January 17, 2002




The Year-End Rant: The Pragmatists and the Romantics



This is not an easy year to write a rant. There's certainly no way to argue that consolidation, voicetracking or satellite radio are world-changing matters in the wake of a year in which the world really did change. So if you're wondering why it took a few extra weeks for this year's Rant to reach you, that's one reason.

Another, just by chance, was the news from Nashville. It's been somehow gratifying to see the national media attention being given to the talk about a format change at WSM. There was little surprise here at NERW Central when Gaylord announced it wouldn't be changing the format on AM 650; for one thing, the whole matter had the feeling of a publicity stunt (even, as it turned out, a somewhat accidental one); for another, it's not as though WSM has the eight-decade legacy of country music that some of the protesters seemed to think it does.

The message board traffic and the mailing list chatter about WSM provided a perfect illustration, though, for the point I was planning to make anyway as I began writing this year's Rant: there's a growing gap between the romantics and the pragmatics when it comes to radio at the beginning of the 21st century.

And while that's understandable, it's not necessarily a good thing for the future of the industry we all love. I'll address that disconnect in the context of two of the biggest questions to face radio as we enter 2002; first, the consolidation of ownership under media giants such as Clear Channel, and second, the arrival of satellite radio as a broadcast reality.

Clear Channel: the mere mention of these two words can inspire a remarkable level of venom when brought up in the right company.

In some circles, bashing the 1300-station behemoth is almost the party line; even a fairly innocuous positive mention of the company in the wrap-up to the Big Trip retrospective on the Tower Site of the Week feature here on fybush.com produced e-mail from one former Clear Channel employee accusing me, not entirely in jest, of having "drunken the Kool-Aid."

But I meant what I said at the end of this summer's 5000-mile journey around the country, and I'll amplify it in this Rant: To the extent that there's something wrong with radio in 2002, Clear Channel is at best a symptom, not the cause, of the problem.

The problem, if your name isn't Randy or Mel, is that Congress apparently never envisioned, when it lifted the national ownership cap in 1996, that any one company would actually attempt to do what it had just made possible and buy up fully a tenth of the nation's broadcast signals, with a particular (and very deliberate) emphasis on strong full-time AM signals and solid FMs. The resulting rush on stations had the positive effect of allowing many old-line owners to cash out of their investments for far more than they ever could have dreamed of getting for their stations. But it also made it all but certain that no other generation would ever get the chance to experience individual ownership of any major broadcast signal.

We've bemoaned that change in this space before, and the genie is too far out of the bottle now to expect any regulatory change that would take us from a 1300-station group back to mom and pop. So with individual ownership more or less out of the question (and a tip of the hat to folks like Bob Bittner, Dennis Jackson and Ernie Anastos who are desperately trying to prove me wrong on this one) and a few years of the mega-groups under our collective belt, what have we all learned?

The romantics on the message boards will tell you that the product being heard on the radio since the advent of the mega-groups is worse than it used to be for two reasons: first, it's less diverse; second, it's less local.

M Street lists 399 distinct radio markets in the U.S., from New York City all the way down to the 32,800 souls in the Scottsbluff, Nebraska market. Over the last decade, I've had the chance to listen intently to radio in about 142 of those markets - and by "listen," I mean aircheck and study every station on the air in those markets. Several thousand Shania Twain songs later, here's what I now believe about U.S. radio in the 21st century: there's nothing much local about it, anyway - and there's nothing terribly wrong with that.

Don't get me wrong; there are still places where "local" is a vital part of radio programming. The "Big Trip" this summer took me to places like Yankton, South Dakota, where WNAX maintains an eight-decade tradition as a critical link between far-flung farming communities and the markets the farmers depend upon.

As I write this, I'm listening to some tapes recorded during a long drive from Yankton south to Omaha, through some of the least exciting parts of Nebraska I've ever seen (and that's saying something). The FM signals that emanate from little towns like Norfolk and Columbus and Central City and West Point were doing something important that Friday afternoon as I passed through, offering up the kind of hyper-local news, birthday greetings and farm reports that are the traditional province of the local weekly paper. No satellite services to be heard here, either; it seems that the presence of one or two stations with live, local jocks all day serves as a prod for the other stations to do the same. Stations like KLIR, KWPN and KZEN aren't likely to be on any mega-group's acquisition list any time soon; even if owned in volume, it's hard to believe they could ever produce enough profit to be more than a rounding error on even a medium-sized group's balance sheet.

