Listen Closely: After More Layoffs, Radio Just Got a Lot Less Local

Categories: Media, Pop Culture

on the air_CindyFunk via Flickr.jpg
Cindy Funk via Flickr
...but for how long?
Driving through Arkansas not long ago, I turned on the radio and scanned for local stations talking about anything but rightwing politics or Jesus. It was early on a Saturday morning and I stopped on a show called "The Trading Post." In a drawl you could drizzle on a waffle, host Sid King was taking calls from listeners who wanted to buy or sell just about any ol' thing. Used mattresses, farm equipment, pygmy goats, fresh eggs, old-fashioned wringer washing machines, the kind you keep on a back porch next to the rocking chair, the banjo and the still. Somebody called in wanting a bird dog. Another had a cabin up in the woods for rent - no utilities, but it was only $125 a month, within the budget of the frugal serial killer.

It was an aural inventory of stuff bought and traded in rural America. To make deals, you called the seller or buyer directly. Sid gave out phone numbers over the air, using only the last four digits in this one-prefix part of the Ozarks. Everybody seemed to know each other on "The Trading Post" and I imagined them ringing up from the feed store or down to the bus station. I listened and grinned. It was like a radio wayback machine had taken me to Mayberry circa 1962.

In a few years, radio like this might be gone forever and that's a shame. It's too local, too small-town. Except for the guy who sells his rusted combine for a few dollars, nobody makes money off of it.

In case you haven't noticed, local radio is just about kaput everywhere, but especially in small towns. To get a taste of what rural radio used to sound like, you have to go see Greater Tuna, where actors Joe Sears and Jaston Williams include scenes in their play set in 275-watt station West Texas station WKKK, "serving the Greater Tuna area." It couldn't be more local, with host Arles Struvie reporting headlines from the news desk: "Nuclear accident imperils millions ... Texas not included." End of story.

John Rody and John Labella of KZEW-FM

Here in Dallas, a big radio market, we still have some homegrown radio, but not as much as we used to back in the days of Ron Chapman on KVIL and LaBella and Rody on KZEW. There's still Kidd Kraddick's chirpy No. 1 KISS-FM morning show, now syndicated to 70 markets nationwide and with minimal local content. (Kraddick owns his show, selling it to other stations.) There's sports talk on The Ticket, Willis Johnson's "Good Morning Show" on KKDA-AM and a noontime local interview hour on KERA-FM that's so dull it's like listening to SNL's snoozy "Delicious Dish."

Most any time of day, though, if you click around the radio dial, you're only hearing shows piped in from other places, like that refrigerated vault where they keep Ryan Seacrest, now radio's top-syndicated DJ (his show airs here on KDMX-FM).

If, like me, you typically listen to satellite radio or podcasts when you're driving and never turn on the radio at home, you probably didn't notice that on October 27, Clear Channel, the country's largest radio company with 850 stations, axed 200 employees, mostly DJs and program directors in small and medium-sized markets around the country. It's a continuation of Clear Channel's slash-and-burn philosophy.

If they can voicetrack or simulcast it from somewhere else, there's no reason to have local employees in many day-parts, as radio calls its timeslots. Out in the latest round of firings were longtime morning show DJs in Albuquerque and the afternoon drive team in Corpus Christi who'd been on for 16 years. Traffic reporters, program directors, news anchors, sportscasters, from upstate New York to Salt Lake City, all out of their jobs. One radio analyst, Inside Music Media's Jerry Del Colliano, told Chicago media reporter Robert Feder that he could see Clear Channel getting rid of all program directors and local DJs in the near future and operating stations by robotics "with nothing local, little live and everything cheap."

In the way that media company CEOs have of characterizing drastic cutbacks as "improvements," Clear Channel's Bob Pittman said in a conference call with media writers that the layoffs of hundreds of small-market radio people was a "reallocation of resources and a different way of doing business. ... the good side is that after this reorganization, the business will be in great shape to operate better, to improve the quality of their performance, therefore attracting more listeners and generating more revenue."

Got that? By getting rid of local voices who can tell you the weather by looking out the window, local radio will be better. Clear Channel says that, despite firing people at these stations, their local listeners and advertisers will be better served by having fewer people on the air who actually live in the area they're broadcasting to. It's like when daily newspapers shrink their page sizes and say it's to make the paper more "reader-friendly," when really it's about reducing the cost of ink and newsprint. The product gets worse and that's somehow better for all of us.

De-localizing radio started when President Clinton signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act that loosened rules for station ownership. Clear Channel gobbled up locally owned stations by the hundreds and launched its strategy of nationalizing radio programming, beaming out shows from central locations and giving advertisers deals for buying programs and reaching target audiences across many markets. They honed the "fake local" sound, where DJs, in booths hundreds or thousands of miles from listeners, play corporate-programmed music playlists, no longer update times and temperatures and only drop in local references they find on web sites for the cities that carry their shows.

