Radio’s History of Feeling Inferior

Family Listening to Golden Age of Radio“There are some things that will scare you so bad, that you will hurt yourself,” said Molly Ivins. And that’s exactly what I believe the radio industry has been doing to itself for most of its 100-year history.

The Golden Age of Radio

The first golden age of radio was during the 1930s and 40s, and was a period when over-the-air commercial radio was sewn into the fabric of American’s daily lives. It delivered the day’s news and provided entertainment to people struggling with the effects of the Great Depression and a second world war.

Here comes TV

Television was introduced to America at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with a live broadcast of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opening the fair on NBC’s experimental station W2XBS in New York City.Family Watching TV

Unfortunately, the development of television in America was halted by Japan bombing Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and bringing the United States into World War II.

When the war ended, there were only six television stations on the air in America, three in New York City, one in Chicago, one in Philadelphia and one in Schenectady, New York.

The number of television sets in use in 1946 were about 6,000, but by 1951 that number grew to over 12 million, and by 1955 half of all homes in the United States had a black and white television.

Radio’s Over Because of…

Radio’s inferiority complex began with television, and probably for good reason. Television stole radio’s prime time programs and right along with it, it’s listeners. Worse, radio’s big station owners and radio networks, CBS and NBC, would use radio’s revenues to fund the development of television stations and TV networks.

There were many who predicted that television would be the demise of radio broadcasting.

This was the first known case of “radio’s over because of…”

What’s Killing Radio, Let Me Count the Ways

I worked in the radio industry all of my professional life. Other than earning money as a professional musician early in my working life or as a Broadcast Professor at the end, radio has been my source of income and my love.

During that time, I would hear about the latest new technology that was going to put radio out of business.

  • TV was going to be the end of radio
  • FM was going to be the end of AM radio
  • CB Radios were going to be the end of commercial radio
  • 8-Track Tapes were going to be the end of home & car radio
  • Cassette Tapes were going to be the end of home & car radio
  • Compact Discs were going to be the end of home & car radio
  • MP3s were going to be the end of home & car radio
  • Satellite Radio was going to be the end of radio
  • The internet was going to be the end of radio
  • iPhones/iTunes were going to be the end of radio
  • Pandora & Spotify et al were going to be the end of radio
  • YouTube was going to be the end of radio

Have I missed any?

FCC Symposium Sees Radio Industry Challenged by Competition and Regulation

The FCC held a symposium at the end of 2019 to solicit things it needed to be addressing for the health of the radio industry. Fingers, by the invited panelists, were pointing in every direction, but at themselves.

The radio industry believes it can make itself better by more consolidation and less regulation. Yet when I look at the history of radio, its most successful years were during a time of intense regulation and severe ownership caps.

However, it amazes me that the only answer offered continues to be the same one, that to my eyes and ears, got the radio industry into this predicament in the first place.

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone.
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.

-Joni Mitchell

What’s Radio’s Real Problem?

radio signWhen television came along and took away radio’s people and programs that were attracting its large listening audience, it was forced to re-invent itself.

Radio dropped its block programming and began programming music. The transistor made radio portable. Radio personalities, promotions and new music made radio exciting to a whole new generation of listeners.

One of the people at the FCC’s symposium was Karen Slade, VP and GM of KJLH Radio in Los Angeles. Instead of the 30,000 foot view of radio’s current situation being shared by the radio owners and CEOs, she said she saw the problem from about ten floors above street level. She said her radio station had 500,000 listeners but that she was trying to reach more listeners through a variety of other platforms. My question is why?

For my entire radio career, I don’t think I ever managed even a cluster of radio stations that delivered that many total weekly listeners. Yet, my radio stations were very successful.

I managed a radio station in Atlantic City that had about a tenth of that many listeners and still delivered a million dollar bottom line to the stakeholders, plus we delivered results for our advertisers.

Radio’s real problem is not investing in what it already owns. Radio instead thinks the grass is greener in someone else’s media playground.

Smart Speakers

Forbes says smart speakers are the future of the audio. AM and FM radio is available via smart speakers, but so isn’t the entire world of audio content.

It’s estimated that smart speakers will be in 75% of American households in five years. Smart speaker reach had already passed a tipping point, before this past Christmas’ robust speaker sales, with 41% of American homes owning at least one of these devices.Child using Smart Speaker

So, what makes a smart speaker owner choose an AM or FM radio station’s content to listen to versus a pure play or even TV audio content? Let me use television as an example to demonstrate what I think matters.

Why does Stephen Colbert’s Late Show reach 3.1 million nightly viewers versus the 1.8 million viewers that both Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon combined reach? Each of these shows look pretty much the same on paper. The difference can be found in the personality that presents the various program elements.

Radio stations used to understand how important the air personality was to the success of the station and its revenues. Radio promoted its air personalities on billboards, buses, on TV, direct mail and in print.

George Johns wrote about the time he hired a competing air personality in his market and paid him to sit on the beach for a year to wait out his non-compete contract. At the end of the year, he put him on the air in morning drive on the radio station he owned and was rewarded with huge ratings and revenues.

When Larry Lujack moved between WCFL and WLS in Chicago, his listeners and revenue moved right along with him. They didn’t call Uncle Lar “Super Jock” for nothing.

Mel Karmazin knew that Howard Stern would change the fortunes of Sirius Satellite Radio when he hired him away from his over-the-air commercial radio network. While Howard and SiriusXM prospered, his former radio properties became a shadow of what they once were.

Everyone I know who ever fell in love with radio growing up, has stories about the radio personalities that they couldn’t live without. My students at the university told me they would listen to their hometown radio personalities on streams in their dorm rooms.

Sadly, it seems like every day I’m reading about tenured radio personalities being let go. The very people who spent years building an audience are disappearing.

