Thursday, September 24, 2009

Nurse the Hate: Hate Radio

Having worked in radio for 15+ years, sometimes people ask me "Why does the radio suck?". It seems almost everyone has a memory of commercial radio being an important part of their life. A time when your favorite station was like the cooler older brother you never had. Introducing you to new bands, and new music courtesy of a DJ that was more like a voice from the heavens than a real live human being. Your favorite station was relevant and helped defined who you were. "That guy? He listens to the Top 40 station. He's a pussy. I listen to MMS." said Parma guy in his Buzzard t-shirt. (or Frog t-shirt, or QFM t- shirt, etc. etc.)

Now when you turn on the radio it's the same bland BS no matter what city you are in. The classic rock station goes from "Aqualung" to "Wish You Were Here" to "Sweet Home Alabama". Boise, Birmingham, or Boston...It doesn't matter. It all sounds exactly the same. The "modern rock" station goes from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Staind to Green Day. Ka-Boom! 99X coming at you! (By the way, why are radio stations always "coming at you"?)

So...what went wrong?

Step One: The Telecommunication Deregulation Bill passes making it possible for single owners to own multiple stations in one market. Starting about 1993 giant corporations scrambled to buy up as many stations in a city as possible. Now instead of 18 stations trying to be #1 in the market, single owners tried to make sure their light rock station didn't tread on the audience of their adult contemporary station. Taking chances means exposing yourself to risk. Risk is highly condoned. Everyone answers to accountants and corporate wonks. Taking chances on anything is a career death wish. Blend in and get paid. Why do you think every station does the same thing at the same time in every city?

Step Two: All music must be tested before going on air. You ever wonder why you hear the Rolling Stones "Brown Sugar" 50 million times, but never "Under Assistant West Coast Promotions Man"? It's because there is a spreadsheet that says "Brown Sugar" is preferred by a 3-1 margin. So when you get that phone call playing music snippets and they ask you, "Do you like this song? Really like this song? Really really really like this song?" those results wind up on a sheet justifying a safe approach. However, what they don't ask is "Do you want to hear Brown Sugar at the expense of NEVER hearing any other Stones song?". Mixing music is an art, and art cannot show up as empirical data on a spreadsheet. But then again, if you ran a station, do you really want to risk losing your $125,000 a year job just to play "Star Star"? Nah... "Brown Sugar coming at you!"

Step Three: All music must be paid for in advance. Even at the lowliest modern rock station, every song has been paid for. What do I mean? Let's say that that a company like Sony wants to get their hot new band The Widgets on the radio. Sony then either places an advertising buy across multiple stations for another one of their bands, thus paying for the addition of The Widgets song on the playlist in a back door manner. Or maybe they provide a trip for four to Hawaii to see The Widgets for the radio station to giveaway during a key ratings period. It's the same as when DJs used to get envelopes full of cash in the 1950s, but it has been sanitized now. Now it's "non traditional revenue", not a payoff. "But certainly, if something is really good, it will get on the air, right?" Well.... Here's a true story. I was in the office of the music director at 107.9 The End and he called me into his office to play me this new Supersuckers single called "Born with a Tail". He loved it. Told me it was "great". He still didn't play it on the radio. "I can't do that. Corporate would kill me." In 1974 that would have been a hit song. Because Sub Pop didn't (or couldn't afford to) pay up, only the cool kids knew it was great.

Step Four: The only thing that matters is how the stock price goes of the parent company. In the 15 years I worked in radio I never heard a single person from corporate even ask how the programming was being received. Nobody gave a shit. The only thing anyone cared about is if sales was going to hit their number for the quarter. It all rolls downhill, and leadership at the top gets paid when they hit their bonuses for stock performance. How do you get stock performance? Hit your numbers baby! Profits down? Make people do multiple jobs and slash payroll! Cut that kid in promotions that's getting paid $22,000 a year. Apply that money to the net profit total so everyone on the food chain hits their bonus NOW. Will the station suffer tomorrow? Fuck that, who cares? Let's get paid today. When I was at Clear Channel in the late 90s they clipped about ten people, six of which had been there for 10+ years in low paying jobs with their noses to the grindstone. They felt loyalty to the station, and a sense of pride in what they had helped build. Big mistake. The memo came out with the usual tone. "Colleagues, Due to hard economic times we must make certain budget cuts to remain viable. In today's competitive market, we must remain able to adapt to the ever changing market conditions. Blah blah blah... In a totally unrelated matter, the board is all receiving $10 million dollar bonuses." No shit. If those creeps at the top had taken just $9.5 million each, all those people would have still had their jobs.

You know why the radio sucks? It's because no one at the top of the company cares about creating anything. They want to take out as much gold as possible before the whole thing collapses on itself. They are all banking on all the audience not being smart enough to completely turn their backs on the medium. When satellite radio appeared, did they attempt to make their product better so more people would listen? Of course not. How could they? There isn't anyone there that knows how to do that. Instead they attempted to sue satellite out of business on the grounds it was a monopoly. When that failed, they just went back to "80s weekends", "Ticket Tuesdays", and inane morning shows where the only thing dumber than the callers are the hosts.

Random Notes: I love Cincinnati this weekend with the points over the Steelers. I think the Bengals have circled this game since training camp, and Pittsburgh is not at their best right now... Matt Hasselback has a busted rib, and will not play this week against a Bears team that got a good win last week. Everybody in Vegas is running to the window to bet Chicago -2 in what appears to be a "gimme" this week. As usual, the public will be left holding the bag. Take Seattle +2 at home for no good reason.... I like (but don't love) Buffalo +6 at home vs New Orleans. That's too many points in a game that seems like a field goal decision... Illinois has been 6-2 ATS in their last 8 vs Ohio State. Should you take the Illini +14? I would... The real action this weekend is when the Indians, losers of 11 straight, host the equally hapless Orioles. Is there a way to bet against both teams? I am going to keep hammering the Indians regardless of who they are playing. Those guys are approaching the games with a blase Spring Training vibe. They packed it in about 40 days ago and it shows... I listened to the Hold Steady's "Boys and Girls in America" yesterday and once again marveled at how good that record is. Smart lyrics, great hooks, and big loud guitars give you everything you need in a rock record.


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