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Phil Becker - PHIL-Osophy

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Do you remember last Spring, when the media was all abuzz about AI Ashley, the first-ever artificial intelligence radio DJ? If so, you might remember the name Alpha Media. They're the ones who designed her.

Phil Becker is the Executive Vice President of Content at Alpha Media, and our guest today. He has a hand in the programming and content efforts of over 200 radio stations across America, and quite honestly, he's been on my list of potential podcast guests for years. Even before AI Ashley, his speaking points at conferences always fascinated me, as did his path through the radio industry.

In this episode, Phil and I chat about his unorthodox career path, the unique decisions that led him to it, and of course, the future and AI's prospective role in it. When AI Ashley was released last year, myself and many others speculated about what it could mean for the future of radio. We're still waiting to see how that turns out in the long run, but for now, Phil provides some excellent ideas of what we might be able to expect.

If you're curious about what Alpha Media is up to now, or want to work with them, you can visit their website here.


Phil made reference to the NewsNation story - here is how it played out.



Tara Sands (Voiceover) 00:02

The Sound Off Podcast. The show about podcast and broadcast starts now.

Matt Cundill 00:13

Phil Becker is the Executive Vice President of Content at Alpha Media. He oversees the content and programming for over 200 radio stations across America. And his career path is marginally untraditional. Over the years, I've heard him speak at conferences and I'd be like, Oh, that's different. Or, oh, that's fascinating. So I've had Phil on my list to be on the show for about the last four years. You might know Phil from last spring, when Alpha Media unveiled AI Ashley. There was lots of media attention, and people, including myself, who chimed in on what AI radio means to radio's future. Well, we're all still here. Today, I'll be talking to Phil about his career, his fascinating career decisions, and his favorite subject, the future, which indeed includes AI. Now, Phil Becker joins me from his home in Portland, Oregon. Phil, why on earth did you ever want to get into radio?

Phil Becker 01:14

I think I wanted to get into it for a couple of reasons. One, probably shyness, which isn't something you would think about normally, for someone that wants to be in radio. But if you think about it at the time that- that I was growing up listening to radio, there was no video component, there was no social media component. And so you had really whoever it was that you heard in your mind, or you visualized in your mind from what you were hearing, was who was on the radio. So that intrigued me. I had a Cub Scout tour, probably around the age of 9 or 10, at a radio station. One of the kids that was in my Cub Scout Troop, his dad was an engineer at a station. And I just- I just fell in love with it. And I grew up in this little city called Buchanan, Michigan, if you've ever heard of that, it's for only two reasons. Quick Suckers was a big thing, or Electrovoice microphones. So if you have an RE20, or have somebody listening that's ever talked into an RE20, which was kind of the radio standard for a long time, that was built right there down the street from my house. And so during school, we went to the Electrovoice factory. And I saw that- that was really interesting to me. So it was a combination of a Cub Scout tour, growing up in a city where Electrovoice was one of the big employers, and just the ability to sort of create and tell stories from an audio standpoint, I think that's kind of what started it.

Matt Cundill 02:38

I have this theory that people get into radio because they have something to say. And they don't know how to say it in their teenage years. So you know, maybe something traumatic happened, or maybe in the case you mentioned, you're shy. And maybe there's some things that just need to be said, and we need to- we gravitate towards a microphone in order to amplify ourselves.

Phil Becker 03:02

Yeah, I think you know, for me, I have cerebral palsy. And so it's always been something growing up that you're insecure about, right? Like, why does he walk that way? Why does he move that way? And on a microphone, you can't tell that. So I think you're really onto something there, Matt, where psychologically, it was a big part of why I went there. I have done that shyness now for anyone that's met me in the last 25 years, but it definitely was probably something that- that radio helped me mask a little bit.

Matt Cundill 03:29

Yes. I didn't know you had CP.

Phil Becker 03:31

Yeah, no, it's um- you know, it's something to that I think I probably should talk about more, you know, especially as I've spent all these years in the business, and I think I'm gonna- because of our conversation right now, I'm gonna make that a thing. You're gonna see- you're gonna see more- more of that storytelling for me, because I think there's- there's definitely some- some correlations there.

Matt Cundill 03:52

What makes Michigan Radio so special? There's little pockets of- of America that just radiate with radio, and I think of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I think of Fort Wayne, Indiana. And I know you've worked in both. So tell me about the Midwest and why it's just so radio.

Phil Becker 04:11

Yeah, I was really lucky because as a kid, I got to grow up on Chicago radio. So- so B96 was a big impact for me. I remember being on the school bus, and they had B96 on. Now again, I'm in Michigan, but we're on the water. So you got a great big amplifier in the water, right? And I remember hearing- I was probably in, gosh, sixth or seventh grade. It was middle school. And I remember hearing this promo, didn't know what a promo was at the time. And it went like this. Hi, I'm Todd Cavanaugh, Program Director of B96 Chicago. If there's something you'd like to hear on Chicago's dance beat, call me on the Todd phone. 555-Todd or whatever the number was. And I thought, what's a program director? What happens if you call there? You know, and I got to really get exposed to some great radio from there, I think Michigan in general, you mentioned Grand Rapids, WSNX was a was a great top 40 radio station for a really long time. I think on the east side of the state, you know, you had all of the influence of CKLW and the Canadian stations, definitely in the pre CanCon era. I just- I think that you know, that part of the country, it's cold. And we don't have, you know, palm trees, and we don't have these- these things. And I think that, you know, you could hunker down with a- with a radio and really get exposed to some magic. So I think being in the Midwest, Minneapolis has some great radio, you'd mentioned Indiana had some great radio, I think it's probably one of those things where we don't have a really thick accent. You know, I think that's a big part of it. So you see a lot of radio people come out of the Midwest, but I feel really fortunate to get to hear the stations that I've heard.

