In doing the research for this series of blog posts on the history of radio I read several texts by a variety of authors. There was nary a kind word for the current state of commercial radio in the U.S. Jesse Walker (Rebels on the Air) sums this up best: “most radio today is boring and homogeneous, chains of clones controlled by an ever-dwindling handful of focus-group-driven corporations.”
Who controls commercial radio? iHeartMedia Inc. owns 860 stations. This is the company that used to be called Clear Channel and was sold to a private capital group headed by Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners in 2008. Cumulus Media owns 443 stations and Townsquare Media owns another 312 mostly small market stations. There are three other companies that each own more than 100 stations, CBS Radio, Entercom and Salem Media Group.
At one time the Federal Communications Commission established limitations on the number of stations a single entity could own as a way to assure some diversity on the radio dial. But in 1992 the FCC began to loosen those restrictions. The FCC policy had remained basically the same since that time. Here it is:
The rule imposes ownership restrictions based on a sliding scale that varies by the size of the market: (1) in a radio market with 45 or more stations, an entity may own up to eight radio stations, no more than five of which may be in the same service (AM or FM); (2) in a radio market with between 30 and 44 radio stations, an entity may own up to seven radio stations, no more than four of which may be in the same service; (3) in a radio market hosting between 15 and 29 radio stations, an entity may own up to six radio stations, no more than four of which may be in the same service; and (4) in a radio market with 14 or fewer radio stations, an entity may own up to five radio stations, no more than three of which may be in the same service, as long as the entity does not own more than 50 percent of all radio stations in that market.
I looked at iHeart’s list of owned stations and found that they do indeed own 8 stations in many, many markets, although some of those areas, like Poughkeepsie, N.Y., hardly seen to me to be major markets likely to have 45 or more stations. So it’s questionable how strictly even these slackened ownership limitations are enforced. Among iHearts’ holdings are many talk radio stations around the country and their standard fare includes Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
There is a parallel here with what is likely to happen at the FCC under the direction of new chairman Ajit Pai. Pai is intent of eliminating net neutrality rules. The result will be that large corporate interests will be able to buy themselves a preferred pathway to consumers, thus allowing the same type of consolidation of control of broadband that we have with bandwidth.
Radio has been a victim of big data long before anyone used that term. By making programming decisions based on ratings and ad sales, station programmers, who were given the control once enjoyed by DJ’s, generally adopted formats that minimized variety and focused on repetition of the most highly “rated” songs. I found this Infographic on Business Insider which claims that one song was found on 80% of radio station playlists. And the song was “Mrs. Robinson.” Being from a 1967 movie, I guess you can accumulate a lot of big data over five decades. This type of programming focus isn’t going to deliver any music that veers from what you’ve been hearing on commercial radio, over and over and over again.
One of the pioneers of this approach to music radio programming is a consultant firm named Drake-Chenault. They created the most widely used Top 40 format starting in the late 1950’s. It restricted music to a minimal number of songs that would be played repeatedly all day on all shows, interspersed with jingles, news updates and lots of ads. They usually achieved commercial if not artistic success. They later developed “jingle packages” as well as formats such as Solid Gold, Hit Parade and Great American Country.
A company called RCS, which is still in business, started making computer software to program music on radio stations some 30 years ago. On their web site they elaborate on what their Selector program has to offer: “Selector delivers consistency in the mix, variety in the flow, balance in the log and control in the entire music library.” Ho-hum.
Knowing that the program director is now the key person to determine what we’ll hear on these stations, I searched online and found this job description on the web site of the Houston Chronicle for a program director. I assume this is a fairly standard description of what commercial radio stations are looking for. “As a radio program director, your responsibilities are that of an administrator. You handle the business of the radio station and leave the voice and personality to the disc jockey. Disc jockeys have to follow your rules even if you may not see eye-to-eye. You may prefer to play safe and repeat music even though your disc jockey prefers to take a risk and make changes to the music. Nevertheless, the success of the radio station lies in your hands.” In other words, if some rogue disc jockey wants to play a song that’s different from what he played yesterday and the day before and the day before that, it’s your job to make him toe the line.
And just in case you can’t find a suitable program director to control this you can always turn to radio consultants. One of the larger firms Radio Programming Consultants, which has offices in North America, Europe and Asia, offers the following assurance: “In our consulting practice the artistic part in music scheduling comes AFTER the technical / applying science.” Not only are these guys admitting that they could care less about artistic considerations in selecting music, they’re trumpeting that fact in all caps! Who would want to listen to a radio station they programmed?
Throughout its history there has always been a response to consolidated conformist radio. Free spirits, pirates and rebels have always popped up snatching some small piece of bandwidth and showing what radio can be. The airways have been controlled by government and corporate owners by monopolizing bandwidth and squeezing the small players and independents to the margins of the dial. But the internet wipes away that limitation, makes the above FCC rules meaningless, and also strips away the limitations of geography and signal strength. Even the smallest operation can stream online and find listeners all over the world. So I think we have a lot more good radio ahead of us.