Whither Local Radio?

Clear Channel today announced the layoff of another 590 radio employees.  From Bloomberg:

Including today’s reduction, the largest U.S. radio broadcaster has cut its workforce by 12 percent this year, spokeswoman Michele Clarke said in a telephone interview. The San Antonio-based company slashed 1,850 positions at its corporate, radio and outdoor units in January.

The latest round will take place in engineering, information technology, and programming.


Radio advertising spending in the U.S. is forecast to fall to $8.7 billion this year from an estimated $9.9 billion in 2008, according to GroupM, an ad buying firm.


Jobs at local radio stations were already under tremendous pressure from automation and syndicators such as Clear Channel.  Please don’t expect and anti-big-radio screed, because it’s not coming.  The companies that syndicate radio programs and built up huge chains of radio station were just taking advantage of the rules as they were written.  I don’t necessarily agree with those rules, but they exist and some people with deep pockets made the most of them.

But with falling advertising revenue and shrinking profit margins, I wonder how long it will be before some of these major chains start shedding their less-well-performing properties, and if that could create some opportunities for local broadcasters.

While I don’t begrudge the big companies for making money, I do very much miss the days of the local … really local … radio station.  I started in the business back when we actually played 45 RPM records on 15 pound turntables, and commercials, promos, and jingles on tapes that resembled 8 track cartridges.  In small markets, I picked my own music, set my own show flow, and had to remember to do stuff like cue up the next record and be sure the turntable was set at the correct speed.  I had to know how to backtime to a network post at the top of the hour … where we had a 5 minute national newscast.  Radio was required to operate in “The Public Interest, Convenience, and Necessity” as a condition of having what amounted to a government license to print money.

When I started part time, I made minimum wage, which was at that time under $2.00/hour.  But I was living my dream.

But one has to wonder, is there a place in this new media environment for what has been the most durable of the electronic media?  Will this recession make some frequencies available for local broadcasters to again serve their communities, rather than play a homogenized set of songs while sometimes far-away announcers read from pre-approved liner cards?  Is there a place for some really local talk radio, the kind where guys like Limbaugh got started in the business?  He wasn’t born behind that “Golden EIB Microphone”, after all.  He was about a 10 year “overnight sensation”.  Would local businesses support a truly local radio station that wanted to provide programs created by local professionals?  This may be the time to find out.

I know we’re probably never going back to the “Boss Jock” days of “The Real Don Steele”, “Cousin Brucie”, or more local to me Bill Bailey, who called himself “The Duke of Louisville” or Gary Burbank … who retired not too many years ago.  But there have to be hundreds of radio professionals, admittedly like me, who are now looking for their next opportunity and not finding it among the conglomerates.  I know station managers say local programming doesn’t sell, but when was the last time they really tried?

I also know that local talent, if it’s actually talented, wants to be compensated for what they do.  But lets be honest.  Internet radio station are finding a voice, and many of them, whether they’re talk or music focused, are being done by people who’ve never known a radio station, don’t have any training, and some of them are just bad.  I know there is a lot of air talent going to waste in local markets who could produce compelling or fun programs if they were given an opportunity.

It may be just a pipe dream that a local radio station could be successful.  Today’s listener has so many choices, and when you can plug your mp3 player into a device in the slot in the dash of the car that used to be occupied by just a radio, we know the audience is being fractionalized.  Mobile internet devices are probably coming faster than many of us would like to admit, but there are still millions and millions and millions of cars out on the road that don’t have satellite radio, aren’t MP3 compatible, maybe they don’t even have a *gasp* 6 disk CD changer, but are just equipped with your basic AM/FM receiver … and many of them still have one person in them at a time who listens to the radio.  I hope at least some of them have enough interest in their communities that they want to hear more than just a program beamed from far away produced by people who’ve never heard of their town.  I have to wonder if, as the big conglomerates contract, if there might not be an opportunity to give it a try.




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Filed under Broadcasting, Economy, Local Radio, Radio, Thoughts

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