The Rant
North East RadioWatch: 1999 in Review
by Scott Fybush

Back in the fifties, conventional wisdom said radio was dead. All its traditional functions -- from soap operas to dramas to comedies to the evening news -- had been supplanted by television. Maybe you've seen the cartoon with the little boy in the attic asking Grandpa what that "radio" in the corner was for; it wasn't considered far-fetched at the time.

It's been half a century since then, and the only thing that's radio-related up in my attic is all the memorabilia of one of the most successful periods any medium in history has enjoyed. You know the story as well as I do: radio found the personal niche TV couldn't. It spoke to the teenagers who discovered their voices and their music in the fifties. It invented 24-hour news just in time for the turmoil of the sixties. It rediscovered the scorned technology called FM in time to shine anew in the seventies. It learned talk could change a nation's politics in the eighties. And as the nation's economy soared from height to height in the nineties, radio found out just how much money it could make.

It was the worst thing that could have happened to radio.

It's easy -- too easy -- to blame the big corporate owners, to say that every time Clear Channel or AMFM or Citadel or CBS added to their clusters, it was another nail in the coffin. But there's nothing inherently bad about group ownership, even out-of-town group ownership. Look back at the classic stations of radio's second Golden Age (we'll say for the sake of argument that it began around 1960 and ended that June day in 1982 when WABC went talk) -- WRKO, KHJ, KFRC all controlled by RKO; WBZ, WINS, KFWB all Westinghouse-owned; CBS setting stellar standards for news and public service half a continent away from corporate headquarters at stations like KMOX and WBBM.

It's too easy to blame the FCC. Hindsight tells us the mistakes began with Docket 80-90 and the flood of new FM stations in the late eighties that never had a chance to be viable if they played by traditional standards of local service and live programming. Hindsight tells us there was no way to square the repeated increases in ownership limits with the stated committment of at least some commissioners to opening the airwaves to new voices.

It's too easy to blame programmers for relying on research over instinct, for ignoring the rising tide of evidence that listeners are tiring of insanely long stopsets and responding by turning away from the radio to other media.

It's too easy to blame owners for being willing to sell stations that have been part of their community for decades to buyers who have no intention of continuing that legacy. Faced with a similar choice, and with the inflated prices being paid for stations (20 or more times cash flow is not uncommon now in large markets, where 10-12 was the standard just a few years ago), who among us would reject the chance to cash out on a life's hard work?

It's too easy to blame listeners for not demanding better. Radio is just one small part of an ever-growing media diet, shouting to be heard above a cable and satellite TV dial that now offers something for every imaginable niche, a Web that brings to the home an unfathomable range of music and talk, not to mention an explosion of print offerings that would have been unimaginable half a century ago.

Radio is again threatened, this time in ways far more serious than the flickering test patterns of early Fifties' television. Back then, the industry knew it had to change to survive. This time around, I'm not so sure, and in my uncertainty lies the core of this year's rant.

Like most of you reading NERW every week, I've always loved radio. I remember, as a child, looking out the window at the AM array a half-mile away while trying to pull in "distant" stations (Belleville, Ontario, seemed a world away) on my little GE portable. I studied the history and the personalities and the legends. I built my little homebrew pirate station. I spent too much of college at the radio station and not enough in class, and even before graduation I began the career path I always thought I'd pursue, working my way from weekend morning small-town news to the mighty clear-channel fire of WBZ.

Even after that career road hit a dead end, stalled by the continual closing of radio newsrooms and subsequent lack of opportunity in the business, the love of radio remained, if anything made even stronger by the distance created by a new career in television. Vacations included (or better yet, focused on) visits to studios and tower sites. My aircheck collection grew. And of course, every week ended (and continues to end) with an evening at the computer reflecting on the week's changes in our region through the writing of this column.

But something happened in 1999: The spark went out. Each week's news melted into an unmemorable string of mergers and conglomerations and meaningless changes of format and call. The excitement of hearing an aircheck of another market faded, again and again, at the realization that (with a few notable exceptions) it was all the same voices reading the same inane liners around the same 40 or 50 or 80 songs from the same corporate playlist. Even listening to the airchecks I'd taped myself during travels began to seem more like a chore than a pleasure.

At the same time, I knew it wasn't just my own personal burnout. Every once in a while, the light came back on. It happened in Canada in June, seeing the outpouring of nostalgia and emotion -- is "love" too strong a word? -- that accompanied the shutdown of the CBL transmitter in Hornby. It happened every time a flip of the dial to the public airwaves turned up one of those moments on "This American Life" or the "Lost and Found Sound" segments that reminded me of the incredible potential that still lives in the medium of radio. It happened in the tributes to Jean Shepherd and John Otto and Bob Raleigh, voices stilled for good or merely retiring. And it happened in those times, every once in a while, when my dial (or my Web browser) ran across one of those stations that still connected deeply to its community. As big as Steve LeVeille's 38 states all night long, or as small as the bingo-playing crowd over little CKRZ, Ohsweken, there's something all of these moments drove home to me in 1999.

