Thursday, December 18, 2008

Radio: The Grim Reaper is the new Santa Claus

I’ll tell it like it is. The Grim Reaper is the new Santa Claus.

It’s a bummed-out Christmas for our industry.

The bad news far outweighed the good.

A survivor of a recent massacre called to tell how surreal it was. One of their other stations had changed to its annual continuous Christmas format – and its music was being piped through the building as terminated employees were being escorted from the building.

There’s nothing like being ordered to leave the premises while Burl Ives sings “Have a holly jolly Christmas.”

Our industry used to be fun. On a good day it didn’t seem like work – and even the bad days were good.

This year’s Christmas bonus is knowing that you’ll still have a job come the first quarter of the new year. How long into the first quarter? We’ll deal with that by mid-January.

It’s been a rough year for all media – old and new.

It’s gut-wrenching for an industry we know, love, and rely on to endure this continuous cycle of downsizing.

Sure, the bad economy is a large part of it, which started while speculators believed Ayn Rand and Bernie Madoff could do no wrong - but the post-deregulated radio industry’s resistance to reality since 1997 played the largest role in its demise.
We can either evolve or devolve. Lately, it’s been the latter. For 2009, we have to make it a conscious attempt to do the former.


Stop attacking “new media” as the enemy. Learn how to work with it – not against it.

How did radio reinvent itself when television achieved traction in the fifties?

It became the “last great illusion.”

Like the written word, radio learned how to engage one’s imagination by creating audio masterpieces through creative production and proficient writing.
I've mentioned this before.
Fifty-one years ago, Stan Freberg successfully sold radio’s cinematics to the ad community with an effectual audio promo.

By utilizing ingenious writing and sound effects, he drained Lake Michigan’s water and replaced it with hot chocolate and a mountain of whipped cream. Then six helicopters in formation dropped a giant maraschino cherry on that summit of whipped cream.

The closing line? Let's see them do that on television!

That spot was produced with a reel-to-reel, tape, a razor blade, and round pots. No multi-track, no digital read-out, no Pro Tools.

Why doesn’t radio do that today? Could it be because there’s no “creative” line-item? Who has the time to measure creativity’s role in generating revenue?

And that’s why creativity – radio’s most essential component - has gone from an asset to a liability in just one decade.

The only way radio can be saved is to entertain its listeners and sell its clients’ products to them. To do that it must restore the art of playing to one’s imagination. and, dare I say it, throw in some localism.
Let me ask the question because I really want to know the answer.

When was the last time John Hogan, Dan Mason, Farid Suleman, Peter Smyth, and Jeff Smulyan spent a day – without distraction - listening to their own radio stations?
I rest my case.

Potential radio listeners don’t want or need more radio stations – they want better stations on the frequencies they can hear. And they definitely don’t want the HD Radio and its smorgasbord of insipid formats and auditory mediocrity.

Look, Sirius XM may be imploding in debt – but there’s rationale for the millions that chose to BUY what they listen on the radio over the choices they can receive free.

Engineers are s-p-r-e-a-d so thin they can’t focus on detail; in particular radio’s delivery mechanism. How many stations have you heard with pitiable audio processing and pitch escalation?

And don’t get me started on how radio has ignored the programming and sales potential of the Internet.

Potential listeners want quality music, not a quantity of variations of “classic hits” on stations that believe they can be on a first-name basis with its listeners.

The younger ones demand their own musical soundtrack – not one playing the outmoded crap the major labels persuade your present decision makers to play.

The iPod is today’s turntable. There was a time in the not to distant past that radio programmed music that people would buy and listen to on vinyl or cassette or CD. Today, it’s MP3. Tell me what’s changed other than radio no longer being influential in motivating music sales? Calling the iPod competition is a poor excuse.
Listeners want quality news but get quantity news. Radio’s convinced it’s fulfilling those needs with truncated, facts-optional, newscasts with murder on the ones, weather on the twos, traffic on the threes, sports on the fours, and armed robberies on the fives.

How about talk shows that aren’t crammed with hate or stupidity or both?

Face facts. We’re in a hyper-competitive world.

Maybe deregulation softened-up radio. Is this medium so emaciated that it can no longer stand up to its competitors?

Radio has been living in a world where competence is expected and only flawless execution is acceptable – and it hasn’t been able to pull off either very well.

Most importantly, the ultimate competitive advantage is passion.

When passion is unbridled, it drives convergence, encourages mastery, leverages spontaneity, cultivates ingenuity, and enhances instinct. The pieces of the puzzle come together and intelligibility transpires.

The outcome is quickened and unmitigated product that otherwise would never have been possible.

Start by investing in yourself. It’s the most important thing you’ll do in the coming new year.


Vic in Long Beach said...

