There’s a blurb in the radio trades today about Cumulus Media, one of the largest radio station owners in America. They own something along the lines of 350 radio stations around the country, including KHAK, KDAT, and KRNA here in Cedar Rapids. They also operate KRQN, licensed to Vinton, on behalf of Flinn Broadcasting. The story is about how they have formed a “strategic investment partnership” with some private equity firm. This will give them a reported $500 Million to invest in radio properties. Sounds good for them!
Here’s the thing, though. While they should take that money and invest it in the properties they already own so they don’t have to operate them on the cheap like they do now, they will continue to do what they are good at: Buying radio stations, cutting the on-air staff (and presumably other staff too) to the barest of bare minimums, and not serving the communities they are licensed to very well.
Cumulus certainly isn’t alone in this. They may not even be the worst of the bunch when it comes to corporate-monolith radio operators who are ruining this industry, but were you given several piles of vomit from which to choose, how would one select the least palatable?
The other night we had severe weather around Eastern Iowa. That’s pretty important stuff, when extensive hail damage and possible tornadic activity is around. The National Weather Service doesn’t issue tornado warnings just for fun. Frequently, once we start getting severe weather it lasts for hours as it tracks through the region. This was the case the other day, so it’s not like it was a freak storm that was unexpected.
I had spent the last three hours, give or take, of my show covering severe weather along with playing the hits. I then handed it off to our night superstar Chris Jackson, and he stayed on top of it as I headed home. Hopping in the car, this was my chance to listen to what the other radio stations in town were doing with it (I listen to them so that you don’t have to. You’re welcome.)
Near as I can tell, because you can really only listen to one radio station at a time, none of the Cumulus stations so much as acknowledged the fact that there was an active tornado warning right here in Linn county during the 7PM hour. That’s your home market, what the radio ratings companies call your “metro.” And not that this should have any impact on a station’s severe weather coverage, but this market is currently being rated by not one but two different radio survey companies. You might want to help the people who could be responding to these surveys to stay alive. That’s just good business sense. Alas, they’ve so gutted these stations that no one was apparently there to turn on a microphone to tell the audience the important news. This is absolutely not the way a radio station should be operated.
On their website, Cumulus calls themselves “Main Street’s Marketing Company.” Well, Main Street could have had a tornado rip through it the other night, and nobody would have heard about it from “Main Street’s Marketing Company.”
I’m not writing about this today to toot my own horn. I’m writing about this because it is enormously frustrating to have committed myself to an industry in which the biggest players don’t give a damn. Radio faces enormous competition for the attention of listeners, be it from TV, the iPod, or internet “radio.” What we can give our audience that others may not be able to is localism and immediacy. The big radio companies are happy to take the money of local advertisers, but not so hot on actually delivering a local product, which is the only important thing when local emergencies arise.
So Cumulus has got half a billion dollars to invest, huh? How about they invest it in the properties they already own to get them back to performing their primary mission of serving their communities instead of going out and finding other stations to buy, run on a shoestring, and fatten the wallets of their executives? They’ll do the latter, because they’re not broadcasters, they’re bankers. And they and their brethren are ruining a once-vibrant industry with their idiotic investment strategy.
How is it that a company that has just stumbled on $500 Million can staff four radio stations here in town with fewer people than the company I work for staffs one? Is it because one company is a local broadcasting company, and the other company is essentially an investment firm that happens to have its money in radio? The people in Atlanta who run these 350 stations should be embarrassed that they perform their primary duty as broadcasters so poorly. They should be ashamed and stirred to great action to improve their stations to keep up with our little two-station company. They should give the local stations the employees they need to fulfill their mission.
What they will instead do is perform a whole lot of corporate double-talk with big words like “synergy” and “leveraging multiple platforms” and BS about how their employees are their “most important asset.”* Anyone who believes that had better be under the influence of heavy prescription medication. 15 years ago, KHAK, KDAT, and KRNA (there was no KRQN then) each had full staffs of people on-air and behind the scenes. Now there are barely enough people in that triad to run one station effectively, and they’re charged with running four! If their employees are their most important asset, they’ve sure cleared out a lot of important assets in 15 years.
Please, Cumulus, and those like you, do the right thing and start reinvesting in the properties you already own instead of just swallowing up more stations and running them on the cheap. You’re ruining the industry for the rest of us who actually want to be broadcasters. The relaxation of the ownership limits on radio stations has not improved the product for consumers (neither the listener nor the stations’ advertising customers) one iota, and indeed it has made it worse in both cases. But I suppose a lot of people in corporate offices have made money, and that’s really what every aspect of American life is designed to do in the end, I guess.
*I don’t know that they’ve ever actually used these words, but these are the kinds of things I remember hearing when I worked for a big corporate station.