January 17, 2002
YEAR IN FORMATS, CALLS AND PEOPLE
The Year-End Rant: The Pragmatists and the Romantics
by SCOTT FYBUSH
Jump to READERS' REPLIES
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
Your turn, folks! E-mail email@example.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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2002 by Scott Fybush.