Radio's Deadly Game of Beat the Bomb

For those who may not remember it, radio (back when it did great on-air contests) used to feature a game called Beat the Bomb.

My first recollection of it was at the legendary top 40 station WFIL in Philadelphia -- either under the brilliant programmers Jim Hilliard or the late Jay Cook.

A listener is chosen at random and the sound effect of a bomb ticks for up to 60 seconds on-the-air. However, anytime along the way if the bomb goes off, the listener loses a chance to win up to $60. The idea is to shout STOP before the bomb goes off or you lose everything.

Today's radio industry is playing a deadlier version of Beat the Bomb with its future.

Radio One stock is selling for under $1. Do you hear anyone yelling STOP as its chief officer gets a big bonus -- that's right a bonus -- while Radio One's stock teeters on the brink of being delisted from the stock exchange. Think of it. Back then a lucky contestant could potentially make over 60 times more money by playing a contest than by owning Radio One stock today.

Citadel is worth under one-fifty a share -- that's one dollar and fifty cents yet its shareholders thought CEO Farid Suleman was worth $11 million in compensation last year. You'd think a governance board would yell STOP before Citadel gets into trouble over executive compensation.

Clear Channel is adrift -- thousands of talented people working on shoe string budgets for entertaining their listeners while the Mays boys and their father are flying private amidst concerns about their security. You read that right -- their security. Someone please yell STOP before the place implodes from neglect.

Radio is an industry without a meaningful Internet strategy -- impossible to imagine from the best producers of content in the world. Mobile strategy -- nothing. Does this mean the programmers are incapable of competing in that arena or that their bosses are unwilling?

The radio industry is just now acknowledging the brain drain in the radio industry. The trades are all abuzz. I guess someone just figured out that a lot of the good and talented ones got away -- more precisely were driven away and that it puts radio in peril. As a result the best and the brightest don't want a career in this business.

Again and again it's the handful of people -- could I call them thieves -- running away with their shareholders money while delivering little or no return on investment. You'd think the shareholders would yell STOP before the big explosion.

Look, generational and technological changes have had a great impact on the radio industry -- no question -- but it is this handful of bandidos who have dealt the most severe blow to broadcasting.

One, they have put the interests of a few over the interests of many including their employees and shareholders.

Two, they are guilty of not leading.

There are exceptions.

Dan Mason's focus on programming terrestrial radio to the available audience instead of the unavailable young audience as well as his efforts to make something of online radio through AOL, its own websites and CBS-owned Last.FM qualifies as one. There's more to do -- such as program channels that are not terrestrial channels -- aimed at young listeners. And CBS' inclusion of HD sub-channels in the strategy seem misguided, yet -- who has a more aggressive posture in new media among traditional broadcasters? Arguably, CBS Radio is the leader.

Saga CEO Ed Christian did something that impressed me the other day. He took out an ad in my alma mater -- Inside Radio -- and he acknowledged that radio is having trouble attracting good people to the business. While complimenting his loyal current managers, he admitted that he's looking to find more good ones. It's about time someone confronted this issue head on.

Former RAB CEO Bill Stakelin's radio group is hiring additional salespeople. Hooray. Copy Bill. When you need to improve sales, improve and grow your sales staff.

Cumulus has drawn a line in the sand on affordable audience ratings -- that line is in small markets. It is looking away from Arbitron for better alternatives. This is a good thing if it doesn't trash the industry standard accepted by ad agencies everywhere -- Arbitron. And it will be even better when Arbitron responds by improving its small market service and Cumulus winds up saying "never mind" to a new initiative -- which is where I'm placing my bet right now.

Some radio companies and people have decided to stop playing Beat the Bomb with their future, but many continue to risk it all for nothing.

At least in the radio contest version of Beat the Bomb, the listener had a chance to win something.

In the radio consolidators' version, it's only a matter of time before everything blows up and everyone loses.

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