In the 1990’s the FCC relaxed its restrictions of radio station ownership and set the stage for large corporate consolidation of radio stations. Before long, two or three giant operators gobbled up a majority of the nation’s radio stations in most of the major markets.
Chief among those consolidators was Clear Channel Communications, which was later sold in a private equity transaction to Bain Capital and Thomas Lee Partners. It was renamed iHeart Media. iHeart owns 858 radio stations in more than 150 markets.
The ClearChannel/iHeart stations are the epitome of big corporate radio. They are divided into narrowly defined formats. Their playlists are computer generated based on ratings. They are intentionally and unashamedly predictable and repetitive. I don’t think that puts them in a very competitive position.If that’s what you want to hear, there are plenty of places to find it without having to listen to all the ads on commercial radio.
So how’s it working out for them.? Well, according to a financial statement by iHeart earlier this year, ““We incurred net losses and had negative cash flows from operations for the years ended December 31, 2016, and 2015, as well as for the quarter ended March 31, 2017.”
The leveraged buyout of ClearChannel in 2008 saddled the new entity with $20 billion in debt And they can’t pay it off. In a recent SEC filing iHeart acknowledged that they might not in fact make it through the year.
Then there’s the number two player, Cumulus Media. They own 454 stations in 90 markets. Seems as though they aren’t doing much better. In a filing at the end of last year they warned, “we may be required to seek protection from our creditors through a bankruptcy filing.” Their stock, which was worth about $30 a share a couple years ago, is now worth about 50 cents per. And in the first quarter they lost $7 million.
The financial troubles of these behemoths has meant there are even fewer local DJs, less local staff, less local programming, less local news. Instead we’re subjected to packages of data driven and computer generated programming that comes out of headquarters and is broadcast nationally. Robo-radio.
So if you want to consider what is a threat to the existence of radio, it may not be about Pandora or YouTube or Spotfiy. Instead the biggest threat is radio stripped of its local interest and built for the ad sales department rather than the audience.
Viewed in this light, the pending collapse of these large corporate consolidators can hardly be considered bad news. There’s the potential for more than 1,000 FM and AM stations to be put in play as these corporate entities collapse. Will one corporate owner replace another, accumulating the same sort of suffocating debt and delivering the same non-descript programming.
I’d like to think this could be the opportunity for a renaissance for radio. Maybe dozens, if not hundreds, of these stations could fall into the hands of independent local owners. In that case, radio can go back to its roots with local talent building communities of listeners with local programming tailored to their interests.