Tag Archives: Telcom Act of 1996

Great Expectations

OR FMI read with great interest the five part series by Matt Bailey on “The Alexa Effect.” In the 5th and final installment Matt shared what he called the “radio weapon Spotify will never have.” What is it? The radio personality. He wrote:

 

  • “A radio personality can tell you the backstory of a breakthrough artist that makes you want to hear her work.”

  • “A radio personality can point out that crazy line in the second verse to stay tuned to hear.”

  • “A radio personality can engage you to smash or trash a song on the station’s social media.”

  • “A radio personality can give you the chance to be among the very first to hear a new song by a star artist.”

“A radio personality can add context that will make listeners excited to hear a song that otherwise would simply be weird and unfamiliar. It’s a deeply personal and emotionally engaging weapon no algorithm can match. When we stifle their voices and their role in introducing new music simply to avoid potential tune-out, we might win a few tenths of a point in the PPM battle, but we will lose the new music war to Spotify.”

Consolidation & Voice Tracking

I don’t disagree with Matt, but I lived through the ramifications of the Telcom Act of 1996 and the consolidation of radio stations, along with the rollout of voice tracking.

Clear Channel called it “Premium Choice,” and we were told it would replace our local personalities with big market talent.

I watched in market after market as radio personalities, who were like members of the radio listener’s family, were sent to the unemployment lines. Relationships that took years, even decades to establish, wiped out in an instant.

Early Media Expectations

I grew up at a time when the family television set received a signal from a couple of antennas on the roof. We had two channels, which meant we received two television networks, CBS and NBC. If you wanted to change the channel, you had to get off the couch and change it. There was no remote control.

Our radios had both the AM and FM bands, but I remember wondering why. I often scanned the entire FM band to hear nothing at all with only the AM band picking up radio signals.

My early media expectations were two TV channels and AM radio stations. The radio provided a lot more variety, plus I had a radio in my room and our family had a single TV located in the living room. I controlled my radio, my parents controlled the family TV.

Media Expectations Change

In time, I would come to expect television to be in color, to be connected to a cable and have a remote control to easily change the multitude of channels I could now receive, from the comfort of my couch.

Radio would expand to the FM band and a whole new type and style of radio was born. The one thing that connected AM and FM radio was the radio personality. Every station had them and the decision to listen to one station over another was because of the radio personality.

In fact, I wrote an article on the power of the radio personality back in 2015 entitled “We Never Called It Content.”

I wrote this article after reading about the latest round of “forced retirements” in the radio industry.

And if you thought this type of downsizing was only occurring in large radio metros, the movie “Corporate FM” told the story of how in the 80s, ninety percent of mass media in America was owned and controlled by about fifty different companies, but after the Telcom Act of 1996 it was down to just six corporations.

New Media Brings New Expectations

Let’s fast-forward to today. I cut the cord on cable TV two years ago and all of my television viewing is streamed. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sling TV and YouTube provide me with more hours of television entertainment and information than I could ever have time to watch, and I’m retired.

Amazon Echo provides me with all of my audio entertainment and I do mix it up between stations via TuneIn and the pureplays like Pandora and Amazon Music.

I also read a lot and subscribe to several online newsletters that all link to the original source of the material.

Which leads me to this conclusion, my calendar age did not cement my media habits. They’ve been fluid all of my life.

My 21st Century Great Expectations

  • I expect NPR to open up my world to things I should be aware of, that I might not have been. I expect them to also provide me with more depth to the stories in the news. I expect them to have all of this posted online for almost immediate access. They don’t disappoint.
  • I expect my television viewing to be On Demand and commercial free.
  • I expect my music listening to match my mood and be there by simply asking Alexa to play my favorite channels when I want to hear them.
  • Finally, I expect I’m not alone in these “21st Century Great Expectations.”

