When I learned last spring that protesters were organizing demonstrations at the September convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in Seattle, I knew I should be there. The NAB-backed deregulation of the radio industry in 1996 helped sink the small but legendary radio trade magazine I worked at earlier this year, so I had a lot of time on my hands.
And I wasn't alone. As managing editor of Gavin magazine, I knew many of the program directors, music directors, promotions directors and on-air talent who had been handed their headphones and shown the door in the last six years -- 10,000 radio-related jobs lost in total, according to one estimate.
I was angry, but not just about being laid off. The consolidation of the radio business in the hands of a very few, powerful corporate owners has devastated the quality of commercial radio. Every year, radio programming is produced with smaller and smaller budgets by fewer and fewer people with more and more smoke and mirrors: cookie-cutter music formats, overuse of syndication, tighter, more repetitive playlists filled with inferior songs, one programming staff operating a cluster of stations and commercial breaks that never seem to end.
The National Association of Broadcasters' radio convention was booked into the Washington State Convention and Trade Center -- the same place the World Trade Organization had its ill-fated 1999 meeting. Calling the NAB "The WTO of broadcasting," activists created their own counter-event at nearby venues, complete with demonstrations, panel discussions, rock bands and keynote speaker.
So I thought I would go and stick my nose in. Find out what tear gas smells like. I wanted to shake my fist at the people who ruined radio for the rest of us. The problem is, I'm not huge into confrontation. So instead, I got a press pass. I didn't shout or perform radical street theater, but rather nodded my head in agreement as the activists spoke, and then booked back up Pike Street to the convention to talk with the suits and drink free martinis prepared by Hooters girls.
I was curious: Radio is in big trouble, and the demise of my beloved Gavin in March was only the tip of the iceberg. Did radio executives or NAB staffers know what they had done to radio? Did they hear the growing groundswell of protest, even faintly, whether it be coming from the streets or Capitol Hill? Or was it just business as usual, full speed ahead, to a world where Clear Channel rules all, and "local radio" is just a joke? The Telecommunications Act of 1996 reduced the restrictions on how many radio stations a single company could own, setting off an unprecedented wave of consolidation, led by the accumulation of more than 1,200 stations under the ownership of Clear Channel. The death of Gavin offers a perfect example of how that kind of consolidation can have adverse effects.
Consolidation brought with it massive cost-cutting as a few big companies, led by Clear Channel, sought to boost their rates of return by spending as little as possible. The ensuing layoffs gutted Gavin's subscription base. Further actions by Clear Channel helped to finish the job.
Clear Channel "only" owns 1,200 radio stations, a measly 11 percent of the 11,000 commercial radio stations in the country. But in this industry, 11 percent is hegemony. As the single largest radio group by far, it has tremendous power.
For example, "Cheap Channel's" famous penchant for saving money led it to put out an official edict that it was no longer going to pay for travel expenses for employees to attend Gavin's influential annual seminar, often known as "The Gavin." Besides the cost savings, Clear Channel CEO Randy Michaels wanted to keep staffers from looking for other jobs and/or appearing as session panelists and perhaps spilling company secrets. If staff wanted to go, they had to take personal vacation time to do it. Ouch!
Radio programmers also used to be able to get their seminar registrations paid for by indie promoters, but now, as Clear Channel properties, stations no longer had access to that money since CEO Randy Michaels had it all flowing directly into Clear Channel's San Antonio headquarters.
All this added up to a lot of barriers. Where normally Gavin would have seen 200 Clear Channel employees at the event, in 2001 the conference drew about two dozen. Eventually Gavin lost even more customers from record labels who wanted access to Clear Channel programmers.
And some of the Clear Channel employees who did show up were looking over their shoulders: Our adult-contemporary editor once yelled at me when she saw that a picture of one of her Clear Channel contacts had made its way onto a proof page of our magazine's seminar recap issue. "You can't run that!" she said in a panic. "She can't be at the seminar. Do you understand? She wasn't there. And she'll kill me if that pic runs." This led me to believe that the pressure to stay at the station and work during the convention was more direct than we feared. One Clear Channel Top 40 programmer accepted his Gavin Award plaque at the banquet podium with a dinner napkin over his face.
