RADIO INDUSTRY TRANSFORMED: Be Careful What You Wish For

As a band was about to play a song in a local restaurant, someone in the audience shouted “Freebird”, the seemingly universal heckle that is intended to unhinge a musical act during a concert. In response, the drummer leaned over to his microphone, and in a calm voice whispered, “Be careful what you wish for.”

The Chicago radio industry has an identity crisis. Since the Federal Communications Commission eliminated the restriction on how many hours of local content must constitute a broadcast day, station owners and managers have used syndicated programming as if it were a crutch for a patient with two good legs. With the ability to eliminate the risk associated with hiring local employees, in other words, talk show hosts and disc jockeys, syndication has almost eliminated the chances of new talent establishing a career in the radio business.

Fast-forward twenty-plus years to the present day: local terrestrial radio stations must not only compete within their own market, but also with satellite and internet radio, and other terrestrial radio markets.

In terms of offering local talk shows, several Chicago stations have hired – or rehired — hosts who had started their careers between the early seventies, and late eighties.

Ironically, two of these people had spent the early part of their careers ridiculing “old and out-of-touch” radio talent who at the time, were younger than those two are now.
A few years ago, Sean Hannity had mentioned the shortage of radio talk show hosts; he also bragged that two-hundred radio stations, plus satellite radio, were broadcasting his show. Using simple math, for every station that carries Mr. Hannity’s show, there is one fewer opportunity for a radio station to find a new talk show host.

As radio station owners indulged in cronyist practices to receive what they wanted in terms of loosened restrictions on how they operate their property, the long-term repercussions have begun to surface.

Although this is a local issue, it is safe to assume that this artificial shortage of talent is affecting every other radio market as well, since the radio conglomerates have made no secret of their ultimate intentions to streamline payrolls, and maximize advertising.

Yes, I realize that I have written about this subject before. However, the effects of “standardized radio” threaten every aspect of local culture in the U.S.

Larry Lujack, Johnny B., Steve and Garry, and Doug Banks were to Chicago radio what Art Laboe is to southern California, Cousin Brucie is to New York, and John Peel was to BBC Radio1. With syndication and cyberjocking, DJs and talk show hosts who identify a local culture have been metaphorically eradicated.

Due to cyberjocking and automation, I cannot name one local disc jockey who currently works in the Chicago market. However, I know Scott Mills, Annie Mac, and Fearne Cotton at BBC Radio 1, the British station that I listen to in order to hear the new music that a combination of market research, microscopic playlists, and the purging of discretion from station management, keep from reaching American airwaves.

I have no problem with listening to foreign radio. My problem lies with companies that buy radio stations, fire the local employees, and then hires cyberjocks who pretend to “spin the hits” at that station, while actually only providing voice tracks from a location hundreds of miles away.

In addition, companies that own five radio stations in one market, which is the legal limit, are cannibalizing themselves by owning competing stations. Also, why listen via radio app or online to radio stations that are owned by these companies, when the bulk of those stations are simulcasting the same feed?

Thanks to radio apps and the internet, syndicated radio shows and simulcasting music from very-limited playlists are obsolete. Therefore, the radio stations that carry automated programming are obsolete.

As revenue and options to replace aging talent at radio stations decline due to their owners feeling the sting of receiving what they wanted via crony capitalism, the silence of former listeners who have new options for music and talk somehow cries “Freebird!”

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ooocha/3052065204/

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About the author: Chuck Gruenwald

Born in Chicago and raised in northwest suburban Cook County, Chuck Gruenwald developed an unfavorable opinion of machine politics quite early in life. In addition to cars, electronics, law enforcement, and politics, Chuck enjoys writing, and is also a horse racing fan. He has recently written op-eds for uncommonshow.com

View all articles by Chuck Gruenwald

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