Rewound Radio DJ Hall of Fame

On Saturdays, I enjoy asking Alexa to play Rewound Radio so I can hear another fabulous radio personality featured in the weekly “DJ Hall of Fame.” The other weekend they featured WOR-FM out of New York City and the air personality was Johnny Donovan. OR-FM air checks are all in stereo and the music mix has plenty of variety. It was a time when Music Radio 77 – WABC dominated the world’s airwaves on the AM band. But the one thing I notice in these weekly trips down memory lane is how integral the radio personality was in the total program. They were a constant companion. They really were radio’s “secret weapon” to attracting faithful listeners.

The question I ponder often is, was this period of radio history akin to the vaudeville period of theater. It filled the right hole at the right time but won’t ever be coming back again.

I welcome your thoughts.

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You’re Not Talking to Me

DAKRSkVkQwumvq7Zd9aTUwI sat on a webinar the other day and when it ended the first thought that crossed my mind was, they’re not talking to me. Their demographics in the study capped at 55-years of age. Really? No one over 55 matters to radio or to radio advertisers?

65+ People

Then I read this World Economic Forum article that was headlined, “For the first time ever there are more people over 65 than under 5.” Think about that for a moment. Economists point out there’s widespread consequences for productivity, inflation and global growth by this demographics shift, to which I would add, consider the impact on ad supported media.

65+ People are Renters

While millennials are buying homes – if they aren’t weighed down with student loan debt and minimum wage level jobs – seniors are becoming renters. People 65+ are empty nesters and find they simply don’t need a McMansion and all the work/expense that goes into living in one. I know that’s certainly been the case for me when I sold my home in 2003. I have been a renter since. Renting is much more economical than owning.

Market Watch reports that Americans will find they will need to spend nearly $9,400 in “hidden costs” to own and care for a median-priced home, based on the latest analysis from Zillow.

Millennials Abandon Brick & Mortar Stores

Tethered to their smartphones and comfortable with buying online, those millennials aren’t necessarily the best customers for their advertisers that radio might have thought.

Millennials are the largest generation in American history, and their shopping habits are worlds away from those of their parents. Thanks to the rapid pace of digitalization and new shopper-friendly tools, like browser extensions and voice assistants, retailers must be ready to embrace significant change.

PR Newswire, March 19, 2019

Only 18-months ago, research indicated that millennials were still going to brick & mortar stores, but that’s changed dramatically, and in a very short time. You can download the full report HERE.

$164.55 a Day

Jessica Dickler reporting on CNBC writes, “Between housing, food, cellphone bills and other expenses, Americans shell out $164.55, on average, in a given day.” Punching that number into my calculator, I quickly saw that’s over $60,000/year, but averages are funny things and you can be sure ‘your mileage may vary.’

Putting that number aside for a moment, we find that the bulk of that money is spent on housing. That fabled ‘American Dream’ can be a boat anchor on the pocketbook.

While seniors are moving from being home owners to renters, you might be surprised to learn how similar the senior household expenses are to the average household according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Item

Food
Furniture
Major Appliances
Small Appliances
Household Textiles
Apparel
Transportation
New Vehicles
Old Vehicles
Health Care
Drugs
Entertainment
Insurance
Other ExpensesTotal
Senior Household

$13,432
​$401
​$196
​$88
​$113
​$1,640
​$7,781
​$2,052
​$1,611
​$2,416
​$467
​$2,060
​$4,055
​$4,093$40,817
Avg.  Household

$14,403
$460
​$200
​$81
​$108
​$1,870
$8,354​
​$2,055
​$1,904
​$1,758
​$266
​$2,142
​$4,505
​$3,956​$42,631

Source: Advertising Age’s American Demographics, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure survey. (1) Includes social security contribution (excludes health insurance, which is classified as health-care expense).

Not all that different, is it.

And far from that other analysis of the average adult spending over $60,000 a year. So why aren’t more radio companies focusing at least one of their radio signals on seniors?

Retirement Epiphany

All my life, the focus was on planning for and saving for retirement. I’d like to say I did everything right, but the reality is far from that.

The great wealth destroyers are divorce, moving and changing jobs.

In my personal life, I’ve gone through two divorces. As the radio industry was dramatically changed by the Telcom Act of 1996, I would spend a decade moving around the country about every two years. That communications act also found me changing companies with just about every move too.

