This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Jaye Albright, partner, Albright & O'Malley Consulting
Country radio has long been the primary marketing tool for country music. Few would doubt the critical role that radio plays, both historically and currently, in building and supporting the careers of country artists.
While terrestrial radio continues to deal with the unprecedented challenges of emerging new consumer platforms, the country radio format remains somewhat healthy, perhaps, due to strategies devised by industry figures like Jaye Albright, partner in Albright & O'Malley, North America’s leading country radio consultancy firm.
Albright & O'Malley handles 100 stations on a full-time basis. Its staff makes quarterly market visits to its clients, and provides detailed evaluations of stations and their competition. This includes evaluating a station’s brand, talent, music, imaging, and opportunities. As well, a market strategy is developed and updated for stations. Albright & O'Malley also provides services for individual project work.
One of country music’s most-honored figures, Albright, 67, was named to the Country Radio Hall Of Fame in 2008. She is a member of the board of directors of both the Country Music Association, and the Country Radio Broadcasters.
Over four decades, Albright has achieved valued experience in virtually all aspects of radio, including programming, research, sales and management.
She served as a morning personality--with duties in production, promotion or news--at KLUC (Las Vegas), WAVI (Dayton), WNOB (Cleveland), WCUE (Akron), KPAT (Berkeley), KJEM (Oklahoma City), and KDIG (San Diego).
She has been major market program director at KMPS (Seattle), KEEN (San Jose), KUZZ (Bakersfield), KHOS (Tucson), and KTBT/KORJ (Anaheim).
Albright first earned her spurs as a consultant as VP/Country for the Drake-Chenault, and Burkhart/Douglas and Associates in the ‘80s. She went on to be dir. of country programming for Jacor Communications, and Clear Channel Communications; GM of BP Consulting Group; president of country at McVay Media; and president of Let's Talk, Inc., Radio IQ, Inc., and Albright, Hill & O'Malley.
On Feb. 25, 2010, the Country Music Association released key findings from its fourth quarter 2009 follow-up to its 2008 Country Music Consumer Segmentation Study.
Over the past two years, the CMA, in partnership with The Right Brain Consumer Consulting, LLC and Chicago-based Leo Burnett Company, has interviewed nearly 10,000 adults. It is the largest and most comprehensive study in the history of the CMA.
The study shows that the country music industry is facing revenue pressures from a range of consumer-based fronts, including: the economy, a decline in the country fan base, reduced consumer country music spending, and a continued move away by consumers from buying albums to single tracks or acquiring music for free on the internet.
Significantly, the study emphasized that the role of country radio in the U.S. has been strengthened in the past two years.
Usage and average hours spent listening are up significantly--up from 79% of fans in 2008 to 93% today. Weekly country radio listening hours are up to an estimated 9.9 hours per fan from 6.4 hours in 2008.
“With Americans economically stressed and working harder to make ends meet, radio is potentially a strong performer due to its portable, free, and ‘workplace-acceptable' nature, which allows fans to take it wherever they go,” the study reported.
Music to Jaye Albright’s ears.
You have seen a lot of changes in radio over four decades.
It’s a completely different business in every way.
Country radio ain’t our grandparent’s format anymore?
Country is a format where, every 7 or 8 years, there’s a new set of younger artists that come in. Randy Houser is the George Jones of today. There’s a lot of others as well, but the format doesn’t stay the same. Hank Thompson saw that more clearly than George Jones did. There are certainly a lot of artists that have a lot of sour grapes as (the format) moved away from them. George is certainly one of those who went through a tough time. In any pop music form, you have to be pretty adaptable, and be a pretty good marketer. You have to listen to where the audience is going and try to be where they are. Some artists will do that while others couldn’t care less where the audience is, “This is me. You can kiss my ass if you don’t like it.”
Many people say that today’s country sounds like bad ‘70s pop.
