Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Face it, terrestrial radio is on life support

This is a rerun. 

This another one of my columns from Hustler Magazine and was edited by Bruce David

Did you know that radio has gone HD? Better sound and many new channels all on one signal. You didn't? That's probably because you, like so many people, don't listen to radio anymore. Listenership is down 14% in the last 10 years. Today you listen to your I-pod, programming on the internet, a CD or perhaps commercial free music on one of the Satellite systems. There are so many better options, especially since your local radio station has done nothing to maintain your interest. 

How did this chasm come about? Back in the mid 90's, Bill Clinton, in one of his more stupid moments, signed a Telecommunications act that deregulated broadcasting. In doing so he changed the way broadcast companies operate.

Until that time, these companies were limited in the number of outlets they could own. The rule was 7-7-7: seven TV, seven AM and seven FM in total with no more than one each in a market. If you owned all three and a newspaper in the same market, you had to get rid of either the newspaper or one of the broadcast outlets. Deregulation opened the floodgates; all of a sudden you could own as many outlets as you wanted. The newspaper rule still held, sort of, but Rupert Murdoch of News Corp. (Fox) is trying to get that waived too.

The rush was on. Broadcast groups gobbled up broadcast stations faster than you could count. When the dust settled the winner was Clear Channel Communications with 1250 radio stations. Burp!

That's where everything unraveled. In the past, if you owned a station, you competed against all the other stations in your market. They were your sworn enemy. Now they became your compatriots. With some outfits owning as many as 8 stations in a market, sales departments were combined as were marketing, accounting and the like. Even programming was consolidated with, in some cases, a single program director in charge of more than one station. It goes without saying that tens of thousands of broadcast professionals across the country found themselves out of work. All "redundancies" were eliminated.

What about the radio personality? You can't replace them right? Enter a nefarious practice known as "voice tracking." For years radio owners had wet dreams over the possibility of automation, but nothing seemed to work...until voice tracking. With this technology the personality comes in to record just his voice. A computer adds the music later. Not only does he do the voice for the shift on his station but also for stations in maybe 3 or 4 other markets. Now one employee has replaced as many as three others. The station saves even more by paying the jock only for the time he spent working. 

Previously, a live 4 hour shift paid for 4 hours. That same time block now pays talent only for the hour he worked recording the show. Remember: music is added later. Did you know that the personality on your local station isn't even there? Usually the only live shows are in the morning where a certain immediacy is required.

What if a company owns two stations with the same format in the same market? Before degregulations those stations would compete, each trying to out do the other. Now, owned by one master, the lesser of the two is told to hold itself back in deference to the one considered a "cash cow." Cost saving and conglomeration dragged down a medium that once thrived on competition. 

Talk shows remained the only live programming but even they replaced hundreds of people because most talk is syndicated by satellite. In the process, localism was killed; talk shows now speak to the nation, not your home town. Diversity was another casualty: Clear Channel was politically conservative, even contributing money to George W's campaign. Not surprisingly the only hosts allowed on Clear Channel stations were of a right wing bent.

And what about the single station owner? They just couldn't compete with the evil empire. They had to sell. Before degregulation it was these stations that served the small towns with local news and needs.

In time all things become obsolete. Just try and find a pay phone these days. The record store is all but gone. Terrestrial radio survived the onslaught of TV by adapting. This time, however, it may just be the end. Technologically, radio is a wireless medium with higher quality than the internet or MP3's. But the medium that survived TV may just have been undone by its biggest foe, greed.

1 comment:

Mister X said...

ACtaully Clear Channel did broadcast Air America on some of its weak stations (mainly because they felt it wouldn't compete and was free to them).