The final chapter of my working life, as a university professor of broadcasting, gave me seven years of stability and an opportunity to save as much as I could for retirement.

Now I’m retired. The goal is no longer to save for retirement, but to spend in retirement. My wife and I are in good health and taking zero medications, which affords us the opportunity to spend on our new found passion of traveling. Spoiling the grandkids, eating out, and redecorating are also high on our list of things to do. I’m sure we’re not alone.

The irony is, the radio media seem to ignore us. And they do so at their peril.

We’re retired, not dead.

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Thinning the Herd

Thinning the HerdGordon Borrell recently hosted a webinar that hit on the highlights of his #LOAC2019 (Local Advertising Conference) held in New York City. The shocker, for me and many others came when Gordon said the future for media expenditures would be a process of “thinning the herd.”

Media Overpopulation

To put things in perspective, Gordon shared how an over-populated media landscape is impacting local advertisers.

  • 1,300 daily newspapers, 6,500 weeklies
  • 4,700 printed directory books
  • 4,665 AM radio stations, 6,757 commercial FM radio stations
  • 1,760 Class A TV stations
  • More than 1,000 cable systems with local sales staffs
  • 660,000 podcasts were actively produced in 2018
  • 495 NEW TV shows were introduced last year in addition to what’s already on
  • PLUS, local ad sales are taking place on Facebook, Google and Amazon

Another way of looking at this media explosion, is that a TV market now has an average of 126 local media entities. To view a recording of the webinar, contact Corey Elliott HERE

Action – Reaction

So, how are the people who buy advertising responding to this media abundance?

Gordon identified three trends:

  • They are increasing buying for types of media, from 5.5 to 8 different ones
  • They are decreasing the number of companies from which they buy advertising, from 5 to 3.5 companies
  • 90% of their media buys are being made with companies who can bundle traditional and digital advertising

Facebook – Google – Amazon

When a new Ollie’s store opened in Winchester, Virginia, my Facebook newsfeed was peppered with announcements. During the fall elections, politicians also used lots of Facebook ads to try and get elected.

I can’t go on Google or Amazon looking for something without being followed around the internet with ads for that very thing.

eMarketer says that in 2018, Google and Facebook took 60% of the total digital ad spend. Amazon was third with 6.8% but is predicted to grow it’s share by more than 50% in 2019.

Think about that, these three companies will rake in over 68% of the digital advertising dollars spent this year.

eMarketer also says that by 2023, they expect digital advertising to account for 66% of total media spend.

Post-Capitalist Society

About ten years ago, my good friend John Parikhal recommended I read Peter Drucker’s book “Post -Capitalist Society.” Wikipedia summarizes Drucker’s thesis this way:

“The book states that the “First World Nations” and in particular the United States have entered a Post-capitalism system of production where the capital is no longer present because it doesn’t belong to one person or family but to a series of organizations such as insurance companies, banks, etc. Because of this, normal citizens become virtually owners of the great American enterprises, being owners of the capital, therefore, not destroying but overcoming the capitalism. The book foresees that the post-capitalist society will become a society of organizations where every organization will be highly specialized in its particular field.”

Sound like what we are witnessing in today’s world?

Accountable Capitalism Act

Recently, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill in Congress called the “Accountable Capitalism Act.” It targets what Warren says is the root of the country’s “fundamental economic problems.” You can read the Boston Globe story on the bill HERE

In essence, we have moved from a time when corporations cared about where they lived to one where only increasing shareholder value matter.

I remember a time when the insurance companies of Hartford, Connecticut were once heavily invested in the good of Hartford. I grew up in a GE city. General Electric made a positive impact on things and participated in growth and prosperity of the area.

In the 1980s, things changed. Corporations shifted from caring about both employees and investors, to only investors. The record profits went all to investors, and the people who worked hard to produce those profits didn’t get a share of them.

Increasing Shareholder Value

I first wrote about how the concept of “increasing shareholder value” was a dumb idea three years ago. You can read that article HERE

Real American capitalism was when both company and worker did well together.