As Molly Ivins saw so clearly, sometimes there are things that scare us so badly, we hurt ourselves.





Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio, Sales

11 responses to “Radio’s History of Feeling Inferior

  1. Mike Buxser

    Radio has lost its swagger. The if we can dream it, we can do it attitude that fueled radio. Instead we are left with unimaginative leadership who, instead of driving radio forward, seek the next big thing because to them radio isn’t good enough. Little investment is made in sales training, yet poorly trained and equipped radio sellers are expected to also sell digital platforms with little or no training. Gotta sell digital! Most radio station websites are weak and contain little unique content that makes listeners want to check them out. Very uninspiring. Gotta have a website! Trusted personalities are replaced with generic voice tracked shows, yet stations jump into pod casts screaming its all about content, but the content providers are victims of RIF. Gotta have podcasts! Little investment is made into the technical product, yet most stations stream. Gotta stream your stations! I’m not saying digital, web sites, pod casts and streaming aren’t important, but when when you destroy the core of the stations how can you expect the new platforms to be successful. You’re right Dick. The so called leaders of radio are scared, but even more they have little respect for the medium. What kind of results can be expected when the core of what made radio great has been replaced with the generic, uninspired and forgettable radio we’re hearing today. Very disappointing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Let’s see: Radio would kill the Victrola (“vinyl now outselling CDs); the Vixtrola wold kill the player piano (now playong in stores); the piano-forte would kill the harspchors (); the gun would kill the bow and slingshot (altho a crossbow and wrist roxket are comparably accurate & deadly); etc.


  3. Hal Widsten

    Now that the “reorganizations” have cut the crushing debt, there should be money to develop talent and bring back live on-air people. It seems that the will to do so isn’t there, even though the research says the audience wants them.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Back in 2010, it was discussed at NAB that local programming is what people were seeking. The problem is the bean counters who now own massively sized radio groups are not investing in talent. Automation rules and it is all about cutting costs and maximizing profits at the expense of great programming. Syndication is the norm with non-existent local programming in many markets other than morning drive. The quality of radio programming has suffered and the amount of time I hear dead air and cross-talk from problematic automation systems running two spots at a time is horrendous. Is it any wonder that people have migrated away to Spotify or Pandora for customized programming? They have left partly because of poor quality and nothing engaging or relevant in their marketplace. Radio can survive and rise like a Phoenix into a new, viable medium. This requires the proper vision by group owners. We need more radio people, not bean counters in charge. PEOPLE MADE RADIO and people will make it happen again – if anyone at the top is listening. The key word here for radio is LISTEN.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Dick – Your points about talent and content are well taken…especially at a time when the public has such choice. In the 70s there were 4,000 radio
    stations in America. Now there are 13,000+ and Sirius, Spotify, Pandora,
    Apple, Google, etc. The advertising budgets from the 70s (considering
    inflation) are about the same and are not growing except in digital . WLS could get 30% of the advertising pie with one station in the 60s/70s. Today Chicago has a lot more stations and it takes 4 or 5 stations to earn 30%. Nielsen impacts that where agencies are involved. IN smaller communities there are radio stations for every 3,000 people. Ideal to have the talent you espouse. Talent is always the key, but not all of the stations in a cluster will be competitive and some will be flankers. If there are 10 stations and ten owners, no one will survive. If there were three owners in the 70s and three stations, they competed and number 3 was struggling. Today if there are ten stations and three owners, number three is still struggling, but the public has more choice. I bet the number 1 group has the best talent and of course the best revenue. In most cases we have the same number of owners in a market as during the 70s, but one heckuva lot more stations spreading an advertising pie that is relatively about the same as the past. More stations has not changed that reality, plus we do have to be over the air and stream so we can be heard and compete on all devices now and to come. In these
    type discussions about talent it is seldom mentioned that the FCC has authorized a lot more stations over the years and it is an important fact to the economic health of our industry. Consolidation really happened because many of the owners who got stations in the late 80s (called the 80 – 90 ruling)
    became licensees but did not understand advertising or community service
    and failed. Many sold because they were failing or sold because it was not as easy as they thought and they could make a quick hit. It is still a great business and we can all have a lot of fun and make a difference in our communities. The business for large market/public companies is very different from those of us in smaller communities.
    Bud Walters

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Bud,

      I’ve written about the over-population of radio signals on this blog. One of the most read and commented on articles of 2019 was called “Too Much Is Not Enough” and I wrote: When we look at the number of these two additional classes of FM broadcasters, we find another 10,124 FM radio stations bringing the total number of FM signals on-the-air in America today to 21,013 FM radio stations. Over four and half times as many FM signals as AM signals.

      You can read the entire article here:

      In another one of my most read articles of 2019, I wrote about radio’s deregulation and its impact on the radio industry. That article was titled “What is the Purpose of a Radio Station?” You can read that article here:

      I truly appreciate you taking the time, out of your busy day, to write all you did and contribute to the discussion.

      Happy 100th Birthday Radio in 2020!


  6. Sorry Dick it took me till Thursday to read this week’s blog! IMHO, Wall Street is killing Radio. The corporate powers that be, in companies like Iheart, Cumulus, etc, need to keep the profits up and make Wall Street analysts happy. When you’ve rung all the profit out of your product you can, you next have to start making money on your employees. You cut their pay and benefits. You cut back the number of employees. You figure out how to cut costs in anyway possible. Pretty soon, your product suffers, but you keep cutting. Eventually, the bottom falls out because you have nothing left to cut, and now nobody’s listening anyway, so you sell infomercials to the worst of the worst…the best snake oil salesmen since the old west! Eventually you take a station that was #1 in America and hope to get a 1 in the ratings. At least that’s my take on what happened at a place I called home for 40 years!


    Liked by 1 person

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