And as they fly under the radar, I suspect they'll survive the next decade much better than some of their bigger cousins. For while these stations still provide something to their communities that can be had nowhere else, those bigger cousins could be headed for a face-to-face brush with irrelevance. I'm speaking, of course, of satellite radio - and more specifically of a point that I think most terrestrial broadcasters haven't quite grasped yet: with a few crucial exceptions, radio in the U.S. has become a national medium.

This, too, is nothing new: that's what radio was in its Golden Age, and it's what programmers like Bill Drake tried to do during the "second Golden Age" of the sixties and early seventies. It's what the satellite providers tried to do in the eighties, come to think of it. What was missing was the technology to implement truly national local radio. The best Drake could do was to dictate playlists and jock styles, and the best the satellite folks could do was a crude "20 past the hour" after the local ID, if the cart machine didn't jam.

Take one listen to your local "Kiss" CHR - and the odds are awfully good that you have one - and it should be clear that times have changed. Here in Rochester, our Kiss has a morning jock who's doing his shift the night before in Los Angeles, an afternoon jock who's here in Rochester and a bunch of other personalities who could be anywhere...and it doesn't matter. I'd bet a significant sum of money that none of the station's target listeners know that the jocks on Kiss aren't in town - and even if they did, that they can't tell the difference between the jock patter and the music there and the programming on Infinity's crosstown CHR competitor, whose jocks and programmers are all local.

Now stir the dozens of other CHRs I've heard over the past few years into the mix, and the distinctions grow even blurrier. Point to the "major-market" talent on a KIIS or a WHTZ as a distinction, and I'll point out that voice-tracking technology allows smaller markets like Rochester to get that sort of talent on the "local" airwaves in a way it never could before.

The AM dial is no different. Tell me you have a news-talk station in your market, and that it's owned by Clear Channel, and I'll bet that it has a local morning show, followed by either Laura Schlessinger or Glenn Beck, then Rush Limbaugh, perhaps a local afternoon show, and eventually Art Bell overnight. Does it have a sister AM doing sports? It's probably running Fox Sports or ESPN, with some local play-by-play and perhaps a local afternoon show. And again, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that. (Still don't believe me? Then why is the news-talk station in question - again, the top 20 or so markets exempted - probably the number one AM in the market?)

Bottom line, and this is nothing new, at least to the pragmatists among you: give the listener programming he or she wants to hear, and it makes not one bit of difference whether it's being heard on just a single transmitter in Providence or a thousand stations nationwide.

And that, in turn, brings us back around to the question of satellite radio. For if the idea is to be national, whether it's with Mike Siegel or Carson Daly, why do it over all those local transmitters when you can do it over one big one in the sky? Better yet, why spend several years and accumulate millions in debt to pull together three or four not-quite-national networks (and, in effect, that's what Clear Channel has done) when you can turn on 100 channels to everyone with a single flip of the switch?

If you didn't pick up on it last fall, this is precisely what has the NAB so worried about satellite radio. I believe the satellite companies - for now, anyway - when they say they have no intention of adding local content to their national broadcasts.

But the NAB is right to be afraid on this one, because it would be hard for the satellite guys to do a worse job creating a local/national mix than some of the "local" broadcasters are already doing. For every station that gets the mix right - and that can mean anything from a relentlessly local focus like WNAX (or, closer to home, WMCR or WMVY or WLNG) to a well-executed voicetracked Kiss or Mix format (and while the romantics may complain, they're often much better sounding to the average listener than the local formats they've replaced) - there are plenty more that are just plain failing.

