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Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

Interview: Mat Diablo

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Last month, 91X fired Matthew Bates (aka Mat Diablo) and cancelled The 91X Morning Show with Mat Diablo. Now, as we reported in this week’s issue, he’s looking for a new job—but not in radio.

Bates, a 30-year-old marketing specialist who works part-time for the online personal radio outlet Slacker, says he’s not bitter, but he doesn’t have much hope for the future of radio. In an interview with CityBeat last Sunday, Bates talked about the Morning Show‘s early days, the radio industry’s business model, and how it can compete with a legion of iPhone apps.

How did you get involved with 91X?

Well, they’d offered me a job when I was still up in Boise [Idaho, where he was program director and brand manager for KQXR 100.3 FM], and I said ‘No.’ Because my perception at the time was that 91X was in bad shape, which it was. And when I moved to town [in 2006], the people who were running the station at the time [Finest City Broadcasting, which had recently bought the station from Clear Channel] hit me up and said, ‘Hey, let’s just talk. I’m interested in what you’re doing over here. Maybe can you develop some content for us as well, on the side?’ I started having high-level conversations with them about where that station can go. They recognized that, for the better part of the last decade, that station had been a non-issue for most people—you know, as a result of being owned by Clear Channel, being programmed from out of the city, voice-tracking, and all the other terrible things you hear about radio consolidation. They were really committed to rebuilding 91X’s brand.

Everyone knows 91X. It plays music, you tune in, you tune out; it’s there. Certainly not what it used to be, though. As far as being active in the community, as far as what it represents to this generation, it’s just sort of a shell of its former self. And they recognized that. They said, ‘We’re gonna fix this. We wanna take our listeners and turn them into enthusiasts. We want to develop some good will in the community. And more importantly, we want to embrace emerging tech. Rather than being reactive to all these challenges—i.e. Pandora and Slacker and satellite radio and God knows what else—we want to be pro-active. We want to be a leader when it comes to incorporating emerging tech and emerging content delivery platforms. We want to be involved in peoples’ lives in our communities again.’

I put together a presentation; I put together this whole sort of definition of what that would be. And then they went out and they tried to find a show. And then a couple months later, they approached me and said, ‘We can’t find anyone to do this. Do you want to do it?’ My passion is music first and secondly getting cool ideas, cool products—I know it’s cynical to say music is a product, but it is—into the hands of the people who are going to appreciate it the most. And this was just another one of those challenges. From a 91X standpoint and a show standpoint, they wanted us to build a community again. 91X did not have a community for a long time.

So how do you feel the show went?

This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Because I just told you all this aspirational stuff—what we wanted it to be, what we hoped it would be. When you get in there, and you’re generating five hours of original content every day, and you’ve got four people involved, sometimes. … Lowest common denominator radio, the Howard Sterns of this world, that’s the easiest thing to do. You talk about cargo shorts and sandwiches and boobs. That’s universal, right? We really, really did not want to do that.

When I signed on, I said, ‘You gotta give me two years. You have to give me guaranteed, no matter what, two years or you pay me. Even if you want to get rid of me. Because it’s not going to be good.’ And it wasn’t. It really wasn’t, initially. The community that has been with us from day one and is still with us today—I have no idea why. And I’m so grateful, because it was terrible. In reality, it took about a year and a half before it really started gelling.

Why did it take so long for the show to come together?

When I initially put the show together and was given the leeway to hire a cast, as it were, I said, ‘I will take inherent intelligence over radio experience.’ In fact, I did not want to bring in a bunch of radio people to do the show with me, because when you do that, you end up with what you’re accustomed to for morning radio—a cackling female sidekick and the big, dumb misogynistic guy. These are all pretty established archetypes and I wanted to avoid all that. What I did was I found the smartest kid that I could find, regardless of radio experience—and I was given leeway from the first company to do this—and I said, ‘We’re gonna create something from the ground up, organically.’ These kids [Morning Show crewmates Carlos Montoya and Sammi Skolmoski] are smart enough to make it happen; it’s just a matter of getting that sort of inherent radio skill set. It’s like playing in a band. You have all of these different instruments and it takes a lot of practice in order to create something cohesive. In our case, we were doing all of our practicing live on the air.

Could you give me an example?

