Silent Radio

The other day I heard that a very small AM station here in Scottsdale was going silent.

The owner apparently would rather pull the plug than sell the license to his employees and didn’t have the money to keep it on the air.

Funny thing is – I never heard of it.

I guess my Scottsdale Study group buddies who have lived here a long time are holding back.

But yesterday when I got the news that WARM-AM, Scranton, PA was calling it quits it got me to thinking.

There have been hundreds of licenses returned to the FCC this year for numerous reasons including the economy but also because it’s hard to be in the radio business these days.

Citadel owns WARM and they had a situation where they apparently had transmitter repairs that the company could not afford. What a great excuse to fire everyone and get the lights on the way out.

There was a time – not long ago – when the owners of a station that had a catastrophic event such as transmitter problems found a way to stay on-air and rebuild as fast as humanly possible.

Citadel went off the air.

Stayed off -- and about a week later, I’m told, announced their verdict.


Silence is golden to consolidators who get to take another losing asset off the books, but it wasn’t always like that.

The loss of a radio station is obvious to its employees and city of license.

As my friend Joe Benson tells me (he worked for WARM's competitor WAEB back in the days of rock and roll), this mega-giant deserved better than the Suleman shuffle.

WARM once had a whopping 63-ratings share in Scranton-Wilkes Barre. "The Mighty 590" was home to "The Sensational Seven" and its powerful 5,000 watts reached a huge area in the upstate Pennsylvania area near Philadelphia.

WARM carried Phillies baseball for all Northeast Pennsylvania fans to hear without the crackle of tuning in to a more distant Philly station.

WARM was thought of as the “WFIL of Northeastern Pennsylvania” -- quite the compliment to be compared to a legendary rocker. Most recently it had been running Scott Shannon’s “True Oldies” and when it was formerly owned by Susquehanna, a fantastic operator, WARM did news and talk.

If Susquehanna had remained in the business, this station would not be going silent.

Only bean counters do things like that.

Radio people overcome the obstacles that face them and exercise the fiduciary responsibilities as keepers of their FCC licenses.

It irks me that whenever we have a cutback, a downsizing, a mass firing of radio people, it’s usually covered as a business story. A monkey business story, maybe – but that’s not the real news.

People lose jobs.

Cities lose their beacon.

So I’d like to suggest that we don’t fall into that trap. Try not to see the increasing number of stations that will be returning their licenses and signing off as inept and antiquated. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Whether on AM, FM or Internet streaming, the WARMs of the world have shown us the template for whatever local “radio” could become.

Here’s what WARM meant besides cash dollars.

1. Upstate Pennsylvania used to be the AAA minor league for Philadelphia radio and other markets. Area stations discovered, trained and supplied great talent to the larger cities when they were ready for prime time. George Gilbert went from WARM to the legendary WIBG “Wibbage” when I was a boy growing up in suburban Philadelphia. A former WARM news director, Gene Burns became a talk show host on WCAU in Philadelphia and Gil Gross went off to ABC’s KGO in faraway San Francisco. The station started many careers and fed talent to other stations. Today, pretenders such as Farid Suleman and John Hogan discover talent – by looking for cost efficiencies and “promoting” a major market personality to take the place of local talent.

2. Stations like WARM fed the music machine. Philly promotion men like Matty “Humdinger” Singer would trek up to northeast Pennsylvania weekly on the Schuylkill Expressway and the northeast extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and twist the arms of tomorrow’s big market PDs to play a wider variety of his label’s hits. No fool, Matty would show up at Jay Cook’s office at WFIL and mine at WIBG and bring sales and listener response to records for which he was seeking major market airplay.

3. Local stations that surrounded major markets would often buy jingle packages (with fewer singers, of course) that were identical to the ones on their big market neighboring stations. I went to Temple University with Steve Burger who went on to run Nationwide’s stations – a real class act. As a student, he worked in Atlantic City on-air practicing to be the next Dan Ingram and splicing a cheap version of WABC’s jingles with which to practice on the air. Smaller markets then got the benefit of proven formats and local personalities who played a larger variety of music that their big market neighbors did not.

4. Audiences depended on local stations like WARM and WAEB – and the many more we’re losing weekly – because they knew these stations were committed to their communities. They didn’t voice track a guy with balls that he could only carry around in a wheelbarrow from some alien big city. They let a teenager grow into his voice, appear at local venues, answer local phones, do local news and keep an eye out for the welfare of the community. Today’s consolidators don’t get this.

5. Often after their big city careers concluded, some locally-grown radio people returned to their roots to manage, program or entertain on these important stations until a ripe old age. In other words, the cycle was complete and radio folks had a place to return home. Today, they are the homeless of the industry – discarded and disrespected after all their years of work. Their egos were never too large to step back down to “the minors” because radio’s minor leagues were the most fun you could have in the radio business.

Look, I’m the last person to get nostalgic about saving AM stations or even failing FMers. This is not about the old days being better.

It’s about losing our way.

I always say the future is where the audience is – on the Internet, on their iPhones, smart phones and mobile devices. And there’s no getting around it.

That’s where radio must go or it will become a relic for the Museum of TV and Radio.

But this isn’t about the demise of an AM or FM station. It’s about the death of a system that invigorated and serviced local communities, gave managers a chance to learn their craft, talent a chance to practice on-air sometimes experimenting with proven formatics from nearby major markets and spreading new music in a way that predated how social networking does today.

Radio stations going silent are not just a news story.

Not just a victim of greedy consolidators who never grew up at a WARM for if they had, chances are they would not have run their radio companies into the ground once they made it to the big time.

Lew Dickey – Dad helped you get your job, not working your way up from a small station somewhere.

Farid Suleman – Being Mel Karmazin’s bean counter for all those years didn’t give you the wisdom, empathy or know how to run the ABC and Citadel stations you struggle with today.

John Hogan – Being Randy Michael’s buddy turned out not to be the qualification you needed to run the largest radio group in the world. A little humility, the kind we tend to get at small market stations, goes a long way. This is true because you would know radio doesn’t need yield managers to improve sales if your roots were a little deeper in small market broadcasting. And you know “dollar-a-holler” pricing in small markets doesn’t work, as small market folks eventually learn.

The radio industry is in deep trouble when they prefer national programming over local to save money.

When they install “quality programming” shills at local stations under the guise of improving local radio.

When making local and immediate a liability instead of the mission.

Or, as in this example, local stations like WARM lose their voice because their corporate bosses never had the opportunity and honor to intern and learn at a small market station.

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