Automation Killed the Radio Star

BugglesRemember when the rock group, The Buggles, introduced a new cable TV channel, MTV (Music Television) with the song “Video Killed the Radio Star?” That was August 1, 1981. Here’s how Mark Goodman introduced the channel over 37-years ago. CLICK HERE 

What Killed MTV?

By the early 90s, MTV was looking to boost its audience ratings and introduced a trivia game show called “Remote Control.” It attracted more viewers than its music videos, so MTV created “The Real World” in 1992, television’s first unscripted reality show.

These new programs were attracting a new generation to MTV and also dooming the channel’s original concept of 24/7 music videos.

So, MTV didn’t kill the radio star, but something else did.

Consolidation, Computers and Cash

Ironically, it would be the radio industry itself that would kill the radio stars. Those talented men and women that made a couple of turntables, a few cart machines and a microphone work together and created real magic. What many liked to call radio’s “theater of the mind.”

After the passage of the Telcom Act of 1996, a massive and swift consolidation of the radio industry took place. Radio was very attractive to Wall Street due to its fat bottom line and year-over-year revenue growth.

They say you make money in radio station ownership at the time you buy the station, not when you sell it. In other words, the die is cast at the closing of the purchase. Consolidators were so eager to buy up radio stations, they over-paid. iHeartMedia and Cumulus, two of the country’s largest radio owners are poster children for this practice as they work their way out of bankruptcy.

In an attempt to mitigate this problem, computers and voice tracking were introduced across these radio station empires allowing them to drastically reduce their air staffs. The very people that were the bridge to the listeners and advertisers were the first to go.

All in the name of sending more cash to the bottom line and paying down crippling debt.

What Radio Stations Promoted BEFORE Consolidation

WHDH Radio PersonalitiesRadio used to really promote its greatest asset, its radio talent. WHDH in Boston promoted itself as having “New England’s Finest Radio Entertainment 24 Hours Every Day!” The “Big 5 on 85” print ad featured Jess Cain, Fred B. Cole, Hank Forbes, Bob Clayton and Norm Nathan, as their air staff, and never mentions what kind of music they play, or news they featured or anything else the radio station did. WHDH was not alone in doing this. Every radio station promoted its talent line-up. Radio air talent WAS the reason people listened.

George Johns recently wrote that when he bought his first radio station (K103 in Portland, OR) that he knew he had to have Craig Walker as his morning man. Unfortunately, Craig was already on the air in Portland at the #1 radio station, KGW. Geo pitched Craig a job with K103 for more money and said he was willing to wait out his one-year noncompete contract to get him. George Johns said his financial partners thought the deal was too expensive and so Geo took out a mortgage on his Coronado, California home to guarantee the money personally.

Did George Johns gamble pay off? Yes. On day one. Craig Walker premiered at #1.

Can you feel the love radio once had for its air talent?

Non-Competes

Which brings up another radio industry problem, the non-compete contract. Have they hurt the radio industry’s growth and innovation?

Boston’s Route 128 corridor used to be the center of technology in the 60s and 70s. In the 1990s, California’s Silicon Valley took over that title from Massachusetts.

Why did Boston’s tech companies lose to those in the Silicon Valley?

Boston was a collection of high tech companies, like Wang, DEC and Data General competing against one another. They kept everything in-house and were vertically integrated. They had employee non-compete contracts. If you left your firm, you were looked upon with great disdain.

Silicon Valley, on the other hand, built an ecosystem. They shared everything. People were free to move between companies, and did. And everyone was still considered part of the family.

Value Chains versus Ecosystems

The radio industry operates like a value chain. Radio’s big consolidators are driven by efficiencies.

Accenture Strategy published a study that found that ecosystems are a “cornerstone” of future growth in a 21st Century world, a way to increase revenue. Ecosystem companies thrive on making connections, lots and lots of them.

The broadcast industry has pushed away from so many chances to collaborate and in so doing lost a competitive advantage.

What is Radio’s Most Valuable Asset Feeling?

Don Anthony’s Morning Show Boot Camp (MSBC30) collaborated with Jacobs Media Strategies to produce the first ever “Air Talent Questionnaire: How Radio DJs View Their Industry.” Some of the takeaways were disheartening to hear. Such as:

  • Most of the shifts where DJs got their first jobs are disappearing

  • Many DJs are not air checked and that lack of attention appears to impact attitude

  • Many DJs have feelings of angst & insecurity; many others are struggling financially

If radio connects with listeners through its air talent, then just these three items ought to give every radio station operator pause.

How to Win the Triple Crown

Diane Lane with Secretariat

I just watched the movie “Secretariat.” In 1973, Big Red, as he was nick named, became the first Triple Crown winner in 25-years, at a time when many thought there would never be another. “His record-breaking victory in the Belmont Stakes, which he won by 31 lengths, is widely regarded as one of the greatest races of all time,” writes Wikipedia.

