The Power of Radio People

On this Labor Day weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on the human asset that is often lost in the "business" of radio.

Radio people.

I've been on the outs with consolidators from the very beginning because I sensed that they coveted franchises more than the people who built them. And I said it loud and proud when I owned Inside Radio for many years.

In fairness, at the beginning, I was a "lonely boy" -- to borrow a phrase from Andrew Gold.

The can-do spirit of radio people kicked into high gear even from the beginning when consolidators made promises to them that they couldn't keep. They said consolidation was a good thing.

It would make radio stronger.

Make the industry bigger.

Make our livings better.

You may remember the days.

One manager took over for two others to run three of the stations in a newly-consolidated cluster. The promoted manager got a raise and big title. The consolidator saved a ton of money. Once the consolidator figured out they didn't have to give a big raise or title, it was all over.

That manager was not defeated -- far from it -- he or she was up for the challenge. It bothered me that friends of mine were cut loose early on but there was at least a chance for them to get another radio job with different consolidators or with some of the independents still operating.

Over the years -- even before consolidators got caught up in impossible debt service -- there was a constant move to find "economies of scale" as they were called. You may also remember Mel Karmazin, Lowry Mays and others who reported to shareholders in their quarterly conference calls that they were acting to build "shareholder value".

Of course, as we discovered shareholders were the second biggest losers in radio consolidation after the listener.

Cost cutting took time and just as a cataract grows slowly to impair vision in one's eye, the snip-snip-snip of bean counters weakened the fabric of local radio but many radio people couldn't see it. They just pushed on.

Today you see what we are left with.

Fires in LA but few people on the ground to ferret out the stories.

Local music scenes dying on the vine because radio no longer plays local music.

News became extinct.

Personalities too expensive and thus expendable.

Local sales reduced to cockamamie policies inflicted by corporate people who have never distinguished themselves as sellers. In some cases, they never sold anything at all and yet they were telling qualified people how to do their jobs.

I've taken a lawsuit. I've been sharply criticized by the "establishment" for opposing radio's new future and I've grieved along with thousands of individuals I love and respect.

I call them -- radio people.

Here's what radio people are to me:

1. The programmers, managers, talent, sales professionals, office staff and engineers (remember them?) who built radio into the industry that made Wall Street want to shell out billions to buy their stations. There weren't buying Lew Dickey's body of work. Or Fagreed Suleman's or John Slogan Hogans. If Jefferson Starship could sing "We Built This City on Rock and Roll" then radio was built on the backs of simple radio people. You know, the $100 million plus stations that consolidators lined up to buy as well as the local stations that were sold for prices never imaginable before. Guess who programmed, managed and monetized them?

2. The most loyal group of people who -- no matter what their personal situation was -- had the uncanny ability to put the interests and desires of their listeners ahead of themselves. Not once, but again and again. Not just in good times, but even when pretenders like Cumulus, Clear Channel and Citadel were making their lives hell.

3. Resourceful beyond belief. Until the past few years radio people were able to deliver high quality programming and sales on a lower budget and even with a lesser personal salary because they knew how to operate at a professional level more efficiently. Too bad Fagreed Suleman didn't look to his people -- especially the ABC "assets" he purchased for mega billions -- for help. Fagreed was a bean counter. But his people had answers. He just didn't know the value of asking questions. Citadel, with Sergeant-at-arms Judy Ellis at the helm, kept everyone in their place and quiet.

4. The conscience of the community. I have heard example after example of circumstances where local station people are giving back to the community -- happily involved in activities with no additional pay to them. I heard the story recently of a New England sales exec -- and a damn good one -- who had to endure the cost-cuts and micromanagement of corporate by day only to show up at community meetings at night and on the weekends. In no other industry that you could name, would a buyer inherit a workforce of people who obviously love their audience enough to put them first even when their employers couldn't do the same for them.

5. Creative creatures. Keep in mind radio people brought the industry back from the advent of television by reinventing it. Imagine how they could have reinvented radio content -- not just streaming terrestrial signals -- for the next competitors -- the Internet, mobile and social networking.

6. Radio people are like family -- not Gordon Gekko's family. We competed against each other with the fervor of two sports team wanting to be the best but often in the end we remained or became friends with our adversaries. We fought on the field. Not in court.

7. Proud of our industry. Clear Channel's Lowry Mays may have been willing to sell his industry down the river for a few huge paydays but I doubt the average radio person would want that legacy at any price. Turning a local business into a cheap network of national repeater stations may do wonders for consolidators and their bottom lines, but a person with pride couldn't do that to their listeners or even sponsors who support them.

This is Labor Day weekend.

A time that signals the traditional end of summer and it is a casual holiday with little meaning to most people outside of organized labor.

But to radio people, every day is labor day when they have to work harder to make less money, when their commissions are cut in a punitive fashion because they can't outperform a recessionary economy.

On Tuesday, Cumulus workers will have resume enduring those spy-in-the-sky meetings in the conference room in which many come away demotivated and embarrassed.

Radio people are often forgotten.

Their advocates are gone.

Radio & Records, the heart and soul of this industry for over 30 years, has been silenced -- itself a victim of greedy consolidators. Others who could speak up are kissing the establishment's butt in hopes they can survive the fate that their silence has purchased.

A quick story.

When Clear Channel sued me for $100 million in the days of my friend Randy Michaels, the pressure was so great on my Inside Radio advertisers that many said they felt that if they continued to run ads in my publication that Clear Channel would not do business with them. I have no way to know for sure what, if anything was ever said, but I know advertisers were scared of the Evil Empire.

Only in radio would the majority say, keep the money, don't run the ads, I like what you're doing.

Radio people rise up and take care of their own.

They are fair even when their new employers are not.

On the occasion of this Labor Day when the handful of mighty consolidators who have run the radio industry into the ground are on their yachts and expensive getaways, it is fitting to remember and pay respect to the people who put them there by their dedication and hard work.

Radio people.

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