Commentary by Art Vuolo, Jr.
OK, I can wait no longer. I needed to step up to the keyboard and peck out my thoughts of what is happening to my beloved industry of AM and FM radio broadcasting, and my God I barely know where to begin.
There is an excellent source of information for news on a national scope, called Radio Daily News (RDN) edited by longtime radio entrepreneur Larry Shannon. His service is invaluable, but so depressing, as he collects and posts stories from columnists throughout the country about the crisis that radio, and newspapers, are going through.
As you may know, Mike Austerman, webmaster of www.michiguide.com, and myself, wrote a weekly radio column in suburban Detroit's Oakland Press for nearly seven years. I kept hearing about how most people were reading the column on-line rather than buying the paper. I urged them to pop for the fifty cents, or the paper, and certainly our column, would not survive. You know what happened, the column was last seen a year ago. The future of the paper is also unclear. Since the Internet seems to be where most people are getting their news, we also have taken up residence in cyberspace, even though sadly it's an address that comes without a paycheck.
The recent rounds of "budget cuts" have seen the radio business lose an incredible number of exceedingly talented people. It sounds like a late-night TV offer...but wait there's more. Clear Channel promised more cuts on February 20 and other companies are sure to follow. One insider at CC-Detroit said that after 7 p.m. there are no humans in any of the studios in the massive Farmington Hills building. Everything on the air on WKQI (Channel 955), WNIC, WDTW (The Fox) and the two AM's, WDFN (1130) and WDTW (1310), is coming from a satellite feed or out of a computer via a process known as "voice tracking." That is the case until the morning talent comes in at 5 a.m. God forbid if some type of emergency occurs during those ten hours. Voice tracking saves money, but doesn't save face.
Jon Quick, director of operations for WIBC Indianapolis, heard first-hand the dangers of voice tracking. He was listening to Sirius XM satellite radio -- just to monitor the competition -- and heard the host congratulate the Arizona Cardinals on their Super Bowl victory. At first Quick thought the guy was dumb, but then realized it was likely a voice track, "the talk host probably did two versions and somebody loaded the wrong one into the system."
Recently a local radio buddy told me how unusual it sounded to actually hear LOCAL news and information on a music station on AM outside Cleveland!
Interestingly, traditional radio bitched and moaned when satellite radio came on the scene in the fall of 2001. With many music stations, after the morning show, much of its programming is voice-tracked or network supplied by a syndicator. Most talk radio still has to be done LIVE, yet 80% or more, of the programming on nearly every talk station in America comes off a satellite! The reason for all of this is to save money. Picking up programs "off the bird" or voice tracking the shows is simply cheaper. It often cheapens the product that comes out of the speaker, but that is seemingly not the concern of broadcasters who were granted a license to service their community in the public interest. OK.
The mantra of the radio business seems to be "nobody cares." Sad, but true, as the bean counters continue to hack and cut until there's nothing left. On January 20th, while all of the country (and the world) was caught up in the Obama Inauguration, Clear Channel fired 1,850 people, hoping no one would notice as the news was 99% presidential related. Radio consultant John Gorman in Cleveland, pointed out that, on that same day, the Bose Corporation, makers of those quality Wave Radios, "laid-off" nearly 1,000 employees. Why? People aren't buying radios. Why? As more and more talent is sent packing, there is less and less to listen to.
With the switch to digital TV looming, people are buying new big screen HDTV's in droves, most costing well over $1,000. Who do you know that's bought a real quality radio of late? Can you even buy a quality radio? The last one I bought is a WiFi Internet Radio. It was $200, and well worth it. Learn more on-line at www.ccrane.com. On it I can listen to most any Detroit area station crystal clear with zero interference. Stations like WJR (AM 760) and WWJ (AM 950) or even the flea-power WPON (AM 1460) are all mint-quality on "the net." Some AM oldies stations, like Cincinnati's innovative WDJO 1160 are in breath-taking stereo at www.oldies1160.com. The remote lets you pre-set 99 stations. You can tune into the entire USA, and the world for that matter, out of a little black box....it could be considered the "new" short wave radio!
Just this week it was announced that Mitch Dolan and Jim Davison, both super big-wigs at Citadel (what was once known as ABC Radio), are leaving the company. KGO in San Francisco is probably the highest rated news-talk station in America, but owned by Citadel, another company making deep cuts to the bottom line. GM Mickey Luckoff had to let numerous quality people go, including his assistant of 41 years. Yikes!