John, that is a very thoughtful column today. I had been in broadcasting for over thirty years, and just left. I had been a total neigh-sayer. My thinking had been that the internet would kill them. But I go back to the Stan Freeberg days. And I do recall the "TV neighers".
So let me ask you, are there any good operators left? I've been streaming Christmas music from Galaxy LLP in Syracuse ("Sunny 102"). Their morning guy had been around since fifteen minutes after the Ark landed. So I suggest they might be worthy. Bonneville to a lesser extent. (I worked for them in San Fran) Please keep up your blog. It is a DEFINITE MUST READ.

Anonymous said...

John, You should add that localism will also help local sales. If you have a footprint in your community you have a better chance at closing a deal not to mention opportunities to provide value added services to the client.

Anonymous said...

John I loved it. Thank you. Your story on those being terminated at a radio station while Christmas carols were playing in the background says it all. Tough times bring out either the best or worst in individuals.

Anonymous said...

nice blog.

your readers can sample some of stan freberg's brilliant production gems at this site: i have heard the "mountain of whip cream" promo and believe it is available on a rhino records collection of freberg's works.

Anonymous said...

"…Is this medium so emaciated that it can no longer stand up to its competitors?"

Unfortunately, the answer is probably yes. Too many rounds of cutbacks have left radio hopelessly crippled. Here's a metaphor: Go plant a garden in May. Then mow it down in June. And again in July. And again in August. And what will you harvest in September? The only things that will survive will be weeds. That's what radio has done.

How often have you heard a version of these stories: Stations consolidate and the engineering department is halved. The highest paid engineers go. Sales territories are realigned, and who leaves? The best sales people who are the ones who take the biggest hit and decide they can do better elsewhere. Stations decide to simulcast and who goes? The most local talent has to leave because the new station requires generic content. And those scenarios don't even touch on the layoffs that are driven purely by economic considerations beyond anyone's control. With each round of cuts, the people who could have saved the industry were turned out on the street, replaced by people with less experience and less ability who would take less money.

Many of the people still drawing paychecks from radio today are literally the walking dead. January is going to bring an exceedingly harsh new reality to radio. Ask your friends at the syndicators and you will find that an avalanche of stations are jockeying to begin airing canned programming in new dayparts. The pink slips that are going to land in first quarter will astound even those who thought they had seen the worst times for this industry.

Is it possible that corporate America will one day walk away from radio and put the industry back in the hands of talented people who have the skills to grow it once again? Yes, it's possible. But by then broadcasting as we know it will be dead. The future for creative talent and programmers, savvy sales people and tech-oriented communications pros is the Internet. Those towers you see are just the carcasses of dinosaurs that haven't rotted away yet.

Jeff Dugan said...

I've been in broadcasting for many, many years. I've experienced first hand many a bad economy. But even when the economy was treading water in the past, we never saw the mass terminations that are a daily occurance in 2008.

The worst thing I recall is the overnight jock moving on to another station and being replaced by rotating part-timers.

BB said...

If any of those CEO's pictured in the blog had ANY dignity (and we know they don't), they would hand in their resignations by the end of the day and let those who understand generational marketing and what it takes to provide digital entertainment moving forward, the ability to "save" the industry to some degree.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you, John. I feel Q1 will be a disaster for all media. A number of radio stations will be forced to shut down. It is a pity that the dereg changed rules on dark station license returns. Maybe Obama can change that back and put those licenses up for grabs. The current owners / operators will realize they cannot make a go of their properties no matter what and in line with other stagflational moves, radio property prices will drop to pre-deregulation prices. This is where I hope you are right. New operators, old operators, I don't care as long as they are broadcasters and innovators that can restart radio provided as you say they are linked to the internet. I don't look forward to seeing my radio bretheran on the beach for a few months but I do look forward to what follows when the current owner / operators find themselves on the beach.

Anonymous said...

I feel bad for Jeff Smuylan. I have known him for many years, did business with him and consider him a straight shooter. In Jeff's case he puts a lot of trust in those around him and they don't always provide the best decisions. He is loyal to his advisors and continues to use them even when their decisions cause problems and litigation for the company. This is why Jeff has had a number of false starts lately in a number of markets and the reason for the problems he has had over the years in New York from Hot to RXP.

Jeff is a good person and not deserving to be on the same page with those other CEOs. He needs to surround himself with better people and he may have to pay a little closer attention to the product.

No matter how in sync a team is, it is a fact that after a while fresh blood is needed otherwise you can find yourself in a terminal situation much like the one Jeff is in now.

Should Jeff call on a new support team combined with being a little more attentive to the products at hand I feel Emmis will be a survivor.

If Emmis continues on its current course I am concerned that through no real fault of their own other than not allowing new ideas and consultants/advisors into the fold it will be vulnerable.

