Commentary by Art Vuolo, Jr.
It's a fair statement to describe me a person who, for over fifty years, has loved radio passionately. Certainly there are others who fit that description as well. People like Bruce Morrow, Randy Michaels, Ed Christian, John Records Landecker, Shotgun Tom Kelly and Scott Shannon.
But, let's look closer. When CBS Radio in New York changed the format of America's top oldies station, WCBS-FM on June 3, 2005, Cousin Brucie was one of a plethora of top-notch personalities who were all let go. So, he left terrestrial radio and joined Sirius (now SiriusXM) Satellite Radio. Randy Michaels, is considered one of radios true mavericks. Not everything he's done worked. Some were massive and expensive failures, but he is one of the most daring and outspoken members of our radio fraternity. Ed Christian ran Detroit's WNIC in the late 1970's. Today he owns one of America's best non- corporate radio companies, Saga Communications, but owns no stations here in Michigan. Chicago radio legend, John Records Landecker, is an Ann Arbor native who just penned a hot-selling book entitled "Records Truly is My Middle Name." He has inspired countless "wanna-be's" to become radio DJ's, but today, this Michigan State alum has been reduced to playing over-exposed music, reading liner cards and only speaking about four times per hour. Southern California's Shotgun Tom Kelly made it big in both San Diego and Los Angeles by never forgetting how to have fun on the air and letting that translate through the microphone, the radio tower and finally the speaker of the end user, the listener. He rightfully received his own star on April 30th along Hollywood's Walk of Fame! Scott Shannon is the co-creator of the Morning Zoo format which swept the dial nationwide in the 1980's. He's perceived to be among the most creative broadcasters in America, and some thirty years ago gave me the moniker "Radio's Best Friend."
These are just a few of my personal favorites, but there are dozens more, like Dick Purtan, Joey Reynolds and Bob & Tom. Some are retired, some are considered no longer relatable to today's audiences, and others are seemingly always ahead of their time on just about every level. What radio seems to be suffering from in 2013 can best be described in an old limerick "the tried and the true and nothing new." There is still good radio, but like good television, you need to search deep through a lot of weeds to find the flowers. My emphasis here will be on talk radio and the agonizing death of the AM band.
Jerry del Colliano is a radio guy who is concerned about what is happening to the industry and writes a daily blog warning us how large corporations are destroying the medium so many of us love dearly. I know Jerry, and I like him, but don't want this piece to be perceived as a "doom and gloom" manifesto that paints a picture of no hope for the wireless. My personal goal is simply to make people aware of where things are heading before we lose what's left of the audience.
At the September 2011 National Association of Broadcasters Radio Convention in Chicago, I stood at a microphone and asked six of radio's biggest CEO's a simple question. "In the year 2020 commercial radio will be one hundred years old. What will be on the AM dial by that time? Conventional-wisdom feels the AM band would be mostly brokered shows, foreign language or religious-oriented programming. Do you agree?" Only Dan Mason, president of CBS Radio (who brought back 'CBS-FM in New York) offered a truly plausible solution suggesting that AM radio be converted to a digital platform similar to what happen with TV, but what about all those radios out there? Radio is still more portable than TV, but smart phones, tablets and the Sling-Box is changing all of that as well. My personal lean is for AM stations, with FM's in their cluster, simulcast their AM programming on an FM-HD channel. It would give listeners a reason to purchase still struggling HD Radio and offer a clearer method of listening to "Rice Crispy Radio" [AM] with its snap, crackle and pop! AM stand-alone stations face a more difficult option.
What's going to happen next? The very fact that every professional sports team in the Motor City is now carried on The Ticket is proof positive as to what the trend is. CBS Radio in Detroit, which holds to the broadcast rights to University of Michigan football and basketball, clears all those games on their all-news station WWJ-AM (950). Interestingly, U of M sports cannot be heard on FM anywhere in southeast Michigan, yet they can in East Lansing. Go figure. For thirty years prior, the Wolverines were a staple on Michigan's biggest signal, WJR-AM (760) but, that's another long story which can be read on my web site www.vuolovideo.com/umfootball.
