Consolidators Again Betray Radio

Clear Channel has just issued an edict to at least five of their stations that they must carry a 30 minute infomercial every morning at 5 am for the next 13 weeks.

The hell with consulting the stations' program directors or for that matter -- local management. Clear Channel is the mother of all consolidators and it manages from headquarters -- not where the individual radio licenses were issued.

The infomercial will be for "gold" -- I guess the value of buying gold in a bad economy. Hell, Mark Mays ought to go on and provide a testimonial of how valuable gold is compared to the stock of public radio companies.

But then again Mays and Clear Channel no longer worry about the public market.

One of the saddest things about the latest John Slogan Hogan edict is that WGST's excellent news and talk station in Atlanta -- the market he used to manage -- will also have to prostitute itself for the same old 30 minute infomercial for three months. Another news/talker KNST, Tucson has also been warned among others.

That's at the start of morning drive -- 5 am.

Guess no one is worried that the same sorry show over and over about the same commercial subject matter won't build an audience for the rest of morning drive.

No problem.

Clear Channel just notifies The Wall Street Journal that it will no longer need the first half hour of The Journal's radio show that has been running in that time slot. And The Journal just sucks it up because, after all, you don't want to get Clear Channel pissed off.

Hogan has a long history of turning on "them that got him there" as local lore will remind you. Some rumors say the failed sales rep Hogan bested a rival GM to get control over WPCH and WGST and then there are some who think Hogan screwed his mentor Randy Michaels at the time the Mays' were having penis envy issues with Randy. Remarkably, guess who wound up replacing Michaels?

You guessed it -- John Slogan Hogan.

Look, don't confuse what I am saying about infomercials. They've always been around as has other forms of paid programming. Venerable stations like WOR in New York took money from Herbert W. Armstrong and then his son Garner Ted Armstrong for decades to carry their religious show weekday evenings -- one of many examples.

It's not that there isn't a place for paid programming, but that's not what's up here.

You're seeing another glimpse of radio's sorry future.

Clear Channel will sell its soul for paid programming. Religious broadcasters do it all the time. And that great radio pioneer Farid "Fagreed" Suleman has pimped out his ABC news and talk stations mercilessly for a little extra infomercial coin.

Radio has a long history of making bad decisions when it comes to their loyal audience. And in recent days when formats were dropped from terrestrial radio, they were made available to angry listeners on the Siberia they called the Internet. (In other words, they thought the Internet was the punishment for a format they dropped).

When years ago, WJFK in Washington had lulled its listeners into a sense of security around Howard Stern and compatible male programming, these same listeners get jolted by Bill O'Reilly's syndicated talk show. Bet no program director in his or her right mind made that pimped decision.

Wonder why NPR has so much audience?

How about because you can't find news on most commercial radio stations and when you do, well -- it isn't that good. Local NPR stations like KCRW have managed to hold on to young radio listeners even while they pioneer new things in the Internet space. Music diversity, local news.

Did you see how broadcasters are complaining because The People Meter is picking up Christian station dominance among teens?

Damn it
-- radio CEOs want Arbitron to get to the bottom of this "mistake". But what if it is not a mistake (and I don't believe it is)? Then too much of the same old same old teen music programming may have set the stage for emerging markets. Time will tell once the latest numbers are investigated.

The new iPod announces song information for listeners -- that's more than most radio stations do. So if radio wants to go head to head with the iPod maybe their listeners are saying -- talk about the music and the artists or else -- an iPod is better. No commercials. My music. No Ryan Seacrest.

But the real killer is what is happening in Fargo.

The flood brought out the best in local radio with stations like KFGO fighting the rising tides to stay on the air and serve the public interest.

Serving the public interest is exactly what local radio stations are supposed to be doing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 375 days a year.

That's who we are -- that's what we do best.

Not just at times of crisis but everyday -- even when it has to do with a small town Easter parade.

Localism and immediacy.

But localism is being replaced by Repeater Radio on phantom radio stations with the number one consolidator, Clear Channel, blazing the way.

Forget localism -- listen to the same pitch about "gold" every day for 13 weeks at the start of morning drive because the client is paying for the time.

The only reason you don't see radio infomercials more in prime time is because it's not cost effective -- for the infomercial company.

But ad rates are coming down and the day could come when these mighty CEOs will find another way to sell their audiences down the river.

So, this is not about whether radio stations can take some paid programming -- preferably programming that isn't the same every day -- to fill some off-hour slots.

But consolidators are signaling all who will listen that they are no longer in the local radio business. You remember the piece I wrote last week about the Clear Channel stations getting ready to go all national programming all the time?

There will be a switcher who can channel these various national programs down the line to individual stations. Clear Channel, as I pointed out in the piece, has already ordered each studio to have a warm body in it in case of a Fargo or Katrina or in case public outrage forces Congress to take a look at why you need to grant licenses to companies that have no interest in fulfilling their obligations.

Will Congress know the difference between a warm body and news coverage?

Not unless you tell them.

The technology is in place to go all-national, all-the-time.

The John Slogan Hogan's of the world are mandating a warm body in each studio but is that radio or is that covering your ass?

Whatever local commercials can be sold will be recorded nationally. That's certainly not new.

Sales will be done by one local team and after that, I couldn't even guarantee you that some markets will have local sales forces. I see national local sales coming -- and it will be awful.

No need for program directors when all the creative decisions are left to suits.

No need for diversity -- what a lawsuit that could be -- when all white men are showing up across the country on radio stations because it's cheaper.

No need for news -- unless you think that warm body is going to anchor coverage of the next flood, blizzard, toxic waste spill or hurricane. I think not.

If you want to know why listeners have been and continue to abandon radio in large numbers (unless you're RAB CEO Jeff Haley who has his own numbers), maybe it's because radio has abandoned them.

To be fair, it didn't all happen during consolidation, but consolidation has done nothing to help the radio business.

In the late 80's radio was imitating itself --- chopping genres into sub-genres. Progressive rock became album oriented rock which became classic rock and many variations thereof. And on and on. We failed to take chances. Failed to innovate.

In the 90's duopoly was all the rage and programming began to be seen as not just one station but a platform that presumably could be marketed as such. Three young male stations, a 25-54 women's station. As if a 25 year old would listen to the same thing a 54 year old would listen to.

After deregulation in 1996, the flood gates opened and owning as many stations as possible (no matter what interest rate it took to finance their acquisition) became the next thing.

Economies of scale came next. One GM for three or four or more stations. Same with PDs. Then market managers and revamping management charts endlessly.

All of this had nothing to do with our listeners.

The Internet, iPods, mobile phones and texting, social networking and the sociological changes brought by a new generation -- it came upon broadcasters without much notice.

Then the recession.

Now, even Thomas Lee Partners CEO (Clear Channel's co-owner) said the other day that he thinks radio is a great business and will come back after the recession ends.

No thanks to them.

It may turn out to be ironic that John Hogan just hired Nice-Pak CFO Mitchell Goldstein, a maker of wet wipes products, to join Clear Channel Radio as CFO. I'm not going to comment other than to say -- finally, a good hire. A guy who knows all about cleaning up a mess.

Unless radio is all about localism and immediacy -- it is over.

Unless it looks to the digital future where 80 million Millennials have migrated, there can be no future when older radio listeners go.

Oddly enough, all radio's problems are not about the economy or amassing debt service they cannot manage or for that matter, iPods or online media. That, too.

Listeners wouldn't abandon radio unless radio abandoned them.

We have betrayed our listeners.

And until local managers, programmers, sales people and talent are put into place to make the decisions on the ground -- there is no chance for reconciliation.

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