Radio Group That Proved More Is More

I've been mulling an odd thought lately that today's consolidators could never have pioneered the radio industry. It takes me back to the 1960's when a company called Westinghouse that made electrical appliances, light bulbs and other manufactured goods owned radio and television stations. That was allowed then, but they couldn't own too many. Hold that thought. The folks at Westinghouse came up with a zany idea for a format that did all-news 24-hours a day. I was a young guy in Philly at the time where they owned a very poor signal that they wound up calling KYW Newsradio 1060. It was awful. And I just don't say that because I worked for some of their competitors as I was trying to start my career, it was bad. The other more established adult stations in Philly made fun of it mercilessly -- news teletype ticker in the background and all. Somewhere I think I still have a bootleg send up of KYW done by some Philly radio people then. It was merciless. But this noble experiment droned on and on without ratings, audience or really a reason for being. Oh, and did I mention it wasn't cheap. Doing news took reporters, anchors and there were unions and engineers. But it droned on and on. The stubborn people at Westinghouse thought they had a new format idea and they weren't going to let a lot of money and a lack of quick whiz bang success make them act otherwise.

Eventually, Westinghouse prevailed and built the money machine now known as the all-news franchise that is pumping tons of free cash flow into the hands of CBS -- the consolidator that inherited Westinghouse Broadcasting. Here's a concept Clear Channel wouldn't get: a costly news format that makes a lot of money. I guess you could say -- "More is more". And that was one of the reasons radio was attractive enough to lure the hungry investors of Wall Street who pillaged our stations and raped our...well, you get the point. Small groups of stations, independent of mind, that had to answer to a lot higher FCC standards than broadcasters do today -- and the industry flourished. I think it's fascinating that CBS, a no-risk company that pulled the plug on Howard Stern's ill-suited replacement after less than a year owns one of radio's historically most patient formats -- all news. I could do tit for tat on how things were better then than now, but that's not really the point. What matters -- and what the next generation of broadcasters should note -- is that radio is best when it is not a business. It's best as an art form -- not a science with everything researched and standardized (is any of that helping radio today?). If consolidators ran the show then, radio wouldn't have all-news. Todd Storz and Gordon McLendon wouldn't have invented the top 40 format and Bill Drake would never have developed the format that cleaned up clutter like no other format did. No. You'd have bean counter radio. No soul. No rock 'n roll. Many of my radio friends remember what it was like to work for these mom and pop operators. (Check Lee Abrams' blog, he'll tell you). Station owners had to have other businesses -- so radio could lose money. Westinghouse had an advertising slogan back in the day that went like this -- "You Can Be Sure If It's Westinghouse" and it surely applied to radio.

Clear Channel hasn't invented one format the stature of all-news with everything going for it. CBS kills formats like its legendary oldies station WCBS-FM and calls new formats like "Jack" great innovation. Not that "Jack" is bad, but it's not all that new. Any doubt as to why the radio business won't really turn around until it gets into the hands of people who believe "more is more", "losing money makes money eventually" and "radio is a public trust not something you buy for your trust fund".