There was a bit where I brought on a guy from Indianapolis when the Chargers were playing the Colts in the playoffs, and I was gonna try to do like this sort of old-school wacky radio bit where it’s like, ‘I bet you the Chargers are gonna win!’ and we talk smack to each other and make some sort of bizarre, weird bet. It was miserable. I was never able to step outside of myself and turn that little voice in the back of my head off that was saying, ‘Wow, this sounds really dumb’ and just go over the top and be like, ‘You’re going down! F you!’

Do you think the show was successful?

Not fully, but to some extent. The initial plan that I put together—we were only able to execute on probably 50 percent of it. I’m not bummed about that. I mean, it’s expected. It happens on any project.

What wasn’t executed?

The whole web presence, you know, to where we turn this portal into a true lifestyle portal as opposed to a place where you go to find out what we just played or where the DJs are. Where we’re generating content, where we are using this brand as 91X and driving people to the website to get their content. To make 91X.com a lifestyle content distribution system and to slowly but surely work towards the radio signal becoming less important to the whole.

Also, the second part of [the show] was the community building aspect. We created—or at least latched onto a number of communities. We created this huge niche for ourselves and a home for people who were fans of drinking and eating locally, you know, whether it be slow food, community agriculture—CSAs, community supported agriculture—or whether it be craft beer. We created a fan group around the Chargers because we recognize how important the Chargers were, but we also recognize that 91X fans aren’t going to be the, you know, hoo-rah, high five jersey-wearin’ dudes.

So, in that sense, the show was successful.

Oh yeah. The community-building aspect was incredible. We got people engaged, there’s no doubt about it. Was it tens of thousands of people? No. Was it thousands of people? Absolutely. We created a community where people felt involved, people felt valuable, and people felt like they were involved. It’s not like, ‘We wanna recruit you to come represent 91X!’ It’s like we’ve created this community and 91x happens to be the umbrella.

One of the things we did is we responded to every single piece of correspondence we ever got. Ever. The first week that I was unemployed, I wasn’t filling out unemployment forms. I was literally just responding to e-mails and phone calls. That’s all I did, eight hours a day, for about seven days. I’m still not completely caught up. We literally received—probably not tens of thousands, but definitely thousands of e-mails, of phone calls. Our Facebook page grew exponentially after we got fired.

What I want to do with that correspondence is just thank them. Because this was an unlikely experiment with a bunch of unlikely people. We’re not lifelong radio guys. We’re not Mikeys, we’re not Jeff and Jers. And so, for the old 91X organization to take a risk and say, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna try this,’ that was one thing. But then for the community to say, ‘We’ve got your back,’ that was something entirely different.

You say this was an experiment—it must’ve been in the back of your mind this whole time that it wasn’t gonna last.

In December, the company that we were working for, all of our people, the people who brought us in to support us, they went insolvent. And it was purchased by a new company [Local Media of America], which is locally based but is staffed by ex-Clear Channel people. I went in optimistically, but it became apparent to me, starting back in January, that this was going to be over this year.

They never moved us in. They never built our studio. They never gave us an office. We were never introduced to the guy who runs the place. But more importantly, I talked to the programming guys and I got an idea for what their philosophy was—and I’m not saying it’s the right or wrong philosophy, but it was completely different than what we’re doing. It was diametrically opposed in almost every way to what we were doing. It’s like a jukebox. There’s two full-time employees that work there, so their overhead is incredibly low. So they’re gonna keep overhead incredibly low, run a real tight ship and not really generate any content, just play music.

They cut a pretty good chunk of payroll when they got rid of us. I don’t know if it’ll work ratings-wise. But financially it will work, because even if they get lower ratings than less advertising, they still have less overhead now. And less to worry about. Less letters, less polarizing stuff, less activity, less being out on the street, less community-building exercises. These are all things that cost money. I mean, it’s very easy to load songs in and play them, and it’s inexpensive.

What do you want to do now?

There’s all kinds of stuff I want to do. I want to restore classic motorcycles, turn them into cafe racers and sell them. I want to get involved and explore the scalability of community-supported agriculture and local food and slow food. Those are all things I wanna do and I will do. What I’m going to do is, I’m going to get a job. I have to. I have a mortgage, and a baby, and a wife.

I don’t want to be so presumptuous to say that I’ve already been hired, but—people have reached out. I’ve been a lot luckier than most, because there’s plenty of other creatives out there that are equally, if not more, talented than I am, but they haven’t had the name recognition that I’ve had. And as such, I’ve had organizations reaching out to me.

Are you going to stay in the media industry?

