It’s not as shatteringly memorable as the assassination of President Kennedy, the Shuttle Challenger disaster or the Denver Broncos first Superbowl win, but it is a moment that’s stuck in my mind almost 50 years.
It was 1976 and I was driving west out of Little Rock, at the very beginning of my 33-year radio career, heading to my first full-time radio DJ job in Knoxville. With the windows down in my white ‘72 Plymouth Valiant and the AM radio at full blast, I realized, if the DJ’s I was listening to in Amarillo, Oklahoma City, and Little Rock were the best of the current talent available in America, I’d be able to get a job anywhere, because I was at least as good as what I was hearing.
The realization brought me peace because my desire to be a radio DJ wasn’t necessarily my parent's idea of a solid career path. It was my belief I’d always be able to find a radio station who needed my services, somewhere in America, so I wouldn’t have to run back home to mom and dad, with my tail between my legs. I’m happy to say, I never had to do that. I’ve had radio shows, and at times been the boss, in Knoxville, Miami, San Antonio, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, back to Miami then to Pueblo, Colorado and then, my third stop in Miami.
Before 1996, the maximum number of stations an entity could own was 7-AM and
7-FM. That year, the Federal Communication Commission abolished those ownership restrictions and effectively made it possible for wealthy corporations to own as many radio properties as they wish. Companies like Entercom, Cox and Clear Channel began scooping up stations around the country and with seemingly unlimited funds, overpaid for many properties, making millionaires out of some owners who could barely make payroll. This takeover of the broadcasting industry by large corporations was ostensibly a money-making venture, not an exercise in creating innovative, forward-thinking radio programming.
This is where takeover and science collide and effectively end an industry.
The ability to have one broadcast electronically sent “live” to other facilities and having one DJ on a limitless number of stations, became the business model of corporate radio. Those stations reduced staff numbers and eliminated other employee costs (i.e. health insurance). It becomes a huge cost saving factor but does nothing to ensure quality broadcasting. A majority of today’s stations are run by bottom-line money people, not creative radio people.
Since ownership changes were made in ‘96, the number of broadcast radio announcers has fallen dramatically and on January 15, Clear Channel (iHeart as it’s now called because of the negative publicity surrounding elimination of hundreds of announcer jobs over years) declared, “We are modernizing our company to take advantage of the significant investments we have made in new technology” and “it’s reasonable to expect that there will be some shifts in jobs-some by location and some by function-but the number is relatively small given our overall employee base of 12,500.” Some reports state that there over one thousand employees would suffer “Employee Dislocation” and were “fired” over the ensuing days. Already forced to switch their name in shame, iHeart changed “fired” to “Employee Dislocation” in their official corporate announcement, which probably made the corporate office feel better, but does nothing to temper the reality for those suffering “Employee Dislocation.”
More of the best radio programmers, DJs: country radio, album rock radio, middle of the road, sportscasters and news people, have been forced to abandon the performance art of radio. A few will hang on and find work at very small, locally owned radio stations, far away from the bright lights of minor and major market radio.
Today’s corporate radio DJ’s are proficient at not breaking the rules set up by their corporate Program Director by playing music generated by pay for play. They’re working for much less money than their predecessors and there’s not much creativity.
The career I fell in love with and flourished in is no more. My last station recorded a 6.0 rating share and the largest cumulative audience in the Southeast USA. That station, it too a victim of the takeover, now struggles for a rating share of 2 or 3, half of what my very talented and creative staff produced while in my care.
I doubt there are any young broadcasters driving out of Little Rock believing they can get a job on the radio anywhere in America.
Until Next week,