Mourning the Death of Radio

March 3, 2002

by John K. Bates

When Your Humble Columnist travels - which is frequently - he often peruses the fare offered by local radio stations. It is a great way to get local information on where to eat and relax, as well as get the occasional traffic reports. Radio also gives a local spin to music; Pat Green, one of my favorite country artists, is only played in Texas. If I didn’t travel there, I would never have heard him. If I didn’t travel to Chicago, I would not have remembered the early-80s rock band UFO, which is still quite popular in the Windy City. Only radio gives this sort of local flavor.

But it is going away. Not radio - it continues to thrive even in the age of television and of the Internet. But the local flavor that makes radio a truly enjoyable medium is rapidly disappearing. My travels point this out. First, I noticed similar formatting in different markets. What is called “World-Class Rock” or “Jammin’ Oldies” or “Classic Rock That Really Rocks” shows up in pretty much every city I travel to, with the same playlists and personas. “World-class rock” tried to appeal to a younger, “granola”-type crowd; “Jammin’ Oldies” to an older, disco-era partying crowd. Stations in different markets now also have the same gimmicks; every rock station I hear ends up running some sort of “A-Z” program, where their entire library is supposedly played in alphabetical order. And they all have the same contests. I can “win a classic car every day” in either Denver or Norfolk, or go to the “Super Bowl with a Model” in Chicago or Albuquerque. Everywhere I go, radio stations play the same tunes, with the same formats, while giving away the same prizes at the same times.

It gets worse. One day last year while in Albuquerque, I noticed that the evening DJ on the “hard rock” station was a fellow who goes by the name of “Uncle Nasty.” Then I noticed that the afternoon jock on the “Classic Rock” station was a gal named Robbie Knight. This was interesting because both are also on-air personalities in Denver. Both work a shift on the Denver airwaves, then hit Albuquerque pretending to be local. Indeed, I always thought both were local to Denver; I now question if either one lives in Denver, or in Albuquerque, or in Los Angeles. There is in fact no way to know.

Why am I writing about all this instead of bashing supposed Conservatives in Washington? The Wall Street Journal this week ran a story confirming the spread of what I had noticed for some time. Radio - now largely controlled by three mega-conglomerates - is becoming nationalized, homogenized, and sanitized. What used to be a medium operated by local personalities for a local audience is rapidly becoming a big business run by folks in New York, Los Angeles, or (in the case of Clear Channel, the biggest radio operator) San Antonio. Local station owners have been replaced by companies concerned solely with profitability and stock price. What used to be full of personality and quirkiness is now canned and corporate, as exciting as watching the stock ticker on CNBC.

The Journal ran their piece with a tone of approval, and from a business sense this trend certainly makes sense. Radio stations can hire much less staff and spend much less time on programming now. Stations can be marketed together for advertising purposes, potentially increasing ad power while decreasing marketing staff. And for listeners, there is the benefit of sameness and consistency. At least we know what we are going to get, day after day and city after city. No need to worry about Johnny Fever throwing on In-a-gadda-da-vita when we are expecting to hear the latest Elton John ballad. Those days are long past, and consistency rules.

But there are disturbing aspects to this trend. Clear Channel, for example, owns well over 1,000 radio stations nationwide. They are also the country’s largest concert promoter. Is there no chance that one will not feed off the other? Indeed, there is; Clear Channel is currently being sued by rival concert promoter House of Blues for allegedly pressuring bands to sign with Clear Channel. If a rival promotes a concert, the charge states, Clear Channel will simply refuse to play that band’s music on Clear Channel’s stations. Even if the charge proves false, it is impossible to dispute that as the radio industry has consolidated, music has become blander, with canned pop stars and formulaic music trends squashing any notion of originality. Some of this is due to consolidation of the recording industry, but the simple fact is that since these mega-media corporations are focused completely on the bottom line, they will never try anything new. Everything must become formulized under the new system. Shareholders simply will not tolerate any risk with their investment.

And I suppose if music was all that was that was affected, this would be a minor issue. But it is not. The same companies that control the music we hear on the radio also control to the same degree the news we hear on radio. This trend - fewer and fewer companies owning more and more media outlets - crosses all forms of media. Indeed, we are rapidly moving to a time when a few media colossi will control most of the news that is broadcast and printed, and Congress is considering legislation to open up the doors of television station ownership to oligarchy. That is a real danger, as TV station ownership will go the way of radio ownership and pass into the hands of just a few conglomerates. Conservatives in particular should be alarmed at the prospect of a few liberal media types controlling 90% of the news that is published and broadcast on local television. It is bad enough today, but it could - and it would - get far worse.

Yet oddly enough it is conservatives we have to thank for this prospect. The so-called Republicans in Congress, along with their pal Bill Clinton, passed a law in 1996 that “reformed” the telecommunications industry, including radio. Part of this “reform” was the lifting of ownership restrictions. Instead of about 40 stations total, individual companies are now allowed to own as many stations as they choose, so long as they don’t own more than eight in any given market. This opened the door for inevitable consolidation of the radio industry and the elimination of the little man from all but the smallest markets. Whether they were pandering to “fat cats” or simply didn’t see the results coming, Congress really screwed up radio and screwed the fans of radio when it intervened in how the system was functioning.

Radio of course requires some regulation. Airwaves have to be delegated, lest everyone trying to broadcast over everyone else on a given frequency. But because government must regulate the airwaves, it also must understand the importance of allowing competition in that marketplace. Allowing just a few companies to control the music we listen to and the news we hear is a disaster in the making. Soon people will forget they ever had a choice; soon they will forget that there are other voices that can give them the news. They will accept what is given without question, and without knowing there once was a better way.

There is some hope. Just as technology allows “Uncle Nasty” to broadcast in both Denver and Albuquerque without ever leaving his studio in Los Angeles (or wherever), technology will also allow more focused and specialized broadcasting. Congress and the FCC may finally allow “micro-stations” - stations with tiny transmitters that would appeal to neighborhoods and city enclaves - to become a reality. The Internet offers commercial-free music of many types, and satellite radio promises music plus specialized talk and news programs at home or in the car. The Web continues to be a great source of news, as the decline in network news ratings will attest. All of this is good. But something has been lost with the passing of local, personality-based radio. The days of Alan Freed, Rick Dees and Wolfman Jack breaking in a new artist are forever gone, replaced by mass-market schlock such as Britney Spears and Shania Twain. Local flavor is now what those in L.A. and New York think it should be. Like the proverbial impossible-to-replace toothpaste, we can never go back to the days when we actually felt a connection with those who we listened to while driving our cars or working at our desks. What the Wall Street Journal praised as efficient is actually the death of radio. And it is a sad thing indeed.


John K. Bates is a part-time freelance writer who works in the energy engineering field and lives in the Denver, Colorado area. He enjoys many outdoor pursuits and the company of his family of three cats. His columns can also be seen on

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For more of John's articles, visit his archives.

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