John Gallagher was GM at WLS in Chicago when his hand was forced in a similar manner. He went to WLS after many years as VP of Sales here in Detroit at sister station WJR. After gutting the WLS news department and having to fire many friends in The Windy City, Gallagher resigned his position and returned to Detroit to head up Greater Media's trio of FM's WRIF, WMGC and WCSX in Royal Oak township. Not everyone is that fortunate. Kudos to you John for standing up for what you believe.
Off the record, I was telling friends that, prior to the presidential election, heavy-duty talk hosts like Limbaugh and Hannity, both of whom are carried on WJR 760 AM, were probably hoping that Barack Obama would be elected so they would have a minimum of four years of "material." However, Rush never imagined that our new Commander-In-Chief would make comments about himself that would give him publicity that you couldn't buy for any amount of money.
Since Rush and Sean are the top two conservative talkers in the U.S., they are basking in the spotlight. Some of the things being said about Obama on the air, however, are so vile that I could hardly believe my ears. Seemingly there was a time (not too long ago) when such hateful things said about the leader of the free world would be grounds for immediate dismissal. Regardless of your political lean, the lack of respect for the office is amazing.
Has anyone realized that after all of the analog TV signals disappear that, in a power black-out, no TV will be available. Even if you connect a battery powered television to the cable...the cable (or even satellite TV) box won't work without electricity. Cell phones can't be recharged, all wireless phones won't work and the Internet will be down without power. This can be a major boon for radio! Hopefully radio will realize the advantage they will have and will capitalize from this situation. This is why every home should have a minimum of at least one battery powered radio.
Also, what to do with that TV antenna you might still have up on your roof or in your attic? Before you take it down, consider connecting it to your stereo FM tuner or receiver for amazing results. While a TV antenna is not quite as good as an actual FM outdoor antenna, it's a lot better than the T-shaped dipole strip antenna that most people use. If you still have an outdoor antenna that has a rotor (that still works) you can achieve spectacular FM reception.
On the local radio scene WDET-FM (101.9) reminds us that new general manager J. Mikel Ellcessor has added new shows with a revised program line-up which can be accessed at www.wdet.org.
Personally I wonder about all the great Detroit talent that are now "on the street" due to more recent cut-backs. We hear that Alan Almond who hosted Pillow Talk on WNIC for years is talking to a syndicator about doing a national show. At one time WNIC had Almond and WMGC (Magic 105.1) had Johnny Williams who were, arguably, the two best "Love Songs DJ's" in the entire country. Now, both are off the air. Very sad. How about Dave Lockhart? He stayed with WNIC-FM (100.3) when Jim Harper. and crew, took off a few years ago to go to Magic. What did he get for his loyalty to WNIC and Clear Channel? Fired. Will Harper be smart enough to bring him over to his Magic Morning Show? Stay tuned.
The most popular show on the now gutted WDFN-AM (1130) was Stoney and WoJo in the afternoon. Would Tom Bigby, who just grabbed the Pistons for his Ticket...WXYT-FM (97.1 and 1270 AM), be interested in this hip and topical duo? Stoney is still doing the Channel 7 sports show on Sunday nights and WoJo is still at The Detroit News so there could be some nice cross-promotion with radio, TV and newspapers.
Still unsure of Deminski & Doyle now at WCSX-FM (94.7) doing comedy talk on a classic rocker. Personally I think they are sensational talents, but still feel most Detroiters like them best in the afternoon. In the later day-part it affords them opportunities for more events and remote broadcasts at local watering holes which were very popular when they were at the old WKRK 97.1 FM...but it's still early. What about Murray Gula's home improvement show? Shouldn't it be back on WJR or on the newest talker...Salem's WDTK-AM (1400)?
At WRIF, I really feel Mike Clark, Trudy, Mark, and Jamie are all doing an incredible job without Drew Lane. Like so many others, I felt that when Drew left the show would crumble. I could not be more wrong. Mike is a great solo act and if you left, it's time to check back with The Riff 101.1 FM. It is so good, I sometimes drift from my favorite...Bob & Tom to stay with WRIF. By the way have you checked out the Bob & Tom TV show? It's on at midnight on WGN America on most cable systems. If you can't stay up, DVR the one hour replay of their national radio show. Lots of laughs.
The attendance and content at three radio conventions I'll be at next month should be interesting. I'll be listening and reporting back to you soon. Sorry for my long absence, but there are never enough hours in the day.
Art Vuolo has published the Radio Guide for more than 30 years and runs Vuolovideo.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.