What struck me, was what Secretariat had, that the other horses did not, a loving caretaker, a loving trainer, a loving jockey and most of all, a loving owner. Big Red was surrounded by people who genuinely loved and believed in him.

Great radio stations are filled with people like that.

I’ve always believed that what happened in the halls of my radio stations were transmitted out, over-the-air, to the listener. We transmitted so much more than just the music we played, the news we delivered, and the entertainment we provided. We transmitted an intangible spirit that was contagious and attracted loyal listeners.

And we do that when we love, appreciate and take care of our most valuable radio asset, our air talent.

32 Comments

Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio, Sales

32 responses to “Automation Killed the Radio Star

  1. It’s still & always all about the content/product/personality/connection. That shouldn’t be hard to figure, especially when expert curation doesn’t add cost. Thanks, Prof. DT.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bob Harlan

    In the early days of voice tracking and automation, prudent use of the two…and keeping both on a local level…was a plus. In small markets, you could actually boost your presence. It was the move to 24 hour out of market voice tracking that was the dregs of broadcasting.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Don Beno

    Good article…but let me make one correction. The first reality television show was “An American Family” presented on PBS in 1973.

    Like

  4. A glut of radio stations being added to the dial in the late 80’s/90’s (80-90 docket) made things worse. In small and medium markets money has always been tight. Most AM/FM combos had a least on station running tape based automation because the numbers didn’t add up for a full staff on both. Talent was required to take meter readings, and keep the station running. It was also a time of no competition (with the exception of TV and newspaper). With the boom of radio stations, many were just hanging on. I worked with many stations in the 80s where the paycheck bounced, or I was asked to hold my check or the owner held checks on Friday till 5 hoping to collect money that day, or to buy extra time before it cleared the following week. The Telcom Act of 1996 was bound to happen. You had a half a dozen AM/FM combos will a full staff that was in the red, or on the brink of shutting down. Yes we all miss the “good ole days” and so do many others in their respective industries (I’m sure the original MTV VJ’s do). Fast forward.. It’s not 1968,78, or 88 anymore. If you have talent and programming skills, a VT station sounds as good (or better) than a live shift (and I’m talking about the big groups who record a dozen staions each day. Like any other industry those who stayed adapted and adjusted. Those who didn’t are still reflecting about the “good old days”. With increased competion, a DJ sitting in a booth is just not feasable nor reasonable anymore. Most of our listeners communicate with us via text or email. The phone doesn’t ring, and we get few visits, most of our interaction is on locaton events, and promotions. We still local news, sports, weather, announcements and backselling. Our talent now uses that DJ booth time to sell, promote, and work on other projects that are essential to our station. The listener no longer finds the fascination of the DJ in the glass both. The talent needs to be out and about to reach the listener. So long 1984

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for sharing your perspective Damon.
      -DT

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jerome Stevens

      Thanks, Damon. I was managing radio stations in Savannah back then and that’s the way I remember it. I was at first amazed that people thought so many stations could be economically feasible but then realized it had nothing to do with economics but engineering. If someone had the ability to shoehorn in another signal, they’d do it and sell it to someone else to figure it out. After that, consolidation seemed inevitable.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. There was no way automation wasn’t going to happen. When it began (and the computers were coming in well BEFORE the ’96 dereg (we had them at WCOL in Columbus in the early 90’s.), I was no fan of it. Then, the Chief Engineer told me something that sounds scary in its accuracy. He said, “You can fight this all you want. But, “the industry” has made the decision to go in this direction. If you fight it, the industry will most assuredly pass you by.” Truer words not spoken. What I don’t like about today’s radio are companies that make life SO busy for its employees you scarcely have time to go to the bathroom. Busy is one thing. It can be a good thing in a winning organization. But, being so busy, you avoid lunch to get work done? That’s not good.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You made very valid points Kevin.

      I think one of the things I most dislike about the on-air production is how mechanical and often sloppy it sounds. This is made all the worse if you listen to any OTA radio station via their stream. No one, it seems, is minding the stream and it sounds it.
      -DT

      Liked by 1 person

      • Kevin Fodor

        I totally agree there. In our shop, commercials MUST be exact time (and it gives our Production Director fits because he catches the “But i-Heart lets us do it” from every client and agency in the area. We have to remind them, sometimes that combo buys also go on our news talk station where the breaks are exact. We might let a half second longer go on a music station, but that’s about it. We want the streams to, more or less, join exactly or a least well. And, believe it or not, the group’s APD is assigned to monitor all of the streams periodically through the day.

        Liked by 2 people

      • The aggregate sites/apps (like iHeart’s), convenient as they are for users and stations, have so many points of on-air insertion that there’s no way to prevent late rejoins, clipped audio, etc. I live in Knoxville, TN and listen to WLW, Cincinnati online. I hear ads for a VW dealer in Asheville NC daily. I understand that’s Google targeting but who knows where that audio is being served from?