Senator Warren has also raised many eyebrows with another plan that proposes to break up some of the largest US tech companies, like Amazon, Google and Facebook. Based on the trends in digital advertising, those of us in broadcasting would probably agree with Warren.

In essence, Warren says that high tech has created an unfair playing field. They control the platform, have full access to all the data, and then can either unfairly compete with companies, buy them out entirely or run them out of business. It reminds me of the type of things people said as Walmart covered America with their form of brick & mortar retailing.

Get Bigger or Get Out

Cox Media has recently begun liquidating its radio, television, newspaper and other media properties. The company’s leadership has determined that scale will be a determining factor in the future, and they either need to get bigger or get out. Cox has chosen the latter.

Current Trends

It would appear that in reading the tea leaves for ad supported media, that everything is currently headed in the direction of fewer entities owning all the media outlets, and advertisers buying their media on those platforms that can bundle it all together.

“Monopolies are a corruption of the marketplace. Breaking them up — allow[s] entrepreneurs to enter the market, giving consumers more choices, and giv[es] workers more jobs…”

-Adam Green, cofounder, Progressive Change Campaign Committee

I know there are many radio folks who saw the Telcom Act of 1996 as the beginning of the end of commercial radio as we knew it. That act is what caused Wall Street to enter the broadcasting business and apply their dumb idea of “increasing shareholder value” to another industry. It was the beginning of the consolidation of radio and we all know how that’s turned out.

 

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Is Radio Biting Off More Than It Can Chew?

caravelle radio broadcast stationThere are lots of items in the news these days about what the radio industry should be doing. Streaming, podcasting, smart speaker accessible etc. The one thing I hear little talk about is, improving the core product and focusing on what the listener is seeking.

The Radio Ecosystem

If you think about it, the radio ecosystem, AM/FM radios, have not seen any real changes in decades. Oh, there was the introduction of HD Radio – introduced around the same time as Apple introduced the iPod (R.I.P. 2001-2014), but listeners never really understood the need for it. HD Radio was embraced by commercial broadcasters when they learned they could feed analog FM translators from HD Radio signals and have more FM radio stations in a single marketplace. This was hardly listener focused and actually chained the radio ecosystem to old analog technology.

What IS Radio?

In the beginning, radio was a way to wirelessly communicate with other people using Morse Code on spark gap transmissions. Guglielmo Marconi built a radio empire on this technology.

David Sarnoff, a skilled Morse Code operator and a Marconi employee envisioned a “radio music box” and wrote a memo about developing a commercially marketed radio receiver for use in the home. It wasn’t until after World War I, when Sarnoff proposed the concept again, this time in his new position as general manager of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), that it would see the light of day.

Sarnoff would demonstrate the power of radio by broadcasting a boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. In just three years, RCA sold over $80 million worth of AM radios, and not soon after created the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).

Federal Radio Commission

America’s first attempt at regulating radio transmission was the Radio Act of 1912, that was enacted after the sinking of the Titanic. This law didn’t mention or envision radio broadcasting.

As radio broadcasting began to grow in the 1920s, then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover would begin the process of trying to regulate the limited spectrum that everyone now wanted a piece of.

The Radio Act of 1927 was America’s first real attempt at regulating radio broadcasting. The Federal Radio Commission (FRC) was then formed by this act.

It should be noted that the FRC operated under the philosophy that fewer radio stations, that were well funded and provided live original programs, were better for America than a plethora of radio stations providing mediocre programming. It was an idea that the major radio receiver companies championed.

Federal Communications Commission

In 1934, the Congress took another attempt at regulating broadcasting (radio & TV) as well as all the other forms of communication that now existed. The Communications Act of 1934 created a new regulatory body called the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). By 1934, radio broadcasting had evolved into a highly profitable business. Broadcast educator, Fritz Messere, writes: “Many of the most powerful broadcasting stations, designated as ‘clear channels’ were licensed to the large broadcasting or radio manufacturing companies, and the Federal Radio Commission’s adoption of a rigid allotment scheme, under General Order 40, solidified the interests of the large Broadcasters.”