I think there’s truth in that. That’s Kenny Chesney’s music you just described. But, there’s more than that going on (in country). That is only part of the mix. It’s always been like that. You would have said the same thing about Stonewall Jackson’s “Waterloo” or Pat Boone (in the ‘50s). Country music has always been watered down chicken rock, to some degree, but that is only part of it. There was George Jones and Johnny Paycheck years ago, and that (traditional country style) still exists today with an artist like Jamie Johnson. (Country is) not just one thing. It’s a variety of sounds that is more inclusive than most people think it is.
There’s a mix of sounds in country today. Have you heard Jamie Johnson? Oh, my goodness. He and Montgomery Gentry are in the mix. At the same station, they will add Taylor Swift. So I think that there is always a balance. There’s that sort of rock sound that today’s boomers like from when they were kids—that’s part of a country mix—and, yet, the more acoustic, natural and authentic sound is also part of it as well.
Will there ever be an oldies country format playing those ‘50s and ‘60s vintage country hits?
No I don’t think so. I think it will always be a variety.
The Classic Country format comes the closest to being an oldies’ format.
Classic Country has always been there, and continues to be there. We have some Classic Country stations that are #1 or #2 in their markets. A new Classic Country station just signed on in Milwaukee a couple of weeks ago. The definition of Classic Country has changed. Country Classic today starts at about 1993 where at one time it was the ‘50s and ‘60s.
I think what keeps country (radio) from fragmenting, is that the older folks who like country seem to like the new music too. They like the older music, but they don’t dislike the new music. That’s true today.
[Saga Communication’s former smooth jazz WJZX switched to Big Buck Country 106.9 on June 7, 2010. The target demo is 35-64 year olds who like country legends who were on the radio from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. Core artists include Brooks & Dunn, Willie Nelson, Alan Jackson, and Hank Williams, Jr.]
Country remains a conservative format. Look at the controversy last year where Atlantic Records had to provide stations with a “radio edit” of Zac Brown’s “Toes” where the word “ass” was cut out.
I would say that (conservatism) is because of the nature of country being so relationship-oriented, and so narrative-driven in its song content and its lyrics. In America, you have red states, which are very conservative; and yet, country does well in Boston, which is very much a blue state area; and here where I am, in Seattle, Washington, which is a blue state as well. So I think how conservative or not conservative country tends to be reflects more on the area. The audience, in a (location), brings its values to the music.
There’s no question (politics is) a factor. Big & Rich broke up over it. John Rich is a big John McCain fan, and very conservative; and Big Kenny is a Democrat. I think their politics are what broke the group up. I keep hoping that they will kiss and make up; and get back together again, as we begin to bridge these divides for the (sake of the) music. Both Toby Keith and Tim McGraw are Democrats. Tim McGraw has even said that when his music career is over, he might run for governor of Tennessee as a Democrat. So we have both Republicans and Democrats in the country format.
But Nashville’s infrastructure is largely Republican.
No question. And very Christian too.
Unlike any other music, country music is centric to one city. If you want to make it as a country artist, you must go to Nashville.
That’s true. But then the Zac Brown Band is from Atlanta in Georgia. They were pretty big before they made their move to (working in) Nashville. They had already built a fan base in Georgia. You can certainly say the same thing about Texas too, where there’s Texas country.
Yes, but country radio doesn’t play much Texas country.
That’s true. Nashville, you are right; it’s a trade organization that promotes country music. In that sense, I don’t think that there’s an American city that does that in quite the same way. (Warner Music Nashville president) John Esposito recently said that there is a community in Nashville, but it isn’t overtly trying to exclude other places. That’s what he said, and I think he’s right.
In a way, Nashville is the Silicon Valley of Country Music. You can walk around New York all day long, and you are not going to run into any other country musicians or songwriters. In Nashville, you can’t go anywhere without seeing people in the business. There’s a tremendous amount of collaboration going on there. You also have the music songwriting community in Nashville. There’s nothing like it in America. It’s what Tin Pan Alley must have been like in New York in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
People literally go to buildings and sit down at pianos and with guitars and write songs all day long. It’s their job. They are employed doing that, while they are waiting for their opportunity in Nashville. That songwriting mill factory turns out song after song. It is truly amazing what they are able to do there. I think that is the backbone of Nashville. They have an incredible music publishing and songwriting community. Incredibly talented people. You can at least make a living there, just by writing or co-writing songs with people.