Matt Cundill 05:54

Yet if you spent any time in the Midwest, and you heard somebody from the Midwest, you would identify them as being from the Midwest, because we would have the ear quirk.

Phil Becker 06:01

You would. You absolutely would.

Matt Cundill 06:03

And it runs all the way, by the way from- from Churchill, Manitoba, you know, straight down Iowa. All the way- all the way south.

Phil Becker 06:11

Yep. You nailed it.

Matt Cundill 06:13

When you got into the radio station, and you started to do the work. Was it on air that you gravitated to? Or was it promotions? Or were you just on a trajectory to be a PD?

Phil Becker 06:23

No was not. In fact, I thought, I don't think I ever want to be a PD. Although I did have a breakthrough moment, which I'll share with you. But no, always wanted to be on the air. First paid radio job was at WIRX in St. Joe, Michigan. And this is gonna sound crazy. There was a full staff of part timers and weekenders. I know, crazy, crazy thought. And so you had this full staff of part time people. And I remember there was a guy named Cory, and a guy named Chad, and myself. And you were fighting for air shifts. You were just like, man, I have to get the shift. And I have to do, you know, the best job that I can. And it was always always being on air. So for me that was around 94-95. And then de-reg happened. And all of a sudden, there were more stations that your company, you know, could own. And so I was- I was doing anything I could. I remember there was a point where I was the night guy, I gotta- I got out of being the part time guy and I was the night guy on the rock station. And then I would go down the hall to do the night show. I was the afternoon guy on the country station. So you're doing afternoons from, say, three to seven, on the country station. You go down the hall, and you're doing nights on the rock station. And then I was the backup production director, and back then production was kind of done overnight, right? Cartin'- cartin' up commercials, making all the labels, getting everything ready for the next day. So I was pretty much in the radio station from two in the afternoon till- till six in the morning. And did that for two, three years. But yeah, on air was always the thing. And then if there was a need for promotions, I wanted to be the guy. I was driving the giant jam box. I was putting bumper stickers on cars. I was you know, going to youth fairs and handing out T shirts, and filling out registration boxes and- and doing all those things. But it was always- it was always on air. I didn't really understand, other than the word program director from those old Todd Cavanaugh promos, what- why would I want to do that?

Matt Cundill 08:24

So the fight to get on the air and to get the attention of the PD to do a good job meant putting in a little bit of extra time around the radio station, but also performing really well. And I get the feeling there might have been some jockeying for position between getting to do the evening shift and getting to do an overnight shift. So what did you do to become better on the air?

Phil Becker 08:47

Well, I think I wanted it more than everybody else. And you know, when you really want something, it starts to show up in ways that you can't even quantify. And I would- I would ask for air checks as opposed to be asked for, when's our next air check? You know, when we are checking? I would be the guy that'd go hey, Tuesday at 11, do you want to do it? Tuesday at 11 is not good. How about Wednesday at four? Oh, that's not good. How about Friday at five? And I think that, you know, that was a part of it was the asking to be coached. You know, there are people that I've worked with that hide from the AirCheck and other people that I've worked with that embrace it. So I think that was a part of it. I think the other- the other part was, I would come to any meeting at all, even if it was voluntary. You know, they'd be like, well, you don't need to come to this. Yeah, but- but I want to. So promotions meeting, sales meeting, engineering meeting, brainstorming meeting, client meeting, idea generator, I was in everything. So I think at some point, they probably said, Okay, this guy- we're not going to wear him out. So we might as well give him some at bats.

Matt Cundill 10:02

So this is a good time to ask you, because now that you're- with all these years of PD experience, what are some of the things you learned about air checking, good and bad, that you now do when you are giving feedback to talent?

Phil Becker 10:19

Yeah, let's see, let's- let's start with the- let's start with the bad. And a lot of what I'm going to share with you is also for- for your listeners that are parents, these are going to sound familiar. One, don't compare someone's air check to someone else's air check. Just like saying, you know, your brother gets better grades than you do, or your sister does a better job of cleaning a room than you do. I think you have to specialize in the person, with the time, energy, and attention that they deserve. That's one of the- one of the bad things. Another one of the bad things is not being able to say how to do it differently. And I think if you think back in your career, I know that I had this, and I had some really good coaches, by the way, some really good coaches. But I've also had ones that go, yeah, I don't like it when you do that with your voice. Okay, what would you like me to do? Just don't do that. Okay, well, alright, what should I do in place of that? Anything but that. You know, I think- I think you have to be specific. I think that, you know, if you're not specific, that's not benefiting anyone. The other thing that I really think people need to stay away from is when someone's trying something and you're listening in an air check, and they fall flat on their face. You don't need to tell them they failed on the break. They know. They know. So let them make mistakes, let them fall, you know, at the time that I was starting, there was no voice tracking, that- you couldn't- that wasn't a thing. So if I bombed on a break, if- if my PD would have sat there and said, well, that couldn't have gone any worse. Well, how is that going to serve me? You know, so- so I think letting- letting people fail is actually part of it. Those are the things I'd stay away from. The things that I would do, and I still do, is, before we start the air check, I ask them, what do you like on here? What are you happy with? And get that, you know, two way dialogue started from the very beginning. What would you like me to help you with? See, that's the key question that's so often forgotten as people go through an air check. And they gave you all these coaching tips. And they never said, Well, what would you like to get better at? So I think that that's one of the- the pieces. And then I say, what's the break on here that you're most proud of? And give them a chance to show that, right? And then if you had a do over, what break would you do over? But why would you do it different? You know, and I find that those are really the- really the key questions that have served me well.

