The Alternate History
August 1, 2014
Say it never happened.
Say there was no consolidation. Say the Telecommunications Act wasn't rewritten in 1996. Say ownership was capped at 7-7-7 the way it used to be. Where would we be now? Would we still be looking at a stagnant industry and wondering what to do about the digital upstarts? Would we be seeing younger generations saying "I don't listen to the radio and none of my friends do, either" the way they do now? Would things be any different?
I think the answer is that we'd be dealing with the same problems no matter what. The road would have been different, but this moment was inevitable because it's about things that were not under the radio industry's control, as well as the industry's own inability to react soon (and rationally) enough. But we were headed to this point, at least eventually.
That's not to say that things would not have been different along the way. Some of the paradise critics of the biggest consolidators imagine would have existed if not for the influx of Wall Street cash may have occurred -- some mom and pops would have held on much longer, and competition would have had some benefits in terms of the creative side. There would have been, in the early stages, more job opportunities, too. And some of the decisions that ended with mass layoffs were driven by financial situations that were self-inflicted by the people in charge.
Yet, believing things would have been different presupposes that external market forces would have been different, too. It assumes that advertising wouldn't have begun to move to other media, and that 2008 wouldn't have happened, either. It assumes that listeners would somehow not be receptive to customized programming, or narrowly-tailored streams and podcasts that offered exactly what they want, when they want it. It assumes that mom and pop wouldn't have needed to cut costs and outsource back-end operations. It assumes that mom and pop wouldn't have seen a benefit in automation and satellite to save money. It assumes that all of those operators would continue to spend the money on full-sized news departments rather than sign up for outsourced services. And we know that even before the barn door opened on deregulation, syndication and satellite and regional and national traffic providers and smaller newsrooms were happening.
Radio is, and always has been, a business. And when technology presented a way to save money even if it meant the quality of the product might suffer a little, mom and pop were likely to be little different from Cold Heartless Giant Megaconsolidator. The latter fired you because it needed to make its numbers for the next quarter. The former would have felt bad about your job loss, but if putting your air shift on the bird meant enough savings to pay for this year's lake house rental, they'd have had to consider it. (And if you don't believe that, a lot of mom and pops DID sell their beloved family heirloom stations when the money was right, didn't they?)
This industry romanticizes its past, for good reason. We have great stories about the Good Old Days. It's quite fun to hear airchecks -- scoped, of course, because we don't want to actually hear the Stones segue into Dean Martin into the Four Tops into the Chipmunks -- from the past. But where we are right now was bound to happen, because it's less about what radio did to get here than it is about technology that just plain overtook traditional radio, and about radio people's inability to roll with those changes quickly enough.
That last part's about you. It's way too much to ask Cold Heartless Giant Megaconsolidator to adapt in any meaningful way to changing user preferences. In fact, for all their faults and how they miss the mark, the digital offerings of some of the big companies aren't that terrible, even if they aren't as strong as the pure-plays. But they're in it to salvage something out of a bad investment, not to create content magic. The end game there is to sell it to anyone who'll buy their spin that it's Sort Of Pandora, Only Cheaper. You, however -- I mean talent, producers, programmers, even local sales and management types -- have no such restrictions. You can take advantage of the fact that there is no barrier to entry to create, distribute, and sell any content you can create. You can make your own show, and because you have radio experience, you can make it better than a lot of what's out there. And because a lot of the digital-first people are still trying to figure out the monetization angles, you have a chance to pull some dollars out of the market while they're still working on the problem. The future of audio entertainment and information is still anybody's guess. You don't need to own a transmitter to take a whack at it.
Think of it this way: We got here on the express route. Had consolidation and private equity not gotten involved, we'd have taken the local route. It would probably have been more scenic, maybe more pleasant along the way, but this is where we were headed. What we need to focus on now is where we go from here, and how.
Oh, and you should be focusing on your content, too, which is where All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics comes in. As always, there you'll find hundreds of items and ideas for segments on your shows plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else. It's like having an extra producer feeding you ideas. Get there by clicking here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item. This week, too, don't miss "10 Questions With..." WFLA/Tampa morning co-host Corey Dylan, who made the transition from music morning show host to News-Talk in a quite successful manner.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries (a division of Legendary Pictures), which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
The call's still out for ideas for topics for this column, because it's August, because I'm lazy, because over the last 15 years I've beaten enough of the usual stuff to death, and because I'm feeling as inert as a Phillies General Manager at trade deadline time. (You KNEW I'd have to complain about that.) Anyway, if there are any radio topics you'd like to see me cover, send them along.