This weekend marked 9 months since I did my final radio show. I’m asked on a regular basis whether I miss it, and the answer is still no. I’m enjoying the fact that I don’t have to wake up every day and immediately feel the stress of coming up with enough topics and talking points to fill three hours of airtime.
Not only do I have no desire to do a show on a daily or weekly basis, I don’t even listen to radio anymore. Like many Americans, my audio entertainment exists on my iPhone, where, as soon as I get in the car, I turn on one of the many podcasts I’ve downloaded or listen to some of the 6,000 songs that reside there.
As an outsider now, I can observe the continuing diminishment of a medium I once loved. Several radio stations in St. Louis have recently fired staff members, some of whom had been there for many, many years. They didn’t do anything wrong — the industry did. Its biggest owners took on too much debt as they acquired more and more stations, then toppled into bankruptcy as the business prospects shrank in the new realities of the digital age. Those longtime staffers weren’t making a ton of money, but they lost their jobs because the bottom line had to be propped up nonetheless, and every penny counts.
I’ve heard comments like, “Why did they have to do this right before Christmas?” The truth is, there’s never a good time to lose your job, especially if you’re middle-aged. With the current state of the business, some of these folks are unlikely to find a new gig in town — or anywhere else, for that matter — so their talents are now being erased from the industry entirely.
Moreover, there’s no generation of new, young talent coming up to be nurtured — because no one under thirty owns a radio in the first place! Sure, they have one in the car, but a standalone radio or even clock-radio? Even if you wanted one, name a single brick and mortar store where you could browse the selection. There aren’t any — nor is there the need for one in the smartphone era.
I became obsessed with broadcasting as a kid because I got to hear great disc jockeys doing their thing every day. I emulated them, and can still talk up most songs from that era right to the vocal, just like my early days in Top 40. Who’s going to be drawn to skills like that when all they listen to is Spotify or Pandora, which have no DJs — and you can pick your own music?
In St. Louis and other cities across the country, there are radio stations that have no live human beings in the building on weekends. It’s all run by computer, with voice tracks the regular weekday air talent recorded on Thursday or Friday. That gives the station some consistency, since each daypart is hosted by the same people seven days a week, but it leaves no place for newcomers to get a break as a part-timer. That’s how I first broke into the business, doing seven to midnight on Saturday nights, and then working my way up the ladder. If the first few rungs of that ladder no longer exist, how can a rookie get a shot today?
Meanwhile, weekends on talk stations are filled with brokered programming — those personal finance and home repair shows whose hosts have paid large sums for the airtime. Management doesn’t care that they sound terrible and have very low listenership, as long as the check has cleared. Why hire people you have to pay when you can get suckers to buy their way into the studio, literally?
Are there still radio stations and companies and personalities that are doing well? Of course. I know quite a few who are still thriving. I also know too many who can only see success in their rearview mirror. But over all, one sad fact remains: there’s no one new waiting outside the studio door, ready to step up to the microphone and create radio magic.