What I’ve done in the past is what I’m gonna do again. I’m a brand manager. I deal with product management, music management and action sports, as well. There’s a lot of action sports here and there’s a lot of those people I already talked to, as far as in San Diego. That is an option. I’ve got several different options, nothing that is solidified yet.

What’s going to happen with all of the 91X stuff?

This comes with a caveat. I am extremely hesitant to latch onto what we did at 91X because it smacks of the jock reliving his high school football days. This is something that we did and it’s done. I’m not going to go out for the next two years and milk what we did as a radio show to try to maintain a public profile. I’m not gonna do it. I’m gonna move onto my next project.

Now, with that said, I’m also really hesitant to completely forsake this community that we’ve built. We’re going to continue to do a segment we did called “Beer for Breakfast.” Once we settle down here and we return all our e-mails and everything and I get my full-time employment situation sussed out, we are going to do a weekly Beer for Breakfast—for lack of a better word—podcast. Five minute, hi-def video. And it is going to be distributed nationally and it is going to be 100-percent San Diego focused. On San Diego craft beer, making people aware of the craft community here in San Diego, because it’s grown to the extent that it’s of interest to people outside of San Diego.

How do you feel about the state of radio in San Diego? It seems like it reflects what’s going on in radio in general.

This thing is, I’m out and I’m happy that I did it. It’s really easy once you’re out to sit there and be an armchair quarterback and say, ‘Well, this is where they’re messing up.’ But it’s apparent to anyone who listens to the radio that radio is becoming less relevant as far as a medium to get music discovery or information. And what it has become is background.

Look at what happened to Dave, Shelley and Chainsaw on KGB. There’s no reason to get rid of that show other than financial, you know what I’m saying? That show is such a huge part of the community. They did well. They were good people, which you don’t meet too many of in radio. They were the gold standard in this market. And their radio station has found it to be more valuable to cut that overhead from that radio show and play music and deal with the revenue that they’ll lose. They’ll probably come out ahead, because the overhead’s gone.

In this medium of radio, just the medium—forget the San Diego market, forget the business, forget the ownership group—this medium and the revenue model is inherently flawed. The methodology that goes into measuring audience in radio is flawed, and the business model is flawed. And they know it is. I’m not saying anything new. So when that’s the case, you have a choice. You can innovate. You can be proactive. Or you can shrink. You can survive and be reactive.

The medium needs to figure out how to be competitive in the digital space. It needs to figure out how to be as compelling and as ubiquitous as any other alternatives. Because, look, I can get anything that I want on my phone right now. If I want to listen to This American Life, I’ve got an app for that. I can listen to the archive of the show going back to the ’90s. Public radio is doing a great job of remaining relevant, as a whole. If I want to listen to any NPR station in the country, these are the NPR stations in Alaska and I’ll show you what they’re playing. If I want to hear just a song, any song right now, I can pull it up on Rhapsody and pull it up right now. Any song I want to hear. If I want to hear radio, but not radio that’s homogenized and run through research and corporate playlists like you hear on the radio here, I can just fire up Slacker. Mobile is the key. Ubiquity and mobile. And right now, radio is neither of those things.

If you could imagine the ideal radio station for San Diego, what would it be? How would it compete with all of these different apps?

You know, it’s hard because that would require something different than what we’re talking about. That would require the building of a brand from ground up.

91X has a brand that’s three decades deep. People from 50 to 10 know what 91X is and probably have it on their preset. This is a brand that has been built that is not being utilized. So if you were to take 91X and turn it into something more relevant, I could tell you about that. But as far as starting a radio station from ground up, that’s not a good model. Why would you do that? I mean, there’s no point. I wouldn’t start a radio station from the ground up. I would start a website with, you know, a lot of content outreach. I would make it hyper-local, hyper-focused, and I would be generating a ton of unique content—not making it a static stream, but making it completely dynamic. And I would market it to San Diego as something for San Diegans, and I would make sure they could get it wherever they were—whether it be on their Xbox and make it part of the dashboard on the Xbox or the PS360, or the PS3 rather, or on your phone, on any mobile device.

So, what do you feel is going to happen to radio?

Ten years from now, if you asked me to speculate, it’s going to be valuable because of its bandwidth. It’s going to be valuable to push real-time traffic data to GPS units and dashboards. It’s going to be valuable as bandwidth and not so much as a community service. Because again, it all comes back to mobile ubiquity—and I have all of the community information that I need at my fingertips right here [points to iPhone].

This interview was published on CityBeat‘s blog, Lastblogonearth.com.

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