Monday, January 23, 2012

Radio Is Dead

I have a friend who spent years as a radio broadcaster, who when asked recently to speak to a group of broadcasting students at a state university said “radio is not a sustainable career”.


The business of radio broadcasting was destroyed by federal deregulation.  Like a cancer that doesn’t kill you overnight, but gradually saps the life from you, deregulation was the first step down the road to mass consolidation (a handful of companies like Clear Channel and Cumulus own thousands of radio stations), which led to unsustainable debt financing, which led to mass layoffs of the very essence of local radio – the on-air personalities and news professionals, and when the economy went sour a few years ago, it sealed radio’s doom.

This past weekend, a sad case on point surfaced: the owner of KXLI-FM, once a powerhouse hundred-thousand-watt station serving Las Vegas, was put up for sale on eBay.

That’s right, eBay.  Talk about irony: new media consuming old media.

The owner of KXLI-FM, Scott Mahalick, paid 22 million dollars for the station five years ago.  As of this morning, the highest bid for the station on eBay was under a hundred thousand dollars.  The site offers a “buy-it-now” price of 8.9 million dollars.

A couple more facts in evidence:  Bain Capital, the Mitt Romney company, had a HUGE role in the Clear Channel financing scheme, and those of us in the biz are well aware of the thousands of Clear Channel radio employees who have been laid off (fired) in the past couple years.  This has nothing to do with Mitt’s politics or my politics; it’s simply a fact: venture capitalists have played a huge role in killing local radio.

What’s happened to “local” programming under mass consolidators like Clear Channel and Cumulus?  Since they have so few remaining on-air employees, yesterday afternoon’s NFL playoff game between the 49’ers and Giants was carried live on all seven of the Cumulus-owned stations in San Francisco.  It’s simply cheaper to carry the same programming on seven stations, which is absurd from an audience-generating standpoint, than to have to create individual programming for all seven.  Economies of scale run amok.

I would say “Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be radio broadcasters” – but I think by the time a child born in the past five years reaches age 18, there will be no more local radio.


  1. Colonel,

    For what it's worth, WHBY-Appleton and WTAQ-Green Bay still broadcast shows hosted by local talent in the morning. I look forward to Jerry Bader's talk show on WTAQ. Can't say that I listen to WHBY much. Never got into the habit.

    Considering the capabilities of cell phones and fondle slabs (iPads and tablet PCs) these days, I expect that radio will indeed wither away. The music industry, too. Newspapers, too. Is TV next? The movie industry?

    TV looks pretty healthy, from my minimal exposure to it. I was amazed at the number of channels of programming available. It's like Max Headroom's universe has been realized: hundreds of small channels with original programming. Not that much of it has risen above Newton Minnow's 1960s-era evaluation (May 9, 1961), but it's there nonetheless.

    Is it a case of advancing from the era of buggy whips to automobiles? I had fun in radio in the late 70s-early 80s and learned a lot about professionalism under your tutelage; but even then we all knew that it wasn't a career that offered a whole lot of scope for making dough if you were on-air talent and not an owner. We had plenty of local content; but both local FM stations I worked at with you had syndicated music libraries and rotations...and one was automated to cut costs. Hard to imagine that such a setup could be sustainable if one wants to showcase, feature, or even employ local talent.

    Nostalgia is good stalgia, but it's time to let it go, I'm afraid.

    The Town Crank

  2. When those dead-air squatters are done with the bandwidth, can I have some? They may not be able to come up with a business model that works in the 21st century, but I'd bet it could be done.