July 16, 2009 News » Cover Story

Dead air 

Local DJs ponder the decline — and potential demise — of broadcast radio

The theory that only cockroaches and Keith Richards will survive the apocalypse has always had one flaw: It fails to take into account the entrenched stubbornness of broadcast radio.

Over the course of its century-long existence, the medium has faced down the birth of network television, which killed off radio soaps and serials, as well as the rise of MTV, which launched in 1981 with the song "Video Killed the Radio Star." Later came FCC deregulation, which concentrated wealth but eroded diversity, and satellite radio, which took away Howard Stern but left us Mancow.

Yet, for all its resilience, broadcast radio is facing grim prospects these days as more and more listeners — particularly FM listeners — turn to streaming radio on the Internet. Back in March, industry forecaster BIA Advisory Services predicted a 10.6 percent decline in radio revenues for 2009. A month later, it revised that figure to 15 percent.

Michael Skarzynski, CEO of media audience research company Arbitron, testified before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee last Thursday, July 9, that radio broadcasters now face a "perfect storm" marked by recession, debt and a "dramatic and devastating decline" in advertising revenues. One of the primary culprits, he argued, is competition from "new audio delivery platforms, including podcasting and Internet streaming."

Clear Channel casualty

The bad news came a day earlier for Buzz Corona, morning DJ at Pueblo-based R&B station KPHT-FM. The Clear Channel Communications affiliate, known as Hot 95.5, laid off the 25-year radio veteran without notice July 8.

Corona says he never expected to be fired, even after the parent company laid off 9 percent of its workforce — some 1,850 jobs — this past January. The catalyst, he says, was his participation in a Harley-Davidson dealership's Fourth of July celebration, which he had not cleared in advance with the station.

"It was the Fourth, so I went out and played a couple hours of music for them," says Corona, noting that his brother is a service manager there and that the owners are "like family to me."

"I didn't get paid for it," he adds. "I'm a biker, so that's what I do."

Clear Channel general manager Bob Richards, who also serves as KPHT's operations manager, confirmed Corona's departure from the station, but declined to offer further comment.

Corona maintains that his firing was actually due to a combination of company politics and Clear Channel's ongoing economic woes.

"As you know, a lot of our jocks and managers have all been let go by Clear Channel," he says. "We only have a handful of people working there, and I was the only live jock for our station. I did the morning show; and the afternoon show host would come in and just voice-track it, as we call it; and we didn't have a night show."

The financial picture for Clear Channel — an industry giant that acquired radio stations with Pac-Man-like abandon following the industry's deregulation in the mid-'90s — doesn't seem to have improved since January's purge. The radio division's first-quarter revenues were down 22 percent from a year ago, as advertisers, even mainstays from the alcohol and audio industries, tightened their budgets.

Corona, who was born and raised in Pueblo, believes that community ties are the radio industry's lifeline: "I'm an old jock who's set in my ways, and my way was to make sure that the public was happy, pleased and liked me. And I thought that was what radio was about."

Being Mexican also had its advantages, says Corona, given the local population's ethnic mix.

"When we'd mention a party or an anniversary, I was the one who was able to pronounce it correctly," he says with a laugh, adding that Latinos are still rare in his industry. "[The community] embraced me for who I am, and some of them are very upset that the company would let me go."

As a kid, Corona caught the radio bug from Pueblo's KDZA-FM, a station he would start DJing for at the age of 17: "It was an oldies station, yet they'd play Top 40 and mix in the newer stuff. And it wasn't like nowadays, where you go to a rock station for one thing and R&B for another. Back in the day, you had all those combined. That's what Top 40 was, and that was my first radio station here in Pueblo."

Corona went on to work for stations in Colorado Springs and Denver, relocated to Florida, where he interviewed artists like Mariah Carey, En Vogue and LL Cool J, and then made his way to Texas.

At a station in Austin, he had a memorable on-air phone interview with Boy George: "It was so funny because he was playing with me, it's like he was hitting on me. And my producer, who's on the air with me, is just laughing, and I was just going along with it, and we were having a good time. I've gotta find that aircheck — I've got those tapes somewhere. Those were fun times."

Corona returned to Pueblo and started with KPHT in April 2005. His enthusiasm for music remained strong, unlike many who spend decades in the industry and end up turning the volume way down immediately after announcing each song.

"Oh no, I'm the type of idiot that turns it up and shakes the pictures off the walls," says Corona. "Sometimes I just get into it, you know? It's nice that the studios are soundproof."

Nonprofit motive

"As commercial radio gets blander and more distant from the listener," says "Your Friend and Neighbor" Vicky Gregor, DJ and music director for KRCC, "our listeners know that this is a hometown voice. And that means something to them."

Of course, the local National Public Radio affiliate at 91.5 FM is no stranger to syndicated programming, which in its case ranges from news shows like All Things Considered to Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion and Car Talk. But Gregor says the Colorado College station has "definitely grown the local end of things." That said, Pikes Peak Community College's KEPC (89.7 FM) is even more Springs-centric, being strictly student-operated and locally originating. KEPC also boasts that it was the first college station in Colorado to begin full-time webcasting, which KRCC — like commercial and non-commercial stations across the dial — has since adopted.