Matt Cundill 12:54

So let's go back to the bad break for a second. If we both know it's bad, is it fair for me to ask the talent, how could we have done that better? Like in hindsight?

Phil Becker 13:06

Yeah, I think it is, I think it is. I liked the way you asked it, you know, how could we have done that better is productive. I remember getting asked this in an air check, I bombed on this break completely. And my PD said to me, basically, how bad do you want to be here? I'm like, what? He's like, if you think that that's good enough to be on here, then you may not want to be here. I was like, wow. I remember being in another air check with a different PD when I was in a larger market, and he said- he actually said this to me, Matt. He goes, maybe you need to go back to St. Joe. Oh, my gosh, you know, just- just- you know, so the way you said it, which is how can we do it better, I'm still saying to people now and in major markets in my corporate role. So I think that people want to be coached, the ones that want to be great, want to be coached, Kobe wanted a coach, Jordan wanted a coach, baseball teams have hitting coaches, I think that there's a lot of- a lot of positivity that comes out of just listening and investing in people. So the way you ask that, I think, is very fair.

Matt Cundill 14:08

And the reason why I did is because... Let's say the talent did a break, and there was blowback, and often, it's just one or two words that might have sunk it. One or- one or two small adjustments, which could have taken it from regrettable to amazing. And if I can train them to go back and to do it again and listen to it, and what's the one adjustment, we're gonna get more breaks out of it in the future. And I know that sounds like a small margin of error, but when you're from Canada and the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council will hang you out on one word, often it's just one word that can fix the break and take it from being a case for radio and just making it hey, that's great break. Let's- let's get on with the next one.

Phil Becker 14:54

Yeah, I did some work in Canadian radio. So I got to learn about the CRTC.

Matt Cundill 14:59

You- you worked at CKEY.

Phil Becker 15:01

Yeah, so- so the- so the station was an LMA between Citadel and a company called... Niagara Broadcasting? I forget the name, but it was a two country LMA. Studios were in Buffalo, I lived in Buffalo. My paycheck said Citadel Broadcasting on it. But the station was owned by a Canadian broadcast company out of Niagara Falls. I think the gentleman's name was David Dancy at CKEY. And it was it was an interesting thing. And I'm actually really glad I did. It's probably one of my favorite things about my career. But I had to learn CRTC while serving the majority of our audience in Buffalo, New York, and how do I do that? And how do I- how do I handle the different regulations? So that was- that was something super interesting for me. And then I did the same thing when I put on a national radio station in Jamaica. I put on a national radio station for the Stewart family, which they are the owners of, oh, gosh, Sandals and Beaches and all of these- these resorts, and it was the first national five frequency top 40 station in that country. So I had to learn about the Jamaican Broadcast Commission, which actually working for the station in Canada had prepared me. So I've been there. And I've understood how I'm like, Well, wait, that one word is out of bounds? Not in the States, but maybe in Canada. That one phrase is is too far, but this one isn't? Not in the States, but maybe in Jamaica. So that's been- that's been a lesson for me for sure.

Matt Cundill 16:40

And in hindsight, what do you think of Canadian content regulations, which, just after the time you were working there in 2001-ish, had jumped I think, in the previous years from 30 to 35%. So how'd you handle it?

Phil Becker 16:55

Man, how'd you handle it? Oh, this is- this is a great one. So the first thing is, nobody actually told me anything, Matt. At all. They're just like, okay, so yeah, you do this and we have to play some Canadian content. I'm like, okay, well, what does that mean and what qualifies? And they gave me the anachronism of maple and all of these sorts of things. And you got to remember the years that I was there, there was no Weeknd, there was no Bieber, there was no Drake, there was- we didn't have that. We didn't have Shawn Mendes, we didn't have these Canadian artists, and even if you did, they probably wouldn't qualify based on music, arranger, producer, location, you know, the whole maple anacronym. I don't know if I still got that right. Did I get it right?

Matt Cundill 17:40

Maple being MAPL, music artist production lyrics. And you're right, there are Drake records out there that just don't qualify because they're just getting around to updating the regs now. So you're still up to date, you can still come back to Canada anytime.

Phil Becker 17:55

All right, so- so how did I handle it? Well, the first thing is, I tried all the things that I'm sure everyone has. And that is like, well, maybe I could put all the songs, you know, in this quarter hour in this day part and try to win the rest of the quarter hours. And it was like, hey, Phil, you really can't do that. Well maybe I could put all the songs in the middle of the night, and- and, you know, no, no, Phil, you can't do that. Oh, okay. Well, you know, is there anything positive I could do with the CanCon? And I think there's a rule called something like artist integrity. Is that-? Something where- where you're allowed, or you're not supposed to alter the music? Is that- is that factual? Am I- it's been a long time.

Matt Cundill 18:38

Yeah. And I think that actually came in to fruition because in the 70s, CHUM FM edit- or CHUM AM edited Ian Thomas's Painted Ladies. And I think at the hearings in the 90s, he said hey, they edited my song. So now you can't edit the songs anymore.

