In 1994, Dan O’Day was holding one of his famous “PD Grad Schools” in Dallas, Texas. One of the speakers he invited that day – and whose presentation was recorded by “Radio’s Best Friend” Art Vuolo – was a young Randy Michaels. Dan O’Day still sells this video, now on DVD, and labels it “The best radio video ever.” I would agree.
The video is titled “Positioning Your Radio Station by Randy Michaels.” It addresses the explosion of new FM radio stations after the first round of radio deregulation brought us Docket 80-90. Then the LMA (Local Marketing Agreement) was born. Randy tells the audience:
“This was a fundamental change for the radio business. Just as TV was a fundamental change, duopoly fundamentally changed the radio business. This moved the radio business from being a franchise to being a commodity. McDonalds was once a franchise. Today burger fast-food restaurants are a commodity and we all know how that’s working for the ‘Golden Arches.’”
On May 24, 2004 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) held a “Broadcast Localism Hearing” in Rapid City, South Dakota. The president, general manager and co-owner of KLQP-FM licensed to Madison, Minnesota (population 1, 767) Maynard Meyer addressed the commission. He told them (I’ve edited his comments. The full text can be found here.):
“Localism in radio is not dead, but it is in dire need of resuscitation in many areas. I have been involved in the radio business in announcing, sales, engineering and management for about 36 years, all of my experience is in communities of 5,000 people or less. We personally live in the communities we serve so we know the ‘issues,’ we work to address them in our programming and have been doing so for the past 21 years. “
“A few years ago, many stations operated this way, but much of that has changed for a variety of reasons. I think the beginning of the end of local broadcast service started in the 1980s when the Federal Communications Commission approved Docket 80-90.”
Mr. Meyer went on to explain to the FCC how many communities that “on paper” had a local radio station actually found that the transmitter was being fed from another location tens of miles away. Mr. Meyer went on to say:
“I don’t think this is the best way to promote local radio service. From what I have seen through my personal experience, as soon as a hometown studio is closed and relocated, the local service is relocated as well.”
Now put another decade plus on the calendar and we find that the FCC has decided that adding even more FM radio stations would fix this problem of local radio service that operates in the public “interest, convenience and/or necessity” by issuing FM licenses for FM translators and Low Power FM radio stations.
The most recent BROADCAST STATION TOTALS AS OF MARCH 31, 2015 issued by the FCC shows that there are 4,702 AM commercial radio stations, 6,659 FM commercial radio stations and 4,081 FM educational radio stations on the air. But wait; there are also 6,312 FM translators & boosters on the air; plus, another 1,029 Low Power FM radio stations. That’s 22,873 radio stations! And they now compete with SiriusXM satellite radio and streaming audio from Pandora, Spotify, Radio Tunes etc.
If Randy was thinking back in 1994 “being a media company today is a really tough business” he was seeing just the tip of the broadcast iceberg.
Randy’s prescription that day in Dallas was as prescient then as it is today; maybe even more so. He told the audience of program directors:
“In a crowded media environment radio needs to super-serve its local community. Be everywhere, all the time. Miss a day, miss a lot. Radio’s BEST when it’s personal.”
“What’s your station’s impact rating? Great radio stations are listener-focused.”
“If you’re smart enough to win in today’s radio, you’re smart enough to have done something legitimate with your life. This is work. This is a real job. It’s the merger of art and science and you’ve got to have both.”
I’m encouraged by my students who have big ideas about the future of radio and a desire to serve the communities they will be moving to and living in. I’m encouraged by some great radio broadcasters getting back into the business who are bringing back the fundamentals of great radio while extending that sense of purpose to the digital component that must be a part of today’s media company.
The pendulum is swinging back and it can’t get back here soon enough.