Prostituting Radio

The fall of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer -- the hated zealot who among other things forced the record and radio industries to own up to their failings and pay for them -- has now been forced to do the same.

Spitzer resigned as governor yesterday in a scandal over paying prostitutes and the once squeaky clean former New York state attorney general has fallen off his pedestal. Looking at the anguish, hurt and tears in the eyes of his wife Silda, not to mention what his three girls are going through makes it more than a "he got what he deserved" moment of revenge.

A number of my readers have expressed great delight in Spitzer's falling from grace. He deserves it, no doubt. But there are similar issues we in the media business ought to consider.

Our hubris -- our arrogance -- has also gotten us and our industry into trouble.

The radio and record businesses have been involved in payola for a long time. Spitzer caught them one more time. Radio has been complicit in payola situations on individual and sometimes corporate levels throughout the years. It could be argued that Spitzer gave radio what it deserved in the most recent examples where they got caught.

What I want to focus on is what happens to radio executives when they get great power -- financial and otherwise -- over people.

In radio we saw the Mays family roll up unprecedented clout. At one point in the early days of consolidation Clear Channel had a cottage industry in litigation because they, well -- they could sue anyone. Some fought it and few prevailed. Others like my friend John Rook were left devastated and ruined.

They are getting their just due now -- exiting out the back door -- to occupy an unsavory place in the proud history of radio. This may someday be the legacy with which they and their heirs will have to live. I guess the money they've amassed along the way makes it easier for them.

This is not just about Clear Channel. Look at the other big consolidators.

Take Teddy Forstmann. He moved in and hired radio's best known bean counter to eventually devastate the Citadel and, later, ABC radio stations. CEO Farid Suleman still hasn't learned his lesson. He's playing dodge ball with the blame and because he still has the power is making his talented people pay for his mistakes with their jobs. Suleman will likely go on to count beans elsewhere someday having earned a lot of money (he makes $17 million a year at Citadel).

There have been many other insults and abuses along the way:

1. Private planes, excessive entertainment and excessive executive pay while employees were saddled with budget cuts -- that is, if they were lucky enough not to lose their jobs.

2. Gutting radio stations -- in effect prostituting the product -- to make shareholders and investment bankers think that they were buying into a growth business.

3. Paying millions in "finders fees" for bogus "introductions" for station acquisitions while simultaneously forcing managers and programmers to double up on responsibilities to save money.

4. Failing to promote women and minorities to managerial jobs (other than sales) when most other industries became convinced such actions would be good business.

5. Selling out the smaller owners who were forced to sell (true, at nice profits) when the NAB helped get consolidation legislation passed in 1996. They sure didn't have the option to stay on and compete as a mom and pop owner.

In our industry, whores and prostitutes are not the ones that are being hired as high class escort services. They are often the ones we are employing to be custodians of the people's airwaves.

Look, I'm certainly not saying that all operators are prostitutes. There are many good ones out there. Emmis' Jeff Smulyan is good to his people. Bonneville's Bruce Reese is always decent. Greater Media's Peter Smyth is good, steady and fair. I've had my differences with Cox's Bob Neil over the People Meter but he runs a quality group. Lincoln Property stations are top-notch. There are many more --- forgive me for not mentioning all of them.

So, radio people should take little joy in seeing Eliot Spitzer gets his well-earned comeuppance.

The real satisfaction will come when the people and companies who killed off the radio and record industries are gone.

To be rid of them is the real satisfaction and what I truly believe is the starting point to remake radio into a joint terrestrial, interactive and mobile platform of the future.

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