Phil Becker 18:56

Well, I- Okay, so this is great. So I took the opposite. And I said, you're right, we shouldn't edit the songs. And I was playing album versions on a hip hop station at 10 in the morning. And so I was using unedited versions to get marketing exposure and end up on the news. And to get people talking. They're like, hey, there's this radio station. And they're playing Move from Ludacris. And it sounds very different than when the other station plays it. So, you know, we just sort of embraced it. And we're like, we're gonna play the unedited songs. And then it was like, ah, well, you know, Phil, kind of shouldn't do that, you know, and here's why. And so there's all these things. And I- I'm really thankful that for some reason, I didn't get frustrated with that. I just said, okay, well, let me try something different. So that's how I learned about MAPL. And I was like, Well wait a second. If I reproduced the songs and used a Canadian producer and Canadian instrumentation, and went to Toronto and did it, and all I had was the acapella of, you know 50 Cent, In Da Club, and everything else was Canadian, would that work? Right? And so I was spending all this time trying to get around how it was required, because I wanted to be as competitive as possible. And there was a top 40 station in Buffalo, WKSE I think, and they were a really viable top 40. And, you know, we were in there trying to compete. If I had to play Swollen Members, and they were playing Mariah Carey, I might have lost the quarter hour. If I had to play, you know, Ricky Jay, and they were playing Ja Rule, you know, I might have lost the quarter hour. So spent a lot of time doing that. And shortly thereafter- I was there for probably two years or so. And the ruling started to change, I think it's by province. And again, I could be getting this wrong, but it was like, you could play 25%, then it went to 30%, then it went to 35%. And I think that if you're trying to be a station, whether it's the ones from the Canadian side coming into Buffalo, whether it's the ones from the Windsor side coming into Detroit, whether it's the ones from, you know, the West Coast coming down from- from the other parts of Canada, it's challenging, but I think that, you know, there's lessons in here for me as a- as a- as a broadcaster, which is, what is it about the hand that I'm dealt, that I can use to win the game? And so that- that frustration that most people would have had actually kind of pushed me to go, alright, how do I do a better job at this? And how do I look for opportunities? And I never really got annoyed, and I understand it, like I genuinely understand wanting to expose art, and I think that it's deserved. And I think especially now, so- so if I was there in say, gosh, you seem to know better than even me. 2000, 2001, 2002, something like that. There was no Spotify, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, insert DSP here. So, you know, you really needed to be serving the community and playing the music because there was no other distribution channels. Now, there's so many that I think that, you know, might be time to look at that and say, does this still play out in 2024 like it did in 2000?

Tara Sands (Voiceover) 22:23

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Matt Cundill 22:56

When you make a decision to have a job change, because each time you change jobs, like the opportunity is completely different from the one before it. So we just spoke about Canada, the Canadian example. But then you're a general manager and partner, I think up in...

Phil Becker 23:16

Fort Wayne?

Matt Cundill 23:16

Fort Wayne, Indiana, you know, and you'd left a you know, a very- relatively, I would assume, normal- program director job at- at Cox right? I mean, most people would get five of those, and then, you know, build their way up somewhere. But now you're a general manager and a partner. But then- and then you also mentioned going to Jamaica as well, like, this stuff comes up, like so when you see these opportunities, what are you thinking? Are you looking for new ways to deliver audio each time? Are you looking for, you know, learning from what can Canada offer? What can Jamaica offer? Like is that how you unpack these things when you make decisions to take on a new role?

Phil Becker 23:51

Yeah, I love that question. Thank you for asking it. For me, I was in Cox in Orlando, programming a station. And I was- I was talking to a friend of mine that I had worked for a long time ago. And we were just catching up and- and he said, you know, how's it going in Orlando? I go, oh, it's great, man. I love Florida. I'll never leave. You know, Cox is a great company. And they are. And you know, I have all these resources, and I love it. And he goes, how much more money are you making? I go, what do you mean? And he goes, well, where is the station today? And at the time we were- we were thriving. I think we were the number 1, 18-34, 18-49 and 25-49 station, and I said, well, I got a bonus for this or bonus for that. I hit this marker. And he said, well, what's the billing like? And I don't exactly remember, so I'll just give you some generalities. But I was like, well, you know, I think we're doing- this is pre 2008. So we'll say 500,000 a month, for the sake of the conversation. And he goes, and what were they doing when they got- when you got there? I go oh, not even half that. He goes okay, so they're making $250,000 more per month. And you've been there for two years. So X amount of millions of dollars, and you're celebrating your $10,000 bonus? And I was like, wow, he had unlocked something there, right? And so I had worked for him. His name's Russ Oasis, I'd worked for Russ in the late 90s at one station. And he said, hey, listen, I'm gonna buy another group of stations. And I want you to come and run them. And I said, no, thanks. And he goes, No, I really want you to think about this. He said, If you stay there, and you're in Orlando, and let's say they move you to Miami, or they move you to Long Island, or Atlanta or wherever, with a company. All that is, is a glorified version of the job you already have. When are you going to start working for yourself? And I still was stubborn. And I said, I'm not interested. And he called back and he said, look, at the time that I had worked for Russ originally, he had got offered a pretty big number for one radio station. And it's never been there, and had never gotten back to that number again. And so he said, come back, run all three for me. Let's do it together. We'll put our money in, we'll get to become partners. And I really thought about it. And I thought, you know, he's right. Let's walk it through. St. Joe leads to Grand Rapids, which is a better job of what I already had. Grand Rapids led to Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne led to Buffalo, Buffalo led to Orlando, Orlando would lead to wherever else it was I was going at Cox. And I hadn't yet done the GM thing. I hadn't done the partnership thing. I didn't understand all of the pieces and parts of what it was like to run a group of radio stations. I didn't understand how to go from one station to three stations. What is it like when you buy a station? What is a diligence process? What is the FCC requirements? What are the things that as a programmer, I haven't yet been exposed to? And I really try to lean into exposure. That's my thing, where I'm like, there's gonna come a point where it's like, how many cool Thanksgiving promos can I write? How many witty Black Friday sweepers can I write? There's only going to be X amount of songs and X amount of clock. So I have to try to do things that I've never done before. And I went there. And we did go from one station to three stations. And we sold those stations, the group of all three stations, to- to Adams radio, you know, and I got to experience that and I got to learn to build my own sales team and my own sales culture and negotiate all of the sales strategies, and everything down to- I remember saying to him, I go, okay, I'll come do this with you. But I want autonomy all the way down to what paper goes in the printer. And he goes deal. We had the three stations in Fort Wayne together, and then he had a station in Indianapolis. And I really got to do the job at a level that, if I had just done exactly what you'd said, which was, do I go from a PD job to a two station PD job to an OM job? Sure, that's- that's the natural trajectory. Or I can do something that most of my peers haven't, and it- actually, had I not done that, I wouldn't be in the role I'm in now. In Jamaica- I only know one station in Jamaica and that's Irie FM. I don't know why anybody would go into Jamaica to listen to anything else. I was once sitting poolside, and I think it was 1994, and- was it Shadow-? Shadow Stevens was doing the countdown at the time. American Top 40. Number 40 was Counting Crows - Mr. Jones, and it came on the radio, and I said we- we gotta to flip it back to Irie FM. Counting Crows was the tipping point for you? You're like, ah, I can't.