How many stations does Albright & O'Malley Consulting handle?
My partner Mike O'Malley and I work with about 100 stations. There are about 75 stations in the U.S. and 25 in Canada. They are all pretty much country. I have a few (broadcasters) that I have worked with for so long that they do have me do other things. Our position statement is that we are the country radio specialists. We really try to do that. Country has been good to us. We believe strongly in (the format). I think we are the best at doing it. Mike is in New Jersey, and works out of a New York office; and I am in Seattle in our west coast office.
You have different services?
Oh sure, every consultant does that. Sometimes, we will have projects, or there’s a full service. We also will do visits (to stations for consultation) for a couple of days and write a report. If you count that as well, it’s more like 140 clients we have. We are a team. There’s Mike and myself; and other people in the company like Ray Massie, John Paul, Mike Oakes, and Mark Patric.
You didn’t grow up as a country fan.
When I grew up, I was certainly exposed to country music but I wasn’t a country fan. I listened to some country radio. WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia was among the stations I listened to. If you had asked if I liked country music, I would have said, “Absolutely not.” I was a jazz musician, a symphonic musician and a player in a band.
How did you get into working in country radio?
I was working in Las Vegas in ’71 and ’72 at KLUC, a top 40 station. They bought a country station in Tucson, and knew that I wanted to be a program director. So they offered me the job as program director at this country station, KHOS. It was on AM back in the days when AM radio had ratings. So, I went there. Since that time I have done nothing but country. If you had told me then, that for the next 40 years, I would do nothing but country music, I would have bet you a million dollars that would never happen.
I think the reason it did happen is that country is still one of the formats where personalities are still encouraged, and are important. I really like that. At most country stations, you can name all of the jocks, and there are personalities. That’s really a strength of country radio.
When you began consulting country radio there were only a handful of people in the field.
The first were George Burns and Joe Somerset (Burns Media Consultants). Bill Drake wasn’t really consulting country but he was syndicating country. My first job as a consultant was at Drake-Chenault. It was 1977 or 1978. They had developed this syndicated format called Great American Country, but their syndicated stations were going more and more live. They called me—I was working in San Jose at a country station, KEEN--and asked if I would be interested in interviewing for a job as a consultant for Drake-Chenault. I had no idea what a consultant did. I had never had a consultant. I didn’t know what a consultant was, but I knew who Bill Drake was. So, go to Los Angeles to interview with Bill Drake for a job? You bet. I am there.
I had worked for Buck Owens in Bakersfield at KUZZ five or six years earlier. The national PD for Buck was Larry Daniels at KNIX in Phoenix. (Drake-Chenault) had first reached out to Larry, but he didn’t want to leave KNIX; he recommended me, and I got hired. It was an amazing experience. I’ve have had a wonderful 30 year run (as a consultant) and I’ve enjoyed it greatly. It’s been like a match made in heaven.
Working as the PD/morning personality at KUZZ in Bakersfield in the early ‘70s put you at the epicenter of a hot local country scene.
One of the most amazing evenings of my life was in 1975, when I was fortunate to be chosen to emcee a benefit tribute evening to (musician/DJ) Bill Woods (“The Godfather of The Bakersfield Sound"). That was an evening I will never forget. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard performed as did Bonnie Owens and a bunch of Bakersfield musical luminaries. It was a wonderful evening.
There is a defined country audience that enjoys country music.
There is a country music community. A real community of artists, and singers, creative people, and fans. They are incredibly supportive and loyal to one another. They welcome new people. Go to a country concert; go to a Taylor Swift concert, and you will see teenage girls, boyfriends, grandmothers and grandfathers, all at the same event. You will see all ages.
The outdoor country festivals all over North America, all summer long, are lifestyle events. Yeah, it’s all about the music, but it’s beyond the music. It is also the psychographic, living the lifestyle and the community of it. It is a very accepting and diverse community. It is amazing how open they are; how welcoming they are. The dynamic aspect of country is its welcoming nature in spite of how conservative and narrow it may seem on the outside; the more you get into it, you realize that it runs from rock sounds to sentimental sounds.
