Radio's Carnac

Johnny Carson used to do a sketch called Carnac The Magnificent in which sidekick Ed McMahon first fed him the answers and "Carnac" then supplied the questions.

McMahon: Anheuser Bush

Carson: Where do you grow Anheuser berries?

Carnac's character was a seer and soothsayer. I thought of him when I received one of the most astonishing emails recently in which a radio executive provided both the questions and answers back before consolidation.

But this email was no laughing matter.

Many of you ask me what I think the industry will look like in the next five or ten years. It’s always dangerous to predict, but too much fun to ignore.

Look back. Could you have imagined five or ten years ago the mess radio is currently in?

Paul L. Gleiser could.

Who is Paul L. Gleiser?

I sure didn’t know when my friend Barry O’Brien sent me the link to Holland Cooke’s outstanding newsletter in which Cooke printed an absolutely chilling letter written by Gleiser to former NAB CEO Eddie Fritts.

It seems Gleiser is an old time operator – the kind I like – who runs a handful of stations around Tyler, TX.

Gleiser, in his letter to Fritts, warned about consolidation and asked many intelligent and pertinent questions that deserved intelligent and pertinent answers.

Unfortunately, Gleiser never got them.

And writing to Fritts, the guy who single-handedly got radio deregulation tacked on to The Telecommunications Act of 1996 is like writing to Satan himself on this issue.

How do you turn the heat up where Satan lives?

Nonetheless 13 years ago, Gleiser asked Fritts:

“Pardon me if I seem cynical but I don't believe that those in our industry who are promoting this legislation (and I have close observation of two of the major proponents, the Hicks family and the Mays family) are really concerned at any core level with competitiveness.

Hicks and Mays are, at their roots, investment bankers. And I believe that they - and others - are promoting the lifting of ownership limits in order that sufficient numbers of radio properties can be aggregated quickly in order to get revenues above a practical floor for going public”.

You’ve got to love this guy, already. He called Fritts out before the evil deed was done and consolidation was allowed.

Here are some of Gleiser’s predictions to Fritts on what would happen if consolidation became law:

• “…some company will set out to be the first to own a thousand stations nationwide just for the bragging rights. A thousand stations!”

Remember, this was before the first radio group started acquiring stations post consolidation.

• “A lot of good broadcasters will succumb to the extraordinary offers and sell
and quit the business”.

Boy did he call it right. Imagine radio today if those operators were still at the helm. Think radio would be a lot more competitive moving into the digital future. I do.

• “The resulting dilution of management attention to any operation will result in an overall degradation of the quality of what goes on the air and what goes on the street”.

Gleiser really did write the letter November 6, 1995. No kidding.

• “With dramatically fewer employment opportunities in the business, it will be exponentially more difficult to attract bright and talented people to the industry.

I can’t go on.

This is too painful.

How did Gleiser get to be so smart and all the folks who ran radio groups so dumb?

I know that many of my friends and readers of Inside Radio back in the mid-90’s also expressed concern, but the majority caught consolidation fever. Remember, when managers were “elevated” to running a “cluster” of stations. (Point of order: what do you call a cluster manager who fails to effectively run their stations – could it be a cluster-f#@k?).

At the very least, Gleiser’s premonition deserved to be considered by the man the radio industry trusted with lobbying on their behalf.

Instead, Eddie Fritts himself has blood on his hands – sorry to say it – for his part in selling out the radio industry for the interests of a few.

Isn’t that what a lobbyist does?

Isn’t Gleiser what a clairvoyant is?

I’ll say it again – with Regent, Radio One and Citadel on the verge of being delisted from the stock exchange – as part of a failed industry effort to run radio as an aggregate and not as a lot of local entities – consolidation failed.

You can’t blame the mom and pop operators who sold out for unimaginable profits, but radio and its fine people were sold out by Fritts, their NAB, their not ready for prime time CEOs and the federal government.

Gleiser’s letter is another reminder that it didn’t have to turn out this way.

I'm suggesting that we think long and hard about how radio got into this situation -- 15 months of declining revenues, declining audience, the loss of the next generation, replaced by the Internet in promoting new music, a compromised on-air product, talented people fired every week of the year. And -- no Internet or mobile strategy in a digital age.

Consolidation has done nothing good for radio.

It's the eleventh hour and the most important people in radio are the handful of CEOs who have the power to lead this industry in a digital direction.

I'm under no illusion that they will come through with tough answers and brave decisions.

This is for the rest of us who could have what it takes to position radio as the leader in entertainment, news and talk content no matter what device a consumer uses to listen.

The paralyzed radio CEOs are likely to go down with the ship. They're making great money in spite of the fact that the stock they hold is worthless. The original characters are still running the show today. No downside for them.

Gleiser's letter is a reminder that many of us saw it coming -- he just happened to articulate it in writing.

Now it's time to move on.

Not just to let it go, but to part ways with the handful of "leaders" who don't seem to know where to turn for the answers.

Their employees.

(Read Gleiser’s letter here in full if you dare, but you’re going to cry, I’m warning you).

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