        Liked by 1 person

      • The rejoins are so disjointed and sloppy. It just isn’t a pleasant experience.

        We had a program director at our RTI one year who had perfect pitch and ordered his jingle package for his lite AC radio station to have the jingles end in different keys. Then when he programmed the music out of a jingle, the key the jingle ended in and the song began in, were in the same key.

        Did any listener notice? Probably not.

        What they might say is, the station just sounds good or everything flows so smoothly that I can listen for hours and hours.

        Consolidation ended this attention to detail at this radio station. Another cut that leads to the death of great radio by a thousand cuts.
        -DT

        Like

  6. TheBigA

    The fact is there was more automation before the 90s than after. How do we know this? There were more radio automation companies in business before the 90s than after. Consider than in the 60s, you had Drake-Chenault, Schulke, Bonneville, Peters, and Century 21. Each one of these companies created 24/7 automated formats for radio stations, and distributed them on reel to reel tape. This doesn’t include the fact that the radio networks still offering long form programming, such as NBC’s Monitor, for stations to use in place of local talent. Satellite distribution replaced the reels by the late 80s. What voice-tracking was intended to replace was this outside automation. Once stations had their own in-house systems, they didn’t need outside programming any more, and those 24/7 suppliers disappeared. By the 90s, there were really only two: Satellite Music Networks (bought by ABC) and TranStar (which became Unistar). Computer automation killed syndication, because stations could bring it in-house. But the view that automation killed local radio ignores the facts. And the facts are that automation in some way has existed since the radio networks in the1920s.

    What killed the way radio promoted local talent? It’s simple: FM. The example you give of WHDH was an AM station. In New York, WABC promoted their All Americans. WMCA had their Good Guys. But when FM came along in the 70s, they no longer promoted their local staffs of fast-talking DJs. That was out of style. The AM style DJs were able to hang around for a while, but their audience aged. By the 90s, they were all going away, and the concern was what to do with all those AM stations. That was what happened before consolidation, voice-tracking, and everything else.

    The story you tell in this article is a nice story, but the facts are very different. The radio you remember was gone a long time before the 90s. And the radio it replaced wasn’t as wonderful as you remember it was.

    Like

    • I managed radio stations from the 80s through 2010 and was on the air from 1968-1979, so what you shared was interesting, but not what I personally experienced.

      In fact, I managed a Bonneville formatted radio station and all Bonneville provided us were the reels of tape that contained the music. 24/7 we were staffed with live radio personalities on this FM radio station and we promoted those personalities too.

      I’d be interested to what others have to share about what you wrote.

      Thanks for stopping by the blog.
      -DT

      Liked by 1 person

      • TheBigA

        The specific Bonneville station I’m familiar with was WRFM in NYC. As you said, they ran the tapes, but had live announcers. Except those live announcers weren’t allowed to say more than music information, time, and weather. Maybe occasional live reads for spots. No adlibs about other subjects allowed. To me, that was something that could have been done by a machine. Other automation services in the 60s came with pre-recorded announcers. In fact one system I knew of had the same announcer 24/7. No matter when you listened, it was the same voice. This was in the 70s.

        Like

      • Dick, I remember your description.

        Whoever TheBigA is – if he ever comes out from hiding – perhaps it will show he’s worked your description too: “The radio you remember was gone a long time before the 90s.” Please. Theater of the mind and personality was still displayed through nearly all of the early to mid nineties. Part of the demise was an audience’s desire to hear less AM delivery, which by this time had become stale.

        Change is not something that’s easily accepted in radio. AM to FM was an unavoidable change in acceptable audio delivery.

        From the early days of moving into a large market I was taught commercials were never a “break,” they were part of the program. A :30 wasn’t :31 long, anymore than a :60 could be :59. This was professionalism, which is what every station used against every station in the market to competed. Stations allowing additional time in a spot were the amateurs.

        As you describe, there also was quality creative – theater of the mind – within a commercial until consolidation took hold around 1998. The time to make quality creative is what was taken away when production directors started overseeing multiple stations.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Thank You Ken for sharing your memories of radio during that period of time. Nice to know I wasn’t alone.
        -DT

        Like

  7. Mike Buxser

    Dick, had my first GM position at WHEZ/WTCR in Huntington, WV in 1980. EZ was Bonneville music and live personalities 24/7. When we moved TCR country to FM we moved EZ to AM with the Transtar Unforgettable Music of Your Life knock off. Kept the same live personalities as we had on EZ. Voice tracking done right can sound live, but generally sounds rushed and weak in content. The rush to get weekends done around most stations has made Friday’s voice tracking hell day. It’s a rush to get it done, with little thought to quality.