The country audience has been stereotyped as "NRA rednecks in pickup trucks.” In reality, country has always been pandemographic in appeal, more of a lifestyle than an age group.
Exactly. That’s true. And, I think that is what the lifestyle is, relationships. What country listeners are drawn to, is storytelling, authenticity and relationships. So, a country station without personalities, even in a PPM (Portable People Meter) world--where you certainly do need to be brief, if you are on a PPM-rated radio station--they lose their brand essence. They lose what they stand for. You can see it in their listening. It goes down.
I’ve always been a personality coach. I was a personality for a long time, and I still believe big time—more than ever now, with Generation Y, the Millennial Generation—that who you are, and what you stand for matters (as a radio station). If you have no personality, if you have no values, there’s nothing engaging or captivating about you. There are certainly some formats like JACK (the on-air brand of about 60 radio stations in North America, the U.K., Austria, and Russia) that do quite well without personalities, of course.
JACK, BOB and HANK FM are formats that may fade away. After all, their listeners can play their favorite music on their iPods.
I agree with that. Radio’s only strength--and there’s no question that we have done a lot to lose it during the consolidation era in the past 15 years, as companies have become more and more highly leveraged—is its ability to connect to its audience. The smart ones, the ones who get it and continue to do well, are the (stations) that realize that they must have a connection to the local community, and that they need personalities, so they can compete with music by the pound.
The 45-54 demographic is shrinking. What’s the sweet spot today for country radio?
Certainly, 45 to 54 is country’s biggest demo right now. That’s the leading edge boom, which really got into country during the early ‘90s. Just because the size of that leading edge boom, they are still a major factor.
The growing sweet spot—although it’s a challenge—is the young side. I think that Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert have provided us with a tremendous opportunity on the young side. That young female, 15 to 27 or 28-years–old (demo), their music tastes are extremely eclectic. They are all over the road. It’s not the high level of loyalty that the upper end (demographic) have, but I think that there is a tremendous opportunity. Of course, Generation Y is larger than even the leading edge boom.
So, our challenge is that we have three generations in our target. There’s Generation Y, Gen X, which is the smallest of the three, and then the leading edge boomers. What we want to try to do is remain pandemographic, but try to appeal to everyone in that target. The artists that do best, the songs that do best are the ones that achieve that, whether it’s Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley or George Canyon.
Regardless of what people say, radio remains an immensely powerful communication tool, made even more so when it works in tandem with phones, both land line and mobile, texting, the internet, and all sorts of emerging smart devices and apps.
Oh yeah. There’s been plenty of research by both the Radio Marketing Bureau in Canada, and by the Radio Advertising Bureau in the U.S., to show that radio can be in a multi-media mix—and you can see this in PPMs. The cool thing about radio is that you can do other things while you listen to it. There’s a tremendous amount of ‘at work’ and ‘at home’ listening, where folks are literally on-line and listening to the radio at the same time. That has the potential to really enrich the (radio) experience by turning it into a multi-media experience, especially if you are using social networking.
Facebook is huge for country radio now.
Any radio station that is not engaging with its audience by using Facebook is missing a powerful tool. I would say that with the majority of country stations, they haven’t been particularly far-sighted to do it. However, what has happened is that the (country) audience has dragged stations into it. The listeners are so into the music and their personalities, and also the personalities of the artists, that if you don’t engage them, they won’t listen. You must engage them. You must involve them.
Several country artists have dragged country radio further into the social networking world. People like Kenny Chesney and Taylor Swift are very active on the internet.
You bet. The biggest tweeters are Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert. They are almost frightening. They are so out there sometimes that it is almost, “somebody needs to rein these two in.” They are young people and they are very enthusiastic. Blake has some alter egos that he tweets as, that are just a hoot; they are hilarious.
The internet activities of Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert will, almost certainly, impact the next generation of country fans.