Radio is magical.

In the push for profit, though, radio has forgotten how magical it is. And the magic of radio is the only thing that will keep it alive in any form for very long in the 21st century, in the face of attack from new challengers. Already, most of us can sit down at our computers and sample thousands of stations from all over the world, not to mention hundreds of Webcasters transmitting to small Net-only audiences. For many, radio is no longer a necessity to hear the music we want; that comes by way of cable and satellite's digital music services. By this time next year, we'll be able to walk into Best Buy or Circuit City and pick up a car satellite receiver that will allow us to listen to dozens of commercial-free music services anywhere in the country. And within a few years, it's a good bet that the Net will have gone wireless, enabling Webcasters to reach into the final frontier of the moving vehicle (hey, I'll get CBC back at long last!).

So how has the radio industry reacted to these threats?

Local programming has continued to disappear from the airwaves. Big groups like Clear Channel now routinely program entire formats on a national level, often with voicetracked jocks from halfway across the country and contests that are impossible to win at a local level. (It's a good sign, at least, to see the Florida Attorney General's office investigating some questionable actions on that front.) At many stations, even the once-sacred morning show has been replaced by Stern, Bob & Sheri, Bob & Tom, Joyner, or one of their clones.

Local news? With few exceptions, fading fast, especially in medium markets. Radio is still the best and fastest way to convey breaking news, yet broadcasters continue closing newsrooms and moving anchors to centralized facilities hundreds of miles away. The more the industry forgets about the importance of local news, the more the listeners stop thinking of radio as a source for community information. An entire generation is now growing up with no thought of using radio for local news. Can the industry ever win them back?

Community service? What was that, again, exactly? Again, with few exceptions, the idea of serving the community has been reduced to the occasional PSA and perhaps one or two fund-raisers a year. This year, we even ran across one station that had the gall to try to charge non-profits for running community calendar announcements. Whether it means to or not, radio is sending its communities a strong signal that they're no longer important.

That's especially true in markets where formats and frequencies and call letters are shuffled with wild abandon on a near-monthly basis. How can we expect listeners to develop any loyalty to radio when they can't feel any sense of attachment to a jock or a station that might not be there when they turn on the radio tomorrow?

The radio industry, hand-in-hand with regulators, is also foreclosing on its own future through its short-sighted response to the LPFM proposals that made their way through the FCC this year. There's a message buried deep within all those pirate busts and LPFM letters of support: These are people who want to be part of radio, and communities that want to be served by radio -- and big radio isn't serving them properly. So how did big radio respond? With head in the sand and ears tightly shut, almost every big radio group quickly signed on to engineering studies showing massive threats to their signals and a lobbying effort aimed at a legislative end-run around the FCC to ban LPFM in Congress. The FCC itself is hardly a shining beacon of logic in all of this: Even as it slowly creaked forward on an LPFM proposal, it kept filling every imaginable future LPFM frequency with satellite translators explicitly prohibited from offering local community service. (Why is nobody else seeing a connection here?)

Sure, the radio industry may preserve the sanctity of its 100-kilowatt FM blasters for a few more years. But guess what? The people being shut out of LPFM are, in many cases, exactly the same people whose new blood and fresh ideas will be needed in a few years to breathe some life into radio's stagnant corpse. Just when radio most needs the next Todd Storz and Rick Sklar and Alan Freed, they'll have found there's no room for them in an industry programmed entirely from Covington and San Antonio and Denver, and they'll be off doing their creative thing in some other medium, lost forever to radio.

Radio is squandering the strengths that are uniquely its own, instead becoming a bad clone of the satellite and Web-based services that can do automated music services and national programming so much better (no missed breaks, no sudden format changes, no 20-minute stopsets to drive the audience away). The profits may keep going up for another few years, but in the long run, as debt service comes due and listeners continue to disappear, the course is clear, and it ends up in the attic:

"Look, Grandpa, a RADIO. What was that?"

It doesn't have to be that way, and at the local level in some communities (whether as small as Concord, N.H., or as big as New York City) it's not. But it will take committment at the very top of the radio food chain to bring radio back to the strengths that will keep it a valued medium into the 21st century.

Radio can connect its listeners to their communities in ways no other medium can. If we don't start using it that way again, it will, to paraphrase Ed Murrow, be nothing more than a hard drive and a satellite receiver in a box.

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