Sunday, January 26, 2003

Industrial Suicide Watch: The radio industry continues its self-immolation, as thoughtfully documented in this longish feature (5 pages) in the Washington Post. Start with this apt description of the current state of affairs.
Owing to a growing sophistication in audience research, light-speed consolidation of radio ownership and the attendant rise in value of FM stations, the commercial FM dial has been essentially reduced to six musical formats: Pop/rock, hip-hop, country, classical, Spanish-language and variations on the theme of "adult contemporary," a sort of light pop or R&B. Research has shown radio owners that these are the moneymaking formats, and this is where they've flocked. Swept off the dial are niche formats, such as blues, bluegrass, easy listening and jazz, except for Kenny G-style "lite jazz," which falls neatly in the adult contemporary category.
One good point is the answer to the question of why we even care if radio exists.
Sure, you can download your entire CD collection onto your iPod and walk around with it. But those are the songs in your library, and even in random play there is a certain joyless satiety to that. The magic of radio long has been and will continue to be: You're alone in your car, flipping the dial, and, every so often, at exactly the right moment, exactly the right song comes on the radio. It makes you slap the steering wheel with happiness. The serendipity is spellbinding.
We are treated to a brief history of FM radio and Lee Abrams, who, in the early 70s, took FM from the free form, DJ programmed broadcasts to scientifically programmed playlist. As described by Ben Fong-Torres, nostalgic hippie magazine editor, immortalized in the movie Almost Famous.
"At its height in FM, you could look to the announcer as a person to inform you about not only the music and artists, but about the community at large," says Fong-Torres, 57, who lives in San Francisco and is a writer and lecturer. "They could bring in personal sensibilities to his or her broadcast day and, by their mood, tell you what is going on in the world around them. Then, if you happened to fall in and match their mood, they could play music that would be an underscore, an underpinning to what you have in common. Whatever you're thinking politically or socially; if you're coming down from a high or getting high, whatever. At the right moment with the right person on the radio, you could go on a little journey together."
Yet despite this, it turns out corporate programmer Lee Abrams may actually be the one to bring radio back as a big wig at XM radio, the 100 channel satellite network. Abrams, and anyone else who's at least partially sentient, seems to believe that Clear Channel (eew! ick!) took his system to an insane extreme.
Ten years ago, the nation's more than 12,000 radio stations were owned by 5,100 companies and individuals. Now, that number stands at about 3,800 owners. San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications may own more than 1,200 stations, but the issue is larger than sheer numbers. Because many of those Clear Channel stations are in the nation's largest cities, fully half of the U.S. population hears the company's stations every day. (The eight stations Clear Channel owns in Washington are the maximum allowed in one city.)

On the upside, a lot of mom-and-pop station owners became instant millionaires and retired happy. On the downside, these new, huge radio chains were saddled with debt. Tiny, privately owned companies became big, publicly traded companies now subject to the demands of Wall Street, which expected continued growth and escalating earnings.

To meet the Street's demands, stations had to increase revenue and cut costs. Cutting costs meant consolidating jobs. If a company owned five stations in one city, it might fire three program directors and put all five stations under the charge of two PDs, who could hardly devote their full attention to the sound and music selection of all five stations. The big chains fired local on-air hosts and replaced them with syndicated shows.

To raise revenue, stations increased the number of commercials they played. Once in the 10-minutes-per-hour range, most stations now more than double that, often playing the ads in uninterrupted blocks.

Individual radio stations -- some of which big chains paid more than $100 million to acquire -- simply became too valuable to become laboratories for anything chancy, such as trying an unproven music format, tolerating extended deejay disquisitions or spinning a song that wasn't a guaranteed hit.

Stations became slaves to the kind of research Abrams pioneered.
Amen. This has gotten me excited about XM radio and it's competitor Sirius. I'm gonna shop around.

For added spice, Wired is running a couple of related articles. This one speculates what would happen if the music mega-firms actually disappeared, and this one highlights one way the music industry is, not surprisingly, misguidedly trying to fight the inevitable. Embrace or die, dudes.