Matt Cundill 28:48

I'm not going to be able to do like three hours of this show. We've got to get back to Irie FM immediately. That was my Jamaica experience. But- and you know, Jamaican radio, you know, to your point, it's- it's community. It's reaching everybody. Jamaica's problem is it has no middle class. So it's very difficult to reach everybody with one radio station, but radio can do it. Was that your experience?

Phil Becker 29:12

Yeah, it was I'll tell you- I'll tell you, I didn't intend to end up creating a Jamaican radio station. That was not the goal. What happened was, I had done a studio buildout for Russ and I's group of stations. Because now we went from one station to three. We moved into a new facility. I had to do the studios, the conference rooms, the lobby, the rec room, the production rooms, the sales offices, the whole thing. And so the guy that did our buildout, I was just catching up with him and I was actually in the rec room running cable with the guy. Now I'm the GM running cable. So we're just hanging out, ordering pizza, just doing the work. Said to him, I said, so what other clients do you have? And he goes, oh, I got this- this Jamaican client. I'm gonna go build some facilities in Jamaica. And I was like, really? And he's like, yeah, as he's telling me all about that and- and he's telling me, you know, about, you know, the client and how money is no object, build us the best facility you can, and so on and so on. So it's like, look, if you ever need any help there, let me know. And he's like, great. And so we just went about our buildout, we did our buildout. And then a few months went by, and he called me and he goes, hey, we haven't turned that station on in Jamaica yet. And we have to have it on by a certain time. Could you just come up with a placeholder format until we figure out what we're doing down there? And I'm like, yeah, sure. If you know anything about me, Matt, I don't halfway do stuff. So I'm like, you know what, even though it's the placeholder format, I'm going to take it really serious. So I went and taught myself about dancehall, I went and taught myself about reggae. I went and taught myself about tropical. I went- went and taught myself about what music matters in Carnaval season. By the way, let's go back to Canada. I had to learn the Canadian artists for the CRTC, which prepared me for the skill set of having to learn for the station in Jamaica. And so he said, okay, so I'm going down there, this is around Halloween time. Said, I'm going down there, why don't you come down with me? And we'll finish the build out. And I'm like, great. So I go to Jamaica for the first time. I'm there for about two weeks. And I- and I was talking to some of the Jamaican engineering team. And I said, so how do- how do ratings work? Like you have ratings? And they're like, yeah, and I go, how does that work? Like, well, the- they come to your house, and they ask you what station you listen to, and they write it down. I was like, oh, boy, that sounds like Arbitron. And so I'm coming up with this format. And I put it together. And it was supposed to be the placeholder format. And the station is called Fiya 105. Again, supposed to be a placeholder format. I believe the original goal of the station was to be an extension of their newspaper that they owned. So they own a newspaper. And they were going to make this a talk station as an extension of the newspaper department. In fact, the radio station is located in the newspaper facility. So that way, the- the, you know, the writers for the paper could walk down the hall, and they could do, you know, the stuff on the air. And so when I was talking to- to the engineers there, I was like, well, every time I turn on a Jamaican radio station, they're all yelling FIYA. So why don't we just name this station that, and then if people write it down when they go to the door, we'll get the credit for it. So it was the Trojan horse, I took something from normal lexicon, named the station after it in hopes of getting recall. So I was like, how are we going to get- it's not like you can go buy billboards. It's not like you can, you know, I was just there to helping temporarily. And so I said, has anybody ever done a station of just Christmas music? We could just do nothing but Christmas music, and then come out the day after Christmas with this temporary format. They're like, no, that had never happened before. So we played a bunch of Christmas songs from Halloween till like December 26. And you would hear the station on throughout Jamaica because it was doing Christmas. Again, new idea there. And we came out with the air quotes, temporary format, which was a- was a CHR, Jamaican-focused CHR, top 40. And I had a feeling, Matt, that it was going to work. I didn't think it was going to be a temporary format. Because on the flight from Miami to Jamaica, that guy sitting in the seat next to me, on his lap- now remember, you check your bags for the things that you're worth- that you don't care if they lose. You carry on the things that are valuable to you. And on his lap, he had a radio. He had a radio as the most important thing. And so I sat there, the guy next to me on the plane had this radio on his lap, and I was like, you know what? I'm supposed to go do this. And that station is still in the format today. 