Clear Channel Cuts: It's Not Just The Economy

After Federal Laws changed in the 90s, essentially lifting all caps on the number of radio stations one company could own, San Antonio-based Clear Channel went on a buying binge.  When it was all over, the company became known in broadcasting circles, about a decade ago, as “The Evil Empire.”  The company’s mantra seemed to be “let’s just be the biggest and worry about it later.”  

Despised by its critics and never revered by shareholders as much as the company hoped, Clear Channel is now owned by Private Equity owners not known for their patience.  So, today, in the midst of a national advertising slump, the company that owns more than 800 radio stations across all 50 states, eliminated 1850 jobs from an already thin workforce.

For the first time anyone in radio can ever remember, a parent company has laid-off sales people – revenue generators. That’s part of what happened today. The station also slashed local on-air and programming jobs, across the country. For example, in Detroit (where Clear Channel owns six stations), WKQI-FM will be run by a program director in New York, who also programs one of the company’s stations there.  Another, the first all-sports radio station in the market, WDFN-AM, as of today, has cut virtually all of its local programming (and the jobs that go with it) and replaced it with national syndication.  WDFN is a victim of a poor signal (against an FM competitor now enjoying a four-fold ratings advantage), a company that has been neglecting it for years and now, these latest cuts.

The company says it has to change, now that it has new ownership. But, in its years as a public company, Clear Channel seemed more interested in generating cash to pay its extensive debts than it ever was investing in its product or its future.  The company did not take many of the aggressive steps its competitors did to add revenue streams. Unlike CBS, there were no big off-shoot newsletters or credible on-line video advertising.  Unlike privately-held broadcasters like Greater Media, Clear Channel generally put less emphasis on localism from programming to personality to promotions.  

Yes – national radio advertising is down.  Yes – it could get tougher with car dealers as America’s “bread and butter” local advertisers.  No – that situation alone did not drive today’s realities.  We observers have seen this coming for years, after Clear Channel ran many legacy local radio stations on its corporate path, often adversely affecting its customers, its listeners, thousands of career broadcasters and the communities they hoped to serve better.