Here's where the pragmatists get their due: the AM stations that were allowed to power up during the deregulatory eighties and now create a noise floor that's all but ruined the band, yet without offering anything redeeming in terms of programming; the forgotten stations (often the same AM outlets) that run all week off the hard drive without anyone noticing whether the spots, the IDs or even the programs themselves are running properly; the FM allocations that were dropped in in the nineties even though they never stand a chance of turning a profit, especially if they try to serve their nominal communities of license (but then, who does that anymore?)

Even the better operators, driven by the debt service that inevitably accompanied the big radio land rush of the last few years, can't seem to pull free of the temptation of the 20-minute stopset, despite the fairly clear evidence that it's driving listeners away and they're not coming back.

But will they go to satellite radio? Not at $300 for a radio, they won't, 30,000 early adopters notwithstanding. Receiver prices will drop, though, and when they do, here's how things just might play out.

Satellite gets the automatic win for a few types of listener for whom traditional radio has simply dropped the ball. If you're a classical-music aficionado just about anywhere, commercial radio has given up on you; doubly so for jazz and, lately, for standards. Make the radios inexpensive enough, and $10 a month doesn't look so bad if it means access to a format that terrestrial radio isn't offering.

Satellite should also solve the "small-market" issues that keep me in Rochester from enjoying the same diversity of formats that my friends in Boston take for granted. No AAA station where you live? Nobody doing Spanish tropical? You live in Manhattan and like country? No problem.

Those are all niche markets, though. Can XM or Sirius compete with Kiss or Mix? Can their news and talk channels compete against the WHYNs and WSYRs and WHPs of the world? Here's where I don my official pundit cap and declare: "I dunno." It will be a few years, if ever, before satellite radio can market a "must-hear" talk personality on the level of a Limbaugh or a Harvey, instead of simply retreading existing second-echelon talkers from terrestrial networks. To the extent they continue their already-diminished committment to local news staffing, the terrestrial broadcasters will always have that advantage over the purely national satellite.

In the long run, though, it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which the terrestrial broadcasters, and in particular Clear Channel, fight back by becoming more like satellite. Take TV as a model here: nobody cringes at hearing their "local" station call itself, say, "NBC3" (well, as long as they don't live in San Francisco), and nobody is bothered by the fact that the most popular programming on most TV stations comes from New York and Los Angeles, not from Worcester or Altoona.

That model already exists in radio, at least at the fringes: think about "ESPN 1260" or "Radio Disney 1490." It will come as no surprise, at least to this column, if they're someday accompanied by a fully-networked "Clear Channel Talk 570" or a purely national "Mix" feed. It works in most of the world, after all...and has for decades.

The romantics may not like it (and there are some valid points to be made on their behalf, particularly the nagging question of where the next generation of radio talent will get its training), but it's the pragmatists speaking this year. That's my rant, and now it's your turn. E-mail me with your responses (rant@fybush.com) and I'll begin publishing them here. If you want to be anonymous, say so and I won't post your name. Have at it!

Added January 28:

From Bill Turner: I agree with your synopsis of radio and its listeners.

I began in radio in 1978. I still love it but I see some problems that need to be corrected with the medium before radio digs its own grave.

Philosophy is a key word. Granted nobody wants to own a radio station that doesn't produce a profit. Profit is like the wheels on the car. The engine might be perfect but it just won't go without the wheels.

In 1978 the pholosphy behind running a radio station was "on air product". The idea was to reflect life in your community. You were to super serve your community. The result was an emotional bond with the listener. People became passionate about THEIR radio station.

Once you had passionate listeners, you had great results for your advertisers. Great results meant higher spot rates. Higher spot rates meant more profit.

Today the goal seems to be profit by any means. That grates on me since each radio station license is issued in order to serve the community. Serve is the key word.

Some random observations:

When Tropical Storm Allison hit Houston, dropping up to 36 inches of rain, mostly within a 14 hour period and at rates of up to 7 inches per hour, I tuned to the local News station. They were running Astros Baseball. After 2.5 hours of flooding and Friday afternoon commuters abandoning their cars as freeways turned to rivers, then the News station began coverage. In the meantime, all the TV major network stations had eliminated commercials and were broadcasting live. For Houston is was not unlike the events of September 11th. Imagine if coverage didn't begin until 2.5 hours after the World Trade Center bombing.