For Clear Channel, there was at least one possible business motive beyond simple cost-cutting for keeping its programmers from going to the Gavin seminar. When Clear Channel bought concert promoter and venue operator SFX Entertainment, it was also buying trade magazines, a couple of which competed with Gavin for record label ad dollars; Burbank-based Network and Totally Adult.
In the larger scheme of things, however, Gavin was just a blip. With so much else so obviously wrong with commercial radio today, I was obsessed with discovering at the NAB convention whether radio execs even knew what was happening. So I attended NAB sessions and spoke with an occasional corporate officer here and there who seemed approachable, and gauged the attitude of this insular, cloistered culture of capitalists.
I was shocked at the conviction among the executives that big radio offered listeners more diversity than small radio did. This was something NAB president and CEO Edward Fritts alluded to in his opening remarks when he said, referring to the protesters: "Let me say a word to our very vocal critics with us here in Seattle, who claim radio has become homogenized and lacks diversity. The facts show otherwise. Broadcasters know that in all respects diversity is good for radio and is on the rise."
I wondered what those facts are because he didn't mention them.
But a couple of other executives said that they believed that Fritts had it right, that consolidation had brought more choices to radio listeners, that consolidated radio was serving everyone better! They did not seem to be bullshitting me. They were, I believe, sincere.
On the dial in your town do you have a Mix? Kiss? Or Alice?
Those are prefab formats: efficient, cost-effective, thought-free options for the overworked cluster program director, and it's causing a phenomenon described as "the McDonaldization of radio." Along with voice tracking (when the DJ you're listening to is on tape and doesn't live in your town), such tactics are eroding what radio insiders would call "localness."
At least one of the speakers at the NAB did realize this. Bruce Reese, the president and CEO of Bonneville International Corp., the owner of Chicago's legendary rocker WLUP, "The Loop," was invited to speak on a NAB panel. He opened with what he called "a cautionary statement":
"I'm concerned about the potential for undermining a terrific business in the interest of meeting short-term goals," he said. "Radio is an old business, but consolidating radio is a very new business. We're still trying to figure out what it is. I'm not sure we know how to run 1,200 radio stations, I'm not sure we know how to run 200 radio stations as a group ... My concern is that we're eliminating too much management, too much research, all in the interest of meeting those short-term projections and keeping [Wall Street] happy. Some of the experiments we're running may threaten localism, which would be a terrible thing to happen to this business. In my view, we are not helping ourselves to grow audiences, to grow revenue, to grow long-term profitability by some of the cost-saving decisions that have been made."
There was no applause.
Radio execs share an almost palpable tenet that holds that radio is bulletproof. They see the medium as we see cockroaches and Twinkies: indestructible.
Jim Boyle, a Wall Street analyst for Wachovia Securities, moderated the panel at which Reese spoke. He comes from a family that's been in the radio business for 45 years, and he summed up this particular philosophy nicely when he told me: "Radio is 82 years young. It has survived a lot of new media, survived a lot of different options inside the car space: you've had CB radios, you've had cassettes, you've had eight-track cartridges, you've had six- and now 10-CD changers in the trunk. You've had satellite radio that's shown up ... so it does seem to be a situation where 10 years from now, 20 years from now, there's still gonna be radio."
In their "experiments," radio execs have starved their stations of manpower and research and music testing and polluted them with extra commercials and digital disc jockeys. They're betting it will all work out just fine.
Maybe the executives are right. Maybe smoke and mirrors and a little deception here or there is good enough. Listening has gone down in the last six years, but not disproportionately to other media.
And what about the job cuts? Well, execs are unapologetic. After all, the savings (along with a newfound ability to raise rates on advertisers) are the No. 1 reason why consolidation has been a financial success. Not a complete success, or even the success it was supposed to be as envisioned by deregulators back in '96, but that's another article.
In short, executives at the NAB convention seemed out of touch or in denial about the quality of the radio they are making. Most seemed to believe that consolidation is a godsend to radio listeners as well as the coffers, and that all the criticism is unfounded and reactionary.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was written and ratified for the very few people in this country who buy and sell radio stations -- Not for the people who make radio, and not for the people who listen to it.
And, however meekly, I protest.
I thank the NAB for the cocktails and the excellent fajitas and chicken skewers, but I miss listening to good commercial radio. And I miss my job.
Todd Spencer was the managing editor of Gavin, a San Francisco-based radio trade journal that folded in March. He is now a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Reprinted with permission.