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What Keeps Me Up At Night

When I was first coming up in the radio business, I would scoff at some of the old-timers bemoaning how radio had changed and things would never be as great they used to be. An early mentor of mine was Walt Soper, a sound engineer for CBS Radio. He worked in an era when radio worked a lot like television does today. All of the prime time programming came from New York. The network honchos decided what the public wanted/needed and the local station just played it, whatever "it" was. This was the era of The Green Hornet and The Shadow, Gunsmoke and Amos & Andy. A guy named Arthur Godfrey was on the air, coast to coast, every weekday morning. By the time Walt and I met, he would lament that the days of great radio programming were over. The networks had pretty much devolved into just being news operations. The soaps and dramas of yesteryear were gone. Almost ALL of the programming you'd hear on your local stick was homegrown, with local deejays and personalities.

I could actually see Walt's point, to a point. At that time, a lot of what was passing for good radio programming at the local level was pretty dreadful. Local radio seldom come close to the level of entertainment that those old network shows had, but it had something more important, I think; it was relatable. When the jock talked about events at the local park, people could physically SEE the event. Listeners ate it up, and slowly, the network way became obsolete.

Once the concept of Top 40 radio came to life, the radio business grew into a behemoth. The number of formats blossomed and jocks got to be like sports stars, commanding incredible salaries in the Majors because they were able to dominate local ratings. Air checks of the big names were shared and sold all over the world so people could hear the magic of Larry Lujack, "Shotgun" Tom Kelly, Cousin Brucie and so many more. Howard Stern, the Greaseman and Mancow gave us all the term "shock jocks" and, by some accounts brought the era of the superjock to an end, though not through anything they did. They just happened to be on top of the heap when everything changed.

Today, with all of the media consolidation, a lot, even most in some instances, of the local programming decisions are being made at the corporate level. Playlists are being vetted by national programmers, a great deal of the talent is being imported from other - usually larger - markets, contests are being designed and implemented by national promotion teams, leaving the local stations to fill in the blanks with news and traffic, and maybe the overnight jock. And so, we've come full circle...but with a difference. The people in charge think they've invented a better moustrap. It's not though. It's the same moustrap from nearly a century ago.

So now I've become the grizzled old vet of the air wars complaining that radio has changed. Profit margins keep shrinking, and while it's true that the economy is pretty rancid, I don't think that's the primary cause of it getting more and more difficult for these Godzilla-sized companies to stay in the black. (Have you seen Cumulus stock lately?) Remember that before all this consolidation took place, radio was pretty recession-proof. Now, not so much.

In the 70s, we had a similar economy to the one we have now. There was an OPEC oil-embargo going on, the unemployment figures kept climbing, money was tight everywhere except in radio. Radio just kept humming right along. To be sure, there are some other factors involved, like alternative media that simply didn't exist then, but was strong throughout.

I really don't want to sound like my friend, Walt...but I'm not entirely sure these changes have been better, for the consumer. For the company, sure. For some of the smaller markets, radio probably is a bit better. Landing a major talent like JJ Kincaid would have been nearly impossible for market 168, but not any more. The downside of this is when a Major starts searching for a new talent, they can't simply go in and raid Boise, Idaho. I fear that finding a fresh new talent is about 50 times more difficult now, because the new, young talent doesn't have a chance to learn in the smaller markets and grow into the new Don Steele.

The big companies have brought a lot of value to local radio, but now it has a completely different feel, and the bottom line keeps shrinking. Local radio just doesn't feel like your home-grown, hometown station any more. They all pretty much sound the same...everywhere. And that's sad.

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