I remember working in a small maket with 3 stations. None were manned on the weekends. All were satellite delivered outside morning drive. When a tornado warning was issued, I learned from another station in a distant town and went down to the station to do live reports for the last few minutes of the threat. Luckily I was tuned to another station, so I could tell some of our town of the threat. In my opinion, this is not the service radio listeners expect.

We in radio need to wake up to the idea that listeners really do count on us to make them feel safe and secure in an unforgiving world. If we can satisfy this human need, we have a chance.

A last rant topic: radio does not work the same way as TV and newspaper. Running 3 card dealer commercials back to back and seemingly endless rows of commercials does not do your spot rate justice. Listeners start tuning out after 3 or 4 spots. How effectve is it to be spot 8 or spot 12 in a stop set. The answer: worthless. I'll give you $0.00 for that position if I were buying commercials.

A remark I heard from an employee at an electronics store, hawking Satellite radio: "Most are commercial free and those that aren't won't run more than 8 commercials per hour." Hmmm, remember when the average maximum commercial load on radio stations with music formats was just 8 minutes an hour.

Thanks for the chance for this Station Manager to vent.

Bill Turner

From Frank Casey, Albany NY: Unfortunately, I think that Congress did a lot of damage when it took the cap off of the amount of radio stations that individuals can own. As we all know, this was exhibitted when Clear Channel acquired its enormous amount of stations. It's almost like saying, "Eat what's put in front of you." The only bright spot we can allow Clear Channel is the continuous coverage that Clear Channel stations provided, during the World Trade Center/Pentagon disaster, on September 11, 2001. When the lid was taken off of ownership regulations, "moderation" wasn't phrase that anyone wanted to hear. Until, and unless, Congress revisits this important issue, United States radio listeners will not have much of a choise in what appears on their radio dials.

What about satellite radio? Well, we all know that, at present, it's quite expensive. Most likely, prices will drop, eventually, making the service more affordable. However, it will probably be a novelty, and then, its popularity will level off.

So, you ask, what's the solution? Along with revising the limits as to the amount of radio stations which companies or individuals can own, there must also be stipulations set forth that station owners must have to own a radio station for a certain period of time before the station owners are allowed
to sell the station or stations. Along with this, station owners and programmers must be willing to be a little more "experimental" in trying varying types of programming.

I fully understand that some readers may say that if my proposals were to be enacted, stations would probably lose money, and we'll probably wind up with fewer radio stations. This, most likely, is true, however, I think we'd stand a fair chance of having more quality broadcast outlets in a nation which is starving for more quality and stable broadcast standards.

From Chris Altilio, Salt Lake City: First, I have to agree with you and what you said Scott. Radio is sinking fast. Fortunately, it can be saved. The trick is to make the corporate bean counters understand that making people want to listen to you will bring in money. Cost cutting in any business will almost inevitably show to the end consumer. Why? The excess fat was probably trimmed off years ago. Now you're cutting away the meat.

It sounds like I'm anti-satellite. I'm not. There is a very definite place for that type of product. For those consumers who only want a jukebox, satellite fits the bill perfectly. I'm also rather amazed that almost everyone is treating these new satellite radio companies like they're brand new. They aren't. Think about Music Choice and DMX. They've been around for years. The difference is that the new services are mobile and independent of dishes or cables. That's pretty much it. I have
DMX in my home and I find it useful when I want music there. It doesn't help as much when I leave though.