14-15 years later. Was supposed to be a placeholder. It's still doing, you know, what we created back then. So pretty special. How'd you get to Alpha Media? Man, how did I? So remember, I had worked for Citadel, right, back- back in Buffalo. And so Russ and I had sold- had sold our stations in Fort Wayne. And I was really blessed. I was really lucky. Because I had a lot of opportunities. I was like, man, I don't know which one am I going to- which one to take. Do I take this one? Do I take that one? Do I take this one? And they were the kinds of jobs where it's the job you're supposed to take. You know, I was interviewing with two different companies for two different stations in New York City. That's the brass ring, right Matt? That's the job. You take that job. Had an opportunity in Philadelphia, had an opportunity to go back to Cox, and I was really just sitting there going, what am I going to do next? And then out of nowhere, I get this call from Scott Mahalik at Alpha Media, who I'd worked for back in Buffalo. And he said, hey, I just read that you and Russ sold your stations. And I said, yeah, good to hear from you again. I hadn't talked to Scott in 10 plus years. And he said, what are you doing next? And I go, man, to be honest with you, I don't know. I have to, like, think all that through. This was a Thursday before Memorial Day weekend. And he goes, I'd like to talk to you about Alpha Media. And I go, who's that? And he goes, oh, we got these- these stations. And you know, we're building this new company. I go, are you the- are you the guys in Portland? And he's like, yeah, we got the- the old Paul Allen stations, and, you know, we're putting the band back together, we've got the principals of Citadel, and we're putting the band back together. And I said, honestly, Scott, you know, I kind of am a little far along in these other opportunities. I don't need a PD job in Portland, I can go get a PD job in a much larger market with a much larger company. But thanks for calling. He goes, No, no, no, it's not a PD job. I'm like, what is it? And he goes, it's a- it's a Vice President of Programming. And I go, is that what you call your program directors? He goes, no, no, it's a corporate programming job. And I was like, oh, okay, well, what other markets do you have? He's like, oh, we got like two other markets. And I was like, man, this doesn't sound like- you know. But- but- but okay. Then we talked a little more. And Scott was so kind, and spent probably two hours on the phone with me. And he told me their plan, he told me their target, he told me how they were going to go start acquiring stations. He told me about all the acquisitions that they were working on. And he said, you know, we really- we really would like to talk to you. And this was like, sometime in the morning. And then he said, we'd love for you to talk to our CEO, Bob Profit. And can you talk to him today? Today? So let's say I was talking to Scott from like, 9 to 11. At 12 o'clock, I'm on the phone with Bob. I spend about two hours with Bob, 12 to 2. And then he's like, you know, we'd really like to talk to you. We'd like to see what this looks like. Can you take one other call? And I'm like, sure. And then I get a phone call from Larry Wilson. Larry spent another hour and a half with me. So I've got, you know, five, six hours on the phone with these guys. And then they all reconvened. And they said, you know, we want to- we want to talk to you. And I said, guys, I'd love to come out there. I'd love to meet with you. This sounds very interesting. I can't believe you gave me all this time, energy and attention. But I told these other opportunities I would make my decision Tuesday. Monday was the holiday, Tuesday was the first day back. This is on a Thursday. And this is a- this is a great test when you're interviewing someone. They said to me, well, what do you want to do? And they just stopped talking. What do you want to do? And so I said, I'll get on a plane tonight. And I still had my bag packed from the other opportunities. And I grabbed the same bag, and I went up to the airport, and I bought a ticket, old school style, one way, because I didn't know when I was coming back. I didn't know who I was meeting with. And I got there Friday morning, and I thought okay, well, I'll meet with everyone on Friday. And what they did was they gave me their entire holiday weekend. Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. They're like, this is where you could live. This is where your kids could go to school. This is where your house could be. This is where our office is, these are some of the great restaurants. And I realized through Alpha, that was recruiting, as opposed to hiring. New York and Tampa and Philly and all- those were just hirings. This was a recruitment. And so now it's Monday. Again, it's a holiday, and they're in the office. And we're- and we're working and getting to know each other, and talking things through and- and I said to Scott and Bob, I said, guys, there's a- there's 100 great programmers in America. You could hire any of them. Why me? And they said, well, we could hire them. But they probably haven't been GMs. And they probably haven't been partners. And they probably haven't operated radio stations. And we need somebody on our team that will manage our money like they did their own. And you've done that. And so, you know, it's interesting how I really believe that God gives you the job that prepares you for the next job. So to your question from a minute ago about, you could have took five PD jobs. Well, if I did that, that wouldn't have led to the GM position, which wouldn't have led into the partnership position, which wouldn't have led to the opportunity to come in and do corporate programming. So I trusted them. And at the time, I think they had 11 stations. I think I was in charge of programming for maybe four or five of them. And then the 11 stations went to 50. The 50 went to 100. The 100 went to 206. And now I do all 206 for 44 markets.

Matt Cundill 39:59

So one of the things I do you know about you- I know a couple of things about you.

Phil Becker 40:02

Oh, boy.

Matt Cundill 40:03

But you never let go of copywriting, and writing promos, and creating sounds, and making it pop from the radio. So this is one for people who don't write, or haven't embraced being a copywriter. Why is it so important to know how to write for radio?

