Past events show where radio began to stumble

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By: Mike Austerman

On The RadioIs 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.

 • • • • • • • • 

Mike Austerman is the founder of and has covered radio for The Oakland Press since 2001.

Reprinted from the Sunday Oakland Press, February 17, 2008



Most radio stations do not communicate with their listeners anymore. We now have radio stations running 100% by computers and programming coming in via satellite from thousands of miles away. Very little local programming is broadcast in many parts of the country, especially outside morning and afternoon "drive-time". Many radio stations are totally automated to run with no employees needed on site. In times of local emergencies, "people-less" radio stations have already shown they can't serve local listeners with live news and emergency information like they used to do. As a former on-air broadcaster myself (in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky medium to major markets), I can tell you that very few people ever made any serious money in this business. We did it because we loved it. We provided an image to our listeners that they could depend on. Now station owners can't fire their minimum waged announcing and news staffs fast enough....all in the name of the "bottom line".

The FCC is partly to blame for this mess, too. They have almost totally forgotten about any technical standards regarding interference and other standards. Station technicians are no longer required to be licensed in radio technology and regulations. Additionally, the FCC has allowed more and more stations to come on the air and be squeezed into a limited amount of spectrum making it difficult for anyone to survive with so much competition for the limited advertising dollars out there.

With the big conglomerates now running almost everything, I think it is too late for radio, as I remember it, to ever make a comeback.

Lexington, KY

Agreed. It goes back to my basic arguement that the biggest mistakes the FCC made were in the early '90's when it allowed multiple ownership. You can't undo the past, but life would be alot easier for a lot of people if:

1) the FCC went back to the 1-AM 1-FM per market ownership rule (or a variation on that theme)

2) not allow translators, except to fill in gaps in a stations primary signal range

2a) and/or require X hours of local programing to be broadcast from a location within the primary signal pattern

3) stop auctioning off frequencys with no regard to the economic impact of adding stations to an individual market.

Although a lot of people grouse about them, I sometimes wonder if the CRTC has a better handle on controling the public airways than the FCC does.

I'll get off my soapbox now......

I think that these radio owners have absolutely
no idea of how to run a radio station. They get rid of people who work for a long period of time, and get both listeners and a good size paycheck. I don't think the owners care less about passion, and a lot more about the dollars. It should be the other way around.
If these owners have any sense, they'd start listening to the people who listen to the radio, and focus on that. I agree that there shouldn't be owners having a whole bunch of stations. All of that can cost people jobs. The radio owners are causing part of the unemployment rate to rise. We...the people (listeners and employees) should give them a what for, and force them out.

Great observations about sad truths. But the demise of radio as we knew it has many components. The obvious changes ...the paradigm shift of time & technology is surely reason enough but we must consider radio's role as a catalyst to this "death". As much a turning point as the mid nineties & deregulation were, it began much BEFORE then. Brilliant as it was, even the Drake format at CK & around the country in the late 60s
began putting restraints on creativity. Don't get me wrong, these "restraints" were right for the moment as we at Keener & others around the country were getting sloppy, but they were often misinterpreted by programmers who forgot that radio was "show biz" and connection to a community and a listener was still important. Of course the bean counters have taken that way beyond what we could have imagined back then. When I hear 15 minutes of segue serenade during the 5-6 Pm segment of afternoon drive on a not to be mentioned Detroit radio station..then I know they're scared, going with that positioning statement ad nauseum trying to compete with iPods etc...and in that competition, the iPods will always win.

My point about radio has always been the public will ALWAYS get what it wants. If radio doesn't give them anything tolerable, they listen to something else. Simple as that.

Stations that are nothing but giant Ipods are great for the bottom line. But who's listening and WHO CARES if they are there or not? I sure don't. Shut the transmitter down and save some energy!

I want to hear GOOD AIR TALENT! Even if the station wants to repeat the same song every day every hour, I can actually deal with that if there is someone between the songs who makes a difference, CARES about the area who provides a little companionship to people on long commutes.

Broadcast stations with back to back to back to back music are shooting themselves in the foot. Further by CONSTANTLY SAYING what they are doing over and over and over again I'd prefer to SHOOT THE RADIO! But instead, I CHANGE STATIONS. I have little tolerace for OVER-IMAGING.

They are DESPERATE to get numbers but forgetting what the essence of good radio is: CONTENT and TALENT.

If the public has to resort to Ipod downloads of former broadcasters doing internet podcasts, or their "own" DOUG FM (except mine would be BOB FM) they will do just that. Anyone can download a massive selection of music from Napster, Itunes, etc and create their own "radio station" that clips to their tie.

If it means the "end of radio as we know it," so be it. When internet RADIO becomes more commonplace in cars and stand-alone radio receivers, the end *HAS* arrived for these multi-million dollar FMs and the AM stations who do little more than rebroadcast boring satellite feeds.

How to save it? TALENT.
Invest in TALENT and not in computers to replace the studio and everyone in it.

I have another rant about what I call Format Fatigue, but save that for another time.

Bob B

Former "Keener 13" DJ Bob Green and Bob Burnham are correct in their observations above. But I, for one, REFUSE to let radio die a slow, painful, premature death. Radio, as we know it, will only die if WE, who care about the medium, allow it to. We, and our friends and families, should refuse to listen to radio shows that we know are voicetracked. It's bad enough that there are fewer and fewer radio programs originating locally every year, but then, to add insult to injury, we have conglomerates like Clear Channel forcing their local DJs to voicetrack the majority of their airshifts, especially on weekends. The situation is even worse than what I can reveal here, but suffice it to say, that at LEAST one Detroit Clear Channel station now has NO "live" air talent from 7PM Fridays till 7PM Sundays, due to "cost-cutting" measures. This is a pathetic state of affairs, mainly due to the fact that Clear Channel got TOO big after governmental deregulation in the mid-90's.
If WE, who care about the art of broadcasting, don't DEMAND that our station owners provide us with the immediacy and excitement of "live & local" programming, who will???

I particularly enjoyed the XM tribute to Keener 13 recently as further reminder of when radio was truly fun. Many of the comments above are from true radio fans and talent and it should be noted that there is no more creative and free form in radio anymore and likely won't be. More listeners are relocating to ipods and satelite radio now that it's all about music and choice and there's nothing exciting happening on broadcast radio. We can always go back to some of the XM shows of the past on 60's on 6 and other channels to hear what it once was, but no one is doing anything on broadcast radio really worth listening to any longer.
Too bad for radio and too bad for we radio fans.






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This page contains a single entry by Mike Austerman published on February 17, 2008 11:31 AM.

West Michigan: Newsmakers Feb 17, 2008 was the previous entry in this blog.

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