It was only a dozen years ago that radio stations nationwide were concerned about the advent of satellite radio. Then it was quickly realized that programming covering the entire nation from 22,000 miles out in space could not be LOCAL. Today, the vast majority of talk stations take more than 75% of their programming from syndication networks which, oddly enough, deliver their shows via satellite and it's NOT local fare.
Personally, the two stations that I find most palatable come from Ohio and New Jersey. Cincinnati's 50,000 watt blow-torch 700 WLW is known as "The Big One." Because its owner, Clear Channel has three other AM properties in that city, two can feature ESPN and Fox Sports respectively and the third has space to clear a large roster of syndicated programs offered by their internally owned Premiere Radio Networks. This leaves WLW, once known as "The Nations Station," free of network obligations keeping it 100% LOCAL and it shows in the ratings and revenue it generates. Most stations are not afforded such a luxury.
From The Garden State, my favorite is an FM talk station, known as New Jersey 101.5 and similar to the Cincinnati station is all local around the clock. Best of all, the great majority of their programming centers around what is commonly referred to as pop-culture topics. High-profile personalities, with excellent on-air chemistry, results in a radio station that is exceedingly entertaining. Entertainment is the missing ingredient in most of today's radio regardless of format. Even though NJ Governor Chris Christie guests on the FM talker each month, the topics are mostly non-political.
On June 12th, 2013 one of radio's true good guys, Bill Bailey, died of a heart attack while participating in a golf outing sponsored by Grand Valley State University's WGVU-AM, where Bailey did the morning show and was program director. The huge turn-out of major radio people and friends at his Celebration of Life ceremony on June 23rd was testimony to how appreciated personalities, who care about their audience, are in this day and age. Some of you may recall when Bill's rich deep voice did wake-up duties at Detroit's 93.1 WDRQ back in the 1970's. He will be missed.
Last fall during the months which led up to the presidential election, I seriously wondered if radio could talk about anything other than politics. So, it was hardly a stunning revelation when a recent radio research project stated that listeners seem to be "burning out" on political talk. Wow, hold the front page!
With the recent departure of popular morning duo, Drew & Mike, at Detroit's rocker WRIF, radio keeps striving for a younger and younger audience, seemingly unaware it's a demographic that's straying from radio in droves. Many Riff-listeners were very displeased. Only time will tell if Dave and Chuck the Freak will be well received by Detroit's "Home of Rock & Roll," as the company that owns WRIF attempts to reach a younger audience while spending less money on talent.
Ever since 2009 just about every single automobile has been equipped with an auxiliary jack on the car radio. Many vehicles even feature USB ports so that you can easily plug in your iPod, iPhone, satellite radio or anything you prefer other than traditional AM or FM offerings. Radio no longer has the stage (known as the dashboard) all to itself and as the years go by, the competition for your attention, while driving, will continue to intensify.
What concerns me the most is where are we headed? So much of what is on the air today sounds the same. We have truly witnessed the "McDonald's-ization" of our medium. Spin the dial overnight and notice how many times you will hear Detroit-native George Noory discussing the paranormal. Listen to the anger and hate spewed by the right versus the left from Republicans and Democrats with speculation already as to who will replace President Obama in the 2016 election. It has made us more like the Divided States of America. Please show us some mercy.
Innovation and creativity seem to no longer be in the equation of what makes for stimulating content. At every radio conference I attend, and I go to a lot of them, all I hear is LIVE and LOCAL, yet the majority of what gets transmitted by AM and FM stations these days is NOT local and much of it is voice-tracked rather than live. In times of truly important news or an emergency situation, how can radio serve its community if there are no human beings in the building. Remember the mantra "the lights are on...but nobody's home?"
Radio people should NOT rush to drink the Kool-Aid. Sure it may look good and easy to swallow, but today it can have a bitter after-taste because it's laced with bad things. Radio is being run by big businesses, for stockholders on Wall Street and the bean counters who cannot see beyond the bottom line. Let's keep what's ON the air fresher than what's IN the air before we choke the life out of the beloved wireless medium we know as RADIO.
Contact Art Vuolo, Jr. via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org