By: Mike Austerman
Is radio dead? Last week, when Wall Street personality Jim Cramer declared the death of the medium — at least as the stock market is concerned — during an interview not only was he biting a hand that had at one time fed him, but he was just adding his voice to a chorus of others that think the future of radio is now in the past.
How did we get to this precarious point? For me, all of this madness started locally back in the mid’90s when up and down the dial stations were changing their owners faster than most of us change our furnace filters. Then there were two events locally that signaled the beginning of what has now become the most trying time in radio history.
On Nov. 21, 1997, WQRS-FM (105.1) ended over 37 years as Detroit’s Classical Music Station and segued from a “Madame Butterfly” aria into “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails. It was documented that the plug was pulled because new owner Greater Media just wasn’t making money fast enough to justify what it spent to get WQRS, which is currently soft rock WMGC-FM (Magic 105.1).
Looking back, it’s clear where the pressure came from. In 1996, Marlin Broadcasting sold WQRS for $18.5 million. A short time later, the station was sold again by American Radio Systems to Secret Communications for $27 million — a whopping increase in value of almost 50 percent! Still in 1996, Secret sold WQRS and sister stations WMXD-FM (Mix 92.3) and WJLB-FM (97.9), along with stations in other markets, to Evergreen Communications for $227 million. Evergreen at the time owned WKQI-FM (now Channel 95.5) and WQRS was spun off, due to federal ownership limits, to Greater Media in exchange for a radio station in Washington, D.C., and $9.5 million.
In the span of less than a year, WQRS changed hands five times, and with each exchange, the station likely increased in its cost to the new purchaser.
On Sept. 1, 1999, the plug was pulled on WWWW-FM (106.7) after 19 years of playing country music, including a time when it was the top-rated station in town. This time the indicator wasn’t so much the format flip but rather how it was handled and what’s happened since.
Following about 48 hours of nothing but an annoying tone, a rock station was introduced with little fanfare and an even smaller budget for marketing and air talent. Some people feel that 106.7, now back as a country station as WDTW-FM (The Fox) and part of Clear Channel’s large portfolio of local stations, exists solely as a flanker — a station meant to siphon a portion of the listeners from competitors stations, so the company’s primary station(s) can rank better in ratings reports and command better advertising rates.
I want to make one point clear — cluster strategies are rarely concocted solely at the local level and given the chance, the guys and gals on the ground here would not program this way. Every program director and many of the general managers I’ve spoken with have an incredible amount of pride and drive to make their station No. 1. But, this is big business and “doing radio” these days is less about who and what you hear on the air and more about meeting budget numbers. Today, winning is keeping your job and being able to find a new one.
So here we are in 2008 and every Detroit-based commercial FM station, save for WGPR-FM (107.5), is part of a cluster. The financial pressures are greater than ever in a faltering economy, and we’ve even got one station, WDRQ (Doug FM 93.1), that is essentially nothing more than a computer. How does one compete financially against a station that pays for no air talent?
The budget cuts have continued with the surprising dismissal of sports director/morning sports anchor Larry Henry from all-news WWJ-AM (950), who had been with Newsradio 950 since 1994 and in Detroit since 1987. I’m guessing that Dick Purtan is not happy with the decision to oust Kassie Kretzschmar from Oldies WOMC-FM (104.3) just two weeks before his 21st annual Salvation Army Radiothon. Kassie was arguably the best promotion and marketing manager in Detroit radio, and was instrumental in the production of the annual fundraiser.
Bill Stedman, who had been program director and operations manager for classic rock WCSX-FM (94.7) for the past five years, is also without a job this week. Interestingly, Stedman’s initials are WCS, the X can now stand for ‘eX’ employee. Stedman says the decision for him and the company to go their separate ways after five years was a mutual one.
It’s a tragedy that the people being most affected by the slow fall of these empires are the very ones that have the most passion for the business and those that listeners most closely identify with. Instead of being able to be creative and program aggressively, managers now have to be just as concerned about what their sister stations are doing so as to not encroach on them. Where there were once 20 true competitors, now there are 4 or 5.
There is no joy in Radioville. Consolidation is striking out.
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Mike Austerman is the founder of Michiguide.com and has covered radio for The Oakland Press since 2001.
Reprinted from the Sunday Oakland Press, February 17, 2008