I think that’s right. Taylor started as an internet phenomenon. There are others. It just isn’t an age thing. What Jimmy Buffett has achieved on the internet is phenomenal. Through his Margaritaville website, he can sell out concerts with no advertising.
About the internet, you are right, however. The younger you are, the more the digital native that you are; the older you are, the more of a digital emigrant you are. Or, you speak digital as a second language, and you are learning. Obviously, the young pick it up, and are very comfortable with it.
The internet could widen the AQH (Average Quarter-Hour Persons) share for country radio.
That’s right. I think what it also does, is that it makes the whole experience of enjoying country music more multi-dimensional, if you fully take advantage of everything that is there. Blake Shelton has hundreds of thousands of followers on his tweets. In some ways, he doesn’t even need radio anymore, because his relationship is direct with listeners and his fans by using twitter. But, the truth is, that he completes the circle. I don’t think that there is anybody right now who does as much talking to radio as Blake. A lot of others do too.
According to the recent Country Music Association consumer study, country fans are adopting new media and technology at a brisk pace.
(High speed Internet access) has grown tremendously in the U.S. It’s less true in Canada. Canada is a much more wired nation than America. A lot of small towns in America remain on a dial up, even now. Country (radio) tends to be on the edges of metropolitan areas. So out on the fringes of the metros is where country listeners are. In Canada, those places are more wired with high speed. In America, in a lot of smaller towns, high speed is just getting there.
A demo largely missing in country radio has been young males. That seems to be changing with artists like Eric Church and the Zac Brown Band.
I think that’s true. Zac Brown certainly appeals to women as well. There’s been a new energy in country in the last year or two. It has been much more balanced in its appeal. Maybe, some of this is the PPM radio measurement, because the people meter does a better job of finding men who listen at work than BBM and Arbitron diaries, which really struggle to get men into the sample. Diary listening tends not to represent men (as well), and (PPM) meters, where all they have to do is carry it around, does a better job of picking that listening up. Any format that wants to do well in the PPMs has to really look at males.
Most Nashville labels with the first single of a new artist will still target it to females.
Sure. That’s absolutely right. Some of that is because those young females are music buyers. In some ways, it’s like Top 40. Get the women, and the young males will follow. I think there’s truth in that with country on the young side as well. No doubt.
It’s been harder to establish new country artists.
Country has that same cycle that Guy Zapoleon (president, Zapoleon Media Strategies) talks about at Top 40--that there is 7 or 10 year cycle. And country is part of that cycle too. When Lady Gaga, and Top 40 and “American Idol” are really hot; country is down a little bit. When Top 40 gets too much sameness and tends to repeat itself too much, that’s when rock and country (formats) will tend to surge up. The sign that is happening is when country starts moving artists (to pop crossover). There are so many new artists in country. Chris Young, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley on and on. Let alone, Keith Urban.
Country crosses over to the mainstream audiences but then always falls back.
I wish I could give you the exact timetable (when that happens) because we’d both get rich. In the early ‘50s it was Hank Williams, and then (country appeal) went down. In late ‘50s and ‘60s it was Patsy Cline, and Jim Reeves, and then it went down. Then it was Glen Campbell, Buck Owens and Roy Clark later on. So you certainly see that (trend) all of the time.
In some ways, Taylor Swift is today’s example of that (crossover) right now. There are a lot of artist that flirt with (crossover). But the end of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s country careers happened when they crossed over. So there is that if you follow that siren song (of the mainstream). Taylor seems to be aware of that history, and is trying to avoid it. She goes on the MTV Music Awards, and she says that she’s a country artist. We’ll see how (her career) goes.
Someone who has had her ups-and-downs and who is an amazing chameleon is Reba McEntire. What a talented lady. She’s been a Broadway star, a TV star, and she continues to reinvent herself through her music as well. There’s been times when she’s been in the mainstream, and times when she hasn’t been.
There was criticism for several years of Faith Hill and others being so Hollywood that female country fans couldn’t identify with them.
The one artist that was really mismanaged was Shania Twain. She was huge in country for a few years, but she was badly overexposed. I feel sorry for her now. It will be interesting to see if she is ever going to come back.