The biggest and most well-funded broadcasters have been favored since the very beginning. What kept things in check until 1996 was the limit on the number of AM, FM and TV stations a single company could own.

Telcom Act of 1996

Those limits would evaporate with President Clinton’s signing of the Telcom Act of 1996. Radio, as America had known it, would be over.

Now, for the most part, a single owner could own as many radio stations as their pocketbook could afford. Lowry Mays and Red McCombs, founders of Clear Channel Communications, would grow their portfolio of radio stations to over 1200 from the 43 radio stations they owned before the act was signed.

In 2003, Mays testified before the United States Senate that the deregulation of the telecommunications industry had not hurt the public. However, in an interview that same year with Fortune Magazine, he remarked, “We’re not in the business of providing news and information. We’re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.” (Mckibben, Bill (2007). Deep Economy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. p. 132.)

Radio Zoning The FCC is now considering whether to further loosen up the ownership limits of radio and TV stations in America. FCC Attorney John Garziglia recently wrote:

“If radio stations could be erected like fast-food establishments and grocery stores, with no numerical limits imposed other than a businessperson’s risk tolerance, it would be difficult to argue for FCC-imposed ownership limits on radio. Indeed, a regulatory agency enacting numerical limitations on restaurants and grocery stores would likely not pass legal muster.

But there are widely-enacted municipal limitations on just about every type of local business. The limitations are called “zoning” – the permitting or prohibiting of certain uses in certain areas to protect the character of the community.

The FCC’s radio ownership rules can be thought of as a kind of radio zoning. In the same way as land-use zoning protects a community’s character, the FCC’s ownership rules permit or prohibit certain radio station combinations protecting the amorphous concept of the public interest.

With land-use zoning, communities maintain a distinct character, livability, aesthetic, and economic success by not bowing exclusively to the profit motive of land developers. Allowing several or fewer owners to own virtually all of the radio stations in the country would doom the specialness of our radio industry.”

 

I think John makes some excellent points and I would encourage you to read his complete article HERE.

Biting Off More…

Radio operators today can’t properly staff and program the stations they already own. What makes them think that will change if they own even more of them? Most radio stations are nothing more than a “radio music box” run off a computer hard drive, an OTA (over-the-air) Pandora or Spotify.

Former Clear Channel CEO, John Hogan, introduced the “Less Is More” concept when I worked for the company. While it actually introduced more on-air clutter, not less, the idea was neither new or wrong.

If owning more radio stations was the answer in 1996, then why in 2018 are we worse off than we were then?

Why was Jerry Lee able to own a single station in Philadelphia and dominate that radio market?

Why are many locally owned and operated radio stations some of the healthiest and most revered in America today?

Radio not only needs zoning on the number of radio stations a single owner can control in a market, but the total number of radio station on-the-air in a market. And it needs radio stations that are neglected to be condemned like property owners who let their land go to seed.

The FRC wasn’t perfect, but the concept of “less is more” served America well for many decades. Fewer radio stations that provided high quality, live programming, operating in the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity’ and by virtue of that diversity of ownership, provided diversity of voice and opinions, as well as healthy competition.

 

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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.

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“Corporate FM”

corporate fmKansas City Filmmaker Kevin McKinney originally released his movie “Corporate FM” in 2012, but unless you lived near a community that was screening the film or attended a film festival where it was being shown, you probably never saw it. Or even heard of it.

Amazon Prime

After re-editing the film in 2015 to reflect updates and changes in commercial radio since 2012, McKinney decided it was time to let more people access the information he covered in the film and just released it on Amazon Prime. (Here’s the LINK ) “Corporate FM” explores the consolidation of radio after the Telcom Act of 1996 and how big corporations with the help of Wall Street and private equity firms swallowed up the radio industry in America.

February 1996

I remember the day that President Bill Clinton signed the Telcom Act of 1996 into law. Clinton signs Telcom Act of 1996It was supposed to provide competition between the phone companies and the cable companies with the goal to increase services and reduce prices to the consumer.