I repeat that Jeff is a good man and a change will do him good. I cannot stress that enough.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately for the listener the only place this can be found today in most markets is on their local public radio or christian radio station. Even though I am not a fan of all that public radio offers they do offer local programming that talks about and to the community. Some Public Radio and Christian radio stations even offer programming that is locally written and produced for the local market.

Anonymous said...

Hi John: The problem is not that we don't have the ability to compete..we're simply not allowed.
The business model for radio is completely inverted. Sales first..then product (maybe). We want to count our beans before we've made them. We want to show profit to our shareholders before we cultivate listeners and with the rate of persons being turfed these days..what's left to offer?
We've become a cluster of lemmings in a sea of sameness and sadly so.

Anonymous said...

John, You did it once in Cleveland on WMMS. Do you really feel that you can do it again without the talking shock jocks spreading their words of hate or stupidity. I listened to wMMS in its prime and enjoyed it all through-out the day. Now I listen to public and public radio or the college radio stations.

Anonymous said...

There are some very un-Christian Christian radio stations, too. Shall we say a certain company that actually employed Kenneth Blackwell when he lost his bid for Governor of Ohio?

This company has high turnover, pays its staff next to nothing and treats them poorly. Did I mention the politics?

There are good Christian station groups that I have worked for in the past. This is not one of them.

Anonymous said...

I would like to weigh in on those CEOS. I believe Peter Smyth and Jeff Smuylan are decent people. I agree with the other poster about Jeff. He takes bad advice.

I would put Peter Smyth in the same category. Of all the CEOs he is most tuned into radio except that he was sold a bill of goods about HD radio and other cash draining projects. Someone has to wise him up to Fred Jacobs.

Dan Mason could be defined as ready, fire, aim. He will realize that he is getting rid of his best people and retaining the marginal ones or maybe he knows what he is doing and fears for having someone smarter than him around.

Farid is a loser. Someone said he wanted to be a mini-Mel Karmazarn. Truer words have never been spoken.

John Hogan is a yes man. Fire another hundred. Yes, sir. It surprised me that Bain Capital kept him around. He must have really morphed into being a marionette.

Anonymous said...

I do hope you are right. I do hope so. Every day we hear more bad news about the economy. I read in one trade where they have taken to calling the downturn in advertising as an "Advertising Depression."

It is a shame that stations that go dark can remain with their owners. Those licenses should be turned over to the FCC and put on hold.

We have to go back to limits on ownership. 20-20-20? & the number of stations a company can own in one market. 2 FMs 2 AMs.

We also have to have a license holding period for 2 years to discourage wholesale buying selling and trading.

Hell I would like to see a return to quotas on news and public affairs.

President (elect) Obama, are you reading this?

Marc said...

Thanks for the Stan Freberg mention, John. But in the original version of his sketch that you mention, it's actually the Royal Canadian Air Force that drops the cherry. I can send you the .mp3 if you like. ;-)

radio, a friends ipod with commercials. said...

John you and many who post here are passionate about good content and radio, so we’ve said what needs to be said. Really there’s nothing left worth saying.
So long as the current group of consolidators and sleaze balls are in charge, radio, will continue on its path of self destruction and the Kool-Aid cheering crowd will continue promoting hype, spins and lies.

Stations will have to go dark before radio’s leadership wakes up and leads..
We’re stuck with an army of lackeys, still defending the fort, who’ve stuck their heads in the sand, or are just afraid to admit that the enemy is climbing the north wall. After all, admitting the truth only gets you fired.

The same thing happened to the music industry, new technologies came along, so rather than changing their strategy, they fired everybody who cared passionately about the industry and hung onto an army of fort defenders with their heads stuck in the sand. The music industry is dying, like radio.

Rip Radio


Anonymous said...

I think the real culpret here once again is too many stations. The sheer number of radio stations available in every market has diluted the quality. So we will go through a period in the next few years where the strong will survive, and the weak will go dark. And I don't see anyone on the horizon who will take those dark stations and turn them into beacons of creativity, because those who might don't have any money. So we will go from 14000 radio stations down to maybe 12000.

Unfortunately, those 12000 radio stations will still have to compete against millions of non-radio competitors, and that will continue to make it impossible for those who remain to make much money.

Anonymous said...

"I would put Peter Smyth in the same category. Of all the CEOs he is most tuned into radio except that he was sold a bill of goods about HD radio and other cash draining projects. Someone has to wise him up to Fred Jacobs."

How many tens-of-millions have been pissed away for the sake of building Struble's digital studios. I'de like to nominate Robert Struble, CEO iBiquity, as radio's Grim Reaper and con-artist.

Anonymous said...

None of these CEOS are babes in the woods. If they fell for crap like the HD Radio scam they should pay the price. Where are the shareholders? Why aren't they being told about their CEOS's short comings?

