Vanishing Fast: Radio Careers

We have had consolidation in radio for over ten years now and even after a flirtation with virtual voice tracking, the industry is fast becoming a nonstarter for serious careers.

In television, the increasing side effects of running public companies for every penny that can be eeked out of them and the collateral damage to local newsrooms is devastating. Local news, once the profit machine of local television, is not immune from taking a hit.

I am well aware that the radio industry wasn't the poster child for a "normal" career. I've got a lot of radio friends in the business and each one can tell you another indignity they went through to be in radio.


There were always jobs worth aspiring to. There was always a payoff if you could be good enough. Start by working weekends on the all-night show and you could be doing middays in another market before too long.

Work in a city and become part of the community (I'm scaring you now, aren't I?), and you could live to raise your kids in that market or maybe even -- if you're lucky -- buy a house and find a "home" there.

My radio and television career was in Philadelphia and I could name almost an endless stream of talent on and off the air who had the best part of their careers in one market -- hell, in some cases, at one station.

To say those days are over is nothing new. We've had a lot of time since consolidation began in 1996 to know that radio was soon to become a commodity -- a profit machine with lots of free cash flow. A business, if you will.

One of my first jobs in radio was at WIBG in Philadelphia (I actually worked there twice, once on-air and a second time after returning from another station in Philly to be PD). The first time I walked into the building I saw a painting of George Storer (WIBG was owned by Storer Broadcasting) hanging over the reception desk. Imagine Lowry or Mark Mays' mug in a painting at any Clear Channel station -- maybe they have them, but I've never heard of it.

George Storer was the boss. He was the man. He was referred to as Mr. Storer. Not George. Okay, it was another time.

The owners during the glory days of music radio owned radio because they wanted to own radio. Cecil Heftel, the Congressman from Hawaii, is legendary for being a wild man but he owned radio and liked it. Even the conglomerates like ABC, CBS and NBC weren't that dominant even though they had a presence in the major markets because they could only own 7 AMs, 7 FMs and 7 TV stations (later 14 of each). The ownership rules were a natural force that prevented the wrong companies from having the wrong intentions.

What followed was years of great radio -- and profits for some owners. Just as impressive would be the owners who lost money. That's my gold standard for love of radio. They saw it as a public service. What a concept. (Okay, now I'm getting nostalgic, I admit it).

I'm back.

So you could start as a weekender, go full-time, move to another station and get a better shift. You could stay in the market for years or a career.

And another watershed moment -- getting fired!

When I went to Temple University, Lew Klein the outstanding television broadcaster at channel six and producer of American Bandstand was one of my professors. I almost died when he started a class with "if you haven't been fired a couple of times in your career then you're not in broadcasting". He was right then and right now.

Except now, when you get fired it isn't always for being a bad employee. Maybe just an unlucky one who happens to be at the wrong station when it is fulfilling its mandate to corporate to cut expenses for the next quarterly investors promise.

And, you could always get another job -- even in the same market -- because two monopolies didn't own most of the radio stations.

Enough about my problems. Now onto yours.

Radio cannot be a destination career while it is pimping out its sales to Google, force-feeding capable executives to run more stations than their time and/or abilities will allow.

And when the programming goes jockless -- as Jack and a wide variety of other music intensive formats now do -- you're not creating jobs, you're saving money. You're also not creating any additional reason for a listener to listen that your competitor might already have.

If you can't offer careers in broadcasting, you can't attract the best and brightest.

If you don't have a management training program that also includes jobs and the promise of longevity, you don't have jack. (Or should I say, you do have Jack -- stations without well-paid air staffs).

If you're into virtual voice tracking, you're out of the talent development business.

If you don't have a "minor league" to develop your next big radio star, you're CBS. Really. David Lee Roth? Opie & Anthony? Adam Corolla? I mean, who followed Howard Stern? Who was as big a franchise? Where is the next franchise without a minor league to develop talent? And how do you have a minor league in smaller markets when you're piping in voiced tracked announcers?

If you're cutting costs, you're also getting by on less (re-read this line).

If you're wondering why radio and now television has seen a better day, don't look to YouTube, the Internet, Apple, TiVo or any other distraction.

Broadcasting executives, look squarely in the mirror and repeat after me "if you haven't been fired a couple of times in your career then you're not in broadcasting?" No -- sorry, I got carried away.

Look into the mirror and ask yourself how do you expect to be any more than a utility if you took the "show" and "business" out of show business.

You're left with nothing.

Unless and until radio and television becomes a destination for long careers, you have what consolidation has wrought -- the fast food business, the airline industry -- quick, name another "beneficiary" of consolidation.

Everyone gets screwed.

The NAB screwed its members when it helped get the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (enabling consolidation) passed.

Congress screwed the public and robbed them of broadcasters who should have put them ahead of Wall Street.

Thousands of dedicated and talented people lost their jobs as a result of consolidation.

Wall Street screwed the radio industry when it pressured for economies of scale over programming innovation.

And most ironically, radio screwed Wall Street because in the end the consolidators couldn't run all those stations -- even as a monopoly (Clear Channel has sold almost 500 stations and is going private, CBS previously sold stations gained through consolidation).

Wall Street screwed its investors who were lead to believe that radio was a growth industry when being an investment bank is the only known investment industry that pays dividends. Investors don't need to be reminded of what they paid for radio stocks. They are painfully aware of what these stocks are not worth today.

The Internet reminds me of radio and television in the best of times. No monopolies to keep you from opening up shop (just unfair royalty fees -- but we'll win that battle). Access to a large audience. The hope of return on investment. The promise of a long and more stable career. Maybe even a financial payoff for successful entrepreneurs. And even Google, acting like Clear Channel in terms of size and domination, can't scare anyone.

The next generation has it right. They may not breakdown the history of employment in the media business but they sure know a good thing when they see, hear and click on it.

Radio and TV -- it's over if you can't attract top talent.

It's over if you can't retain the cream of the crop.

It's done when no one worthy wants to work for you.