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Radio Blandwidth

Fort Wayne radio, as boring as it may be, at least has not succumbed to mega-corporations' takeover of the radio world.

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2004-04-05


The last time people got really loud about the death of radio was during the early days of MTV. While radio stations across the country were grudgingly admitting British bands with funny haircuts to their set lists, programmers and DJs claimed to see the writing on the wall with the first video aired on the new channel: “Video Killed the Radio Star.”

Over twenty years later, it appears the Buggles got it wrong. Yes, the radio star is dead, but MTV and video had very little to do with it. They were just the latest in a long line of communications medium that were supposed to end radio’s reign, yet failed to do so. Radio has shown remarkable resilience over the decades, holding on to its mystique long after the TV set became just another household appliance. Think about the number of rock and pop songs dedicated to the wonders of radio. There must be thousands. Even the cranky ones, like Elvis Costello’s “Radio, Radio,” celebrate the medium for its excitement and spontaneity.

These days, anyone might be forgiven for wondering why radio held such a magical appeal for so long. The number of great, distinctive radio stations is shrinking. The days of the regional hit, when a DJ could stumble upon an overlooked single, somehow get it added to his playlist, and watch it catch on with listeners, are long gone. Heck, the days of the local DJ might be coming to a close. You can pretty much drive from one end of the country to the other and hear the same songs in the same format, introduced by very similar-sounding voices. Just the call letters have changed. Or maybe not. Ever noticed how many KISS FM’s there are?

The notion that radio was once a more exciting, more dynamic medium isn’t rosy-glasses variety nostalgia. Radio really was different not too long ago. Now, you’ll have a better chance of a spontaneous moment on The Today Show, and if you’re looking to have your ears opened to new music by fresh young talent, try the internet.

But the really sad thing is, what finally killed the radio star, or left it in its current slack-jawed, glassy-eyed state, was radio itself.

What happened? In the last couple decades radio was hit by a one-two punch that was intended to offer the public more variety and better service by increasing competition. Many industry professionals, however, believe these changes did more harm than good.

The first blow came in the mid-80s. Before this, broadcast company owners had to abide by something called the “7-7-7- Rule.” It meant you couldn’t own more than seven AM, seven FM and seven TV stations. In any one metropolitan area, a company could own one AM, one FM and one TV station. Restrictions were loosened in 1985, allowing companies to own as many as 12 stations in AM, FM, and television. Plus, the FCC allowed smaller radio stations to upgrade their power, creating more stations in a single market. This was done, according to the FCC, to better serve the public good by creating more competition and greater diversity in programming. While it may have created more stations to choose from, the 80-90 docket hit the radio business pretty hard. Guy Zapoleon, a national radio consultant who has been in radio since 1973, describes it like this: “Owners of radio stations in the market place used to be able to afford to put the money back into the programmers, promotions, and things like that. The FCC allowed low-power radio stations to upgrade, so all of a sudden a marketplace could go from having, say, 10 stations to having 20. It cut a huge chunk out of the money these stations were making. The broadcaster who used to re-invest in their station had to stop doing that. They had to tighten their belts.”

The second blow came in 1996. President Clinton was lobbied into tacking a clause onto the Telecommunications bill that allowed radio ownership limits to be reduced to nothing. This lead to consolidation, where companies could put their multiple radio stations together under one roof. “Before de-regulation, you had one program director for each station, one sales manager for each station, and local announcers on each station,” says a general manager who has spent quite a lot of years in Fort Wayne radio. “It was manned 24 hours per day. Every station would form its own personality. But if a company is going to spend that kind of money to make an investment, something has got to give. So, what gives is that you have one program director having input at two or three stations, or one sales manager.” DJs can also be “shared” between stations. New technology means they don’t necessarily have to be live.

Guy Zapoleon says that in most radio now, an obsession with the bottom line means a slavish devotion to research and Arbitron, the radio rating service which diaries listeners’ radio-dial preferences. How slavish a devotion? Well, Zapoleon heads up Zapoleon Media Strategies, one of America’s leading radio programming consultant companies. This is someone that does research for a living saying there’s too much emphasis on it. “I’m a fan of research, but we’re over-researched. I think research can be a good road map. It’s something you use to say ‘show me these are bad options, but now all I need to be is pointed in the right direction, and I’ll come up with something unique and entertaining, instead of formulaic.’”

So, you’ve got a handful of huge public companies that are allowed to own as many radio stations as they can afford, in an overcrowded market competing for a limited amount of ad dollars. The biggest bogeyman of the bunch, Clear Channel Communications, owns around 1,200 radio stations, and has come under criticism for what many claim are monopolistic practices. Add it all together and it means less room for creating a compelling product, and an industry that has become, as one professional we talked to put it, a real estate game for rich people. “These companies are owned by Wall Street,” says Zapoleon. “The broadcasters promised Wall Street, and they were not honest, when they said they could save money through consolidation. So, they’re scrambling to make an immediate profit rather than allowing for growth.”

Consolidation has also made what was once considered an exciting profession about as sexy as tele-marketing. “If you’re listening to radio today, there’s nothing that’s going to make you want to think ‘that’s what I want for my career,’” Zapoleon says. Another Fort Wayne radio professional agrees. “20 years ago, when we would do a job fair, the radio and broadcasting booth had one of the longest lines,” he says. “Now, we have to practically beg people to come over to them. It’s not a glamorous industry anymore, because we’ve taken the personality out of it.”

