Tag Archives: President Clinton

The Question Radio Itself Has Yet to Answer

86That was the subject of an email I received from a reader of my blog recently. The writer went on to eloquently state why he felt the way he did, even citing articles on the topic. He had my interest and I asked him if we could speak on the phone.

The BIG Question

This reader’s (who asked to be kept anonymous) big question was “What can radio do that other media can’t?”

And it’s a very good question.

In 2017 when many are using the internet for things that only radio could provide in the past, is radio’s future being the poor man’s smartphone, tablet or iPod when it could be more?

“NPR and SiriusXM, in addition to the new exploding podcast marketplace, have had no trouble creating personalities and programs,” but my reader writes “why does FM commercial radio continue to stick with playing the hits, past and present, at the expense of personalities, thinking it will make them money when the biggest radio companies have trouble paying off debts on the stations they seem to have paid too much for?”

Well it was a well-known fact all of my radio life that you make money in radio at the time you buy a radio station. Buying it right makes all the difference. And those big radio companies went on a buying spree using other people’s money (Wall Street) and it’s much like student loan debt, no one worries how much debt they’ve accumulated until they are asked to replay it.

Is Local Radio Local Anymore?

My reader quotes Westwood One’s Chief Insights Officer Pierre Bouvard from an AdExchanger interview as saying “A local radio station gives you traffic, sports, weather, great music, funny DJs and talks about your town,” he said. “Spotify has these robotic music playlists, which are awesome, but there’s no one telling you what happened at the Giants game last night.”

My reader says Pierre (who was my first Arbitron representative back in the 80s) makes a good point, but wonders if Pierre ever took the time to hear what passes for much of local radio these days. My reader feels that much of today’s FM radio stations do a combination of great music and robotic, Spotify-ish playlists, and relatively little in the way of “traffic, sports, weather…funny DJs and talk about your town” stuff.

Sadly, I’ve heard similar things said at radio meetings where the person starts off by saying “now don’t quote me on this, but…”

TELCOM Act of 1996

It was President Bill Clinton who signed the Telcom Act of 1996. That act was supposed to bring competition to the phone and cable television industries thereby lowering costs of each to the consumer. While that didn’t happen quickly (some might wonder if it ever did) it did cause the quick consolidation of the radio and TV industries. We went from a country where the largest radio operator could own 12AM-12FM-12TV stations to virtually whatever their pocketbook could afford. And with Wall Street Bankers waiting in the wings, what a company could afford was a lot.

Low Power FM & Translators

For the non-radio folks who read this blog, Low Power FM signals and Translator signals are virtually the same thing, with the exception being that Low Power FM stations originate programming and translators don’t. Both are received over the air on the FM radio dial. Both have increased the number of FM signals on-the-air in America today.

The latest FCC (Federal Communications Commission) report as of the end of December 2016 shows that there were 4,669 AM radio stations on the air in America. Over on the FM dial, 16,783 signals now beat the airwaves (FM, FM educational, translators and low power FM).

To put things in perspective, at a time in America’s radio history when the number of FM signals equaled the number of AM signals on the air, 75% of all radio listening was to FM. So you can only imagine what it’s like today.

93% of Americans 12+ are reached weekly by AM/FM radio says Nielsen.

So while the Telcom Act of 96 caused radio to consolidate under fewer owners who own more stations, adding to the signal overload was the advent of low power FM and translator signals. So much to program and no one home to do the work.

Enter computers, voice tracking, and syndication. This is same computer technology that is employed by Pandora, Spotify, Radio Tunes, SoundCloud and many others.

When TV Challenged Radio

In 1952 TV was born again. It was birthed just before World War II but the war years put broadcast radio/TV development on hold. After the war ended, things began to ramp up quickly for TV.

In 1953, Elmo Ellis was hired to fix 750AM – WSB in Atlanta. Ellis would write about “Removing the Rust from Radio Programming” for Broadcasting/Telecasting (now called Broadcasting and Cable magazine).

One of the points Mr. Ellis made was that a stack of records and a turntable do not a radio station make, though many broadcasters persisted in that very belief.

It was the very same philosophy I employed when I launched a “Music of YOUR Life” radio station. I felt that to be successful, you needed more than just Al Ham’s music list, you needed the personalities that complimented the music.

Both my reader and I are in complete agreement in that a radio station is more than just a song list.

Less Is More

The problem today is that with the “land rush” by broadcasters to own as many signals as they can, we have seen our country’s biggest broadcasters put themselves into a debt situation they cannot get out of and smaller broadcasters have signals and streams to manage but not the revenues to properly execute them.

If we go back to the beginning of broadcasting in America, we see that the FRC (Federal Radio Commission) that predated the current FCC felt that quality over quantity of radio stations should be the rule of measure. By limiting the number of stations, the FRC was attempting to insure the content of those stations on the air would be of the highest quality and also by limiting the number of stations; the advertising revenue that is the life blood of free over-the-air radio could be sustained.

