FCC Unscrewing the Pooch

The phrase screw the pooch appeared in Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff meaning to mess up, commit a grievous error. It's a euphemism from US military slang that uses much stronger language involving a dog.

How apt, then, to apply this phrase -- which also appears in the Urban Dictionary -- to the current FCC which has begun the process of undoing some of the damage caused by consolidation.

Greedy radio consolidators have been asking for trouble -- almost from the start of consolidation which was enabled by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- and lobbied by your favorite trade organization -- the NAB.

I have no sympathy for what is about to happen because consolidators -- to borrow Wolfe's phrase -- have screwed the pooch long enough. Messed up terrestrial radio so that it would be attractive to Wall Street at the expense of its listeners on Main Street.

Only one problem.

Main Street is where Congress lives.

Their constituents have been complaining about consolidation and are fighting for local radio. Remember the disaster in Minot, ND? You'll recall no one at the local Clear Channel stations was home to help the local market through it a number of years ago? The radio listening public apparently has not forgotten and today the pressure is even being felt at Kevin Martin's FCC.

Martin won approval yesterday to allow cross-ownership in the top 20 markets -- and what I think will also become de facto cross-ownership in the smaller markets as well. Frankly, I don't care about media cross ownership. Let newspapers own TV stations and TV stations own radio. They're all dying anyway. No clue as to what to do because they can't get a handle on where the next generation lives. Onto the future.

The FCC has voted to start a rulemaking that could bring major changes to the radio industry. Almost all the owners -- not just consolidators -- are fighting it already. When the NAB and 34 state associations plus several dozen radio groups oppose re-regulation, then you can rest assured that re-regulation is exactly what the radio industry needs.

Under the rulemaking, stations could be required to establish permanent community advisory boards to discuss programming.

Now that's something to be afraid of, right? Who would fight this? Owners -- the same ones that have screwed the pooch for the past 12 years.

Stations might have to be staffed around the clock if the rulemaking eventually takes effect.

Who in their right mind would fight live air talent if in the same breath they sell terrestrial radio as a local medium? Only owners -- the ones who have driven listeners and advertisers away with voice tracking, unremarkable national syndication and bare bones programming.

The FCC is also considering allowing AMs to get FM translators. Who in their right mind could... well, you know who.

Radio owners have been asking for this type of intervention for years now.

They're like Britney Spears -- unhinged and unable to get their acts together. The FCC is radio's version of Promises, the Malibu rehab center to the stars. Now the FCC is threatening to drag the owners in screaming.

You can't be against re-regulation and for radio's survival at the same time. They go together.

Consolidators and the lemmings who follow their lead can't seem to take the cure so it's time for our FCC to force them to take their bitter medicine.

I think there's even more re-regulation on the way after the next presidential election especially if a Democrat wins.

Lots of tears have been shed by radio people whose careers have been ruined and/or ended due to cutbacks of late. I saw a recent list of Clear Channel cutbacks alone and it's staggering. And that's not including the other copycats who can't seem to succeed at radio even when they have a virtual monopoly.

Now it's all over but the crying for the biggest cry babies of all -- the consolidated and non-consolidated owners of America's free airwaves.

My good friend Joe Benson sent me news yesterday that underscores why the FCC should re-regulate now as witnessed by this move to make California's Antelope Valley the same as Los Angeles to Clear Channel's convoluted way of reasoning:
"It may be just coincidental, but perceptually there's a grim irony to the fact that right before FCC voted to allow certain media cross-ownership, a local station has been completely usurped. There seems to be a big format restructure and a sizable reduction in the work force at the CLEAR CHANNEL/LANCASTER/ANTELOPE VALLEY, CA cluster. Late last night, sources told ALL ACCESS that the local on-air staff of Modern AC KOSS (THE OASIS)/LANCASTER was let go, as the station is now simulcasting KIIS/LOS ANGELES. (This is not the first time this has happened; sister KVVS/LANCASTER is also re-broadcasting KIIS FM.) A check of the station's website found it now dubbed "105.5 KIIS FM."

Rumors abound that Country KTPI/LANCASTER will rebroadcast Modern AC KYSR (STAR 98.7)/LOS ANGELES) sometime after CHRISTMAS".
So much for localism without the FCC's intervention -- I mean, re-regulation.

There you have it.

A preview of 2008.

Stocks in the toilet. Citadel closed under $2 a share yesterday -- less than a bottle of Two Buck Chuck at Trader Joe's. But even Two Buck Chuck can sell for $4 in some states -- that's more than a share of Citadel these days. And how dumb is Disney looking to take stock in Citadel as a way of cashing out of a "non-core" business like radio?

The FCC is hell-bent to unscrew the pooch with rules that will force broadcasters to be more like what legendary owner Bill O'Shaughnessy calls fiduciaries of the public airwaves.

One might enjoy the arrogant radio owners' comeuppance a lot more if it weren't at the expense of so many talented general managers, programmers, sales managers and air talent who never for one moment forgot their roots.

Live and local.

The same can't be said for their owners.

I suspect that even this last minute intervention by the FCC is too late, knowing what I do about how the next generation has moved on to the Internet and mobiles spaces, but maybe -- just maybe -- we can remind them how radio got to be such a desirable acquisition in the first place before these Einsteins decided to play their failed game of monopoly.

To radio owners, I say forget Harvard Business School -- crack open a Monopoly board and learn all you need to know about radio:

Do not pass GO.

Do not collect $20 billion.

You win the game of Monopoly by building assets one stop at a time on the board (the market) -- not by selling off houses and hotels (stations).

You collect rents (advertising revenue) that generate fees (free cash flow).

You block competitors (TV, print, online, iPods) by owning local property inhabited by local real estate (live air talent) not by trying to change the rules when you're not winning.

Now, these same owners are stuck with a role of the dice and it's coming up snake eyes.

There's no "Get Out of Jail Free" card in radio.

Just the FCC to the rescue.

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