Country changes all of the time. What might have been country 10 or 15 years ago isn’t country today. My thought is that if country listeners like it, then it's country. So, in that sense, Shania is plenty country for me. Goodness knows, Timmins, Ontario (Twain’s hometown) is pretty country.
Country music remains more reliant on CD sales than other genres.
Sure. I think a lot of things come into play there in causing (strong CD sales in country). One is the pandemographic nature of country. The older you are, the more you still listen to CDs in your car and so on. The other thing that plays a role is that country listeners tend to buy their music at Wal-Mart or Target in the U.S. as well as at Zellers in Canada. Those discount stores, where country listeners shop, still do a lot of music sales in country. Country really does lead the way there.
That’s fortunate because country buyers have always had a problem with traditional music retail.
A lot of country listeners would be intimidated if they walked into a music store and heard grunge or hip hop or rock. They would feel that the music store really wasn’t for them. That has always been a problem for country. Now, maybe it’s an advantage, because where country sales are big is in the discount stores.
What do you think of Warner's $6 "Six Pak" CD concept that debuted with Blake Shelton's six-track "Hillbilly Bone" release?
I think that’s the future. Although, what the future really is, are songs. The next single, or the new 45 is now the MP3. I don’t know if six is the number (for a CD release). It just has to be a value. Listeners are not going to spend $19 to buy three songs anymore like they used to.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the little town of Salem, Ohio. A guy who lived up the street from me was Alan Freed’s personal manager, Lew Platt. Alan came from Salem. Alan’s father owned the clothing store in downtown Salem. So, I knew kids who knew Alan’s family. His meteoric rise from Youngstown radio to Cleveland, and then to New York was just inspiring.
Also, Hugh Downs who comes from Lima, Ohio. He was another role model that I greatly admired. I watched both of those guys and I grew up thinking that I wanted to do that too. I graduated from high school in 1961.
[DJ Alan Freed was born in Johnstown, Penn. in 1921. In 1933, his family moved to Salem, Ohio. While Freed was in high school, he formed a band called the Sultans of Swing in which he played the trombone. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Lew Platt was closely connected with the ballroom and dance band business in Ohio.
Before his long TV career, Hugh Downs worked as a radio announcer and program director at WLOK in Lima, Ohio. In 1940, he moved on to WWJ in Detroit, and later joined the NBC radio network at WMAQ, as an announcer in Chicago.]
You were inspired by the greats of top 40 radio from Youngstown, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Chicago and Philadelphia.
There was a lot of energy, and a lot of fun in radio then. It was true personalities, a lot of content, and very unique. My favorite station, when I was a kid, was WHOT in Youngstown. The program director back then was Dick Thompson, who remained with the station until just a few years ago. He may have been the longest-standing program director around. He built a sizzling radio station (complex) there, with WHOT and WRED-FM, the red hot combination. And, another one; WHLO in Akron. There were some great personalities there.
Back then, you thought of yourself as a musical snob.
The truth is, that I played trombone in a band. The first time I heard the Beatles, I didn’t like them. I thought that it was a sell-out; almost trash. So I am famous for having bad ears. When the Beatles hit in 1964 and 1965, I was working at WNOB in Cleveland. I did a night show called “Box Seat”, which was sponsored by a local bank. What we did, was literally play a Broadway show every night, and re-enact the Broadway show, and talk about it. For a while, I was in Cleveland and I did mornings on a jazz station.
How old were you doing all of this?
20 or 21.
How did you get into radio?
I was very fortunate. A station licensed to Salem then was WSOM, which was “The Wonderful Sound of Music.” 105.1 FM and 100,000 watts. Russ Jones put the station on the air. He was a tech guy who applied for an FM license. He bought an old 50,000 watt transmitter from KBKA Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, which he repurposed. When I was a kid, I hung around that station. Some really good people from Youngstown, and Cleveland radio were in and out of that station over the years, because it had a tremendous signal all over northeast Ohio.
