There was another round of layoffs at Clear Channel radio stations this week. Clear Channel, in case you don’t know, is the largest radio company in America. They own hundreds of radio stations across the country, including five in Cedar Rapids/Iowa City. The radio company I work for, KZIA, Inc., owns…drumroll, please…a nationwide total of two. Not two hundred. Two. They both are here on our happy little hill on the southwest side of Cedar Rapids.
Two stations: That’s the way it was pretty much for all broadcasters until the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Each owner had one, maybe two stations in a town. They might have stations all over the country, but in each town, the limit was a couple, usually one on the AM band, and one FM. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 relaxed these ownership limits. And by “relaxed” I mean “damn near removed them all.” Let me make it perfectly clear that I am a capitalist. I want people to make money, and I understand that some efficiencies can be created by consolidating duplicated non-essential jobs.
But note that I said “non-essential” jobs. Like, if you stick 5 radio stations in one building, I would think you could get by with one janitor. Please don’t misconstrue that statement. I have nothing against janitors whatsoever, and they certainly do perform an important service, but they are not essential to creating radio programs and selling advertisements to generate revenue. So you could theoretically save some coin there, and with similar such expenses.
But to the jackasses who run most radio companies, radio personalities are now “non-essential” radio personnel. These knuckleheads running the largest companies in our industry these days are nothing more than bankers. They really just want to cash the checks. Nothing against bankers—my brother is a banker—but bankers know about as much about who are essential employees in a broadcasting operation as I do about, well, banking. The most embarrassing thing is, these supposed financial whizzes who run all the big radio companies these days aren’t even good bankers! They’ve so mismanaged their books through one of the biggest boom-times in our nations history that they now can’t even afford to keep any actual broadcasters at many of their stations.
Don’t try to tell me that it’s the current economy. That's not helping, of course, but the biggest problem with this industry's financial health is self-created. The Telecommunications Act of 1996's relaxation of ownership limits created such a mad scramble to consolidate that all these geniuses grossly overpaid for the stations they bought. And like most expensive things, they were bought on credit, and that money needs to be paid back. And when you grossly overpay for something on credit, the debt-load can be crushing. It certainly is in this case. Yes, the current economy creates its own difficulties, but these jerks have been firing people little by little for years in order to “make budget.”
I know of what I speak, because as a former Clear Channel Program Director I had to fire a couple of people because we needed to get the stock price up, by golly. This was, of course, long before our current large-scale economic woes, so it's not just “the economy is tough and we have to belt-tighten.” This has always been about financial mis-management at the very highest levels of these companies, of a different sort but not entirely dissimilar from what the automobile industry has brought upon itself.
So now, what have we to show for all of this staff-trimming? A lot less creative people in our industry, for one thing. Each station used to have their own set of people focused on creating the fun and/or important stuff we do. People to pick what kind of music to play, or what news stories to cover; people to create fun promotions; on-air hosts to be silly, or serious, or engaging, or whatever. But those people are now too expensive, so you have stations that essentially have zero employees. It's horrifying, but true. It's bad for the industry, and it's bad for the communities that these radio stations are purported to serve.
I have long hesitated to bring much of this up publicly, because I feel it reflects poorly on all of us in the radio biz, even those of us fortunate enough to have escaped the grips of the corporate monoliths engaged in the self-destruction of the industry. I mean, I work at a station—one radio station—with about as many full-time employees on the programming side of the operation as either Clear Channel or Cumulus (the other big radio consolidator here in town) have at their respective five and four local stations combined. For crying out loud, our morning show has more full-time, local personalities (four) than some of their entire stations have all day and night. But then, I work for broadcasters, not bankers. The folks who own this station want to make money, certainly, and they should want that, but they also care about broadcasting to our local community. What a refreshing idea for a, ahem, broadcasting company.
So what is the solution to this nightmare that Radio has brought upon itself? A mob with flaming torches and pitchforks storming the corporate offices in San Antonio and Atlanta leaps to mind, but that is just populist fantasy on my part. Reduction of ownership limits is about the only realistic thing I can think of to force creative people back into this industry and revive our fortunes. Compelling these mega-companies to divest themselves of some of their stations, one would think, would help them generate some much needed gas money for their corporate jets, or some bucks to give to their lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Those things seem more important to them than actual broadcasting anyway, so it sounds like a win-win to me.