If you’ve been following along for the last five years, the largest radio group owner in the known universe, Clear Channel, has been steadily firing hordes of people. The number is well into the thousands by now. The company owns, give or take, 850 radio stations (about 10% of the stations in the U.S.) and is kept afloat – tenuously – by a deal largely engineered by Bain Capital.
It is impossible for Clear Channel, which is also has the largest revenue of any radio company in the nation and reaches about 110 million people a week, to meet its debt service on the Bain Capital deal. Ever since the deal was struck, Clear Channel – CC for short – has been reducing operating costs by firing people and not replacing them. They just keep rolling the debt, generating the fees that outfits like Bain Capital thrive on.
To outfits like Bain, it’s not whether the company is financially healthy; it’s whether it can continue to pay the fees, interest, and “consulting costs”.
Here in Madison, there are really only two radio news departments: the staff at Public Radio, and the staff at the CC Madison stations (WIBA-AM/FM, et.al.). Don't confuse "sidekicks" who read a couple minutes of "news" in the morning with news reporters, who actually go out and gather news. CC’s main competitor in Madison is the MidWest Family Broadcast Group (Magic 98, Q-106, et.al). According to the latest ratings, CC has a 28.4% market share, and MidWest’s share is 23.3%. Just before Thanksgiving last year, MidWest gave up and pulled the plug on WTDY-AM and its existing news staff.
Not that long ago, Madison had four active radio news operations: the WIBA stations (before they were bought out by CC), the MidWest stations, the Mid-Continent stations (WTSO-AM et.al., but now WTSO is part of the CC group), and Public Radio. Readers of this blog don’t need me to lecture them about the implications of cutting in half the local radio newsgathering operation.
Generally, when a group operator like CC comes into the market, the first thing they do is pare down the news operation. You’ve heard the numerous horror stories about local stations, now owned by CC, blithely playing music and commercials while a tornado or other natural disaster bears down on a community and causes widespread damage and loss of life. The days of a warm body actually pushing buttons to create radio programming (to say nothing of the REALLY old days when an actual, trained, live announcer created programming) are long gone, and now, the vast majority of radio stations after sundown are run by a computerized automation program.
One way Clear Channel has pared its local operations down is by establishing regional “news hubs”, which is why the traffic reports you hear on the Madison CC stations originate in Milwaukee, and many of the afternoon newscasts you hear on WIBA-AM originate in Grand Rapids, MI. CC has done the same thing with on-air talent: more and more programming is originating at one of these “hubs” and fed regionally to the CC local stations. Vicki McKenna is one of the many CC employees who now do double duty: she does a talk show on a Milwaukee CC station (WISN-AM) from 10AM to noon, and a talk show on a Madison CC station (WIBA-AM) from 3 to 6 in the afternoon. Vicki’s arch-conservative politics aside, it’s no walk in the park to do five hours of talk radio every weekday.
A few days ago, Clear Channel threw the News Director of its Miami, FL radio cluster – a woman with more than 20 years with the station – under the bus. My friend Dusty Weis has insider insight into that situation. Dusty, one of the brightest and most capable young reporters I ever had the pleasure or working with, was a colleague of mine in Madison five years ago, until MidWest threw me under the bus. Dusty made a big career move up, and was hired at that Miami station a couple years ago. But he resigned several months ago - essentially gettin’ out while the gettin’ is good. Dusty moved back to Wisconsin for a great job with the City of Milwaukee. He told me CC will not hire a News Director to replace his former boss at CC in Miami, which means an outfit that used to be the premier news-gathering operation in south Florida a few years ago will be headless and directionless. Or, as Dusty says, “just a news beast that gobbles up information and spits out 20-second stories”.
Ten years ago, that station (WIOD-AM) had double the staff and covered only metro Miami; now, it’s one of those “hub” stations that feeds tiny bites of news to CC stations all over Florida, with half the staff and no real boss . No one with, as Dusty puts it, “with editorial authority or clout with management”.
It’s a doubly sad situation: another veteran news manager is unceremoniously dumped after 20 years of service, and another bright young radio news reporter (Dusty) has left the ranks.
I have seen the future of local radio, and it is not bright.