Fort Wayne has actually managed to avoid some of the homogenization happening on a national level. True, anyone familiar with the radio-scape in Fort Wayne will recognize some of the local versions of trends happening nationally. Consolidation is rampant: WMEE and WOWO, who once claimed a 32% and 28% share of the total market respectively, are now part of Federated Media, along with a handful of other stations, while six radio stations fall under Travis Broadcasting’s umbrella, just to name a couple broadcasting companies.

It also seems that the frantic search for listeners leads to frequent format changes, making establishing a solid identity among listeners difficult. 96.3 FM recently segued into its new hip-hop format with a brief foray into a Tone-Loc only station, repeatedly airing “Wild Thing” (those patiently waiting for “Funky Cold Medina” were disappointed).

Also, this town seems to have a lot of Adult Contemporary stations, and a general reliance on stringent formats across the board may not renew anyone’s faith in the power and spontaneity of the medium. But Fort Wayne has yet to succumb to flown in DJs and national programming. There’s a lot of strong DJ and programming talent in our market, and there’s still a strong focus on the 3 M’s of traditional radio — Mornings, Music, and Marketing — and the majority of it is local.

Russ Oasis owns Hot 107.9 which, according to ratings, ranks as Fort Wayne’s most popular station. He credits the station’s success to their focus on creating a brand, concentrating on building a good product rather than making a lot of money fast. “Fort Wayne is less homogenized than most markets,” he says. “The radio stations here are not owned by big public companies. The companies in Fort Wayne are relatively small chains; the big public companies are the ones who have homogenized radio. We still have a diversity of formats here, and people are still taking chances with new songs.”

Doc West thinks that there’s still a huge local focus in a lot of Fort Wayne radio, and adds that he doesn’t see a day when Fort Wayne radio is dominated by syndicated “shock jocks” and flown-in pre-recorded DJs. West is the programming director and a DJ for Travis Broadcasting’s X102 and Z94. He points out X102’s Essentials CDs (started back when they were 96.3 the Edge) of local artists, the station’s local show on Sunday night, and the fact that he generally tries to employ local talent as DJs. “I’m all about the local thing,” he says. “We work really hard to do local morning shows. If the finger is going to be pointed at being non-local, it should be pointed to those using syndicated shows out of other cities.”

Before working with Travis Broadcasting, Doc West was the program director at Rock 104. When Fort Wayne had relatively few radio stations, Rock 104 WXKE was the place to go for all things rock, and Doc West seemed the sort of DJ that has become rare as radio has become more homogenized. He seemed to care about the music and knew his audience. His hunger-strike to bring Genesis to the Memorial Coliseum got him national coverage in the early 80s (it didn’t work, though the Phil-less Genesis might be happy for the invite these days). The station, too, was pretty original. Rock 104 wasn’t even a strictly classic rock station. No one believes me, but back then you could hear “Hungry Like the Wolf” right next to “Black Dog.” What happened to that kind of adventurous programming?

“Adventurous?” West says. “Well, when I first got to WXKE Rock 104, we were five tracks deep into the Greg Kihn record. We also had a 2%share of the market.” West explains that the stakes in radio are even higher now. With so many stations in the market, radio stations can’t afford to be as wide-ranging in their play lists as they used to be. A guy who needs a high energy jolt of rock to get him going in the morning isn’t going to sit through James Taylor in order to get it. In this aspect, radio in general is going through the same thing that every other entertainment medium is going through: the wide choices available to people means any individual outlet has to specialize. “Look at what’s happened to MTV,” West says. “It’s the same thing. It’s ratings. They can hold viewers’ attention for longer periods of time with reality shows and programming other than music videos.”

But if you like the idea of tuning into a single station at any time of day and catching a variety of music, or if you miss the days when WOWO made radio history, well… sorry. Practically every person we talked to in the industry, on both a local and national level, says that’s just the way the business is right now.

The national mega-corporations haven’t gobbled up any Fort Wayne stations yet, but they’ve got us in our sites. Several sources we talked to said that it’s only a matter of time, and that Clear Channel Communications has begun sniffing around Fort Wayne.

Guy Zapoleon is hopeful that nationally this trend can be reversed. “The government is actively trying to change things,” he says. “Swords are being rattled. They’re going to look again at the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and they might do something to break it up.” But some of these big radio companies have friends in high places. Lowry Mays, the CEO and founder of Clear Channel, contributed enormous amounts of money to the Bush campaign. “As most things happen, it usually has to get worse before it can get better,” says Zapoleon. “It’s really hard to try to drag them back in now, because we’ve allowed six or seven companies to own a HUGE chunk of radio, and it’s very hard to take it away now.”

Ultimately, though, Zapoleon believes that radio stations with a strong local flavor can still be successful. Why? Because national programming can’t give listeners anything they can’t get elsewhere. “What these national radio companies don’t realize is that people aren’t listening anymore,” he says. “Mark my words: satellite radio is coming, downloading is here, and internet radio is growing. The traditional radio stations should be all about the local. Those will be the ones that survive.”

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