E' un'epoca di crisi e persino gli inserzionisti su scala nazionale, quelli che finora hanno giustificato la produzione di programmi in syndication, tirano i cordoni della borsa. Non sarà facile spezzare questo circolo vizioso, anche perché diciamola tutta: il mercato pubblicitario è il pezzo dell'economia reale che assomiglia di più al mercato finanziario, quello dell'economia di carta. Si basa sulle stesse finzioni, la stessa, ottusa sospensione del giudizio. Bisogna credere che la pubblicità funzioni davvero per farla e venderla, un po' come succede per future e mutui subprime. Appena si smette di crederlo, il castello di carta crolla. E con lui tutte le cose che con la pubblicità si mantengono, primi tra tutti giornali e radio commerciali. D'altro canto, in un periodo come questo la gente è meno disposta a pagare di tasca propria, direttamente, i contenuti, di qualsiasi tipo. Non importa quanto tali contenuti siano massificati e appetibili per milioni e milioni di persone. Il che ci riporta alla casella di partenza: il cibo precotto ha preso il posto della cucina fatta in casa perché quest'ultima non era più sostenibile. Ma il cibo precotto, a tavola come alla radio, è piuttosto schifosetto e nessuno lo vuole più. E adesso, che si fa?
02/03/09 FOCUS: LOCAL RADIO
Local voices disappearing from radio dial
Outside conglomerates homogenize what’s heard
By Stephen T. Watson NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Ryan Seacrest. Rush Limbaugh. Delilah. John Tesh. Jim Rome. They’re on the air.
Jim Pastrick. “Slick Tom” Tiberi. Gail Ann Huber. Jimmy T. They’re not.
Flip through the dial on your car radio these days, and you’ll often hear the voice of a host who is a long way from Buffalo. This is all part of the new state of the radio industry, and several key factors are driving the changes. In many markets, the economic slump is making it harder to attract advertisers, and the big broadcasters that own most of the nation’s stations are under pressure to cut costs. Further, there’s increasing competition for listeners from satellite radio, Internet radio stations and MP3 players. “Local radio is facing incredible challenges. It’s facing challenges in attracting listeners and in attracting advertisers,” said Mark Fratrik, a vice president with BIA Advisory Services, a consulting firm that tracks the media and communications industries. Many of these changes are playing out in Buffalo, where a few out-of-town conglomerates own the bulk of the stations. Syndicated material now airs in time periods when local DJs and on-air hosts were common, and stations have had to lay off production and — in some cases — on-air employees. “You’re losing a little bit of Buffalo,” Dick Greene, owner of two AM stations, said of the changes.
Executives here acknowledge that radio — like TV, newspapers and the music industry — faces stiff challenges but say that the medium is positioned to survive because of its portability and its close bond with listeners. “People have written an obituary for radio since the days television was invented. It’s proven to be incredibly resilient,” said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters.
While cutting costs and trimming station staff are nothing new, industry-watchers say the pace has picked up in recent months. In the most significant move of late, broadcasting giant Clear Channel last week announced that it was laying off 1,850 employees, or about 9 percent of its work force. Entercom, for example, has about 165 staffers at its Buffaloarea stations today, a drop in employment of about 3 percent from three years ago, said Greg Ried, vice president and general manager of Entercom Buffalo.
Many stations also are combining the jobs of employees and, in some cases, assigning the same manager to oversee programming in two markets. “I’ve never seen anything like this in the over 20 years I’ve been in radio,” said Dave Universal, program director and music director at “Z101,” CKEY 101.1 FM in Niagara Falls, Ont. This is starting to affect what people hear on the radio.
Last fall, for example, Citadel Buffalo laid off DJ “Slick Tom” Tiberi from “97 Rock,” WGRF 96.9 FM, and morning co-anchor Gail Ann Huber from “Mix 104,” WHTT 104.1 FM. And “Mix 104” last week laid off DJ Jim Pastrick, who hosted 10 a. m. to 3 p. m. weekdays. In their places, a lot of companies are turning to syndicated material to fill periods of time that previously featured local personalities.
Entercom’s “Kiss 98.5,” WKSE 98.5 FM, has aired a syndicated show from “American Idol” host Seacrest from 10 a. m. to 1 p. m. since November. Over at WGR 550 AM, the Entercom station carries the syndicated “Jim Rome Show” at noon weekdays and, on nights when it’s not pre-empted by NFL or Sabres games, a local highlights show.
This “Best of WGR” airs where the station had carried sports talker Dennis Williams, who left for an advertising job. “This is what’s happening in so many areas. I think Buffalo is lucky that it has as much local content as it does, but it’s nowhere near what it was 20 years ago,” said Tom McCray, an associate professor of media communication at Buffalo State College who has worked in radio for 36 years as “Tom Donahue.” To be fair, Entercom’s Ried and others note that this syndicated material isn’t always cheaper and that some of these national hosts are popular. “These syndicated shows, some of these are real proven ratings-getters,” said Joel Denver, president and publisher of All Access Music Group, an industry trade publication.
Some stations, such as “Jack” WBUF 92.9 FM, don’t even use a personality to talk at any length in between songs. In a different technique known as “voice tracking,” an employee programs the music playlist and records the breaks in between songs and can complete a four-hour program in about 45 minutes, said McCray, now a morning news anchor on WECK 1230 AM. “They try to make it sound like someone’s there. But they’re not, which is really sad,” McCray said.
Like TV networks and newspaper publishers, radio broadcasters are coping with a changing marketplace. A small number of large companies controls a bigger share of the radio pie. In Buffalo, Entercom owns seven stations, Citadel Communications five and Regent Communications four. Some of the publicly traded companies took on a lot of debt to fuel their buying sprees, and they’re under pressure to cut costs as their stock prices fall. Today, spending on advertising is down in all media, particularly in the key automobile sector, BIA’s Fratrik said.
Stations in the Buffalo market have lost listeners, Arbitron reports, slipping from 942,600 weekly listeners in fall 2004 to 901,400 last fall. Nationally, radio listenership has risen from 229 million weekly listeners in 2004 to 235 million in 2008, according to Arbitron.
Many of the stations in the Buffalo market are better than most when it comes to the presence of local personalities, according to McCray and others. Entercom’s Ried noted that listeners can get “Kiss”-style music on their iPods, but they can’t get the Kiss DJs, concert promotions and High School Spirit contests there. “We try to provide relevant, local content that matters to people,” he said. The locally owned stations try to follow this mantra.
WECK carries a host of local talkers, as well as syndicated material — everything from Dennis Miller to the new season of the New York Yankees. “I thought it was time for a strong local presence in radio ownership in Buffalo,” said Greene, who bought WECK in 2007 and who also owns WLVL 1340 AM.
Classic country station WXRL is owned by Lou Schriver — the “RL” comes from his nickname, “Ramblin’ Lou” — and the station also employs his wife and four children. Loyal listeners call or send letters, and some even drop off Christmas cookies for them. Schriver said WXRL will do on-air announcements of birthdays and anniversaries. “A church wants their fish fry publicized, we’ll put it on the air,” Schriver said. “We’re local — what can I say?”
Looking ahead, radio stations are streaming more programs live online, and it’s a growing part of their business, said Chet Osadchey, Citadel Buffalo’s general manager. High-definition radio is a more efficient signal that lets stations air over more than one channel with much better fidelity, and stations here are using this. And technology is available that will allow cell phones to receive FM radio signals.
These developments give radio enthusiasts hope for the future.