Ok, where do you start when you are trying to fix a problem as massive as the decline and eventual fall of a media that has such a long and illustrious history as radio? Hmmm, first you have to figure out how this happened.

Let us go back to when radio was really booming… I’m not talking about before television when families sat around the radio listening to Amos and Andy, Roosevelt’s fireside chats or Edward R. Murrow. I’m talking about the rock n’ roll era… when the celebrities were the “local” jocks spinning Elvis, the Beatles, the British Invasion… then came the 70s, and nobody knew what the hell was going on musically, when you heard the Stones followed by John Denver and a jock screaming at you but, you loved it. Country, Motown, Folk, Rock… wow all on one station. You could hear Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash, the Supremes and the Carpenters all within the same hour… did we care… NO!

How many of you would find yourself up late at night trying to tune in WABC out of New York or WLS from Chicago or WOWO from little ol’ Fort Wayne (can you tell I grew up in the Mid-West). I can remember going to Florida on spring break my senior year in high school saying I wanted to visit my grand parents and check out a potential college. I did both by the way… eventually going to school there. On the way and while there I listened to radio… I found myself for the first time actually listening to WLW out of Cincinnati and being amazed that I could hear them from a thousand miles away even though I never listened to them while back home only 10 miles away from their tower. I loved radio! I didn’t even realize how much. I never even considered it as a career until I was in college and heard and saw the campus radio station. I was hooked. My first “paying” radio job was babysitting a transmitter when a local station lost it’s STL and called our college station looking for bodies with a license to monitor the transmitter site while the STL was being repaired. Then my first “paying” jock job was a new AM day timer in a small town in Iowa in a trailer size station literally located in a corn field playing country music. I was working my craft and reaching for new opportunities and paying my dues. I was in a top 30 market within 2 years but, I had a long way to go and would never reach the level I wanted too. But, I always seemed to have a great time and met great people. Finally I ended up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. What made it all worthwhile? It was a fun, creative, always changing and growing and I could earn a living doing it. Does it get any better than that??

Well times changed and we all watched it happening and were either unaware or powerless to do anything about it. The first major change came when the FCC changed the rules allowing a company to own more than 7 AM’s and 7 FM’s. That was cool but, how many of us yearn for those days? Actually, radio the industry itself is the one that is now doing the yearning!

Radio is a “public trust” that is a phrase that you need to remember. As the rules changed somebody or a bunch of people (non-radio of course) started to take notice of how much of a money maker radio could be. Before long we started seeing people with absolutely NO radio experience of any kind getting into the business and finding some level of success.

The problem then was they thought radio was a business they could put some money into let radio professionals run it and get rich. As time went on and eventually the ownership rules changed altogether “money people” started buying up these “money makers”. Experienced radio people always kept “serving the public” as a guideline for their decisions but without actual “rules” this didn’t serve the “bottom line” and the money people started removing these people. Eventually only the bean counters were in charge.

Sure radio has always been a business but it was a business of serving the public – a “public trust”. You can say the money bottom line was the bottom line but in reality the bottom line was the public. The public was what radio was and should be all about. If you put on a good radio station the public would open their arms and support it. Wow, a business where you not only had “clients” that paid you for a service but, you have a client that paid nothing for your service – the public, the audience. Radio served two (2) masters. The bottom line needed to be serviced by advertisers buying time based on popularity (ratings) and the ratings being serviced by listeners tuning in to your station. The radio station had to provide programming elements that appealed to the public. Radio professionals usually understand this. Money people seem to only understand the one client aspect of radio… the advertiser… the people who spend the money! For some reason they, (those who didn’t learn the business from the bottom up) don’t seem to grasp the need to build and nurture an audience.

I’m overly simplifying here, but building and nurturing an audience is done by serving the public. A radio station regardless of format; music, talk, news, sports it doesn’t matter – a radio station has to offer information current, timely and relative to the audience and market it has been entrusted to serve. I once worked for a day time am radio station that ignored the sign off at sunset to help co-ordinate relief efforts with local authorities during a blizzard that left people without heat, food and/or shelter. That station owner was one of the most egotistical and greedy bastards I had ever known but even he knew what was entrusted to him and his radio station. That station actually served the public trust and was never sanctioned by the FCC in any way for breaking the sunset rule. Funny thing was that effort raised the publics awareness of his station so in effect actually helped serve the bottom line, interesting how that works.