"It can be overwhelming," says Gregor of the digital trend. "We might not have CDs in four years; they might not be physically manufacturing these things. Everything might be digitally delivered. And I'm old-school enough that I'm still fairly attached to vinyl, although happily that's making a strong comeback."

Gregor says that she, like many music fans, was initially awed by the "pristine and clean experience" of the compact disc. But then, she says, "I got very smart and realized: Oh, this is a little too shiny, and I miss the depth of my vinyl."

Listeners drawn to Internet radio — whether musical affinity services like last.fm and Pandora or the digital feeds of remote stations from around the globe — may eventually feel the same sense of loss if local radio goes the way of cassettes and eight-tracks. And to some degree, that's already taken place, with huge radio syndicates like Westwood One, Citadel Broadcasting and, of course, Clear Channel dominating local markets. Eight of the Top 10 music stations in Colorado Springs are owned by two of those three companies (see sidebar, p. 17).

Still, it's the technological shift that may turn out to be the greatest threat.

"Being able to get music anywhere now, everybody is a pretty good DJ — working their iPods or working the Internet, checking out YouTube," says Gregor, who joined KRCC in the mid-'90s and still slips the occasional Nirvana or Pearl Jam into her mix of current alternative and international music. "So that's the challenge, to stay a little ahead of that curve if I can."

When it comes to finances, public stations are dealing with much the same challenges as their commercial counterparts. Unlike the government-funded British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), America's public stations rely on listener donations for most of their operating costs. Additional funds come from commercial and civic underwriting in exchange for on-air mentions, which have increasingly grown to resemble traditional radio adverts — although briefer and considerably less hysterical.

Among those locally who have been feeling the pinch is KCME (88.7 FM), which dropped two jazz programs last year in order to become an all-classical station. Later in the year, the station announced that its fundraising drive had fallen short for the first time. And while Gregor applauds the loyalty of KRCC's listeners and sponsors, her station also ran an unscheduled day-long fundraiser earlier this month to raise necessary funds for operational expenses.

"You've gotta have that antenna," says Gregor, "and when yours is on a mountain and the rent's going up, you have to come up with the funds."

Respect and ruin

Radio's full of transient on-air personalities, but Chris "CK" Knight can hold his own against the most well-traveled of them. The afternoon/evening jock for the Clear Channel-owned KDZA-FM (Jet 107.9 FM) has been in the business for four decades, beginning with KGGO-FM, a Top 40 station in his native Des Moines, Iowa. When he left there, he embarked on a geographically impressive career trajectory.

"I went to Omaha and then San Diego, you know, up and down the West Coast, St. Louis, I worked in Denver at one point, and then the East Coast, Boston, New Orleans and then Dallas, Tucson and then came here," Knight says, rattling off the locations with the fluid delivery of a seasoned broadcaster. "You know, I couldn't do that again if I had to, but back then I was a kid, so it didn't matter."

Needless to say, Knight's watched the industry go through countless changes, especially in relation to the companies that supply its music.

For years, the record industry has campaigned to get radio stations to "back announce" the songs they'd just played, based on the rationale that consumers might actually be inspired to buy a record if they knew what they were listening to. Those complaints have largely fallen on deaf ears — although Clear Channel reportedly proposed, in 2001, to back announce songs in exchange for record companies paying them a fee. (Non-commercial stations have a better track record, although KEPC is notorious for not identifying songs and dispenses with DJs entirely during school breaks — as though most students at a community college went home to somewhere other than here.)

Knight says he still announces what he's played before going into a commercial, even though, as he puts it, "the songs I play on Jet have been around for 20 or 30 years, and people should know the title and artist by now. But I think that for somebody like me who back announces now, it's just something that you do out of respect for the artist."

(Ironically, less than three days after this interview took place, Knight's station abandoned its classic rock format in favor of the more contemporary active rock format currently employed by local ratings leader KILO-FM. Clear Channel's Richards says the transition, which took place earlier this week, will not lead to layoffs.)

The latest controversy to arise in the radio industry was the recent introduction of legislation which would pay fees to recording artists whose songs are played on the air. Music stations soon began airing promos insisting that paying the performers (when, traditionally, fees have only been collected for songwriters) would hurt the stations, if not put them out of business entirely.

So, does Knight miss the simpler days when the record industry plied radio guys with cocaine and prostitutes in exchange for playing their records?

"I miss those days tremendously," he jokes. "No, I was never in a position, for the most part, to be anywhere near that scene. And the few times I was a music director and understood the corruption that was going on behind the scenes, it gave me the creeps. I didn't want to be around those people and I never enjoyed that part of the business."

These days, of course, the record industry can barely afford its own illicit substances, let alone use them to bribe program directors. For radio, coming to terms with 21st-century realities has become a decidedly sober endeavor, with origins dating back to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which cleared the way for common ownership of multiple stations in the same market.

"That ruined the industry," says Knight. "Once it was deregulated, then all of a sudden companies — it doesn't matter which company you're talking about — were able to gobble up so many radio stations and they were greedy, you know, like, 'We'll get as many radio stations as we can so we can make as much money as we can.'

"Radio used to be — it really was — a viable force for a long time if you wanted to hear new and up-and-coming music," Knight laments. "And it's just not that anymore."


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