Phil Becker 40:25

Wow. The first thing is, because it's going to be the part that still matters. You can own every song ever recorded for 10 bucks a month. So if you think that you're going to- I'm going to move Jack Harlow to a power but my competitor has it as a sub power. The days of being rewarded for that are gone. That is not going to be what makes you stand out. What makes you stand out and makes you win are going to be the messages, the emotions, the presentation, and all that starts with the writing. So I think that, you know, when you sit there, and you- and- and I- and I've had all these times in my life where it's like, I feel like it's me versus the cursor, right and the cursor is just blinking on the screen waiting for you to write something. And I saw this thing that Ed Sheeran said about the creative process, which I thought was great. He said, the creative process is like getting water out of the faucet. When you turn the faucet on, and it's been a long time since the faucet's come on, the water's kind of murky and dark and muddy, and then eventually it gets clearer and clearer and clearer. And the real magic starts to come out of the faucet. That is the way I approach writing. So I'll grab my keyboard, and I'll just start writing something. And it sucks. And I'll keep writing, and I'll keep writing, and I'll keep writing. And all of a sudden, the copy gets better and better and better. So I think it matters because it's the part that can't be duplicated. Playlists can be duplicated, station brand names can be duplicated. Promotions can be duplicated. Presentation can't. Writing can't. Emotions can't. So I think it's the- it's the thing that makes us unique and special. I think that, you know, I- these- these are the kinds of things I try to do when- and I don't do a lot of day to day programming anymore. But I do get asked to write quite a bit because people are like, hey, you're kind of good at that. Can you help me write some stuff? So here's- here's what my writing pet peeves are, and it's going to happen in any station you listen to today. You're going to hear, "station name" wants you to win "prize x" by listening at "y time" by calling, texting, or submitting at "z location." And it's nothing but a prize, a name, a call to action. That's not why I was excited as a Cub Scout to go to the radio station. I was excited because of the storytelling, right? So I tend to write copy, then insert the required service elements. Most people write the how to win, what to win, where to win, and then try to write around it. I figure that's the disposable stuff. I'll get to that later. Let me just write the story. And then I'll weave the other parts in. So I think you got to do it pretty much every day, you've got to be willing to know that the water is going to be a little muddy when you start writing. And that's fine. And you've got to say it's not about how to win this ticket or this this prize pack. It's about how to tell a story where you happen to win a ticket or a prize pack. And it's just a- it's just a mindset shift.

Matt Cundill 43:38

You're a good Instagram follow because you're always telling radio about the songs they should be playing. And if anything, it should just be a suggestion to, you know, bring into the meeting. Give it a listen, let's see what happens. But to that point about, you know, the copywriting, same thing. We're all getting the same records. But what's the one or two records you could bring your playlist that might separate you? There's no question in there, that's just an observation of the way I look at your Instagram stories.

Phil Becker 44:05

Yeah, I do this- I do this section, and I need to update it. So you'll inspire me to do it when we hang up. I do this section called Songs radio's sleeping on. And it's the songs that I think are deserved of a look, regardless of format. Sometimes they're rock songs, sometimes they're pop songs, sometimes they're country songs. Sometimes they're alt songs. And it's- and it's the kinds of things that- that I think there are some viability in, and they're not typically exposed. My general rule is if it's charted, I try to take it off of that playlist. And then I check myself, Matt, I go back in three months and go, did you get it right? Did it become a hit? And I got a pretty good batting average. So you know, I would just say to any programmers that are listening, you know, invest in that. If you're- if you're- if you're playing, for the sake of this conversation, if you're playing 20 currents, and they're the same 20 currents that everybody else is playing, bet on yourself. Pick three that nobody else is playing. Bet on yourself when you're writing copy, bet on yourself when you're picking a talent, bet on yourself when you're building a playlist, bet on yourself when you get the phone call for the next job opportunity. You know, and that's kind of one of the things that I've always done is like, I bet on myself. And if I get it wrong, they don't remember. So what am I afraid of? And if you get it, right, they go, hey, I remember when you did this, this, or this. People do remember- remember those, and the listeners remember too, and the clients remember if you write something special for them, and copy that makes a difference, makes their cash register ring. So just gotta- you gotta bet on yourself and, you know, really start to think about, what is it about me that's different, that can't be done, you know, by an algorithm or a piece of research?

Matt Cundill 45:48

You have a podcast, and sometimes you will just take to it to talk about important things and really unpack subject matter for radio, and you dug deep into AI. And, you know, your company is using AI, and one of the first, it was very- I mean, there was an awful lot of press about it. And then a lot of opinions, and a lot of fear, and a lot of speculation. I- I'm looking forward to AI on the radio. Just think of how many bad breaks we can get rid of? I'm just saying that there's- there's a lot of breaks out there that just aren't very good. They're kind of mailed in. Well, you may as well let AI handle those. And think of the amount of time that's going to give us to create some really good radio in return. That's the way I'm looking at AI. I'm here to embrace it. A lot of people are not, there's been some pushback, but you're a couple months in. How do you- how do you look at it so far? As you get to hear it and work with it every day?