    When a big news story or major local event happens outside of 6am-5pm, Monday thrunFriday, stations sound out of touch and radio loses that ability to embrace the moment. Too many stations lock the door at 5pm and whatever happens until the morning show starts the next morning is poorly covered, if it’s covered at all. The results of this are:

    1. Stations don’t cover big emergency events that occur on nights, weekends and holidays. If they do, they are so slow to react that by the time the info hits the radio tv and social media are already on it. Radio has given up its immediacy.
    2. Stations cannot be reached via phone or in person by local officials in an emergency because no one is there. Few stations have any plan in place to deal with this.
    3. The traditional training slots…..nights, weekends and over nights are now voice tracked. In many markets its every shift outside of mornings. The next generation of air personalities is not being developed. Today the only type of dj people aspire to be is a club dj.

    In my opinion these problems are the fault of the majority of companies doing radio today. When you operate with a vision that only sees the current quarter you get reactive not proactive. Doesn’t bode well for the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree there are poor operatirs out there. I am fortunate in that I work for a company whose operation is never unmanned…it’s a Newstalk operation wuth 2 music stations. We all can go live in an emergency, or simulcast at the flip of a switch. We train people first as board ops…and those that show aptitude and potential talent slowly gef more responsibility and eventually on air work. We also have 3 local area broadcasting programs at the college level and two great high school programs as well.

      Like

    • Mike, you said a mouthful. Thank You for sharing your perspective and wisdom.
      -DT

      Like

  8. Pingback: New technology: bad for radio? | radioinfo

  9. Mr. Taylor, let me tell you how I see it from my perspective as a longtime listener of radio: RADIO KILLED THE RADIO STAR. From 50+ years of listening to radio, I can not remember more than 2 or 3 personalities from “on air” and none of them would I make a schedule to listen to ever again. (I’m talking FM, non-sports/talk radio.) I grew up and went to school in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Wilmington DE., then worked in NYC and Los Angeles. So I got many of the biggest markets in my ears over time. Now I live in the upper midwest, in nowhere’sville. Who was the most-remembered on-air personality I ever encountered? Howard Stern. Who were the also-rans? … John Dabella from Philly… maybe Pierre Robert… the rest I heard in all other cities made NO dent on me; I can’t remember one of them aside from Danny Donaduce (because he was one of the Partridge Family) and Ryan Seacrest (because he ended up everywhere for unfathomable reasons). I consider myself an average listener, and between me and the 10,000 people I worked with and went to school with, the only radio name I EVER heard come off of someone’s lips was HOWARD STERN. (I listened to Stern in the 90s and was sick of him well before 2000.). So who killed the radio star? It’s easy to point upward at “bean counters” and managers and owners and God and anyone above the mic level of the biz, but honestly, the radio killers were the people behind the mics. NO TALENT. Sad to say it that bluntly, but they aren’t entertaining. They say silly, immature things these days, they speak in weird voices that make most people nauseous, and they get in the way of the entertainment (music). With the advent of the smart phone, listeners don’t really listen to radio for weather or news (some do, but not most). What do most people REALLY want from an FM station (non-news/sports station)? MUSIC, particularly new and interesting music that they can’t get from their own spheres of influence. Music, like iHeart. and other big broadcasters, have homogenized music so much that it is painful to listen to music out of the top 40–it all sounds alike, it doesn’t say much, it’s simplistic and routine, it lacks “heart and soul”. Country lost spunk and because Suburban. Add to that a McRadio programming format like iHeart makes, and everything in that mix makes radio a dull boy indeed. Now put in the “soul” of the station–the announcer/personality–who has very little entertainment or informative value, and you get mush. When the whip comes down, you know who is getting thrown; $40,000/yr. timex X-number of employees is a huge savings when the station hits hard times. It’s not that hard yet, outside of the big boys drowning in debt, but every $40,000/yr. air personality at a big station could buy the owner’s daughter a new low-end sports car.

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  10. Pingback: WHY does your LOCAL RADIO STATION SUCK? | WILLS NEWS

  11. It may be office environments that killed the radio star. I remember my first non-radio job after working in radio. I was in an office with the live and local top 40 station on for the entire workday. Literally no one paid attention to a word any of the DJs were saying. Not compelling enough? Maybe, but if everyone stops work to listen to the DJ, that station won’t be on in that workplace very long. That’s exactly why voice-tracking (and the 60s and 70s automated formats) worked and continues to work. Despite all of our hand-wringing, not that many people care about whether someone on the radio is live, local, in a distant city or just a pre-produced imaging voice.

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    • Thank You Brad for sharing that perspective about in-office radio listening. I know that places I go into these days either have a customized streaming audio product or SiriusXM. It’s harder to find regular OTA radio playing. I always stop to hear what different public locations are playing. I remember a time when it was just local radio stations. Back then I always wanted to know if it was my station they were playing.
      -DT

      Like

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