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Programming consultant Alex DeMers has spent decades between rock and a hard place. As founder of DeMers Programming Media Consultants, he has worked with hundreds of clients through the ups and downs of mainstream rock, active rock, classic rock, classic hits and alternative.

Founded in 1986 and with offices in suburban Philadelphia and Austin, DeMers and his team specialize in music programming, talent coaching, new media integration, audience research and marketing concepts. He has worked with more than 200 radio stations in major markets like New York, Boston and San Francisco, and in 80 of the top 100 metros.

Before donning his consultant cap, DeMers was integral in the success of Philly’s then album rocker “Q102” WIOQ. He joined in overnights in 1974, then spent more than a decade as VP of Programming, overseeing all aspects of programming, music and research. He tells Inside Radio below, “They foolishly let me flip the station to hard rock… and damn if we didn’t start getting some numbers, even with two legendary rockers in town.”

Add to that a BFA degree in Film and Television from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and DeMers brings a unique flair to helping rock stations navigate evolving demos, music cycles, and the nuances of the many flavors of the formats. He offers Inside Radio a report card about rock radio, talks about embracing new technology and offers some tough love for a format he loves. An edited transcript follows.

You’ve been consulting radio stations since the mid-‘80s. What services and expertise are clients looking for today that’s different from what they needed in the past?

Clients today want timely, actionable answers in order to improve ratings and revenue position–of course, that’s what they’ve always wanted. However, in an environment where programmers are stretched to the max and resources are often scarce, clients rely on us more than ever to “have the answers” and to get it done now.

In many cases, we need to analyze the market challenges, and gauge the opportunities for success without tools such as research or even being “in market.” As you said, my team and I have been doing this quite a while, and that experience gives us the ability to go into most any situation and develop a plan that will help our client achieve greater success.

I was fortunate to grow into the business at a time that, while demanding, also provided more support systems – things like extensive research investment, long-term strategic plan development, a commitment to marketing and, most importantly, people… lots of people to make it all work. There are a handful of operators who still get it done old school and the results show. I believe we do a really good job for our clients, but we can help work wonders with the right resources.

Your consultancy works with stations in markets of all sizes. How are the challenges and advantages different when working with markets as diverse as Boston or Fargo?

For the most part, competition is competition. There are a lot of smart people in markets of all sizes and I’ve yet to meet anyone in this business who doesn’t just love to win. You might think that the obvious advantage in the larger markets is resources, but that’s not always the case. Some independent operators we work with make significant investments in research and marketing tools as well as having larger staffs and more live dayparts than we see at some top 50 market stations.

The only reason to deploy different tactics in smaller markets versus larger ones is driven by Nielsen – diaries versus meters. In a diary market, we are asking for votes. Tactics that maximize recall are vital. In metered markets, streamlining the product is critical. But in each case, developing a one-to-one relationship with listeners is still key.

We have changed some of the things we do in diary markets based on the tons of PPM data we’ve seen over the years. The PPM does give us a more granular view of “actual” listening versus “reported” listening in diaries. However, regardless of the methodology, the underlying listener behavior is the same. So we take many of the lessons we’ve learned from the metered markets and apply them, with a twist, in the diary markets.

What’s your state of the format for rock radio today, in the broad sense?

In general, I’d say rock radio is quite healthy, with some variants performing better overall than others. Still, within each brand of rock there are stellar radio stations doing big numbers in terms of listeners and dollars.

When talking about this with Inside Radio late last year, I mentioned we had to adapt our guidance for contemporary rock clients in order to deal with the relative lack of high-quality new music for mainstream active rock stations. While some stations have chosen to abandon all new music, we’ve developed market-specific approaches that still speak to the contemporary rock lifestyle. The critical ingredient is recognizing that this audience’s appetite for newer music just isn’t what it was a few years back.

So stations that are thriving while playing today’s rock are heavily invested in talent, and not just in mornings. They are also heavily invested in hitting the streets – literally. While touching the audience via social media is important, there’s a reason politicians still hold rallies and show up at every beef & beer, fish fry and pancake breakfast they can find. Listeners like what they know… and what better way to get them to know you than to step up, ask their name and shake their hand?