When I was just a kid, I babysat for the night guy on the station in exchange for being taught how to run the (sound) board. My mother caught him doing that. She embarrassed the hell out of me. She said, “If you are going to use Jaye to baby-sit for your kids while you are working, then you need to pay Jaye.” I was like, “Oh no. There’s goes my chance in radio.”
But you got your chance to be in radio.
I went to Kent State University, and I was the news director at WSOM. Then I went to work at WCUE in Akron. At Kent State, I majored in English. I didn’t want to do radio. I didn’t take broadcasting. I should have. I minored in speech, and I did do some broadcasting. I worked around Ohio in the ‘60s. I worked at (minority-owned) WAVI, and its sister station WDAO in Dayton.
Then you went into the U.S. Air Force in 1966.
I volunteered for the Air Force. The reason I volunteered was that I found out that they had a bypass test where, if you passed the test, you could choose your career field. I chose radio and got into Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.
You didn’t get sent to Vietnam?
I was in southeast Asia but, thankfully, no. I did do some TBYs (shortwave broadcasts) in Vietnam but, basically, I was in the Armed Forces Thailand Network at a base in Korat (in central Thailand), I spent two years over there. I volunteered for a second tour.
In 1995, while general manager of the BP Consulting Group in Seattle, you underwent a corrective gender operation. How did you handle this in your job?
The nice thing about coming out of the closet like I did is that there are no secrets. It’s all out there. I am who I am and everybody knows. I waited a long time to do it because I was scared and frightened. Ultimately, I got to the point in my own personal life where I felt like, if I lost my career, so be it. My attitude was, “It’s important enough that I do this, that if I have to end up flipping burgers at McDonald’s, I will do it. This is me and this is what I’m going to do.”
Fortunately, my boss at BP was Edie Hilliard, who was then president. When I went to her and presented what I wanted to do, I think she was panicked, and was a bit frightened. But what she did was brilliant. She said, “This is a marketing problem.” So we brought in a guy who was the marketing expert for the company, Dave Newton. We brainstormed and talked about how could we do this and make the announcement in such a way that had the highest potential for success.
What we did was that we sent Fed-X packages to every client and tried to get the word out immediately, all at one time. In the letter sent out to everybody I worked with, I also said I would be in the office the following day, that I would be calling everybody, and I was open to answering any questions. The next day was an unbelievable day. It was incredible because if there were any negatives from anybody, I don’t know about them. It was so positive, and so affirmative.
You didn’t lose clients?
None. I fully expected to. I tell people that I am the poster child for “Carpe Diem” (Latin for “seize the day”). I am proof that if you really want something in your life, don’t hide it; admit it; come out and it can be fine.
[“Carpe diem” is from a Latin poem “De rosis nascentibus” by the Roman poet Horace. It is part of the longer phrase “Carpe diem quam minime credula postero,” meaning, "Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future,” as heard in the 1989 film “Dead Poets Society.”
That first year at the Country Radio Seminar (CRS) after her surgery, Albright was on a panel and she had a model come out and sit in her place at first. Then, she took her seat and made a joke about how the surgery wasn't that good. It was apparently a brilliant ice breaker.]
How did you family take the news?
Thankfully, quite good. I was struggling with my gender issues all of my life. I came out to my parents in the early ‘70s and contemplated surgery at that time. I didn’t. So they had about 15 to 20 years to get used to it. They are small town conservative Christians, so it took a long time. It’s funny in a way how it all worked out. By the time I made the decision, my family was wonderfully supportive.
Have you faced prejudice over time?
Yes, of course, but, it’s okay. Part of my deciding to do this is to say that, “I have the right to do this. This is who I am.” So, people have the right to not understand it. I think it was Martine Rothblatt, an attorney in Washington who is transgender, (and who invented satellite radio), who said, “All my life I was confused; now I am not confused anymore. Now, it’s your turn to be confused.” That rings true to me.
It took me a lifetime to come to my decision, and figure out who I am. For other people within 10 minutes to try to figure it out, “Oh yeah, it’s fine.” I recognize that there are people that have issues with this. So, I try to be accepting as I can be of people. That’s really worked well for me.
Larry LeBlanc was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.
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