How Consolidation Could Have Worked

I never for even one minute thought radio consolidation would work right from the get go.

But, even I didn't believe radio consolidation would have turned out this bad.

Citadel is negotiating its debt covenant to avoid bankruptcy again even as I write this. Clear Channel's solvency is no slam dunk. And Cumulus, the other one of the big three consolidators, has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.

It didn't have to be this way.

All the power didn't have to wind up in the hands of a few radio execs worshiping at the feet of Wall Street bankers. There could have been a "Plan B" just in case something went wrong -- like a recession, or an election where elected officials would put the brakes on further consolidation. The consolidators didn't have to borrow so much to buy stations they coveted at artificially inflated prices and astronomical interest rates.

But that's all water over the damn now.

Consolidation could have worked if regulators and legislators hadn't given away the entire radio industry to a few greedy people. In effect, radio consolidation was the forerunner to the greed that destroyed the greater economy.

If you're with me so far, consider how the radio industry could have been deregulated in a more responsible way that looked out for the interest of Main Street rather than just Wall Street.

Imagine if ...

1. The cap on stations that could be owned by one company in any given market was two stations -- you pick them, two AMs, two FMs, one of both. But owners would be free to buy in as many markets as they liked. That would leave a lot of stations to buy in many cities but it would preserve the local feel of radio by guaranteeing that one owner from Texas couldn't monopolize radio in every major market and many medium and small ones as well.

2. If each radio station by law had to have its own general manager, sales manager, program director, chief engineer, etc. No joint staffs that have proven to be no more effective other than to save the owners money. But that was a vicious cycle anyway -- save money at the expense of people, put out a lesser product, cut more people. Wait until you see the next round of cuts that Clear Channel, Cumulus, Citadel and their followers will start making before and through the end of the year. Obviously, lean mean operations is becoming more mean than lean.

3. And if the two stations you could own in a market had to run separately and compete with each other. Just think -- one owner owns two stations, hires separate personnel but can't run the stations from remote locations and local management must guarantee that the two stations they own must compete with each other. No synergies of scale, no national repeater radio. If you believe radio can't afford to be run separately, local and full staffed than you have what exists today -- repeater radio that has no appeal to the next generation and even erosion of listening by older audiences.

Stay with me ... it could have been better yet ...

4. What if at least 80% of the programming had to be locally produced? This would mean voice tracking would be a cost cutting tool but not a deal breaker for the audience. Imagine the weekend shows and special programs that enriched radio in earlier years. It's pure fantasy that radio had to voice track to save money. Radio never overpaid its talent and there was always plenty of it waiting to work in local radio.

5. If public affairs and/or news programming were once again required to hold a license of the public trust. That in and of itself would set the standard for local radio in the age of responsible consolidation.

6. And if license renewals were mandated every three years with owners having to substantiate that it served the public interest, convenience and necessity instead of having their licenses rubber stamped by some bureaucrat without regard to whether the licensee lived up to its fiduciary responsibilities.

7. And in return if broadcasters were guaranteed that no so-called Fairness Doctrine would be imposed on license holders because the very setup of consolidation as I am describing it would further guarantee that enough voices would be available for listeners to hear all sides to every issue.

8. And consolidators get to keep the profits from all the stations that they could legally own so long as they were run individually and not from remote Siberia.

Bet lots of companies would of gone for this deal even if the "operators" we wound up with (wink/wink -if you get my drift) would have stayed away.

Bet the radio owners under this type of "consolidation" would have stayed out of debt because responsible consolidation means having to have the skills to operate the local licensed stations not just the ability to talk bankers into financing the acquisition of more properties.

That means an industry with more groups like Bonneville and Cox and fewer scorched earth operators like Cumulus, Citadel and Clear Channel.

And a radio industry that wasn't dying before its time.

And one poised with talented people who would have figured out how to take the greatest content providers in the world and also direct them towards the Internet, mobile and social networking.

And my idea of responsible is not the only one that would have worked better.

Yours might, too.

But the one that didn't work was the one radio has been saddled with for 13 years with no hope of relief any time soon.

What a pity.

Management guru Peter Drucker always said consolidation doesn't work.

What makes radio CEOs smarter than Peter Drucker?

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