Veteran broadcaster Jay Meyers reflects on the loss of the Radio Show as a standalone conference and what made it special.
Hearing the news that the NAB is going to discontinue the fall Radio Show and merge it into the spring NAB Show reminded me of the life of a great ballpark. In your youth, it’s built new in a space never before occupied by a ballpark, with great attendance in its early days, providing decades of memories. But it eventually declines in quality and appearance until it implodes and the debris is carted away – all during your lifetime.
Not many remember that the NAB Radio Show was born out of conflict. In the late 70s, a group of radio companies, who felt abandoned by the NAB, broke off and formed the National Radio Broadcasters Association (NRBA). Tired of playing second fiddle to TV, they formed an association and launched their own convention in the fall. The annual NAB Show was in the spring, though back then not always in Las Vegas. To combat the NRBA, the NAB announced the launch of the NAB Programming Show to take place in the fall. The first one I attended was in 1981 in a large Chicago hotel with the entire convention, including the Exhibit Hall housed in the hotel.
For the next few years, the NAB Programming Show competed directly with the annual NRBA show each fall. After a few years of battling, the NAB and NRBA reached a settlement whereby the NRBA would merge back into the NAB and disband, and the fall NAB Radio Show was born. The first one, as I recall, took place at the Bonaventure in Los Angeles. And the show soon became big – too big to be housed at a large hotel. In places like New Orleans (every three years it seemed between 1986 and 2001), Washington D.C., San Francisco, and more, the NAB Radio Show occupied significant portions of large convention centers. It was the place to be to learn, to network, to form friendships that would last a lifetime, and to annually renew your enthusiasm and love for the radio industry. It was the glory days for the NAB Radio Show.
Once consolidation started, attendance numbers began to dip a little as the large companies held their own meetings rather than sending people to the show. So the NAB took the show to different places in order to attract attendees who might not travel thousands of miles to attend. During this century, the Radio Show made stops in places with smaller convention centers like San Diego, Charlotte, Austin, Indianapolis, and Nashville among others. By the teens, the Radio Show had returned to its roots and housed itself at hotels that had their own convention centers – The Hyatt Regency in Chicago, the Anatole in Dallas, the Waldorf/Hilton Complex at Disney in Orlando, for example.
History will validate that the last Radio Show took place at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas in September of 2019. A quick aside: I attended my first RAB Show in Atlanta in 1988 after making the leap from PD to GM. Over the next 25 years I attended at least 20 more and saw it grow, thrive, wilt and die. I remember attending the last one at the Rosen Creek in Orlando where barely 200 loyal folks made the trek. I was there only because the Rosen Creek is 70 minutes from my house. I knew it was the end and was not surprised at all when soon after it was announced that the RAB Show would now become part of the NAB Radio Show.
I had the same feeling at the Radio Show two years ago. It was a stark contrast to past ones I had attended in Dallas. The hotel was the same, the Anatole, but the progression was striking. In 1993, the Anatole was the host hotel, but buses took you to the Dallas Convention Center for the show. In 2006, the show was back at the Anatole, occupying the entire hotel including the large in-house convention center. And 13 years later, the NAB/RAB Radio Show was back, but this time housed only in the smaller section of the hotel, with an exhibit floor in a small ballroom.
I left the show thinking that I was probably attending the last one ever. My feeling proved true (although to be honest, if not for COVID, the Show might have limped through another year or two.)
The demise was inevitable. Looking back on what made the Show special, the things that cannot be replaced are the intangibles. Learning? You can do that all the time by attending online seminars. Networking? Although hard to replace on a macro level (the running into someone in the lobby or bar), on the micro level I can network face-to-face on Zoom without leaving my office.
It’s the intangibles that will forever be missed. No friendships to be found and formed to last a lifetime. No chance to get together in an impromptu group to laugh and tell stories and recharge your batteries for another year.
So let’s raise a glass in remembrance of the great radio ballpark that was born 40 years ago and has now been imploded with a simple press release from the NAB. The NAB Radio Show: great times, great places, and great memories!
I’d like to share with you some random memories from four decades of attending the Radio Show.
1981 – My first Radio Show in Chicago
I was working for Greater Media at their flagship station, WCTC in New Brunswick, NJ. I went with Bob Dunphy, the PD at sister station WMGQ. We were just kids and it was our first convention. We quickly learned that by planning correctly, you could have a five-course meal every night if you knew what was being served in what suite. You always left Drake Chenault for last because they served ice cream! Bob became – and 40 years later, remains – my best friend.