The way I see the industry shaking out is to have two different types of radio, the music jukebox type and the personality type. Satellite does well with the former and local terrestrial does better with the latter. The key to personality radio that is disappearing is being able to relate to the listener. Something that works well in one market just won't fly in another. A great example of this came about recently. I'm a transplanted New Yorker who moved out to the Salt Lake City Utah area. A new station just started here recently with an "80's Alternative" format. I listened to it for a while and relatized that the vast majority of the playlist would have been considered mainstream in NYC in the same period. Yet here it's alternative. That's just the way it is. How do you get around those
types of problems with a national satellite? You really can't. The other big component is that getting the listener *actively involved* in a station creates a want in the listener to listen to *that station.* If I've got 4 Hot AC stations to choose from and they all sound exactly the same, which
one should I choose? It seems like most people flip around to one at random until the 5 minute commercial break comes along, then hit the preset and zing to one of the other 3. The only thing that keeps me mostly at one station is if there's something there drawing me back time after time.
Sure that could be a voicetracked DJ from some other market, but that's still generic. Get somebody who wants to make a real connection to the listeners and let him/her loose. That's how you end up with interesting radio. WABC has been performing a great service in playing back old
airchecks from the Musicradio77 days on Memorial Day. Listen to how interesting and relevant the DJ chatter is. The compare that to almost anything on the air these days. You don't find that much. But it doesn't even have to be live or even local to be interesting. Those are advantages, but not essential. What's essential is putting real content in it. For example, take Wolfman Jack. He was doing pre-taped, canned, not-live shows decades ago. But man he had personality. I doubt we could find another Wolfman today, but there are plenty of people with talent who never get heard. Will someone like that show up on satellite? I doubt it. The suits want the product to work everywhere. The type of show that works in New York probably won't work well in Iowa or southern California. Take a personality that understands the tone of a market and let it fly.
It'll work, if you let it.

A brief side note. There is a parallel going on in multi channel television (radio with pictures). Today there is very little difference between cable TV with a digital tier and the pizza pan satellite dishes. Cable's biggest asset is being able to deliver local content in the form of local access programming. Yet for most cable companies there is no effort at all to get local programming on the air. Jokes about the quality of said programming notwithstanding, people like to see themselves and their neighbors on TV. It's fun. I was fortunate to work for a while at a local cable company with a small access studio that produced such programming. A lot of it was laughable, but it sure had character. Time in the studio was at a premium, and we aired around 50 hours a week on two channels. You can't say there wasn't interest in it. Where I am now, the local and leased access channels are either a black screen 24 hours a day, or filled with satellite shopping channels. It's truly sad. The extent of local programming is a 2 minute local insert on CNN Headline News that repeats for a week. *sigh*

Sorry about the length of this. If anyone in the Salt Lake City area happens to agree with me, offer me a job. ;)

Added January 17:

From Tim Hendel, Huntsville AL: Would a local business owner kill his business on purpose? Of course not! Would my local restaurant print, at the top of its menu, "We are sure that there is nothing on this menu that you will like." Ridiculous! Would the greeter at WalMart say, "Welcome to the store. Come on in, but there won't be anything here you want to buy." Certainly not! Yet, that is what radio is doing, committing suicide. More accurately, those who own and run radio
stations are systematically telling their younger audiences, in other words, future lifelong listeners, that there is nothing on the air that they will find useful.

When I was a kid, my Mom used to rely on the radio for everything from school closings to farm prices to what the mayor said. In her case, it was WHAM, 1180, in Rochester, but it might have been any one of hundreds of stations, large and small, across the country. If it was snowing early in the morning, Mom knew that she could find out, before she fixed the kids' lunches, if their local school would be closed. If Dad had to drive to Syracuse, she could hear if there were any problems on the ThruWay this morning.

Of course, when we grew up and had families of our own, we would turn on the radio when we wanted a vital piece of local information. We learned this from our parents. Unfortunately,
however, most of the time, when we turned on that radio, we didn't get any information. Some guy in Dallas or Boston or Orlando hasn't a clue about our weather in Denver, and nobody is telling us
what the city council is going to do. There is either continuous boring music, filled in with mindless chatter, or in-your-face talk about how the president is ruining the country. In short, nothing

So, our kids won't learn to think of radio as a source for finding out things they truly need to know, right now, right here. We came to have that expectation because it was how our parents used radio. Since radio doesn't allow us to use it in that way, our kids won't expect what we used to seek on the air. They will only think of the radio as a place to hear their favorite songs. Except: they can also hear their favorite songs on the internet, on the satellite radio, on the cable, and they won't have any of those annoying commercials. In short, they will have no reason to listen to the radio at all, so they probably won't.