Inserted into the bill at the 11th hour were two paragraphs that would change the radio industry forever.

In the film, Robert McChesney, Professor of Communication Studies, University of Illinois points out that commercial media lobbyists, without a single public hearing or any public debate, would insert these paragraphs and open up the consolidation floodgates for radio/TV. Politicians would later say they didn’t know what they were voting for. Even President Clinton would say that he didn’t know that those two paragraphs had been added before he signed the bill into law.

Cumulus and Clear Channel

As the McKinney film told the story of the rise of Cumulus and Clear Channel, it reminded me of my time with both of those companies.

In Waterloo, Iowa I was running the #1, #2 and #3 radio stations. When Cumulus took them over, John Dickey showed up at the stations and proceeded to tell all of us gathered in the station’s conference room what our new logos would look like, what our new jingle packages would sound like, who our new station voice guys would be, how our playlist would be compiled, who are new consultants were etc. To say we were all stunned would be an understatement.

Then later when I was working for Clear Channel (after the Bain/Lee takeover, but before it became iHeartMedia) in Sussex, New Jersey, we received a survey from corporate asking us how local decisions were made about branding, marketing, promotions, music and the like. I assume a similar survey was sent to every market cluster inside Clear Channel.

When the results were tabulated at HQ, we then received directives that no longer would those types of decisions be made on the local level. Local radio had changed.

Local Bands

Growing up, local radio was a way for local bands to get exposure and grow their audience. “Corporate FM” tells the story of how Jewel became a national artist being discovered by local radio and played on-the-air in San Diego.

In fact, it was seeing a drop in attendance at live shows that got McKinney to wondering what was happening, and giving birth to his movie about the consolidation/corporatization of the radio industry.

I know a local band here in Winchester, Virginia “Sons of Liberty.” They play all over the Shenandoah Valley and beyond. They have a CD that Rob McKenzie of Fireworks Magazine spoke glowingly about. Where you won’t hear the “Sons of Liberty” music is on the radio.

Oh, they’ve been heard on an FM radio station (98 Rock) out of Harrisonburg, Virginia on their Sunday night “Wet Paint” show that starts at 11pm. But as “Corporate FM” points out it takes repetition to have an audience become familiar with anything, and for someone to decide they like it, or don’t. Radio used to provide that type of exposure and then monitor audience reaction to see if the record was a hit or a miss. (Remember features like “Champ & Challenger?”)

Sneak Preview

ABC Radio Networks used to air a feature hosted by WABC’s Chuck Leonard called “Sneak Preview.” The network would call affiliates of the ABC Contemporary Radio Network to get their hottest new song and then play it to a nationwide audience. I remember being at WBEC in Pittsfield, Massachusetts when we told Chuck that our hottest new song was “Tracy by The Cufflinks.” He told us he had a terrible time trying to find a copy of the song in New York City.  But Chuck Leonard did find it and it played over the ABC network to a national audience. That was how radio made the hits.

Fifty to Six

“Corporate FM” tells how in the 80s ninety percent of mass media in America was owned and controlled by about fifty different companies, but after the Telcom Act of 1996 it was down to just six corporations.

“Most radio studios are completely empty after 7pm and for the entire weekend.

They set the phone lines to “busy” so callers will believe that someone is there.”

-Slide shown in film

Big N Rich

The popular country recording artists “Big N Rich” addressed the FCC in Memphis, Tennessee. They told the commissioners that one person in a corporate office today can dictate what 35, 55, or 100 stations play.

“Let’s say an artist puts out a song with a political viewpoint and that corporate person says I don’t believe in that position so we’re not going to play that record (Dixie Chicks?). One guy can affect what 30 million people get to hear.

That’s censorship.”

-John Rich

Fatherly Advice

Dick Fatherly says “the broadcasters have become the victims, and the winners are – who do you think? -Goldman Sachs.”

Josh Kosman, who wrote the book “The Buyout of America” put it this way: “Private equity took the radio business that was doing pretty well and gutted it.”

Josh has studied how private equity has impacted all industries in America. He used a simple example to explain the difference between you or I buying a house and a private equity firm buying a business doing a leverage buyout (LBO).

