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Can't Find Nothin' On Radio?
Consumer advocates, group heads clash over consolidation's effect on programming diversity
By Matt Spangler
When the radio industry began campaigning for further deregulation a few years back, it argued that listeners would benefit through increased format choices. But several small but vocal consumer advocate groups say consolidation has actually resulted in less diverse and more vanilla radio programming, with the industry's major group heads making a claim of more format and programming diversity today than radio has ever known.
"Everybody's really fed up with the state of radio, the repetitiveness," said Jeremy Wilker, who was so upset over the sale of KREV-FM & WREV- FM/Minneapolis-St. Paul by Cargill Communications to ABC Radio that he started up Americans for Radio Diversity (ARD). "The people who write to us say: 'I'm listening to my CD player all the time now; I can't stand radio anymore'; 'I wish we had a college station'; or 'I wish we had a community station.'"
Wilker said ABC flipped the stations' Rock format to "heavy metal" despite that his organization managed to get 10,000 local signatures on a petition to deny the sale that was filed with the FCC. But the protest was to no avail.
And Wilker is not alone in citing consolidation as a reason for radio blandness. Gigi Sohn, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Media Access Project, calls this phenomenon the "homogenization" of radio, with everything "sounding the same" from "city to city" -- the same 10 songs, the same formats, etc.
Clear Channel Communications Chairman/CEO Lowry Mays counters, however, that consolidation has, on the contrary, provided for more diversity in programming. "There is absolutely no question whatsoever that there is a significant amount of diversity that did not exist prior to consolidation," he told R&R. "All you have to do is go and look at the markets and look at the formats [then] and look at the formats today."
Take the Rock format, for example. At one time there was ... well, just Rock. Now, however, groups in major markets are programming Classic Rock, Modern Rock, Alternative, Adult Alternative, and still AOR. Or Urban, which has splintered into Urban Contemporary, Urban AC, and Gospel. "Those consumer groups are way, way off base," said Mays.
"There's absolutely no question that there is extensive diversity compared to what it was several years ago," agrees Jacor Communications CEO Randy Michaels. In the pre-consolidation era, he told R&R, "everybody's research gave them the same answers, and everybody was after the same most desirable demographic. So, the music tended to sound the same, the talent bicycled back and forth station to station."
Nowadays, however, "rather than producing blandness or sameness, consolidation is providing more diversity, not less, as larger broadcast companies attempt to have signals in as many sectors as possible," reported the Washington Business Journal in July '97. In the Washington, DC and Baltimore markets, there are now formats serving such widely disparate demographics as Spanish, Arabic, and Korean audiences.
"It's the ability to operate multistation platforms that has made these niches profitable," said Michaels.
Nonetheless, the Minnesota-based Americans for Radio Diversity has a website that, according to Wilker, claims to receive 500-1000 hits per week from listeners all across the land who have had enough of corporate radio.
"The scarce radio spectrum must include programming that is of, by, and for the community" is ARD's mantra. The organization's site includes a "guide to fighting a radio station sale," links to FCC, NAB, and pirate websites, and updates on such legal proceedings as the commission's microradio proposals.
50 Minutes Of Non-Stop Spots
One theory bounced around in some circles in the business is that listeners are turned off by the heavier commercial spot load in today's corporate environment. John Selig, president of research firm Media Monitors, said stations are charging higher rates in order to meet the sales goals set by their corporate offices and as a consequence must program more units of inventory per hour. (Michaels said at the R&R Convention last month that there is "a dirty little secret" that some major companies in the industry can attribute revenue gains to adding a minute or two of inventory per hour.) Selig, whose firm rolls tape on about 230 stations in all major markets per week, told R&R there are definitely more spots running now than there were three years ago.
But are listeners noticing? "If your FM station was running 10 spots per hour, and now they're running 12, is that really gonna turn you off? Are you really gonna detect it? Probably not," Selig said.
One research firm source who did not wish to be identified disagreed. "Just anecdotally, what I've been hearing is that as you increase your commercial spot load, you decrease your time spent listening," he told R&R. Michaels agrees that TSL is going down, but he said that if listeners were indeed being turned off by conglomerate programming, then the ratings of independent stations would be higher. "I don't think you can point to that," he said.
More likely what turns some listeners off to corporate radio, Sohn says, is that corporate radio ignores localism. Radio groups, she said, are now doing "what's cheapest and easiest" when it comes to programming: downloading it from the bird, and occasionally cutting in with local advertising. In all fairness, she said, this is a phenomenon brought on by "the onslaught of satellite technology," but radio companies in general view themselves as "entertainers," not unlike concert promoters, and not as citizens with civic duties to serve their local communities.
Michaels insists that corporate radio does have a local focus. "Radio, to win, has to be done locally," he said, adding that Jacor gives its local PDs the utmost flexibility. "While we get together on conference calls and share ideas and do some format coordination, our CHR in Tampa doesn't sound like the one in Los Angeles, and it doesn't sound like the one in St. Louis. They may share some production elements, they may share some concepts, but the music's different, the jocks are different, the approach is different."
Consolidation in the radio industry may eventually lead to less programming targeted toward minorities, says Kofi Ofori, an attorney with Washington, DC-based The Civil Rights Forum. According to his 1997 book, Media Ownership Concentration And The Future of Black Radio, 26 black- owned stations were sold to "majority-owned" radio groups in the year following passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Most of those stations kept their Urban formats, Ofori conceded, but some time down the road their publicly held owners may not see the economic viability of the format. "Ten years from now, it's very unlikely those will remain Urban- formatted stations, because Urban-formatted stations have traditionally underperformed in the marketplace," he told R&R.
Jim de Castro -- who as COO of Chancellor Media operates the largest number of major-market Urban-formatted stations in the country -- didn't mince words in his response:
"The guy obviously has no clue," he said. "Whenever
there's a population base and a desire for a format in the marketplace, we are going
to fulfill it. We are thrilled with our Urbans, and we think there is a tremendous
amount of potential. We have, by design, wanted to get involved in the Urban arena
because we think it is so strong. About 10% of Chancellor's 108-station chain is
Urban-formatted, and we are looking at purchasing more."
Listeners Want More Variety
Radio listeners have always expressed a desire to hear a greater variety of music on the radio, so Paragon Research probed that issue and asked them to be specific.
First off, the survey -- which included 400 25-54-year-olds nationwide -- asked listeners about their No. 1 complaint about radio. Some 33% believe radio has too many commercials, 20% say there's too much talk, while 17% think it's too repetitious/doesn't have enough variety (that number balloons to 25% among 25-34s).
Here's how the respondents answered the follow-up statements to the "repetition" issue:
© 1998 Radio & Records Inc.