What Can Radio Do That Other Media Can’t?

This brings me back to the question my reader originally posed and asked me to answer.

But before I do, I’m going throw that question out to my other readers – to date over 80,000 from all over the world – to weigh in with their thoughts.

What do you feel radio can do that other media can’t?

Is any radio station you know of doing it right now?

Is this a sustainable future for over-the-air radio?

I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

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The Day the “Dumbest Idea” Invaded the Radio Industry

shareholder valueLast week I wrote about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. It was my way of comparing the Aesop fable to the world of American radio. It got a lot of discussion. But I felt that while I touched on how radio operators twenty years ago wanted to harvest all the golden eggs immediately versus waiting to get one each day, by virtue of a last minute insertion into the Telcom Act of 1996 that basically removed the ownership caps on radio, there was – as Paul Harvey used to intone – ‘the rest of the story’ to be told.

The rest of the story involves “the dumbest idea.” I grew up about a decade after World War Two ended. This was the period when America enjoyed an extended period of economic growth and a shared prosperity. By “shared prosperity” I mean it was a time when the workers who produced a product or service shared in the profits produced by the company. Managers and workers would see their income grow together. As everyone’s pay increased, there was more discretionary income to spend. This was the rise of the middle class in America. All boats were rising with the economic tide.

In 1968, I started on-the-air at one of my hometown radio stations while in the 10th grade in high school. I was paid the minimum wage; $1.60 per hour. Did you know that 1968 was the year when someone making the minimum wage had the most buying power for that rate of pay? The equivalent in 2012 dollars is $10.34 per hour. So what happened?

Somewhere in the 1970s things changed. Firms began to focus on themselves. The productivity gains produced by the workers were no longer shared with the workers. Since no one complained, this new way of doing business continued.

The 1980s really saw this new operational style take hold. And as it did, incomes for the middle class stagnated. When the middle class incomes stop growing, the ramifications on the rest of the economy are magnified. Workers no longer have discretionary income to spend. This was initially covered up by women entering the workforce producing two wage-earner incomes. Then when that ran its course, credit cards, second mortgages would keep the party going under false pretenses.

Today we are in a vicious cycle of decline.

What changed in the 1970s was a new idea about what metric should be used to measure the success of a business. Before this new idea was born, Peter Drucker’s measure was the rule. The purpose of a business, said Drucker, was to create a customer. But that went out with leisure suits, the new crop of business wizards would proclaim. What replaced it was something that even GE’s Jack Welch has called “the dumbest idea in the world.”

What was this dumb idea? Increasing shareholder value.

In an effort to offset declining profits and performance, a new operating modus operandi was conceived that the purpose of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value. To make sure the captains of industry got the message, boards of directors would change their compensation packages to cause these business leaders to focus on increasing the company’s stock price. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything!

The concept was embraced by both America’s business schools as well as industry. Unfortunately, the new policy not only didn’t solve the problem it was supposed to address but by unintended consequences created a myriad of new problems no one foresaw.

Tell me if any of these “unintended consequences” sound familiar to you: short-term decision making, relentless cost cutting, staff reductions (RIFs), less investment in the business, virtually no innovation, low workforce morale, no raises in pay, reduced benefits, non-stop mergers, increased debt, lost ability to compete, declining R.O.I., and economic stagnation. I’m sure you can add to this list based on your own experiences. For a more detailed look at this, you should read Steve Denning’s “Why ‘The System’ Is Rigged And The U.S. Electorate Is Angry,” the inspiration behind today’s blog post.

So twenty years ago, in 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Telcom Act of 1996. This would bring “the dumbest idea in the world” to the radio industry. Wall Street jumped into the new shiny investment opportunity; radio. Everything that every other industry was experiencing from this new operational style was now rearing its ugly head in the broadcasting industry. All with the same negative impacts.

Not all organizations adopted this dumb idea of operating. They stuck with Drucker’s rule. And it’s the same with the radio industry. The smaller radio operations do operate differently. Their success has others sitting up and taking notice.

However, most organizations – and not just in broadcasting – are still in denial. The evaporating middle class is not good for an industry that lives off of advertising. Advertising is pitched to the masses who are the consumers that drive over seventy percent of the American economy. I wrote about the future of ad supported media last year after I read Thomas Piketty’s book “Capital in the 21st Century.” You can read that blog post here.

Based on the tumultuous presidential election season we’ve seen so far, it would appear that the American society has awakened and is now “as mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.” Cue Howard Beal here.

Steve Denning writes: “We are now at an ‘emperor has no clothes’ moment.” It’s now clear that this way is not working and is not only leading to systemic value destruction but an economy that no longer works for the middle class.

If we’ve ever needed real leadership in America, it’s now — and from all directions.

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