Radio Vs. Podcasting
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Welcome to Season 2, Episode 2 of the Jag show. The intro probably gave this away, but I spent the first decade and half of my career working in radio. Because of this, people often ask me, “What Happened to Radio?”
First a couple disclaimers. I love radio. To paraphrase Sammy Sosa, radio has been very very good to me. It brought me all over the country from Vermont to Detroit, to New Orleans, back to Detroit. And it was in Detroit that I met my wife. I’ve also experienced the adrenaline rush of being on a stage pumping up thousands of people. And I met my holy trinity of three artists on my bucket list. Steven Tyler, Carrie Underwood, and Bret Michaels. One is my favorite artist of all time, one is my celebrity crush, and the third…was my late best friend’s favorite band. I still have the video of Bret dedicating “Something to believe in” to my buddy Bill’s memory, with me standing side-stage. Most people don’t get to experience these things, and I consider myself very lucky.
Also, I have a number of close friends and professional contacts who still work in radio and love it. I have nothing but the utmost respect for them and the talented work they do.
Radio’s been around approximately 100 years, and in that time, it’s withstood an onslaught of challenges, from television to the early dates of the internet. But if you think that radio is the same as it was when I started my professional career in 2004, you are sadly mistaken. And there are two reasons why.
What Had Happened…
The first is personality. Ask any American over the age of 50, and they’ll remember the names of their favorite radio personalities from growing up – names like Cousin Brucie, Wolfman Jack, Larry Lujack, John Records Landecker. Yes, radio is where people consumed music, but it was the personalities that really made it come alive.
The PPM – Portable People Meter
Well, over the course of the 21st century, a few things happened. First, radio ratings methodology changed. In the old days, select listeners would be paid to fill out a diary. It didn’t matter if they were actually listening to you, but if they THOUGHT they did, and wrote you down, you got credit. It was all about recall. But technology changed, and the Portable People Meter was developed. This was a device that users would wear like a beeper, and it would pick up a special signal, and track your actual listening minute-by-minute. With more accurate data, ratings changed immensely.
Think about how you listen to the radio in the car. If you’re like most people, you don’t spend 5-10 minutes on every station – you mash those preset buttons frequently. So when the data came in, radio program directors saw how quickly listeners would tune out DJ’s who talked on and on.
Now, the flaw in this logic is that all DJ’s get tuned out. Turns out, listeners only change the station when the DJ isn’t compelling. So even the talented DJ’s were scaled back, and at one extreme point in time, we were told not to talk for longer than seven seconds at a time – roughly the attention span of a goldfish. And so, longer-form personality was relegated to where you find it today- around the clock on news, talk, and sports stations, and only morning shows on music stations. Making the rest of the day into a jukebox seemed like a good idea at the time, but then ipods, Pandora, Spotify, and others came along. As access to these platforms grew, listeners realized “Why would I listen to someone else’s playlists, with commercials, when I can listen to one I created myself?” Radio had lost the key element that distinguished it as a medium.
The other big factor in radio opening the door for podcasting was corporate consolidation. In 1996, Congress and The President passed the Telecommunications Act, which relaxed ownership restrictions in media. While its intent was to foster competition, its effect was to create corporate behemoths that could overpay for radio stations and build massive companies. The largest of these, ClearChannel, owned over 1,100 radio stations at its peak. Remember, this was the economic boom of the 1990s….then the economy changed.
When the downturn happened, these large companies owned many small properties that were not profitable. They had to make cuts. And this isn’t to unfairly blame the corporations; it’s just basic economics. If you own radio stations in New York City and Burlington, Vermont, you’re going to care a lot more about the properties charging thousands of dollars for 60 seconds commercial than you are the properties that charge 30 bucks for the same spot. Companies shifted resources to larger markets, and the cuts came to smaller markets.
Soon, the practice of “voice tracking” began. As network technology improved, DJ’s in one market could record shows to air in another market with relative ease. Many local radio hosts were victims of cuts – some replaced by voicetrackers and some by nationally syndicated radio hosts like Elvis Duran, Ryan Seacrest, and Mario Lopez.