And then there’s classic rock. Looking good, yes, Alex?

In many ways, this is the best place to be right now. There’s still a monster appetite for classic rock. These songs and artists truly are the “standards” of our time.

All the same, with many classic rock listeners aging out of the 25-54 demo and Millennials coming into the demo, how do you advise stations to appeal to the next generation of listeners?

From a pure playlist standpoint, it’s important to understand which songs and artists have that special ability to transcend their original fan appeal. Additionally, Madison Avenue has done a great job of helping make this body of music relevant to younger cohorts by using music from the Who, Ozzy, Lennon, Guns ‘N’ Roses and the like to sell everything from jeans and tacos to cellphones and cars. Add to that the pop that Guitar Hero and similar music-themed video games had about a decade ago, as well as the ongoing use of classics in countless movies and TV shows. There’s a ton of pop culture support for the format.

All that good stuff about the music being said, the winning classic rock stations live for today – they are most definitely 2018 radio stations in content and personality.

With classic hits now musically centered in the ‘80s, what’s your advice for adult hits stations that have traditionally been rooted in that decade?

We love working in both of those formats. For the most part, classic hits is very well understood within the industry and many stations are doing very well. Many oldies stations have truly transformed and, as you noted, there is increasing crossover with adult hits stations. But we see opportunity for both to thrive and are seeing that in a number of markets.

I believe the adult hits format is by far the least understood rock variant we have. For adult hits stations, the key is not just understanding your target listeners’ musical tastes. The real trick is understanding the unique qualities of your particular market that allow you to program to the market vibe. We have had a lot fun building some great adult hits brands and have found that the winning formula involves fine points of strategy not well served by plugging in national formulas. And every programmer I’ve worked with on an adult hits station did nothing like this before. They’ve come from country, hot AC, rock, classic hits… and when we get done building the station and watching it grow, they often remark that it’s the most challenging—and fun—format they’ve ever programmed.

In December, you contributed to Inside Radio’s discussion about Entercom flipping three stations on Nov. 30 to alternative. Your take was that Entercom has seen success with the format in markets like Portland and Seattle, and you were optimistic. What are your thoughts after a few months?

Let‘s go with an emphatic yes. After a glimpse at some of the early returns from New York, it’s really impressive. I believe that most of these stations will definitely have a nice start – like any station, the challenge will be the second act and the third… Right now it looks like filling the void with some fresh music has given them a nice pop. I can’t wait to see what impact a talented programmer like [former “Alt 98.7” KYSR Los Angeles PD] Mike Kaplan will have in NYC when he gets onboard.

How is DeMers advising stations on the latest tech trends, such as smart speaker skill development, app development, on-demand content creation and distribution?

We certainly work with our client stations to maximize their market footprint by using the latest technology. That’s a given. With technology changing so quickly, it’s tempting for some to start throwing everything against the wall just to see what will move the meters. I believe it’s important to go step by step. We work with our clients to develop a cohesive tech strategy, based on the market, the target and their resources.

So let’s look back for a moment. Before consulting you programmed WIOQ in Philadelphia for over a decade. How’d you get your start in the Home of the Superbowl Champions?

I had just graduated NYU Film School and had my first taste of non-college radio doing part-time at WHCN in Hartford. With a few months experience, I foolishly thought that I could just put together my demo tape and resume and walk in to WMMR in Philly and get a gig. What I did get was an interview, not with the PD but with his MD. We had what I thought was a nice chat and he said he’d get back to me. As I was leaving, I happened to look back – and through the glass door I saw the MD tossing my beloved aircheck into a large trash bin. Being young and foolish I then made my own little vow to get on the air in Philly – now.

So I sent my stuff to everyone, pounded on every door and eventually got picked up part-time at WIOQ, which was a half-automated top 40 at the time. Little did I know that the station was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. A few months in, they were looking for someone crazy enough—and inexpensive enough—to take the PD job. Right place, right time. I took it and they foolishly let me flip the station to hard rock… and damn if we didn’t start getting some numbers, even with two legendary rockers in town. What I learned, I learned on the job and, thankfully, its suited me well.

To this day, I truly love working with up-and-coming talent, smart young programmers and folks who’ll try anything.