And where will you get the next generation of radio "talent"? You can't start your career in radio working your way up from the overnight shift on some WKRP-like station anymore. In the 1970s, stations were required by law to have someone on duty 24 hours a day and most had someone on the microphone in the studio even in the wee hours. Most stations had news departments, too, that reported live and local at least once an hour. Now radio news is all but extinct. We go to Twitter instead when there's a train derailment or earthquake. Late-night radio is nothing but canned programming or infomercials; same for the hours after drive-time and on weekends.

When the next bunch of radio DJs fall in the media forest, will anyone be there to hear them?

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Cmcgarry
Cmcgarry

Local ownership of small town radio has already bottomed and is about to make a comeback. In the early 90's I was part of the ownership group that fiounded KAAM 1380 in Plano. After deregulation, prices escalated, and we sold out to Radio Disney. But the big corporations bid up the prices so high that all of their small-town stations are losing money, and they are quickly being sold off or shut down entirely. Last year, I was able to buy two stations from Cumulus, KGVL 1400 AM and KIKT 93.5 FM, both in Greenville, for less than we paid for a single AM station in 1991. These stations are completely local in ownership, programming and advertising. And yes, we play listener requests if they fit the format.

Bskyllingstad
Bskyllingstad

91.7 KXT is by far the best radio station in Dallas. It is public radio with local artists and no commercials. Best thing to happen to Dallas radio. I can't stop listening to it since it came on 2 years ago.

Joshua Jones
Joshua Jones

This should be a huge red flag for any young person considering a career in the radio business.  As the GM of KHYI 95.3fm The Range- I know we are an aberration and a dinosaur in that: A) We did not sell out to a major conglomerate in the post Telecom-Act-of-1996 gold rush, and B) We're still program music "live" from our studio daily w/a ton of both local content and Texas-centric playlist.Our heart goes out to all of our radio brethren at Clear Channel, Cumulus, etc who's hard work is under-appreciated and who are too-easily-replaced.  You deserve better.

ToscasKiss
ToscasKiss

Thanks for reminding me.  I've tuned in now and then and enjoyed The Range, but haven't stuck around long enough to really get to know it.  I'll be sure to rectify that.  Do y'all take requests (at least under consideration)?  And thanks for not not selling out.

Don O.
Don O.

Even MORE reason to support KNON, 89.3FM!!!!

cynical old bastard
cynical old bastard

KNON, 89.3FM, named "Best Radio Station in Dallas for 2011", by the editors of The Dallas Observer (and D Magazine).How come you don't listen anymore, Elaine?

Wang Chung
Wang Chung

I think its really shitty that the writer has this smary snarky attitude I sense in this writing.  Im glad you can throw around official call letters but why dont you tell us where we can find kkda-am and the rest of the stations. Be informative and cunning not  lazy and crass

Jason
Jason

KKDA-AM is at 730 AM.  Soul 73!  Great stuff.

Elaine
Elaine

Thanks for the comments. I'll write more about local -- truly local -- radio options in the future. I used to listen to KNON a lot back in the 1990s and I enjoyed Rational Radio when it was on the AM dial.

Nobody was as good on KERA as Glenn Mitchell. Sorry, but Krys Boyd has an un-dynamic style that just makes me yawn. And she starts every question with "Could you talk about...?" That gets old fast.

ToscasKiss
ToscasKiss

Yes, Rational Radio and the othershort-lived attempt at progressive talk were both welcome (even withtheir flaws), but the powers against any such programming are justtoo strong around here, apparently.  Why can't we have atalk/call-in format station that features hosts from a widerspectrum, politically and socially?  I don't like this idea that any outlethas to pick one narrow political stance and never stray from it. People need to open their minds a little.  And when will somestation bring Loveline back to North Texas?  I miss thatkinky little show.Glenn Mitchell was irreplaceable, and I'll never stopmissing him.  After he died, I wasn't super thrilled with any ofthe parade of folks who came in to host, whether auditioning or justhelping out.  Some of them were ok or even a little better, butno one really sparked me.  When they settled on Krys Boyd, Ifelt at first a little like you describe, like "Aw, she's kindabland, not very exciting."  But after awhile, I wascompletely converted, because it became clear she really knew whatshe was doing:  while she asked good questions that showedeither knowledge of, or preparation for the subject, she was good atthen getting out of the way, and letting the guest take the floor (ormic) most of the time.  In other words, no Charlie Rosesyndrome, nor the clueless, generic questions of so manyinterviewers.  It also became clear that, on some subjects, shedid a better job than Glenn would have done, sacrilegious as thethought seemed. 