What can your local radio station do better than a network, better than satellite, better than the internet or cable. It can give you all the information my Mom used to get from WHAM. Since it has, for the most part, stopped doing that, why should anyone listen? They shouldn't, and they won't.

We don't serve hamburgers any more. Too many people wanted them, and it was too much bother to cook them.

From Luke Steele, Mountain Grove MO: Have read your review of the year, and I agree with many of your points. One major problem I personally have with today's radio is the decline in musical diversity. I would be hard pressed to see how much of any major company's (insert favorite target here) air product allows any room for musical diversity. The independents who found their niche, such as WOXY and WDST, are not the sort of products that make the easy money. They require time, passion, and other goals besides immediate profits. Notice what Clear Channel put up on XM. Not an AAA channel, or something eclectic. They put up Kiss, Lite, Mix, their basic sanitized brands. This is what interests them, maximum profit. They aren't in radio out of a sense of "duty" or even a love for it necessarily. This is not in and of itself bad, although we can question and even have a sense of moral outrage at the deeds of some of these corporations. It is about profit to them, and in that sense, what they do makes logical sense, although it offends most of our senses of duty and community.

I hear people often accusing me of viewing radio as an art. Radio is art. Radio is also a business. Yet, in the course of broadcasting, radio has been a unique medium for voicing information, opinion, and entertainment. Radio, independently owned, can uniquely serve a market. Even corporate radio had bright spots pre-telecom. I enjoyed stations owned by Jacor, such as KTCL Denver as late as 97, Entercom's KMTT, and others. I simply believe merger-mania has accelerated to an avalanche. Someone rolled a snowball off the top of a very tall mountain. It used to be creative people really had opportunities in radio that they don't seem to now. Look at the rise of alternative music in the 80s. More recent stations like KSCA Los Angeles, Rev 105 in the Twin Cities, and countless others. Sure some of them failed, some of them broke even or made marginal profits.

Things actually should be better for local owners in some ways. Voicetracking for instance, makes it possible to have more local input, even if not live. Yet some owners continue to use generic satellite feeds. Go figure.

You are right in the regards to national programming. If it was good enough, I'd listen to it. Currently, my most listened to station is WOXY Cincinnati. Would I like them quite as much as a generic satellite feed? Musically, yes. On the other hand, I do enjoy their obvious committment to local music, local events, and their audience in a way no generic "bird dropping" could do. Even though I'm not in the Tri-state, I wouldn't want WOXY to change their focus for anything. It's special, and refreshing. I have tons of generic satellite feeds in my area, and I'll listen to other local radio on the net before I listen to the blandness that is networked (music) radio.

I have different feelings on XM, as I have sampled some of their channels and find them very entertaining. Most of them are also programmed by former radio people and have niche formats, so I view that differently than just generic satellite-fed terrestrial radio. I view XM as "premium radio."

During the winter, I'm making it my project to catalog my aircheck collection. As I listen to the tapes, I hear stations that bore me, stations that died, and stations that excite me. I hear songs I love, songs I hate, good production, cheap production, the occasional mishap. Yet, more than
anything, even in tapes as late as 1998..I hear reality. I hear people. I don't hear much cross promotion with other stations, not much bragging about who owns what, not many national contests. For better or worse, radio as it was. Radio had its problems then. All in all though, I'd say we were at a prime opportunity to use the tools we had wisely to help our industry and,
in the long run, ourselves.

I still want to own a radio station. It's a mania I suppose. Or maybe I just believe there's an audience out there for the music I believe in and the community I want to serve. It may not grab huge numbers, it may barely break even initially. However, it is a goal I will strive for.

Sadly, I don't suppose radio will change back to even 1998 standards eventually. So, untill there's compelling content on my local dial, I suppose it's back to webcasts and airchecks. Forgive my rambling, and if anyone would like to respond to this "romantic", or trade tapes, please
email earthradio@getgoin.net.

Your turn, folks! E-mail rant@fybush.com with your views (and tell me whether or not I can use your name), and we'll add more to the page on Monday...

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