Changing Radio

Stations moving away from live DJs towards more music and commercials

by Kim Curtis – The Associated Press, San Francisco

Radio stations once were recognized by their lineup of voices. Wolfman Jack, Cousin Brucie, Alan Freed - their names were synonymous with their shows, their styles. They didn't just spin records, they were personalities involved with their communities.

"Radio was invented for human communication," said Bruce Morrow, known to his listeners in New York for the past 40 years as Cousin Brucie. "When Cousin Brucie goes on the air people have a friend."

Pushed aside by CDs, magazines, videotapes and the Internet, radio has been relegated to button-punching commuters who may spend just a few minutes with a particular station. At many stations, personality and humanity have taken a backseat to more commercials, more music.

"This is a time when radio is so scientific," said Ben Fong-Torres, author of 'The History of Top 40 Radio', and a former editor at Rolling Stone magazine. "Between syndication, automated radio and squeezing out personalities, you do fear for the future."

San Jose station KCNL hit the airwaves eighteen months ago with no live disc jockeys. At the station, which mostly plays hits from the 1980s, computers program and play the music, commercials and public service announcements.

"We're playing a unique mix of music and trimming the fat," said program director Gary Schoenwetter. "We've made more money and have gotten more listeners than we expected to."

Although the station was the fifth-most-listened-to San Jose station during afternoon drive time among 18-to-49-year-olds last summer, KCNL noticed that "a lot of people turned us on at work or to relax on their way home, but in the morning they were still gravitating towards the morning shows... with human voice, human interaction," he said. In December, the station hired its first two DJs, and even built a studio.

Stations also are getting more out of the DJs they do hire. Many of the better-known voices do more than three shows a day, said Ron Rodrigues, editor of Radio & Records, a weekly industry newspaper.

In some instances, a DJ in one city will tape shows for different markets - injecting a local angle into each show - and listeners in those other markets probably think that the DJ is in the same city they are.

"It's illegal to say the show is live when it's taped, but they're not going to go out of their way to say it's taped," Rodrigues said.

The disc jockey spends about 20 minutes recording the voice tracks for an hour-long show. The music and commercials are inserted later. "It's a very cheap way to get several uses out of one guy," he said.

And for small stations that cannot afford to hire a talented, well-known personality, syndication is a godsend.

Even when stations can afford live talent, they are still finding new ways to squeeze in more commercials.

The latest device causing an industry uproar is known as Cash, a digital technology that snips out the silent pockets between words, shortens the pauses and generally speeds up a DJ's speech.

Cash allows stations to add as many as six extra minutes of advertising per hour. While 12 minutes of commercials per hour had been the standard for years, that's now jumped to 20 commercials an hour, according to James Duncan, president of Duncan's American Radio, a Cincinnati-based broadcasting industry consulting group.

The people who make and use Cash say listeners won't notice, but Rodrigues believes it won't catch on "because it's not natural... What good will getting in another commercial do if people stop listening?"

Indeed, when WABC in New York tried to use Cash programming on Rush Limbaugh's talk show, listeners complained, as did the host.

Morrow who began broadcasting in 1959, has seen many radio fads come and go and said he hopes the trend away from live broadcasters and towards more commercials is just another one.

"Whatever's new has been turned around, dusted off and tried again," he said, adding that there was once a device used to speed up records.

"Once we computerize, pasteurize and dehumanize radio we have nothing left," Morrow said. "It's just a box emanating sound."

Howie Castle in San Diego, California, who kindly forwarded the above news item,
reports another depressing angle to current US radio...

Just when you thought they couldn't get much bigger...

Clear Channel Communications, the largest radio and TV broadcast company in the US, is buying SFX Entertainment, the world's largest pop concert producer and the owner or operator of 120 live entertainment venues in 31 of the top 50 US markets. SFX produced 26,000 music, theatrical, and sporting events in 1999. The deal is worth just over $4 billion.

As a result, Clear Channel could gain the upper hand in negotiating to buy national concert tours by major attractions. And, because radio is the prime vehicle for promoting concerts and selling records, this will give the Clear Channel stations a major competitive edge. Conversely, Clear Channel could also curtail airplay for artists whose tours are booked by competing promoters.

So let's tally this up. In addition to owning SFX Entertainment, Clear Channel will also own 19 TV stations, an estimated 867 radio stations (upon completion of the merger with AMFM - up from the old number of 830), and through their Eller Media subsidiary, 555,000 billboards.

Whatever happened to the anti-monopoly laws?

So, if we understand this correctly, America could end up with all the radio stations owned by the same company, outputting programmes with as little human input and as many commercials as possible? If it happens there, it'll be here next.

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