Recently, I linked to a piece by a radio veteran lamenting the state of the industry and blaming consolidation. Today, I’m recommending a documentary that makes the point even more strongly.
“Corporate.FM” was made in 2012 by Kansas City filmmaker Kevin McKinney but wasn’t released in many theaters. However, it’s now streaming on Amazon Prime, and its argument is still just as valid. The movie’s subtitle is “The Internet Didn’t Kill Radio.” The message is that radio committed suicide.
McKinney didn’t go to the biggest markets to tell his story. He began in Lawrence, Kansas, where there was a thriving local music scene that got quite a bit of support from local radio stations. He spent the first portion of the movie lamenting the loss to consolidation of one local station that played songs by local bands as part of its regular rotation — not just on a one hour “Homegrown” show on Sunday nights. That exposure helped pack the clubs where those groups performed, just as it did for bigger, national acts who benefitted from the combination of a program director and music director whose only responsibility was to that radio station and its audience. They didn’t have to simultaneously oversee seven other stations in the market that the conglomerate had swallowed up.
But “Corporate.FM” isn’t only about the loss of radio’s effect on musical tastes. It is also about the people who work there, and features a few who were bold enough to speak out about the downside of what the business has become. One of them, a midday guy in KC, very frankly states he’s not worried about being fired for what he says because the station has no one else to take his job — there are no young people coming up from part-time night and weekend shifts, because those opportunities have been eliminated. Instead, the station has no humans in the building during those dayparts.
Several of the people interviewed in “Corporate.FM” explain that when a company owns eight stations in the market, they don’t have to do much promotion, because they own their own competition. So, it’s not important for one outlet to have giant ratings as long as all the stations have good enough numbers to draw advertisers. And the advertisers often get squeezed, forced into buying commercials across that company’s cluster to get the best rates, even when they only want to be on one station.
When you don’t have to worry about beating a competitor, blandness sets in. The highly-paid personalities are shown the door because cutting them helps make the bottom line look better — and because those highly-leveraged entities are drowning in billions of dollars of debt. Same for the promotion budget. Radio used to be in the vanguard of clever marketing, pulling off stunts and giveaways that got everyone in the market talking. No longer. Now they just get a van painted with the station logo and have two low-paid employees (or unpaid interns) drive it to an event to give away a dozen beer coozies with the call letters on them. No one cares, including the people on the job.
But doing more costs money, and that’s something these corporations (owned in large part by private equity firms) don’t have and won’t spend. All of the staff-slashing and cutbacks hasn’t helped their stock prices. Take Entercom, the second-largest radio owner with 235 stations across 48 markets. Its share price is literally one-tenth of what it was at the beginning of this century.
So, you end up with the bland leading the bland while the audience goes away to find something else that will satisfy its aural urges. That’s where the internet and satellite radio come in, filling the void once occupied by a medium that was once part of almost every American’s daily life.
Ironically, when Slacker, the KC midday guy, does get pushed out of his gig, he’s replaced not by a newly hired air personality brought in from a smaller market, but by the company’s voice-tracking system, in which one person in some other city can pre-record an entire five-hour show in less than a half-hour, then do it again and again for stations in other cities, then plug all of that into a computer that plays back that jock’s voice along with the music, commercials, and promos. Why have ten Slackers on the payroll when you can do the job with a single salary? The same holds true for talk radio, which in most markets is filled with syndicated shows from those same big corporations featuring right-wing loudmouths (e.g. Limbaugh, Hannity, Levin). Again, more broadcast hours taken up by outsiders, prohibiting new talent from entering the business and working their way up.
Of course, with this plan, you forfeit any local connection to the towns those stations were licensed to serve, but who’s going to stop you? The FCC? Ha! That agency and the politicians on Capitol Hill — bribed by those private equity firms to change the laws to favor them — have been complicit in assisting radio’s self-immolation.
How did we get here? McKinney’s movie rightly argues that much of the blame must be placed on Congress, which passed the Telecom Act of 1996. It changed the ownership structure of American broadcasting from an era in which local radio thrived because it was locally owned (or perhaps part of a small group), when a company could only own one AM, one FM, and one TV station in a market. Now, those limits are almost non-existent, so you end up with one mega-monster battling another mega-monster, divvying up more than a dozen stations in a single city between two owners. Or, in smaller markets, you get only one mega-monster that rules the whole town, but has far fewer personnel, and decisions about everything being made at the national level by someone who maybe sets foot in that area once a year, at most.
“Corporate.FM” includes interviews with not just on-air talent, but former owners and managers, and some nationally-known acts (e.g. Jewel). Although it’s several years old, its message is still highly relevant. I’m adding it to my Movies You Might Not Know list and urging you to watch it on Amazon Prime Video while you can.