Phil Becker 46:46

Yeah, you know, I think the first thing is, the general population thinks we already use it. It's broadcasters that have been shy. But if you were talking to the general listener, they go oh yeah, you guys have that. So I think that, you know, that's the first thing. I think a second thing is in the instances in which we've used it, and again, we use it on one station in one market in one day part. So on our scope of 206 radio stations, and- and, you know, the 1000s of hours of programming we do every day, we use it for three. But what we do is, we tell the audience when we're using it. We've never tried to trick someone, we've never tried to get one over on anybody. We tell them. And, you know, it's been such a long time since terrestrial radio has been in the national and global news cycle, that people didn't even know what to do with it when it happened. When's the last time? Like we were really blessed, we were on NBC Nightly News as a lead story. We were in Wired Magazine, we were in TechCrunch, we truly went viral. And to me, I say, people are talking about radio again. And if- and if they- if they're fearful of it, then it's our job to help them understand why not to be. And it's our job to show them why it can benefit them as a listener, as an advertiser, and as- as an employee. So I like the way that you- that you're looking at it. I'm looking at it the same way. To your point, I have the full podcast where I think I do 20-30 minutes on it. You know, I actually even took the audio of all of the people that were parodying us. If you listen to that podcast and you hear those clips, those are actual clips of people that were like, I can't believe you would do this. So you know, it's about storytelling. And I think we tell the story pretty well in that podcast. But now, let's see. So we went on with that in June. Now a lot has changed. Now people are okay using AI to improve their photos. Now people are okay with AI helping them write an email to their boss. Now people are okay- we've always been okay with it until it touches our core business. So I think it's interesting. We're fine letting AI tell us how to drive to work every day, and how to avoid traffic. But if the AI is on the radio telling us about traffic, that's the problem? It's all- you know, it's always going to disrupt somebody's business. But I really do look at it as- and thank you for for listening to the podcast. I look at it as additional intelligence, not artificial intelligence. That's how I perceive the A in AI. And everything that we've ever aired, we listen to, we vet, we make sure it's accurate. We make sure that it's on brand for what we're doing. And I think as long as you- as you do that, you know, you're going to find the ability to move very, very quickly. One of the things that- that I think broadcasters need to start getting more accustomed to is called internet speed. Moving at the speed of the internet, you know, we tend to move in maybe 24 hour increments if we're a music station, or four hour increments if we're a news station. The internet moves in the minute. And broadcasters need to start moving at the speed of the internet and AI will help us do it.

Matt Cundill 50:12

I actually had assisted intelligence down on my bingo card.

Phil Becker 50:17

Oh, okay.

Matt Cundill 50:18

Yeah. I don't- you don't want to say artificial because it sounds like we gotta go fight the bots. Right?

Phil Becker 50:23


Matt Cundill 50:24

And who's got time to fight the bots like that all day?

Phil Becker 50:27

All day long, fightin' bots all day.

Matt Cundill 50:29

I'm a voice talent. And I look at AI as being something that can replace me if I'm not special. So I better learn to be special at what I do, whereby they only want my voice for the spot. And if they can take my voice, and let's say it were to be created in a form of AI, I should be able to outperform my own voice every time. Which goes back to the coaching that you mentioned earlier, always be coaching, always be learning and always be getting better.

Phil Becker 50:55

And, you know, I think the other part to your point of the copy question- if you write great copy, that is something that the AI is not going to be able to do. It'll be a brainstorming partner. Like if you said- I'll just make this up- today is, we're recording on the Saturday after Black Friday. Right? So is that a thing in Canada, by the way, Black Friday? Is that a thing in Canada?

Matt Cundill 51:19

Yeah, we got that too now.

Phil Becker 51:21

Okay. So if you went- if you were like, man, I need to write some Black Friday imaging, you could use the AI to help you brainstorm it. And if you said, give me 50 Black Friday puns that can be used on a country radio station in Texas, that would entertain a 35 year old woman. That's how to use it. And then you'll sit there and you'll go, Well, I asked for 50, 42 of them suck. Eight of them aren't bad. Let me work on those eight. That's okay. That's a brainstorming tool. I don't- I don't think that that's a- that's a negative. And, you know, it's interesting. When we started this exercise, you know, there were all those articles about, like, AI in the music industry. And, you know, artists aren't getting paid. And you know, there was that famous TikToker that made the Drake and Weeknd AI song that sounded exactly like them, and what's going to happen, and this is going to become a huge problem. Well, now, there are artists that have licensed themselves to be used as AI and all of a sudden now that the- the monetization piece is figured out, there's less fear, there's less spirited conversation. So I think that, you know, that'll eventually get there. I would say to anybody that says, you know, that AI is going to ruin the business. I would just say it's another tool. When I started, we were playing carts and CDs. For people that started before me, they were playing vinyl. Did we stop evolving? Did we just go wow, you know, this vinyl's working great. No, we didn't, right? Now I bring up vinyl, because isn't it interesting that vinyl's had its Renaissance moment? Radio can do that, too. We can have that vinyl comeback moment. But it's got to come with great coaching, and with great writing, and with great promotions, and with- you know, with great storytelling, and I really- I really think it can- can happen. If you- if you're- if you're afraid that the AI can say number one hit music station 16 times an hour- yeah, it can. What it can't talk to you about is exactly the questions that you're asking me, and they can't talk to you about the kid with cerebral palsy that grew up inspired, that then took that and grew it into a career, and now he's making, you know, all of this time, energy and attention for other children born with disabilities. And you can be a part of it too, by going to this cause and donating in this place, and the radio can do all of that. So I don't think that AI makes us irrelevant. I think AI increases our relevance really quickly.

Matt Cundill 54:04

Phil, thanks so much for doing this and being on the show. I really appreciate you taking the time on a Saturday to do this.

Phil Becker 54:09

Yeah, of course.

Tara Sands (Voiceover) 54:10

The Sound Off Podcast is written and hosted by Matt Cundill. Produced by Evan Surminski. Edited by Chloe Emond-Lane. Social media by Aidan Glassey. Another great creation from the Sound Off Media Company. There's always more at


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