On Radio, and the days ahead, part 1

Two and a half years ago, Steve was detached from a medium he loved- radio.  He stands ready today to pioneer a new model.  It is bittersweet.

I love radio, too.  I met Steve on the radio before I met him in person, in Detroit.  He was different from anything I had ever heard.  He played songs from LA singer-songwriters and edgy New Jersey rockers.  He would see-saw from the silk of Jackson Browne to a gritty Bruce with anecdotes about his failures at the bar or his loneliness in Detroit.  I would drive to my teaching job trying to imagine what he looked like.  Once I asked a student- Doug Bienenfield, age 12, to go to the pay phone to find out the sad song that Steve played.  (All By Myself, Eric Carmen) I thought that Steve and I shared a wave length.

I never expected to meet him, and then I did.  I did not expect him to look so chubbily discombobulated, but he was.  I never expected to date him, and yet I did.  I really made a leap of faith to marry a tumbleweed youngster (4 years younger than I) who was bound to flitter from job to job.  I did.

In 33 years, we have weathered many dark days, and shared overwhelming joy. He is a shy man, and radio suits his desire to connect, yet remain guarded.  He has had great success.  And then he didn’t.

Two things happened:  Janet Jackson and the people meter.

Janet Jackson’s breast ignited the public debate about content.  Managers muzzled talent.  Exit, Howard.

The people meter continues to reorder the airwaves.

This little pager is new technology that measures the listening time spent by a very compressed, representative group of samplers.  It is the only formal methodology utilized today, and represents enormous investment by its parent company.  It is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Scientifically and technologically the devices work. They correct some of the inaccuracies of journaling listening habits, the previous methodology. There are so many logistical problems, though, that the readings cannot not be taken as absolute truth despite the electronic component.

For instance: People have to wear them.  They have to move periodically while wearing them. The representative demographic has to be enlisted, and if the sample is lopsided, one person’s input is magnified to fill in the gap. The data has to be successfully uploaded.  The methodology is costly, and so the panel of listeners does not turn over weekly, or even monthly as in former ratings diaries.  Minorities are over valued due to effective lobbying to preserve emerging minority communications companies.

None of this matters, because they will be the standard for this decade.  Steve is not favored by this model:  he would not be played in offices or public places.  There would be no ambient pick-ups.  Hell- I doubt if most of Steve’s listeners would even strap on a device to participate.

These doo dads are the de facto program directors of radio.  They dictate when commercial breaks are taken to ensure that peak numbers are obtained at benchmark moments.  New methodology requires that songs ahead be teased to discourage migration.  Monetary prizes will be awarded at critical statistical moments. Play lists must be winnowed so as to delete unfamiliar, “tune out” music…this is the reality today. It is a hard time for radio.

Recent evaluations(done by arbitron, the people meter firm)  indicate that 50% of music listening is now done via internet.  That is an additional challenge for programmers. Perhaps radio will become a diametric, oppositional squawk box  for dueling entities.  Wouldn’t that be sad?

It seems possible, with no less an authority than Rob Feder saying that the WKQX flip to news was partly motivated by the desire to profit on political advertising that is placed on “news and talk” venues.  It seems more calculating than creative.  But as Steve would say, it’s Show Business.

A great deal of money has left radio advertising, but debt service remains massive.  Radio properties were consolidated for enormous sums in the 90’s.  Today, most radio stations are struggling to pay their bills, much less pay talent.  Like newspapers, broadcast companies are cutting costs consolidating jobs: the radio version is syndicated programs, voice tracking,  or just rolling tunes.

The public has started to embrace different entertainment options.

Terrestrial radio has spent years wailing about satellite programming’s unfair competitive edge.  The NAB convention featured a keynote speaker who promised that terrestrial radio would re-emerge, because eventually consumers would want local news, traffic, sports and weather.

The National Association of Broadcasters chose this man to elucidate the value of of local programming. Yet he reduced radio to services that can readily be achieved from a decent smart phone.

In the perfect world, radio is the pal in your car. It is someone you like introducing you to a new tune.  It is a connection.  Magic.

Stay tuned….please don’t jump on me.  Steve has been bludgeoned on social media for his plans, and I have simmered.  He wants me to ignore the bitterness. I’m trying. I have been contractually obligated to keep quiet for 30 months, just like Steve.  I just need to have my little Janifesto.  These are not fighting words- just a sad farewell to something that linked us together. And a show of respect for Steve, who has always charged headlong into the future, and who cherishes his rather special bond with his listeners. More in the next few days….







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