know that it creates day-to-day listening. Radio is going the other way. Some great air talents have left radio to work for the big tech companies. Scott Shannon shared that we all should be “worried that it’s only the beginning of talent defecting.”

The most important thing that these former residents of the Best PD’s In America list agreed on is that radio is still exciting and it has a future that’s stronger than what the naysayers want us to believe. Scott Shannon shared the passion that continues to burn within his soul when he said “I still love getting up in the morning, going into a radio station, and going on the air. The only time I feel bad about still working is when I first wakeup at 3:15 in the morning. Once I’m over the initial rush of being tired, I’m wide awake and eager to get in and get on the air.”

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