When I first entered the world of radio in what seems like another life, I did so because of the intrigue I always had for the medium. I loved to listen to the music of the day but, just as much, I was drawn to the on-air personalities – the talented broadcasters working behind the mics of my hometown locally owned and/or operated radio stations well-versed and knowledgeable on the news and information of unique interest to me and my fellow townies. They made appearances and broadcast live at events. They were local stars, representing radio that was “live and local.” It’s something some in this industry unfortunately continue to move way from, in the interest of cost-cutting to maintain large corporate profits but disguised in press releases as “evolution” and in the name of “technology.”
This week, iHeartMedia, the nation’s largest owner of radio stations, announced a new direction for the company with a news release that talked about an ambition to be considered a “technology company” with a greater use of AI. In its wake have come hundreds of layoffs focused largely on the midday and nighttime slots and in smaller markets where the local radio stations were previously the best sources of local information. This came on the heels of Bell Media (iHeart’s Canadian division)’s recent announcement of a new national country format with, again, staff consolidations – largely in middays.
Filling the voids at these stations will differ in approach but not in the end result. In Canada, one air personality located in one central location will be beamed into multiple cities simultaneously. In the U.S., vacancies will be filled by on-air talent currently working at other iHeart stations in other markets. In essence, in many cases, they will be pulling “double duty.” In others, it will be a simulcast. Eventually, it seems, computers will play an even larger role beyond their hard drives. The end result: “live and local” will be made to, in the words of the iHeart executives, “…seem local.”
At a time when next generation listeners spend their time in their cars and with their earbuds listening to more streaming, satellite and podcast content than ever, radio’s move even farther away from locally based talent takes away its greatest differentiator for building brand loyalty and listenership. Never mind that radio doesn’t even come close to promoting its talent, let alone its station brands, like it used to in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And live appearances are rare. How does a jock based in LA (yet heard in Detroit) make appearances at Motown concerts or other events to interact with listeners? Answer: It won’t happen.
I worry greatly about this medium that I have loved, listened to and worked with and within for virtually my entire lifetime. I have friends on-air, in programming and in management with great minds and a great dedication for what they do. It is my great hope that the powers that be take a closer and harder look at what they are doing to radio and its long-term effects. In the meantime, they seem to be asking for fewer ad dollars, fewer listeners and an uncertain future.