What’s Radio For?

(Full disclosure: I work for a competitor of Clear Channel’s in Madison, Wisconsin, and what follows is my opinion alone, and not that of the people who sign my paychecks.)

Last week, media veteran Bob Pittman stirred up a buzz when he strongly defended Clear Channel’s “Premium Choice” plan, which replaces local shows with syndicated programs and/or out-of-market voice-tracking at CC stations across the country. (Pittman, now CEO of Clear Channel, was a wunderkind radio programmer in his early 20s, and went on to become one of the architects of MTV.) He told attendees at the annual Country Radio Seminar, “The goal is to provide local markets with the best and strongest on-air personalities.” He went on to say, “It’s like television. If you’ve got Jay Leno, he’s better than the local TV guy.”

Leaving aside the question of whether Jay Leno is better than anybody anymore, how you take Pittman’s comment depends on what you think local radio is for. If you think its main purpose is to provide music and/or talk for the people within range of the signal, Pittman’s philosophy has a great deal to recommend it. But if you think local radio has a service responsibility to the community in which it is located, that philosophy is harder to swallow.

If you listen to one of your local CC stations, you’ll probably hear a lot of public service announcements, which is one way radio stations have served their communities since Christ was a corporal (especially when paid ads aren’t selling well). You put ’em on the quarterly issues report you are required to place in your files for public inspection, and you get credit for ’em at license renewal time. But public service announcements, while important and useful, are not equivalent to broad, deep community engagement, even if you run one an hour seven days a week.

Community engagement happens in lots of ways—when important news or weather breaks, how do the people on the air talk about it? Is it happening to them, or are they watching it in a newsroom miles away? How about the mundane stuff of daily life? Are the jocks talking about the big game at the local college or the community festival just up the road? Does the mayor ever call in, or the fire chief, or one of the local TV news anchors? When people go to the grocery store, will they ever run into the morning guy? Are they going to see the woman who does middays hosting the local public TV auction? When they go to the county fair, who’s staffing the station’s booth? The morning-show sidekick, or an intern from the “street team”?

There’s a compelling argument that in our atomized, customized, short-attention-span world, local sourcing matters far less than it used to. We like to eat fresh produce in the winter and we don’t care that it comes from South America or Australia. Why should we care that the guy on the radio is in a studio 1500 miles away, and the joke he just made about the Oscars was recorded last week?

But here’s the thing: serving local communities is bred in radio’s bones. It’s what the people who invented the damn thing intended it to do: serve. The Radio Act of 1927 required stations to operate in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity,” and generations of broadcasters did so. It’s only since the de-regulatory fever of the 1980s and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that we’ve seen the wholesale turning-away from those reasons-to-be.

Bob Pittman, for all of his radio savvy, talks like a man whose job is to monetize a private asset. If that’s what you think radio is, and what it’s for—an asset that belongs to you and you alone and has value only if turned to money, as if it were a crop of winter wheat or a carload of steel ingots—then you’ll streamline and standardize and leave nothing to chance. But if you believe that radio is a public asset that you hold in trust, you’ll ask yourself not, “What should we do so we can profit from this?” but “What must we do so the public can profit from this?”

And here’s something else: If you do it right, you can still make money.

5 responses

  1. Spot-on assessment, jb.

  2. I second Yah Shure’s comment. Thanks.

  3. Ah yes, the now infamous “PICAN” (public interest, convenience, and necessity) concept, which as you so accurately point out has largely disappeared for reasons which have more to do with accumulated (and unsustainable) debt than anything else.

    As much as I loathe my backstabbing former partners at MidWest, they at least tried to do it right; they acquired in the mid-80’s and consolidated in the 90’s; they made appropriate economies-to-scale in the post-consolidation period; and in every market cluster save one, they make a honest (but ineffective, in many cases) attempt at PICAN by staffing a news operation – and by that, I don’t mean a sidekick who reads a couple news items and serves largely as a foil to the principal “personality” – I mean an actual, financially committed attempt to serve the communities in which their properties are licensed by sending reporters into the community and its institutions to report on significant issues of local concern.

    Perhaps this is because so many of MidWest’s senior partners have a heritage and background in doing news (like the founder himself, William E, who came to prominence in the local community because of his stylized newscasts); perhaps it’s more simply because “they’ve always done it that way”; but it’s worth noting that the group still has a committment to involvement in its cities of license. (Sidebar: in the Madison cluster, WJJO-FM is actually licensed to Watertown, I believe – and not much TLC is extended to that community.)

    I’m not sure your concluding sentence is still operable in the present climate, but to argue the point we’d have to define terms, like what constitutes “doing it right”. To “do it right” today, I think, requires the kind of creativity and innovation which seems largely to be disappearing from radio as an industry, which is why so many now see radio as an “unsustainable career”.

    Great post, JB, and great points to ponder.

  4. Michael Verity | Reply

    Premium Choice also eliminates radio as the training ground for people who want to be on the radio. Would I have ever made it to full-time nights, then mornings, had I never worked those back-to-back 6P-12M (on AOR) and 12M-6A (on MOR) shifts? Probably not.

    1. An excellent point, Michael. It’s called “eating your seed corn.” And it’s just another reason why, as Tim said in his comment, radio is becoming an unsustainable career. There are fewer and fewer places to learn how to do it.

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