Personality Crisis?

Here is an interesting follow up to yesterday’s post regarding Jim Cramer’s predictions.  It is from Media Week and about the need for radio to get back to live and local personalities to compete for the future.  

Personality Crisis: Will Cost Cutting Save Radio?

Paul Heine and Katy Bachman FEBRUARY 11, 2008 – “shut up and rock!” screams a message on the Web site of WEBN-FM in Cincinnati. The shut-up part of that order at the iconic Rock station is being taken quite literally.Late last year, Clear Channel canned 12-year WEBN midday host Ken “Mr. K” Glidewell and replaced him with a personality who doubles as one of several co-hosts on the station’s morning show. The dismissal was part of a massive wave of layoffs in at least 20 markets that gave a wholly different meaning to the company’s Less Is More mantra.While the numbers varied from market to market, the results were alarmingly similar: on-air jobs eliminated, positions consolidated, air shifts radically extended, personality teams split up and more dayparts yielding to voice-tracking and syndication.

What’s so shocking is that those on-air cuts may be only the beginning. Just a few weeks ago, a CC edict came down from the top to freeze all budgets—including monies set aside for research, advertising and promotion—for first quarter, and possibly longer.

When the nation’s largest radio group makes deep cuts to boost the bottom line, you know the radio business is challenged. Radio revenue, following several years of practically no growth, took a turn for the worse in fourth quarter last year, a condition that is bleeding over into first-quarter 2008. Despite radio’s efforts to stimulate a second revenue stream from digital initiatives, reluctant advertisers and a looming local recession seem to be working against a prompt turnaround.

One of the industry’s chief money savers is voice-tracking, the practice of prerecorded on-air disc jockey patter spliced together with music, commercials and other elements. Pioneered by Clear Channel in the late ’90s at the height of consolidation and widely embraced by the industry, voice-tracking sacrificed the jobs of countless overnight personalities years ago. Now the practice is spreading to nights, middays and afternoons. Often, voice-tracking is used across dozens of markets, similar to syndication.

And there’s a new budget-cutting trend: one jock covering two dayparts. Clear Channel is stretching midday shifts to an unprecedented seven hours on some music stations, especially those popular with workplace audiences. For example, in Chicago, Melissa Forman hosts both the morning and afternoon drive-time shows on Adult Contemporary mainstay WLIT (Lite FM). Jim Shafer and Jen Byrum do the same at Adult Contemporary WLYT-FM (Lite 102.9) in Charlotte, N.C., under the aptly named bookend handles, AM Carolina and PM Carolina.The result is that some stations are getting by with only three hosted live shows: mornings, middays and an extra long afternoon drive.

No doubt the reductions and changes in radio’s on-air talent will help save money. It might even have little effect on the ratings. But in the long term, fewer personalities may serve to commoditize the medium and render its content less distinguishable from an iPod or a low-budget Internet radio station. “What do we do to differentiate ourselves?” asks Steve Goldstein, executive vp and group program director for Saga Communications. “It’s counterintuitive, even alarming, that broadcasters might sack talent and turn their stations into jukeboxes precisely when music is available from an array of other sources. We need to put our vision hats back on because we’re not going to cut our way to success.”

One program director, whose station operates without jocks in nights, overnights and on weekends and who asked not to be named, warns that radio is in for “a rude awakening” when wireless Internet brings thousands of new radio choices to the car. “The only defense is live and local. We have to develop personalities that can hold a conversation on the radio and be entertaining. Unfortunately, as an industry, we’ve done a horrible job at that.”

Perhaps it’s just the state of radio today. “Radio has been homogenized so much that there really aren’t personalities,” says Rich Russo, director of broadcast services for JL Media. “The radio DJ is supposed to be your friend, the guy who gets you through the night or takes you on the drive home. I don’t know if they should come back or not. I don’t know that if stations go away, anyone cares if they’re gone.”

