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Listen Closely: After More Layoffs, Radio Just Got a Lot Less Local

...but for how long?
...but for how long?
Cindy Funk via Flickr

Driving through Arkansas not long ago, I turned on the radio and scanned for local stations talking about anything but rightwing politics or Jesus. It was early on a Saturday morning and I stopped on a show called "The Trading Post." In a drawl you could drizzle on a waffle, host Sid King was taking calls from listeners who wanted to buy or sell just about any ol' thing. Used mattresses, farm equipment, pygmy goats, fresh eggs, old-fashioned wringer washing machines, the kind you keep on a back porch next to the rocking chair, the banjo and the still. Somebody called in wanting a bird dog. Another had a cabin up in the woods for rent - no utilities, but it was only $125 a month, within the budget of the frugal serial killer.

It was an aural inventory of stuff bought and traded in rural America. To make deals, you called the seller or buyer directly. Sid gave out phone numbers over the air, using only the last four digits in this one-prefix part of the Ozarks. Everybody seemed to know each other on "The Trading Post" and I imagined them ringing up from the feed store or down to the bus station. I listened and grinned. It was like a radio wayback machine had taken me to Mayberry circa 1962.

In a few years, radio like this might be gone forever and that's a shame. It's too local, too small-town. Except for the guy who sells his rusted combine for a few dollars, nobody makes money off of it.

In case you haven't noticed, local radio is just about kaput everywhere, but especially in small towns. To get a taste of what rural radio used to sound like, you have to go see Greater Tuna, where actors Joe Sears and Jaston Williams include scenes in their play set in 275-watt station West Texas station WKKK, "serving the Greater Tuna area." It couldn't be more local, with host Arles Struvie reporting headlines from the news desk: "Nuclear accident imperils millions ... Texas not included." End of story.

John Rody and John Labella of KZEW-FM

Here in Dallas, a big radio market, we still have some homegrown radio, but not as much as we used to back in the days of Ron Chapman on KVIL and LaBella and Rody on KZEW. There's still Kidd Kraddick's chirpy No. 1 KISS-FM morning show, now syndicated to 70 markets nationwide and with minimal local content. (Kraddick owns his show, selling it to other stations.) There's sports talk on The Ticket, Willis Johnson's "Good Morning Show" on KKDA-AM and a noontime local interview hour on KERA-FM that's so dull it's like listening to SNL's snoozy "Delicious Dish."

Most any time of day, though, if you click around the radio dial, you're only hearing shows piped in from other places, like that refrigerated vault where they keep Ryan Seacrest, now radio's top-syndicated DJ (his show airs here on KDMX-FM).

If, like me, you typically listen to satellite radio or podcasts when you're driving and never turn on the radio at home, you probably didn't notice that on October 27, Clear Channel, the country's largest radio company with 850 stations, axed 200 employees, mostly DJs and program directors in small and medium-sized markets around the country. It's a continuation of Clear Channel's slash-and-burn philosophy.

If they can voicetrack or simulcast it from somewhere else, there's no reason to have local employees in many day-parts, as radio calls its timeslots. Out in the latest round of firings were longtime morning show DJs in Albuquerque and the afternoon drive team in Corpus Christi who'd been on for 16 years. Traffic reporters, program directors, news anchors, sportscasters, from upstate New York to Salt Lake City, all out of their jobs. One radio analyst, Inside Music Media's Jerry Del Colliano, told Chicago media reporter Robert Feder that he could see Clear Channel getting rid of all program directors and local DJs in the near future and operating stations by robotics "with nothing local, little live and everything cheap."

In the way that media company CEOs have of characterizing drastic cutbacks as "improvements," Clear Channel's Bob Pittman said in a conference call with media writers that the layoffs of hundreds of small-market radio people was a "reallocation of resources and a different way of doing business. ... the good side is that after this reorganization, the business will be in great shape to operate better, to improve the quality of their performance, therefore attracting more listeners and generating more revenue."

Got that? By getting rid of local voices who can tell you the weather by looking out the window, local radio will be better. Clear Channel says that, despite firing people at these stations, their local listeners and advertisers will be better served by having fewer people on the air who actually live in the area they're broadcasting to. It's like when daily newspapers shrink their page sizes and say it's to make the paper more "reader-friendly," when really it's about reducing the cost of ink and newsprint. The product gets worse and that's somehow better for all of us.

De-localizing radio started when President Clinton signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act that loosened rules for station ownership. Clear Channel gobbled up locally owned stations by the hundreds and launched its strategy of nationalizing radio programming, beaming out shows from central locations and giving advertisers deals for buying programs and reaching target audiences across many markets. They honed the "fake local" sound, where DJs, in booths hundreds or thousands of miles from listeners, play corporate-programmed music playlists, no longer update times and temperatures and only drop in local references they find on web sites for the cities that carry their shows.

And where will you get the next generation of radio "talent"? You can't start your career in radio working your way up from the overnight shift on some WKRP-like station anymore. In the 1970s, stations were required by law to have someone on duty 24 hours a day and most had someone on the microphone in the studio even in the wee hours. Most stations had news departments, too, that reported live and local at least once an hour. Now radio news is all but extinct. We go to Twitter instead when there's a train derailment or earthquake. Late-night radio is nothing but canned programming or infomercials; same for the hours after drive-time and on weekends.

When the next bunch of radio DJs fall in the media forest, will anyone be there to hear them?

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