1986 – My first convention where I was heavily involved
I was on two panels and moderated a third. It was held in New Orleans and the Marriott off Bourbon St. was the home hotel. It wasn’t ready for the crowd. I vividly remember packed first floor elevators sinking because of the weight and having to be evacuated. You quickly learned that the only way to get to the suites was to get lucky on the elevator and take it to the 40th floor and walk down the stairs – one floor at a time. A group of a dozen closed the convention, sitting in the lobby till 4am telling stories. I formed lifelong friendships with fellow programmers: Dave Dillon, Bill Conway and John Roberts (RIP), among others.
1987 – Anaheim
At my first convention after making the PD to GM leap I was on a panel on that same topic. In high school and college, I used to hang around WFIL in Philadelphia and the PD, the late Jay Cook, became a mentor for me. You can imagine my thrill when, four years after Jay left, I became the PD of WFIL, sitting at the same desk that he had. It was an equal thrill to be sitting next to him on that panel.
1988 – Washington, DC
The convention center was about a four block walk from the main hotel and that area was under major construction so you literally walked past construction sites the entire way. The opening ceremony emcee was the late Gary Owens. He opened by saying, “I just got back from the convention center and I walked past one site where there was a block square hole in the ground and a group of people standing around it throwing dollar bills into the hole. I asked someone what was going on and they said, “Oh, that’s just the panel on what it’s like to own an AM radio station.”
1993 – Dallas
I was sitting in the atrium area of the Lowes Anatole talking with Gary Stevens and Dick Ferguson when a roar erupted from a restaurant just off the lobby. “What was that?” Dick asked. Gary responded, “That’s the private luncheon for Rush Limbaugh affiliates. The roar is from all the owners of AM stations for the guy who saved them from personal bankruptcy.”
1998 – Seattle
This was a big departure for the NAB to go to such an isolated city. I was less than a year into my gig as a Senior Vice President at Jacor. As I was getting ready to leave for the airport, Dave Crowl (truly one of the greatest broadcasters I’ve ever met) walked into my office and said, “You are about to have the best time of your life.” “Why?” I asked. “Because every other convention you’ve gone to, you walked into the room and looked around to see who you wanted to talk to. Now when you walk into the room, you’ll be the guy everyone wants to talk to.”
1999 – Orlando
Somehow, the NAB thought it would be a great idea to move the convention to the end of August and hold it at Disneyworld in Florida. It would encourage more people to come because they could bring their families with them. Florida in August? At an inland resort? Attendance was miserable. So was the experience.
2001 – New Orleans
I went to the convention for six hours and NAB’s John David thanked me profusely and gave me a hug for coming. Why? Because I was an SVP at Clear Channel which held its annual managers meeting for all division in Atlanta at the same time. I was possibly the only Clear Channel employee to attend and John was grateful. The convention, and the Clear Channel meetings, ended two days before 9/11.
2007 – Charlotte
The hotels weren’t great, the convention center next door was set up awkwardly and most of the hallway conversation was talk about why are we at a convention in Charlotte. The old ballpark was starting to show age and the concrete was cracking.
2014 – Indianapolis
As a thank you for everything he had given our industry, the NAB scheduled the show in Indianapolis in tribute to Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan. The highlight was not the convention, but the private party Jeff held for two busloads of his friends at his mansion in the suburbs. It was a spectacular night and an unbelievable setting. Jeff had his good friend, the governor of Indiana, welcome the crowd and talk about how special it was that the NAB came to his state. That would be the future Vice President Mike Pence.
2018 – Orlando at the Waldorf/Hilton Bonnett Creek complex near Disney.
Back in the day, the toughest thing to find at an NAB Radio Show was often a place to sit and talk with friends or have a lobby meeting because every chair and table was taken. Not here: more tables and chairs in the lobbies than people needing them. There was no longer that distinctive convention buzzing noise in the lobby, just the sounds of heels clicking on the floor.
2019 – A sad ending in Dallas
I’ve been to local home and garden shows that felt more crowded. The exhibit floor did not even take up an entire ballroom, just one third sectioned off. It became the only convention in nearly 40 years of Radio Shows where I called the airline to get out on an earlier flight than I had originally booked.
Jay Meyers is President/CEO of Broadcast Management & Technology and outsources as a C-Level executive to multiple companies. He also operates the Fort Collins/Lafayette Divestiture Trust and serves on the Board of Directors of R Communications.