“Personalities just don’t stand out like they used to,” echoes Maribeth Papuga, senior vp and director of local broadcast for MediaVest. “There will always be some high-profile layoffs, but the ratings don’t always show it. We don’t know if there’s any impact because with the diary it takes at least six months to see any impact.”

Program directors defend the expanding use of voice-tracking and longer shifts as a way to adjust to shifting audience-listening practices. They insist that cost cutting isn’t the only motivator. “We look at how people use the station—when they’re tuning in and out, how long they listen, their commute times and when they start their workday—to paint a picture of the audience. Then we give them the best talent, whether they be live and local, syndicated, voice-tracked or whatever,” says Clay Hunnicutt, regional vp of programming for CC in Atlanta. As for the new marathon air shifts, he adds, “Some talent can handle a longer shift and some can’t.”

“Studies show that music comes first for the Adult Contemporary listener,” says Stella Schwartz, programming director at KOST, CC’s Adult Contemporary in Los Angeles. “So we adjusted our air shifts to better match those audience patterns.”

Reallocating resources to boost online products is also a driver. “We have fewer DJs today than yesterday, but we have more Web and production people so that we can provide content in ways that reach listeners beyond the big stick in the cow pasture,” says Jim Richards, program director for CC’s Classic Rock KGB in San Diego.

The credo for voice-tracking proponents is that “local” is no longer defined by where programming originates but rather how strongly it resonates with local listeners. “I can speak about a concert that’s happening tonight at a local venue just as well as a voice-tracker from somewhere else can,” says Richards. “In a world that is increasingly global, to whom does it matter that it’s live and local, as long as we’re satisfying the entertainment and information needs of the listener and providing something that’s unique to that signal?”

Tapping a smaller, more multifaceted talent pool is also a growing tend. “We’ll use somebody on a rock station and an AC station, if they are capable of doing both,” says Goldstein. “It allows us to use a strong talent in multiple formats and pay them accordingly. The upside is they understand the market, they’re right there, they know what to say.”

Over the past two years, this has allowed Saga to sever ties with lesser talent and better compensate stronger ones. “The premium talent, the big morning shows and the outstanding talent that we’ve built equity with are more important to us than ever, and we hope they will be with us for a long time,” Goldstein says. “But the less distinctive talent are the ones that are more vulnerable.”

Some programmers worry that eliminating positions that traditionally served as on-air training grounds for future superstars is penny-wise but pound-foolish. “Where do the next talented jocks and program directors come from when the night, overnight and weekend slots are gone?” asks one p.d. who requested anonymity. “This is another thing that is going to kill us. When you find that 20 year old who’s dying to be on the radio and you have to continually tell them, ‘There’s no slot for you,’ they eventually decide to move on. We all first got our shot [there]. Radio is shooting itself in the foot in many ways. This is just one of them.”

As good as a virtual jock’s info might be, they aren’t there, a condition that’s caught the eye of the Federal Communications Commission. Following its years-long national survey of consumers on how the media is serving local communities, the FCC is taking aim at voice-tracking. When it released its written report on localism Jan. 25, it said it would seek additional public comment on the prevalence of voice-tracking and whether the commission “should take steps to limit the practice, require disclosure or otherwise address it. We believe that such practices may diminish the presence of licensees in the communities and thus hinder their ability to assess the needs and interests of their local communities.”

In the end, propping up the bottom line through drastic cuts in radio’s product may only serve to further reduce radio’s top line. “Personalities do have a following, and you build loyalty for a brand that way. A big sales tool is the DJ chatter and having the personality show up to a remote. So if you start chipping away at that, it eliminates part of the medium’s attractiveness,” says Mary Barnas, executive vp and director of local activation for Carat. “A lot of our clients do remotes, but it’s getting harder to get stations to partner up with.”

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One Response to Personality Crisis?

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about personality crisis. It was very alarming that thru this on-air jobs will be eliminated. Hope it would not ended that way.

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