Friday, February 17, 2012

Change, change, change...change of fools...

Back to media, and especially broadcast radio, a subject still near and dear to my heart.  For recent followers, I spent over twenty years in radio and still believe it has the potential to be one of the most influential and powerful media for a number of reasons I won't linger on here.  But it could be.  Could be if the keys to today's radio stations were not in the possession of people who apparently have no clue as to the potential of this sound-based medium and what it could still offer.

I was talking today with a friend who has a friend who is a general manager of a group of stations.  That fellow has decades of success and several of his stations were once legendary in the industry.  But, of course, they were purchased by one of the big, publicly-traded corporations that has snatched up hundreds of stations across America.  A company that is especially conscious of the bottom line as it affects their stock price.  So, this GM is now under a dictate that he cannot approve an expenditure over $100 without approval from the home office.

That means the "home office" has a proven manager overseeing properties worth many millions of dollars who cannot even take a couple of local clients to dinner at a nice restaurant without getting permission from HQ...and, I understand, most of those decisions are made by the CEO himself. 

Incidentally, all this "cut our way to success" on the part of these particular "enlightened" broadcasters has resulted in a single-digit stock price, dramatic drop in ratings, and more signs that their method of running radio stations may not be best.

Second bit of news: one of the last successful family-owned radio stations has just been sold.  WABB-FM in Mobile, Alabama, was a rarity, a stand-alone AM/FM in a sizeable market, surrounded by other clusters of stations that are owned by giant conglomerates.  It is another legendary property, managed and programmed creatively so it was able to compete...and compete well...against those other guys.  Its owner, Bernie Dittman, died several years ago, and I don't blame the family for cashing out.  Considering the state of the medium, they are doing the best thing.

It's sad, though, that the outfit that is buying them is a "non-profit" that owns hundreds of stations, programming most of them from a central location.  See, I know Mobile.  I used to own WZEW-FM there.  It is not like any other city in America.  WABB and WZEW sounded like Mobile, not like some other homogenized set of stations.  How could some deejay sitting in Nebraska know how people in Mobile feel during Mardi Gras, or talk about having lunch at Wintzell's Oyster House, describe the full moon on the bay from a pier in Fairhope, or give us the heads-up about the fog this morning on the Causeway?  Or play just the perfect set of songs to match the mood on a rainy morning in the Port City?

Can't and won't.

My friend Ben McWhorter summed up nicely the giant companies who swooped in and bought up every available signal in all sizeable towns and built their "portfolios" of "broadcast clusters."

There is only one word that goes well with "cluster."

Don Keith N4KC


VE3WDM said...

Good morning Don, with regards to getting "HQ's" nose in's true up this way as well with radio stations and other industries as well. For some reason micro managing seems to be in. I am not sure it really works all that well. Sometimes a company can be managed right into the ground. The home town radio station, the DJ and the social event's they do around town is very import. It is not only good for the radio station but it also jells the community as a whole too. Now that big biz has their nose in it and the bean counters "think" they know the "formula" ......well time has shown it's not just a formula that makes it.

Don Keith N4KC said...

Right on target! I was one of those who thought it was a good thing when the FCC allowed companies to own more than an AM/FM combo in a market and to have hundreds of stations in their portfolios. "Finally, someone with the wherewithal to upgrade facilities and signals, invest in talent and creative content, and promote radio so it could compete with other media! The moms and pops were not able to that very often."

Oh, was I wrong! But I still think some companies will do what I hoped they would. They'll realize that risk-aversion and cut-your-way-to-profitability are exactly the wrong way to be successful in a medium that requires--no, demands--creativity and compelling content. Of course, that applies to other media, too. HBO started down that path and I hope they continue. Independent film studios, too.

We'll see.

Don N4KC

Ben Mac said...

Thanks for the mention Don! I have always appreciated your commentary my man.

Ben Mac

Don Keith N4KC said...

You are welcome, BenMac. Hope all is well with you. I become a man of leisure May 4 my own bad self...retiring from ECA/Virginia College to write and promote books and, probably, live on beenie-weenies and saltines.


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