When we buy a house, we put down say 30% as a down payment and then take out a mortgage for the 70% balance.

When private equity buys a radio station, they make a small down payment and then the radio station they’re buying takes on the debt for the balance, leaving the radio station with crushing new debt.

The private equity companies then charge management and other fees, making back their down payment money, and a whole lot more. So, it’s zero risk to them.

It reminds me of the guys on the Atlantic City Boardwalk who used to entice you to let them guess your weight and if they got it wrong you won a prize. The only way those guys lost is if you didn’t pay them to guess your weight. For if they got your weight right, they gave you nothing and if they got your weight wrong, they gave you a prize that was valued less than what you paid them to play the game.

“Financial deals allow the corporate owners to keep their stations after bankruptcy.

This prevents local owners from reviving local radio.”

-Slide shown in the film

For those who hold out hope that if/when the big corporate entities fail, and it will return radio to local operators once more, that slide should send a chill down your spine.

America’s bankruptcy laws now favor the debtor in the corporate world.

Conclusion

This is probably a film that many will miss and that’s unfortunate. It’s only a little over an hour in length. It’s well worth your time.

For this is a film not just about what happened to the radio industry but what is happening to our way of life, in industry after industry. This modus operandi is being repeated today.

The people in the film offer their ideas for making radio great again.

I won’t spoil that for you, so you’ll have to watch the film.

Some of the statements made by various participants have since been proven wrong from the time the film was shot. Some of the statements are also inaccurate in terms of how today’s FCC license renewals can be challenged.

In all fairness, many people are still believing that the way it was, is the way it still is. Only it isn’t. Those laws have been changed by corporate lobbyists too.

I hope you will watch the film “Corporate FM” and then post your comments here on DickTaylorBlog dot com.

Note: Don’t have Amazon Prime, you can rent this movie for $2.99

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Fail. Forward. Fast.

Success FailureIf there is one thing that both college professors and college students have in common, is that they both hate to fail. Professors never want to see their students fail. And students fear failing on many levels.

But failure is a necessary part of success.

Tom Peters

In my sales classes, I showed a short video clip of Tom Peters sharing his favorite slide from his huge slide deck. It reads:

Fail. Forward. Fast.

(“Reward Excellent Failures, Punish Mediocre Successes.”)

Nobody wins by playing it safe.

Nobody learns either.

Woody Allen

Woody cut his creative teeth during the Golden Age of Television writing for Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows.”

Woody learned “if you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”

Radio Innovation

When I was growing up, the radio dial was a cornucopia of innovation.

Every radio station was original and unique.

Sunset would open up the skywave for AM radio listening and I would tune in great radio stations like WKBW from Buffalo, WLS & WCFL from Chicago, CKLW from Windsor-Ontario, Canada and many, many more.

Each of them was unique, a part of their community and provided great companionship.

Then radio began to copy one another.

Imitation, while maybe the sincerest form of flattery, lacks innovation.

Best Practices

With the passage of the Telcom Act of 1996, the radio industry began to rapidly consolidate.

The concept of “Best Practices” would further stifle experimentation and failure by trying to lay a safe, secure foundation for every radio station in these expanding companies to follow.

The new publicly funded corporations quickly learned that funding, not innovation was the way to grow larger. Money gets invested in business models that are familiar.

That’s why the movie industry cranks out so many sequels when they find a hit film.

Failure leads to Innovation

Thomas Edison when asked how it felt to fail 1,000 times inventing his light bulb responded “I didn’t fail 1, 000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.”

Walt Disney is said to have gone bankrupt a couple of times before he became a successful innovator.

In other words, we can learn, grow and become better from our failures.

Radio’s New Heroes’

I’m confident that new blood is flowing into the radio industry that will quickly discard things that aren’t working, try new ideas, innovate and fail, forward, fast.

Everything in life brings risk.

It’s true that you risk failure if you try something bold

because you might miss it.

But you also risk failure if you stand still and don’t try anything new.”

-John C. Maxwell

 

 

 

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