Radio’s Obituary

On May 31st 2008, I read an obituary for radio.

No, I didn’t write it because I believe that there is life after terrestrial radio towers and transmitters and that radio can still be a good free cash flow business for many more years. But operators need to do a better job programming to the available audience (baby boomers while they last and older Gen Xers).

The next generation is lost.

The death notice I speak of appeared in The Washington Post as very able reporter Marc Fisher announced an end to the radio column he has written for the best part of the last 13 years.

He laments the loss of the likes of all-night radio personality Long John Nebel and Don Imus in his earlier, less cranky days.

Fisher argues that hardly anyone who turns on the radio is being lured into what he calls “intimate obsessions with voices that return each night, baring their souls and insisting on a relationship with the listener”.

His analysis – agree with it or not – is as follows:

“Depressed by the rise of new technologies and their own fading place in the media landscape, neither those who own and run AM and FM radio stations nor even the new (but not new enough) satellite pay radio services are nurturing the kind of eccentric, iconoclastic voices that made radio so alluring from the 1950s into the '80s. Through those decades, when TV dominated American popular culture, radio was at once a mass medium and a clubhouse, a place where listeners could believe themselves to be part of an unseen community of like-minded people. Today, with the Internet having taken over as the primary provider of semi-private meeting spots, radio stations are cutting costs and bleeding talent, ceding the leading edge to the Web's collection of micro-audiences and the iPod's promise of infinite, but closely held, choice”.

Fisher doesn’t like the lack of music variety, either. Of course, as many radio programmers know, neither does the audience.

He correctly states that “Radio, shedding talent as fast as it loses audience, is rapidly becoming irrelevant to the younger generation. Yet most Americans still listen to something for much of the day. Radio could be the way into those ears, but only if it invests in creating compelling reasons to be there, only if it grabs hold of us the way the voices of past decades connected to the loves, pains and dreams of young listeners. As always, the future lies in the past”.

Houston, we have a programming problem – and it’s not rocket science.

It’s not the People Meter (that will eventually help broadcasters). It’s not how many stations a public company can own but how many they can actually run effectively and profitably.

When the CEOs and COOs of consolidated radio have little or no experience with the actual product – and don’t even think it’s worth the investment to hire and support people who do – you’ve got the first of what will eventually be many obituaries for a once vibrant industry of great and talented people and their bosses who are on the whole clueless as to what to do.

Again, don’t trust me. Don’t trust Marc Fisher.

Go to the ratings – their ratings.

Share prices have declined steadily since most of the public radio groups consolidated.

Twelves years later it now appears that radio consolidators knew how to buy stations using other people’s money. They just weren’t good at running them – if share price is any indicator.

It’s one thing for me to kick the radio industry in the ass every once in a while to try and wake it up – right the wrongs – launch it into the digital future, but it is quite another for a consumer publication with the prestige of The Washington Post to go public with our dirty laundry.

Fisher was right to do so because when radio became insignificant enough that the editors of a large metropolitan daily decided to stop writing about it – then they must feel the medium is not worth covering.

Radio didn’t begin its decline with consolidation -- although little about big groups has helped the industry grow.

It began in the late 80’s when stations started imitating themselves. Owners still spent plenty of money on the product, but creative people felt the pressure to better the success they were having. (Take morning shows – when outrageous morning shows hit the scene, you know what happened next – more outrageous morning shows).

We stopped innovating.

Now we know that and able radio people are in a weaker position to innovate – it’s not in the budget, not in the plan, not in the purview of today’s corporate decision maker.

Radio One’s Al Liggins wouldn’t know a programming solution if it bit him on the butt – my opinion. Nothing personal.

Citdael’s Farid Suleman can’t even recognize the talent he employs – let alone grow more talent and new shows. Someone tell Farid that he’s the CEO not the Group Program Director.

Clear Channel’s John Hogan now has a resume strewn with management reorganizations, cutbacks, unremarkable programming and ratings declines --- perfect! Just what an ailing industry needs.

Cumulus wanted to exit stage left from public ownership because it didn’t make sense to be a public company in a world where there is no more funding to buy stations. At least they pulled their offer without making a scene – the kind that Clear Channel made.

Saga is one of the groups publicly fighting posting – a procedure that advertisers want and radio stations will eventually have to do – after they languish in the past for another few years. Maybe posting won't be required in smaller markets now, but advertisers in the major markets are clamoring for it.

Cox fights the People Meter publicly in front of the advertising community while signing a long-term contract to support it. Can you shout any louder to advertisers not to trust its audience measurement system?

just wants the People Meter to go away so that no other group has to go through what they had to go through in Philadelphia. How helpful is that?

More years of paper diaries in a digital world.

It goes on and on. Plenty of radio companies living in the past and fighting the future.

The speed of the leader determines the speed of the team and that’s the first place to look for the fine mess some radio CEOs have gotten us into.

It doesn't have to be this way. There is a lot of talent in the radio industry. But you can't grow a business by cutting it back. You can't solve problems from quarter to quarter -- especially when there is little left to cut.

Some might get mad at The Post or at The New York Daily News which is also reportedly planning to scale back radio coverage. But their anger should be directed at someone else -- the person running today's influential radio groups.

They had ever advantage -- unprecedented ownership opportunities, a virtual monopoly, public money to grow the newly-formed groups and most importantly -- stations that were built solid by talented people before consolidation.

They were handed a golden industry on a silver platter.

In just about every other business that under performs their boards would have had the CEOs heads on a platter -- fast.

In radio, when a key executive continually runs his or her radio group into the ground, their board gives them – a raise.

The one person in each company who could breath life into the radio industry is killing it.

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