Sunday, December 30, 2007

The GreenStone Story - Radio That Talked to Women

By Kristal Brent Zook
The Women's Media Center

Wednesday 28 November 2007

On September 12, 2006 GreenStone Media threw a star-studded soiree for the official, public launch of its female-targeted radio network at New York City's Museum of Television and Radio. Named prominently on the invitation were co-founders of the venture, Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem, who, together with activist and writer Robin Morgan, had spun GreenStone off of the not-for-profit Women's Media Center, founded two years earlier.

The buzz was thick; the mood, crackling with expectation.

The hope of those at the helm of the network was to secure at least 25 stations nationwide in the first year (some spoke of as many as 200 in two years), and two or three in major markets. GreenStone had no problem finding seven affiliates willing to bet on the idea that women wanted more information and humor from talk radio and less shouting. And it was certainly developing a loyal audience, particularly in places like Greenville, South Carolina, home of its only FM station.

But then, something went wrong in those early, critical months.

By August 17, 2007 President and CEO Susan Ness (and former FCC Commissioner) had no alternative than to post an open letter on the company's website announcing that GreenStone would cease broadcasting that very day. In all, the company had managed to sign only 11 affiliates.

Since then, those who labored tirelessly and those who opened their checkbooks and their hearts have been left in the aftermath, trying to answer one question. What went wrong?

"Our eyes were too big for our stomachs," says co-founder and board member Robin Morgan. "It was very heady and it...ran away with some people." As a result, says Morgan, many of the mistakes made were internal, such as poor management and hiring decisions. "If we had started small and built from there, we'd still be alive."

GreenStone board member and CNN co-founder Gail Evans agrees, as do several others interviewed for this story, that the initial goals were too ambitious for the amount of capital in place. "We underestimated how long it was going to take and how much money we needed," said Evans. "We probably needed $20 million instead of $6 million."

Of those interviewed, no one denies that internal mistakes were made. But it is also clear there was resistance from those outside the venture. While the founders of GreenStone were hopeful about striking deals with affiliates, they soon discovered that the mostly male, mostly white radio station owners were not so easy to shake hands with.

Instead, they were met with a stronger than expected fear of change within the industry, coupled with an adamant refusal to take risks, and a steadfast demand for quarterly profits at any cost.

"We were surprised that we weren't able to get on more stations," said Susan Ness in a recent phone interview. "We were not on any of the Clear Channel stations. We were not on any of the CBS stations."

Even with input from Clear Channel consultant Mike McVay, a deal with the behemoth radio giant never came to pass.

"Last year Clear Channel cleared 10.2 percent net income on $7.1 billion in revenue," says Edie Hilliard, former GreenStone executive vice president and chief operating officer. "They can afford to invest in product to serve all their communities, but they won't unless they're forced to." (McVay, it has recently been reported in the foreign press, went on to help create Jayne-FM for Australian listeners, which targets adult to middle age women and has funding from U.S. syndication company Jones Radio Networks.)

Even smaller stations with "the poorest billing signal are still doing $3 or 4 million," adds Hilliard. With a new format you need at least two years to become profitable, and public companies just don't believe they have that kind of time. "They would have to report to Wall Street that revenues are down, and they don't want to do that."

"We thought more people would be willing to try," agrees board member Gail Evans. "I was surprised at the ingrained nature of preferring to do the same thing over and over again rather than try something new."

It certainly didn't help that 90 percent of radio program directors and 85 percent of general managers are men, or that women own less than 4 percent of all U.S. radio stations. And women host or co-host only 16 of the top 100 talk radio shows..

Talk radio, says Evans, is still about the argument culture, and raising awareness about feminism is still a struggle. "What we've done in this country is declare that sexism and racism are over. So we don't have any space to talk about it, and nobody understands the nuances."

Evans, who now teaches a course in Gender, Race, and Ethnicity at Georgia Tech Management School, created "CNN and Company," the first major television news show geared toward women and featuring a panel of female experts. "Rather than you and your uterus, we actually talked about war and peace," she says.

"Why aren't there more women yelling and screaming on these shows?" she continues. "The reality is that women think there are eleven sides to the story, and they want to discuss them in a thoughtful way. They ask, 'How do we come to a consensus?' And that's not good radio or television, which is about 'How loud can you scream at each other?' It doesn't match the way most women talk about things, or the way most women like to listen to things."

While some say that having a strong feminist agenda became problematic for potential GreenStone affiliates, others maintain that programming was not feminist enough.

"There was a huge fear among management that we were too feminist," says Robin Morgan. "They didn't want to use the 'f' word even though it wasn't a big secret who the three founders were."

In their fear, says Morgan, some members of management even tried to "dumb down" the content of some shows. If there was an inability to get affiliates due to feminist content, she argues, then "you might as well stand for what you stand for. Women are eager to hear about [feminism] in a way that affects their real lives."

But in its actual programming, says Edie Hilliard, GreenStone was "trying hard to be mainstream...because that's what women want. They want to laugh and they want to be informed." Others would argue that feminism is, in fact, "mainstream."

"I'm a regular kind of person," says Lisa Birnbach, author and co-author of twenty books including the bestselling Official Preppy Handbook and former host of the network's "Lisa Birnbach Show." "But I don't think regular people are in large supply on the radio. People with agendas are on the radio. I don't really have an agenda except to have an interesting and entertaining conversation, a probing conversation. Is Lisa feminist? Yes. Was I out to make the world feminist? No. I wasn't out to make the world anything."

People assumed, she adds, that GreenStone was going to be "femi-Nazi stuff...all abortion and crème Brule."

And yet, despite the myriad problems that plagued GreenStone during its brief existence, some supporters are hopeful that a similar venture may eventually come to pass.

"At some point, radio is going to have to face the fact that fewer and fewer women listen," says Gail Evans. "Advertisers will realize that women are 80 percent of those who sign checks and 89 percent of those who influence buying decisions. We're the majority of the population."

If someone comes along with "deep enough pockets," she adds, "anything can happen."


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