Industry killed the radio star

In era of corporate consolidation, music formats more science than art

Monday, June 24, 2002

— When 13-year-old Dana Marino flips on her boom box, she wants to hear her favorite songs. And she often does � over and over and over again.

"FM stations overplay popular songs, to the point that no one likes them anymore," the eighth-grader complained after enduring a recent audio overdose of J.Lo and Ja Rule.


AP Photo

WFAN on-air personality Richard Neer speaks to a listener of the sports talk station in the Queens borough of New York. Neer, author of "FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio," laments the lack of artistic freedom at stations today.

Ed Cronin, 42, rarely flips his radio on. He longs for the free-form format of his teen years, when you could hear anything from Elvis Presley to Elvis Costello, the Supremes to the Sex Pistols.

"You were exposed to all sorts of other stuff � not only the hip and new, but older stuff," said the resident of West Roxbury, Mass. "You can't hear that now."

Finally, a place where no generation gap exists.

When it comes to commercial radio, it appears everybody has a gripe � except the corporations atop the multibillion-dollar industry.

"We play what people want to hear," said John Hogan, president and chief operating officer of Clear Channel Radio and its 1,200 stations. "And if we play too little of what people want to hear, they're going to go somewhere else."

They already are � although it's not necessarily to other radio stations.

Local control lostThe Zimmer Radio Group bought Lawrence FM radio station KLZR and its AM sister station, KLWN, in 1998.KLZR 105.9 had long been known for its modern rock format. In October 1999, Zimmer changed its format to top 40, causing an outcry among many former listeners. Offended fans vandalized the station three times.

Radio listeners are listening less. In 1993, they spent an average of 23 hours per week with the radio on; last year, it was down to 20 1/2 hours, according to Arbitron numbers.

Those most likely to turn off the radio: teen-agers, long among the medium's mainstays. Among girls age 12-17, the radio is on just 16 hours a week. For boys, it's just 12 1/2 hours. That's bad news for the country's 11,047 commercial radio stations.

Why the turn-off?

Some, like musicians Prince and Little Steven Van Zandt, blame playlists so strict they make the old Top 40 format seem extravagant.

Others blame a 1996 law that opened the door for corporate ownership of hundreds of radio stations, replacing often-eccentric local owners with a legion of sound-alike voices and formats.

"FM is creatively tired," said Lee Abrams, a veteran radio consultant now employed by the satellite radio company XM. "The attitude is, 'We're making money. Why change it?'

"They make their money, they pay the bank, everybody is happy," Abrams continued. "And music is very low on the totem pole."

To listeners, music ranks higher � and they're willing to look a little harder for it. Untold numbers download music off the Internet, and about 25 million people dial up Internet radio daily, a recent study found. XM predicts its satellite audience will quadruple to 350,000 by the end of the year.

Radio's heyday

Such abandonment once seemed impossible, when radio was king and its DJs ruled the musical landscape.

When Richard Neer debuted on New York radio in 1971, the broadcast world was a different place. Right into the '80s, the airwaves � from WNEW-FM in New York to KFOG-FM in San Francisco � enjoyed a golden era.

"It was a time of artistic freedom. And we thought that would last forever," said Neer, a former 'NEW jock and author of the book "FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio."

Competition was cutthroat, with stations waging war for a single tenth of a point in the Arbitron ratings (and its corresponding bump in ad rates).

It was business, sure. But it was personal, too, and the DJs were the "personalities."

In the '60s, "Murray The K" Kaufman quit in the middle of his shift when handed a playlist. In the '70s, the legendary Frankie Crocker rode into Studio 54 atop a white stallion. In the '80s, WNEW's Scott Muni opened every show with a Beatles tune in memory of John Lennon.

By the '90s, the power had shifted. "Research started taking over," Abrams recalled. "People wouldn't go to the bathroom without going to a focus group."

The result, according to critics: appealing to the lowest common denominator with a slimmed down playlist, and ignoring the fringes.

Deregulation act

Some blamed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, when Congress deregulated station ownership. Previously, ownership was capped at 40 stations nationally and four in any market � two AM and two FM.

Suddenly there was no national ceiling, and local ownership was doubled to eight stations.

Out-of-towners snapped up local stations. Today, Infinity Broadcasting owns 180 radio stations in 22 states. Emmis Communications' three New York stations control 14 percent of the revenue in the nation's No. 1 market; in other markets, that number can quadruple.

But the big daddy of the business is San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications, which owns 1,200 stations in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Clear Channel estimates that each day, it reaches 54 percent of people age 18-49 in the United States.

Its ascension to the nation's No. 1 radio operation has raised many questions; the latest controversy involves "voicetracking," a new system that replaces on-air talent with pre-recorded material.

Satellite solution?

At XM Radio, the problems of "terrestrial" radio are reason for optimism. XM, billed as "part rock, part rocket science," provides a growing number of subscribers with 100 digital channels beamed via satellite.

Fortune magazine hailed XM as the No. 1 product of 2001. Its wide-ranging, round-the-clock station options include acoustic rock on "The Loft," old-school R&B on "The Groove," Latin Jazz on "Luna."

Abrams, the XM head of programming, hopes that his operation can take off the way FM did 30 years ago.

"Programming is a battle of art and science," he says. "It's just become too scientific, and the art went away."