One example of that is this discussion withchoreographer, director, writer, and brilliant thinker, Bill T.Jones--take a listen when you can give it your attention:http://www.podcastdirectory.co.... To me, it's fascinating from start to finish, and they cover anextremely wide territory of subjects, going into some pretty esotericdepths along the way. It's true that the main reason it is (at leastto me) so fascinating is Mr. Jones' vision and eloquence atexpressing that vision, but Ms. Boyd is so much better than most ateliciting that from him, and getting him to go to different andfertile places in his ruminations. To me, her mild-seeming method islike a simple, elegant setting for gems like Mr. Jones and his ideas,really allowing them to shine to advantage. And not once does shesay, “Could you talk about...?” (I checked—not saying you'renecessarily wrong about that tendency, but it doesn't show up in this episode). If this discussion's subjects aren't to your taste, look through thisarchive and find something that looks more promising, to give alisten:http://www.podcastdirectory.co.... Maybe you'll find a little more interest than you did before.  Or not, but hopefully you'll at least agree that no other local outlet, radio or tv, is going to go near substantial stuff like this and, without it, we're just that much dumber a public.

Pk
Pk

Kind of like local weekly newspapers getting rid of local sports bloggers.

T-Bone
T-Bone

The 1996 Telecommunications Act was the worst thing Clinton did

Chris Chapman
Chris Chapman

Radio stopped being relevant when radio stopped caring about its product.  Simple really.

Hulon Pate
Hulon Pate

Does it surprise anyone? I mean with any lack of  real depth and pop-40 playlist's that reads of a who's who of Major labels.  Even XFM Radio offers some creative programming but largely  XFM playlist's are predictable and by the numbers. F.M radio jocks have no choices in the programming other than talk radio.  Specialized programming will always  prove to entice listeners.  I think we all could learn a think or two about radio from the BBC. If big corporate radio wants to get back in the game, they need hip taste makers in music who are not pushing major labels. They need people who can create programs that get people to listen with the content they program. Instead of focus group lead music or "sheep" music. We need to get back to making music exciting again and not  with fabricated pop stars and flavor of the month music artist that is only image driven.  

RickS
RickS

I could not agree more with the previous comment by ToscasKiss. Krys Boyd's Think is a tremendous local program on one of the best all around NPR stations in the country. She filled a huge hole left by the untimely death of Glenn Mitchell and the show has consistently improved over the years.  And I would also concur that your story seems to convey a great lack of knowledge of the local radio scene to begin with. Unfortunately your snarky, pop culture references of SNL & WKRP aren't enough to disguise that.  But if local radio can give us the likes of Ben & Skin, I wouldn't be overly anxious to lament its demise.

ToscasKiss
ToscasKiss

I've heard "Trading Post" type shows in at least a couple of other areas, including rural Pennsylvania--kind of fun for a short while, and useful if you need it, but not what one wants for an only option.

There are more local radio options around still, than you mention:  Obvious example is KNON 89.3, and others include WRR 101.1 (mostly local, with various syndicated programs sprinkled in--and the sometimes hilarious City Council meetings); KNTU 88.1 (again, with some nationally syndicated shows, and, occasionally, interminable football games); that weird, mostly '80s pop station run by Mesquite high school kids, KEOM 88.7; and aren't the FunAsia FM and AM stations mostly local?  You can't find the music they play, from India and surrounding environs, anywhere else locally--very nice to turn to occasionally.  Surprising that you didn't mention KXT 91.7, which has a few local hosts, at least one of whom grew up listening to George Gimarc's KZEW.  Unfortunately, most times I turn on that station, whether it's a local host or one of the syndicated programs, I hear music that just doesn't make me want to stay.  All that said, it's a pretty dismal scene compared with years past, in terms of local programming, especially for rock, r&b and other popular genres.

One asinine comment you made speaks badly of your taste, unfortunately, to whit that Krys Boyd's show THINK, on KERA is  "...a noontime local interview hour on KERA-FM that's so dull it's like listening to SNL's snoozy 'Delicious Dish.'"  Aside from your factual error about the length (the usual schedule is two discrete, one-hour interview/call-in shows a day, Mon.-Thurs.), the program is most often extremely interesting, even when dealing with a topic or guest I don't think I'll be interested in.  It features some fascinating guests and a host who continually amazes with the thoughtful, intelligent questions she devises, demonstrating a depth and nuance of knowledge on such a range of subjects that I wonder how she can keep up with all the preparation, research and reading she and her support folks must put into it.  Frequently, Ms. Boyd will ask a question or make a comment that opens the conversation to new, uncharted directions, eliciting appreciation from the guest and audience.  It's true, not all topics or guests are fascinating, or have dynamic speaking styles, but far more often than not, the show proves very compelling.  Of course, it's always better when a guest is in the studio; it's much more of a chore, aurally, when they're on a phone line, but so often, what they're talking about is too interesting to let that deter one.  Often, the topics are of profound importance (in-depth programs on environmental, societal, political, and other kinds of issues), and won't get covered in such detail (or, for the most part, at all) on other outlets.  Just because the tone is civil and polite does not mean it's boring, by any means.  Yes, I may sound like some kind of P.R. person for the show, but I'm just an appreciative fan (and, apparently, protective and defensive of it...hmmm....).

Nikki
Nikki

I remember listening (and calling in) to our local trade program, Trade Fair. I've adopted/rescued so many dogs and cats from there... I've even threatened to sell my siblings on there.

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