Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Dawning of a New Radio Era

In an alternate reality I'd be writing that, since things are going so well, it's time for a vacation, and I'm leaving for a week of fun, rest and relaxation. Alas, that's not why there won't be any new Radio or Not podcast episodes for the coming week.

I am headed to NY tomorrow to attend and participate in the New Media Seminar, an annual event put together by Talkers Magazine. Click on the link to see that this is the talk radio industry event of the year.

It'll be interesting to read the mood at this conference. Radio is having a particularly tough time in this truly difficult economy. Stations already running on skeleton crews before the economic crisis hit have been cut even further.

Many of us were warning about what would happen to local radio back before President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law. We knew that relaxing ownership rules as this law did would lead to massive job losses, and the commitment to serve local communities would become an antiquated missive.

And we were right. In the years following the Telecom Act, consolidation was the name of the game. Previously, one company could own one AM, one FM and one TV station per market, with 40 being the maximum number of radio stations one company could own.

With this legislation, companies were now allowed to own up to 8 radio stations in each market, and the ownership cap was completely lifted! Clear Channel soon emerged as the biggest radio company in the US, with a portfolio of some 1200 stations.

Unfortunately, this radio empire was treated as a portfolio rather than as a group of local radio stations. The jobs soon became consolidated as well. Each radio station previously had its own Program Director and unique staff; now "clusters" of stations shared not only support staff, but programming and air talent as well.

Yes, through the magic of LANs and WANs and technology, the concept of voicetracking was born! One radio personality could sit in a studio in City A, and through the intranet, pull up the music log of another station in City B, complete with empty slots into which he/she would record the break-- the talk that comes between the records, or between the song and the commercials. The jock then hits the button, and the log scrolls to the next empty voicetrack slot, and so on. An entire 5-hour air shift could be tracked in a 20 minute session, and the voicetracks transmitted right into the computer log at a station anywhere else in the world!

The next time you listen to your favorite music station, try to figure out if it's live or if it's.. not Memorex, but a digital recording, sometimes tracked days in advance! You probably can't.

Instead of a full-time salary (which for most jocks is minimal at best), many "full-time" radio personalities these days are paid a small piecemeal fee for each show, and long for the days when they were actually getting benefits too.

On the talk side, gone are the days of 24/7 local programming. In many cases, gone are the days of any local programming! Syndication has become big business, and many owners choose to fill their entire broadcast day with shows off the bird. Some are actually "virtual" stations, without even a local studio from which to do a show if, perhaps, there was a local emergency!

One of the things that attracted me to radio when I started in this business 30 years ago(!) was the immediacy of it. One person, alone in a studio, could flip on the mic and be talking to her community, relaying important information, or entertaining the listeners with the magic of words and music.

The radio station always has been, and still is, licensed to operate in the public interest, convenience and necessity. But now, when there is often not a live person in the radio station for at least a few hours of the day, does the radio station still serve that end? I'd say not.

Now Clear Channel, facing possible bankruptcy just a year after going private, is making further cuts and offering it's stations "premium choice" offerings. Just a fancy name for more syndicated programs and voicetracking options. Less community involvement, less localism, fewer jobs.

So what are people like me to do? I've already re-invented myself. I went from an "expert" in Triple A radio (Adult Album Alternative, an eclectic musical format that exists in only a few lucky cities), to a talk show host. I'd always listened to talk radio, and even got my first post-college job producing talk radio. But just as I was completing my first year in the morning host chair at WINZ/Miami, they downsized me (the only local show on the station) and replaced me with Imus. On a "progressive" talk station, no less.

Well, we blaze new trails. The giant behemoths that grew out of the Telecom Act of '96 are exactly what's wrong with radio today. Just as new territory was forged in the 60s on FM, the truly creative are leaving the antennas and transmitters behind, and betting on broadband and wi-fi instead.

In the last week alone, I've seen three newspaper pieces on internet radio and the coming revolution to your in-dash receiver. I'd bemoaned the fact that I had the G1 (Google) phone instead of the iPhone, until just two days ago. That's when I downloaded the free application "StreamFurious" from the Market (Google's answer to the App Store) and, with a little effort, soon began streaming one of my favorite internet stations, RadioParadise.com through my phone.

Now, I just have to figure out how to get the audio through my car's speakers, and I'm all set. We're on our way.

So today, on the eve of my trip to NY for the New Media Seminar, I have mixed emotions. Part of me longs for the good old days, when I'd get up early in the morning and go into the radio station, populated with a large staff all working together to win the ratings race. We were a team, being creative and having fun. It is radio, after all.

The other part of me is excited about the future, as new methods of communicating seem to appear almost daily! My Radio or Not podcast is growing, though never as quickly as I'd like.

But I do believe the time is ripe for the next generation of radio now. I'd been too early for it once before. Back in 1999, during the height of consolidation, Clear Channel had just swallowed up Jacor, and put Triple A Channel 103.1 (KACD/KBCD Santa Monica/Newport Beach) on the air. I was brought in to help launch the station, and act as MD/afternoon host. After about a year, Clear Channel was set to merge with another radio monolith, AM/FM. The resulting company would own more than the allowed number of stations in Los Angeles, so had to divest itself of a few signals.

Since ours was a niche format anyway, and we counted as two stations (two small signals simulcast, both at 103.1), we were the first on the chopping block.

Whether it was due to my lobbying, or just similar thinking, Clear Channel decided to stick with us and move us off the air and onto the net seamlessly. I detailed the history making transition in a piece for the trade publication Totally Adult (read it here), but our success was short-lived. The dot-com bust got all of us forward thinkers.

But it's almost a decade later, and the technology has finally caught up with our dreams.

What is on the horizon? I'm sure I'll have some ideas and even some realities to share with you when I return from NY next week.

Until then, I hope you'll browse through the archives at RadioOrNot.com, and check out some of my past interviews and podcasts.

Thanks for listening... Radio or Not!


Todd Carruth said...

Well said and best of luck to you. I wish that we could go back to those days of limited ownership. Amazing how back then, the radio industry could afford to have a PD for every station and even more importantly for sales, a Production Director for every station. Some even had copywriters! Imagine that today.

sjeremko1 said...

Nicole, very interesting article ... many of us don't realize just how much the radio business has changed from the user side of the dial. Thanks for the historical perspective -- and for fighting the good fight! Looking forward to your posts when you return. In the meantime, take a bite from the Big Apple -- and have a great time!