Radio's Soul-Sucking Survival Jungle

One of my readers came up with this story idea -- he coined the term used in the headline.

We often write about the silly and sometimes stupid decisions being made by radio CEOs these days, but sometimes we forget to see things from the perspective of the loyal and dedicated radio person who is being adversely affected by bad management.

Yesterday, the hits kept on coming as Clear Channel's rep firm, Katz, decided to lay off 122 people. For starters, these are not layoffs. They are firings. Layoffs is the word used by the radio group to spin what it really is -- firings.

Meanwhile hundreds of Clear Channel managers have returned home to their nervous employees from this week's Dallas corporate meetings -- the proverbial other shoe will no doubt drop shortly -- some think a bloodbath is on the way as early as next week.

More firings.

More good people out of work because their employers have tried everything and it hasn't worked. Everything except running radio as a local business -- the way they found it when they bought into it.

Local radio is now apparently off the table.

That's why increasingly you see so many groups heavy up on syndicated programs or network their own talent to their other stations to save money. Forget that they are also cutting local programming. And to me this is the fatal blow -- not all the other mistakes these CEOs have made.

Look, some managers don't relish the position of chief executioner. One reader who identified him or herself as a Clear Channel manager who has fired 11 people put it like this:

"I'm the grim reaper. I'm the guy who does the firing. Over the last 2 years I've dismissed 11 employees. Their only crime: they drew a paycheck. At the time I was doing it for the good of the company. We needed to downsize, to save money so that we can serve the community better with great radio. The only person I was kidding was myself. I no longer drink the Kool-Aid and realize that this company has no interest in programming except on how to do it for cheap.... And I'm sorry to those 11 who I have ruined their families holidays".

I'm not saying companies in a recession don't have to reduce expenses, but in radio these reductions seem to mainly be expenses in programming, managerial and sales people not the CEOs compensation or benefits. It's always the employee.

Here's how to do it right -- if it has to be done.

Charlie Rose, the outstanding interviewer on PBS, went on the air and gave a heartfelt thanks to the people his show had to fire. You could tell by his angst that he will do anything he can to help them land on their feet.

And one of our very own, George Michael, the former WFIL and WABC jock who found a second career in television sports, did what few -- if any -- executives in radio would do. Michael is arguably the best known TV figure in local sports and he refused to cut more people from his WRC-TV, Washington sports show as was demanded by management.

Michael quit rather than fire his staff.

Doesn't that sound good. It's worth saying again -- Michael quit his job of 28 years rather than work with a reduced budget that would compromise his show and force him to fire loyal and competent people.

I worked with George Michael when he started at WFIL in Philadelphia. I haven't met a harder working, more loyal or more competent person. He was a quality guy then -- and nothing has changed now.

He's out of work -- with his people.

A recent Inside Radio study has been published that reveals that 84% of the recipients believe management is suffering along with the rest of the staff at the nation's stations. The study doesn't make a good case for outrage against corporate private jets or other benefits. Some 56% said they were confident they would keep their jobs this year even though about half expected more firings at their local stations.

This is some very optimistic stuff that I have not seen anecdotally.

Instead, there is a deep seated fear that not only will the radio industry continue its present crash diet but that radio people will not be able to find work elsewhere in the industry they love.

The heartache is often overlooked in press reports that see it all from the corporate point of view. The other day when Mark Mays mouthed off in an employee email about the importance of sticking with it during the recession so that Clear Channel employees could outlast the competition, it made a lot of people sick to their stomachs.

What's worse: Mays issued the email just before the Clear Channel management meetings where plans were being finalized to fire more people. Let's see what his pep talk sounds like after next week.

That's not integrity. That's selfishness. And even in our corporate and capitalistic world, a guy who has made out like a bandit twice has no room to talk like Tony Robbins.

Radio is in need of a corporate executive who feels their pain.

Look at the wild goose chase this reader tells us her husband was sent on by Fagreed Suleman and his wife, Judy Ellis, at Citadel. It's not pretty but it's indicative of how radio people are willing to do almost anything for their employers and yet they still get jerked around:

"My husband has been in radio for 25 years. The last 3 years we have moved 4 times. In 2008, we have lived in 3 states. We have fought to feed, pay the bills and keep our kids in college. However, all the markets we were in this year had increased revenue because of my husbands ability to motivate his staff. What did we get for that? Pink Slip, can't afford to pay you this high salary. 'Fagreed' was our last stop. They moved us across the country only to "budget cut" us after 4 months. This is just another example of greed!!!! I bet he has never had to wonder about how to keep his kids in college. Pathetic!!! It makes me sick".

Radio groups don't have to decimate their staffs by constant firings.

Bloomberg, the radio and TV financial outfit, is hiring. Its founder Michael Bloomberg (now Mayor of New York City) didn't make his billions by thinking like others.

But radio CEOs have no shame.

Toyota's President Katsuaki Watanabe is stepping down next year to make way for new leadership after his company under his leadership was sent reeling from a harsh decline in the global car market. They say he's stepping down for health reasons as well, but make no mistake about it -- at Toyota they are making way for new ideas, new faces and new leadership.

Not in radio.

The big group CEOs are all the same suspects that led their companies through consolidation. They haven't changed. When things were good, they were talking about creating shareholder value. Now presiding over companies that sell penny stocks, most of them have taken to hiding.

The radio industry needs new faces.

It's the only way it can survive.

And let's be clear about one thing. Radio cannot be a growth industry as a terrestrial operator let alone a terrestrial repeater station broadcasting cheap national or regional shows.

There must be a digital strategy.

Amazingly, no major radio group has a contingency plan for the mobile or digital future. They say they do, but spend less than 5% of their operating budget -- far less -- on interactive, new media, mobile media or podcasting.

Hello? They need to spend 25%. It's getting late.

The next generation has been lost while these executives were glad-handing each other on swallowing up their competitors (and their competitor's debt that they can't seem to manage now).

Over-the-air radio can't grow without the next generation and the next generation is not looking back.

Which brings me to the insanity of firing the one asset that could launch radio into the mobile and Internet future -- their existing talent pool.

These misguided CEOs think their employees are expenses.

They are not.

Radio people are resources.

Radio people are the fast track to the digital future. They have all the skills. They do need to be retrained. Need to learn about generational media -- most couldn't tell you what it is (but neither could their bosses). There is a learning curve, but -- radio people, the ones being fired, are the ones who can help build and operate content platforms separate and apart from terrestrial radio.

It's called job retraining and it's done in a lot of industries.

But, first -- radio's bosses will have to be retrained to understand that no matter what they do -- no matter what (and I'm on the record here), they will never again make terrestrial radio a growth industry alone -- and without a leg up into the digital future.

Fat chance of that happening.

I believe that eventually new media opportunities will open up for radio talent. The recession is keeping the lid on that, too, right now.

So sometime next week -- while Clear Channel is wasting the rest of their work force -- I'm going to offer anyone in radio some ideas that will help them run a better station or look ahead to the digital future.

It's a jungle out there alright.

But radio people, the ones being compromised and discarded are the survivors who will live to use their skills another day.

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