Appeal of Podcasting
During all of this, podcasting was growing, and it’s really taken off over the last two years. A number of former radio DJ’s have begun their own shows, unencumbered by time and content restraints. Those who had a large audience and social media following have been able to bring their audience over. Smart current radio DJ’s do podcasts to supplement their show. 1) It’s a way to connect with your audience on demand and 2) it’s a nice insurance policy if you were to be the victim of tomorrow’s budget cuts.
Radio is starting to figure it out. All of the major radio companies have invested in podcasting, and NPR has long been a leader in the field. But the most telling sign? When I went to the giant Podcast Movement convention last summer – every big company was there to learn about podcasting. And one of the happy hours was sponsored by….iHeartRadio, the company ClearChannel became.
So what does all this mean for podcasting? Well, 15 years ago, guys like me had to cut our teeth in small markets, like Burlington Vermont. Most of those jobs no longer exist. So podcasting, with its low barrier to entry, may become the new farm system for radio. And that’s why, if you can demonstrate talent and personality, you could find your way to a paid gig down the line. When it comes to podcasts, radio, is….well….listening.
But as a longtime lover and employee of radio, I also wonder what all this means for radio. For a long time, I believed that the keys to radio’s success were two-fold. Bring back the personality, and let smaller ownership groups take back control. These would be groups that are in the communities they serve, and can invest in those stations, because their responsibility is to those cities, not to corporate stockholders.
Two Stories that Scare Me As A Radio Fan
95 Triple X
But two stories over the last 6 months have caused me to question my theory. First, the owner of the second station I worked for in Vermont, 95 Triple X, sold the property late last year. This was a mom-and-pop station, where the owner was down the hall, and I was on a first name basis with him. Paul owned the station outright, and had live DJ’s from 6am-10pm every weekday. He decided, late last year, that it was time to walk away. He felt the economics of owning a radio station were no longer to his advantage, and was approaching retirement. So he sold his two stations – one FM and one AM, to another radio company in town.
The AM station has only a live morning show as it did before, but the FM station is a shell of its former self. They now run syndicated programming in morning drive and nights. The station, once always live and local, now only has bodies in the studio from 10am-7pm.
Then, last week, the story of Loren and Wally at WROR in Boston. When I was 8 years old, I would call them and tell them dirty jokes. It was a fun “bit.” More importantly, L&W showed kindness to an awkward 4th grader who didn’t have many friends, but loved radio. They invited me to co-host with them over the summer when they did the show live from a PGA event in nearby Concord. The picture is the featured image for this podcast and blog post. Ever since that first taste 30 years ago, nobody’s been able to pry the microphone from my hands. Next, I did the PA announcing for my high school’s football and basketball games, majored in Broadcast Journalism at Syracuse University, earned a living as a radio DJ, met my wife, and started my own podcast company. None of that would have been possible without the generosity of Loren and Wally.
Loren and Wally:
Loren and Wally started in Boston in 1981, several months after I was born. Wally retired 2 and a half years ago, but Loren continued the show. He and Beasley media, the parent company of the station, were unable to reach an agreement on a new contract. So they told him Friday would be his last day. No big sendoff (though, I don’t know if he’d have wanted one), just good-bye. He read a statement on the air just after 7am, which may have had to go through lawyers first – I’ll link to the video in the show notes. Wally rejoined him for a couple minutes of reminiscing, and that was it. Now, many DJ’s don’t get to say goodbye, so at least he got that.
But in the final show, they reminisced about the glory days of radio with big promotional budgets. Loren and Wally raced each other around the world twice, had a station helicopter, and rented the Concorde to chase Hailey’s Comet. The stories were insane. Now, nobody expects those types of budgets in a world of fragmented media consolidation. And I don’t know what the negotiations were like behind the scenes. Maybe Loren had unrealistic demands, but I doubt it. Even Wally said, on the air, “this shouldn’t be happening.” But after 38 years, Loren deserved better. And radio does too.
Hope you enjoyed Episode 2 of Season 2 of the Jag Show Podcast – I hope to start turning out episodes more regularly so feel free to subscribe in Apple, Spotify, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts. And feel free to share this episode on social media if you think others in your network will enjoy it. Speaking of social, you can follow me on all platforms at JAG in Detroit, or visit my website at JAG in Detroit dot com.
Final Loren and Wally Show (Podcast) – Loren’s thank you begins at 11:05.
Video of Bret Michaels dedicating “Something to Believe In” to my buddy Bill Leaf.