We have to tell it like it is. These "leaders" do not know their own business. They are present-day Neros. Fiddling around while the radio industry burns.

There are so many similiarities between the auto industry and radio/TV.

Years ago I rememeber one of these CEOs claiming long before there was even a hint that our economy was in collapse that if radio or TV ever ran into financial problems it would be bailed out by the government since they lease the licenses and would not allow radio and TV stations to go silent.

Wishful thinking. It does make you ask yourself if these radio groups believed in that possibility.

Anonymous said...

John Gorman: I have spent the last hour going through your entire blog. Thank you so much for it. You should publicize this more for the radio industry. I found it from Vanity Fair magazine's web site.

You are telling it exactly as it is without the false spin of the trade papers and some of the other pro-radio web sites like Radio Ink.

I plan to e-mail your blog link to others in the industry.

Your claim about radio not being dead is absolutely true. Re-invention is needed and the internet is radio's future. Keep up the good work, John. I also ordered your "Buzzard" book.

Anonymous said...

good topic. i agree that none of the radio ceos were 'taken' by hd radio & other scams. show me how any one of these ceos improved the programming, revenue, reputation of their radio stations.

i'm still waiting.

Steve Burgess said...


Tremendous and thoughtful article.

The key to the ongoing success of radio is indeed content. As I travel the country, visiting radio stations and listening to programming in market after market, I am struck by the work that some people are doing. Primarily independents, although as Vic points out, groups like Bonneville are doing a terrific job as well.

I also agree with some of my fellow commentators that Jeff Smulyan and Peter Smyth are different fish than some of the other group operators. Jeff, for example, took the risk of starting a whole division devoted to advancing the medium - not just his stations - in areas like social media, messagecasting, and streaming.

Thank your for your thoughtful comments. I guess I should expect nothing else from a fellow aficionado of Parker and Lehane.

74WIXYgrad said...

Right now the real winners are going to be those who work at stations that were not bought up by the large companies. Case in point would be WQMX & WONE in Akron. You listen to the personalities on those stations and they seem quite a bit more relaxed than those on the other stations. They are also urged to do some blogging, which is part of the "new media" and also another way to connect with the media.

Anonymous said...

Any power increase for HD radio will wipe out traditional radio because of the interference. HD Radio doesn't seem to care.

drewdeal said...

Short comment here, as my earlier long one got lost... boo blogger for killing my back button form restore...

We are pushing platform diversity, which I think is radio's salvation. This is why the current leadership of is proving ineffective because they are hard-wired for platform protection and ignorant regarding the various choices laid before them. In talking with these CEO's they casually refer me to their 'digital guys' and feel good about themselves. Carry on like this to your own detriment. The reaper cometh.

Our article on Platform Diversity:

Anonymous said...

"Any power increase for HD radio will wipe out traditional radio because of the interference. HD Radio doesn't seem to care."

"FCC Allows Stealth HD Power Boosts"

"Although the Federal Communications Commission has deferred (for now) any formal action on its inquiry into whether or not to allow broadcast radio stations to increase the power of their digital ('HD') sidebands by a factor of ten, the agency's employing the tried and true method of 'creating facts on the ground' by allowing individual stations (or station clusters) to individually apply for special temporary authority to hike their HD power levels. This is taking place even though radio's engineering community is deeply divided on the issue of an HD sideband power increase. Comments filed by the Prometheus Radio Project and Media Access Project (disclaimer: on which I informally consulted) succinctly summarize the dispute. The main question is: is it realistically possible use HD Radio as a tool to improve the existing medium, or will HD intentionally degrade it so that the spectrum's repurposement becomes inevitable - or, at the very least, make its ownership more consolidated?"

Yup! The FCC just ignored Congress's latest mandate to put all non-critical actions on hold. Struble doesn't give a shit about the industry that he is in the process of trashing. Here's a reference to a broadcaster's email that he received from Struble:

"I forgot to tell you guys: I got an e-mail from Bobby-Boy Strew-Bull myself! He cheerily told me, hey, I once lived right down the road from you folks in ******! Then he went on to taunt me about how he reads message-board postings to his kids, pointing out name-calling aimed at him. His family evidently thinks theopposition to HD Radio is highly amusing. I told him two things: yeah, O. J. Simpson lived in ****** once, too. And: I told him that since the financial loss and professional hardship which HD Radio is inflicting on undeserving
station operators is a source of merriment to his family, that he had better keep his sense of humor honed. He’ll need lots of levity in five years when his company ceases to exist and he’s out of a job, another B-school MBA loser educated far beyond his intelligence – the guy who presided over the biggest engineering debacle in the history of an 80-year old industry. Wall Street is full of his types. Right now they’re toting aluminum cans to the redemption center, desperately trying to meet the payments on the Central Park West co-op."

Have a good laugh, shit-for-brains.

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