Radio Waves: 1/24/20

How radio because irrelevant

The email sounds innocent enough: “Why were these fine men — Mark Wallengren and Ted Ziegenbusch — let go… Why? All these years and stories and … well, I could go on. Mark was THE voice of Christmas. And Ted is such a good mellow guy. Does radio not have room for the older crowd anymore? Please Mr Wagoner … tell me what  in the world happened.”

That was from reader Doris Drahonovsky. And it demonstrates the ties that bind listeners to local radio stations. Dedicated listeners who welcome radio personalities into their lives as family. It’s what makes radio so special.

Or did. In what is being held up as the worst mass firing in the radio industry ever, over 1000 people — and the total is likely more than 2500, according to Inside Music Media’s Jerry Del Colliano — are being fired by KOST owner iHeart Radio in a cost-saving move, necessitated by inept management incapable of running a washing machine, let alone a radio company. The previous record was set by iHeart as well, then known as Clear Channel.

And it’s not just the older crowd … it’s everyone, young and old.

The known local cuts so far are Wallengren — at KOST (103.5 FM) for 35 years — and Ziegenbusch, who has ties with KOST going back to 1992, the year the station changed from Beautiful Music to light rock. Alt 98.7 (KYSR) fired night host Jake Dill and weekend host Julianne Miller, who also acted as a phone screener for the morning Woody Show.

Direct cuts are not the only worry for talent. Pay cuts and more work are expected for many as well. iHeart is expected to use more voice tracking — prerecorded computer files from major market talent — to fill open shifts at stations in cities both small and large.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of radio, but totally expected. I’ve been warning about this for years, as the large group owners like iHate, er, iHeart Radio failed to understand the art that is radio, and have done nothing but rip the soul out of what was once America’s most popular and successful media. Where did it go wrong? Let me count the ways:

1. The promised streamlining of operations by owning multiple stations per market never materialized. So the companies that overpaid for what were once valuable broadcast properties found themselves unable to pay the debt incurred as they built up in size. When known as Clear Channel, iHeart owned 1400 stations nationwide, and they have tried to control costs since. iHeart currently owns 850 stations, and they are still a miserable failure, revenue-wise.

2. Instead of placing a high value on talent and trying to develop new talent both in front of and behind the microphone, large group owners openly loathed all who created content. Why? Talent costs money, and that money is supposed to only go to the highest levels, like iHeart CEO Bob Pittman. The first cuts ever made were on-air talent, and in some (especially smaller) cities, there is literally no one in the station’s studios.

3. In order to deal with a lack of personalities, stations adopted a “more music, less talk” approach. Which sounds great, until you have alternatives like iPods, satellite radio and on-line services which actually do play more music and a greater variety without commercials. 

Indeed, people remember legendary stations like KHJ (930 AM), KMET (now KTWV, 94.7 FM) and Ten-Q (KTNQ, 1020 AM) not because of the music,  but the DJs who played the music and brought the music more into your daily life. The DJs and the stations became your friends. Radio became a background entertainment source. Taking no chances. Playing no new music.

4. As listeners were pushed into those alternative entertainment sources and radio was no longer a foreground service, the number of active listeners declined. Advertisers started demanding lower ad rates, and stations responded by adding more commercials. This alienated listeners even more, causing them to look for even more alternatives. Today, young people — the future of radio — are far more likely to listen to Spotify than to AM or FM.

But this is certainly not the death of radio. As an industry, radio may be down, but not out. And the cuts by iHeart are actually going to help revive it. Consider: the revenue model brought on by consolidation as listed above has been a failure, pure and simple; the moves by iHeart will do nothing but accelerate the trend. By failing, iHeart is opening a window for people who actually know how to run radio to buy up stations on the cheap … once iHeart is finally gone once and for all. 

And make no mistake — competitors Cumulus and Entercom will suffer the same fate, as they will be making the same type of cuts being made by iHeart as soon as they think no one is watching.

Next week: how to actually run a station to attract listeners and succeed. Don’t expect anyone from iHeart management to read it.

They don’t care.