Industry Views

The Power of Live and Unpredictable

By Walter Sabo
Consultant, Sabo Media
A.K.A. Walter Sterling
Radio Host, Sterling on Sunday

imThe decision to change WABC from music to talk back in 1982 was not made by corporate, it was made by its then-program directorJay Clark. Corporate was hoping he would approve the change, “they” lobbied for it, but the call was the ultimate responsibility of the program director. The business plan for WABC as a talk station predicted it to be profitable in year 10. (That’s because KABC, Los Angeles took 10 years to turn a profit.) As it turned out, WABC turned a profit in year 11.

At the time of the WABC format change back in the early 80s, the role of a program director was to be a disruptor. They were expected to cause trouble, get headlines, keep the energy coming out of the speakers up-up-up. It was my experience that the best program directors were extremely unpleasant, difficult people. They knew how to stir up their world on and off the air.

They did not get along with sales: “I’ll get you ratings, you go sell them” was the essence of their relationship with sales!

As co-worker relationships within radio stations became more important than results, the industry suffered. The death knell was the first time a program director dismissed a new idea by saying, “It’s not in the budget.” Until that tragic moment, good/great program directors would greet new ideas with, “They will just have to give us the money.”

The primary reason radio is losing younger demos is not technology, it’s the show. Technology attracts no audience. No one goes to a movie theatre to see a blank white screen no matter how good they may find the air conditioning and popcorn. If younger listeners are listening to another audio medium it’s because the show is UNPREDICTABLE, new, energetic, fun or on-demand.

Radio of any genre can be unpredictable, new, energetic, fun and on-demand. (Request lines built top 40. But what happened to them?) The actions of unpredictability are free.

Those unpleasant, autonomous program directors often earned more money than any general manager and more than almost any program director working today. A lot more. Why? Because radio stations attracted cume by acting as a 24/7 barker. The barker sizzle came from the single mind of the program director.

The programming mind that wins by disruption is not limited to top 40. For example, classical music WGMS in Washington featured promos declaring that “WGMS plays real oldies,” “mostly Mozart” and “Celebrate the bicentennial and Beethoven’s birthday.”  Unexpected programming proves that radio is live and “LIVE” is the most powerful word in electronic media.

Walter Sabo was the youngest Executive Vice President in the history of NBC. The youngest VP in the history of ABC. He was a consultant to RKO General longer than Bill Drake. Walter was the in house consultant to Sirius for eight years. He has never written a resume. Contact him at or mobile 646-678-1110. Hear Walter Sterling at www.waltersterlingshow.comMeet Walter Sabo at TALKERS 2023 on Friday, June 2.