So, what is happening? If you look closely you’ll notice radio has had no growth in revenue for many years. Money people, bean counters, number crunchers will be the first to tell you that it has to do with so much competition for the audience from television, satellite radio, internet and/or other music sources such as cd’s, ipods and cable music. There is some truth to this but overall I think it’s just a bunch of BULL!

Again, I maybe over simplifying but, I think it comes down to radio is NOT serving the public and not nurturing its audience. Serving the public is paramount to helping the ratings and thus the bottom line. The audience needs someone to relate to. The local DJ, jock, personality is someone the audience can relate to. You can voice track, automate and satellite your radio station but, the audience needs someone locally to entertain and inform. The audience needs to know the jock is in the same boat, a part of the community and are there to watch out for their best interests – such as in an emergency like a blizzard, hurricane, wild fire, tornado and even a terrorist attack or something as simple as a traffic delay, you might call that serving the public too. The audience needs to have someone they can approach, touch, talk to and laugh with… they need to know someone is home! But, nurturing an audience doesn’t end there don’t we have to start nurturing them young??

Yes we have to start with the youth. What we see is an hour of a morning show with upwards of 12 to 20 minutes of commercials. This amount of clutter is what is causing another huge problem. Have you ever noticed that teens lead the rest of the country on everything!!! Well, let’s look back… hmmm, Rock n Roll, McDonalds, muscle cars, Nintendo, boom boxes… food, fashion, cars, electronics… teens set the trends period! Radio is not capturing kids! Kids have not embraced radio because of commercials. They are turning to those other options previously mentioned. In the past we learned to listen to radio from our parents and our peers. The older generation still listens to radio but, kids don’t tune in anymore!! Why? You might ask – commercials and lack of local information and entertainment!! Another by-product of not nurturing kids is up and coming generations don’t know what’s happening in the world. They only have input from sources that don’t really educate them. Outside of school and what little knowledge they get from broken homes, they are learning on the street or some other quality source like cable television, reality TV, song lyrics, etc. Local personalities can/could go a long way to help guiding our youth. Look around what are we teaching our youth… oh, hell we could debate this one forever.

The FCC removed the rules regulating commercial load and ownership rules. Thus over capitalized mega-media companies needed to increase revenue and lower expenses. There you have it – more commercials. With a bunch of new technology radio stations didn’t need so many announcers – boom local personalities gone.  Now, hopefully that debt service has or is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. So why are the personalities not coming back and there are still so many commercials… could it possibly be GREED?? Could greed actually be killing radio? 

So lets simplify this even further: 1) The rules went away 2) Non radio people are in control 3) The public trust is not being served 4) Local personalities are gone 5) The youth audience is not being nurtured and 6) Greed could easily slow down or stop radio growth!

So how do we fix it?

Many would say the FCC should re-write the ownership rules again and/or restrict commercial load but that’s a subject for another time. So without an act of congress how do we save radio???

Radio has to refocus itself to serve the public trust! How do we accomplish this? Can we educate the bean counters at the mega media companies to what “the public trust” is all about?  Possibly! Can we nurture the youth audience? Only if we are willing to reduce commercial load and bring back local personalities. Now, how do we do all that??? Frankly, there is only one way that comes to mind.

It will take a grassroots effort from some of the smaller broadcast companies to start the ball rolling. We’re not just talking about small markets, market size is not important. We’re talking about companies that are privately owned and don’t have to answer to stockholders. Also the publicly owned stations that are just plain tired of loosing money could join the effort. The companies that don’t know why they can’t sell enough spots or why they can’t get the ratings … just why isn’t it working out. Once the industry sees the success these stations are having we just might see a change across the radio industry.

For years the stations that had the best ratings and most revenue seemed to play the best songs and have the best personalities. How did that work? Simple: they weren’t afraid to pay for the most creative announcers and programmers and general managers to make it happen. These people not only knew how to make a radio station sound great but they also knew how to tell the public about it with marketing, promotions and visibility. Sure a station can climb slowly and use the most powerful advertising there is… word of mouth or it will see much more of a climb by getting the word out. Even with the small promotional/advertising budgets of today one can get the word out. See Marketing/Promotions and Visibility sections of my Philosophies page.

Since the industry hasn’t had any real training ground for new talent and programmers for some time, where are we going to find all these professionals? They, no WE are still out here. Working as car salesmen, realtors, retailers, ditch diggers and getting older and thinking our radio careers are over. We are anxiously awaiting someone – either the FCC or the industry itself to wake up and realize what we have known all along – build it and they will come… listeners AND advertisers. It doesn’t take too much… just the guts to say enough is enough; it IS time to fix it!!  Or are we too late already?