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Who Killed Local Radio?
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Who Killed Local Radio?

I remember as a little kid visiting my cousins in New York City with my parents. When we started to get close, NewYork AM radio stations started overriding the local stations we started our ninety-mile trip with. Eventually I'd hear the WABC jingle. It sent a tingle down my spine. I practically jumped out of our station wagon and ran the rest of the way to New York City and shimmied up their transmitter. I'd hear fast talking DJ's with plenty of pre-selling and back-selling the most exciting songs of the late 60's and early 70's. Their timing was impeccable, the sound effects were other worldly and everything fit together. Even the commercials. This was known as Boss Radio and it brought me to my knees.

Actually, every city had it's heritage flamethrower stations with built-in celebrity jocks. New York had Cousin Brucie, Philadelphia had the Geater with the Heater (Jerry Blavit), San Francisco had Dr. Don Rose and LA had The Real Don Steele, to name a few. And these guys rocked the sound of their city to the core. They played what sounded good, not what was on a playlist. And, they played what their audience was begging to hear. That's why radio was so great. Call letters meant something.

Of course the shift to FM changed the sound of radio, literally and figuratively. Since there were no more AM crackles and pops from interference, FM stations stopped with the reverb and sound effects to compensate. Then stereophonic sound hit the scene. And better sound made FM a more attractive frequency than AM for listening to music. Aside from asinine morning shows like "The Morning Zoo" format, stations started to sound more sophisticated. But as the limited FM spectrum allocated to commercial broadcasting filled up, only deep pocketed corporations could afford to purchase them.

And, this is why you can drive into a city like San Francisco, with some of the richest rock and folk music history in the world, and literally be disgusted by what you hear tuning up and down the dial. The only tingle you will get is like when nails are screeching on a blackboard.

Do you like Bonnie Rait and The Red Hot Chile Peppers from the 90's? Great, because San Francisco's most well know rock station, 104.5 FM KFOG, is still playing a few of their 1990's hits ad infinitum. You could wake up from a twenty-year coma and this self-dubbed San Francisco favorite will sound exactly the same. Same artists. Same songs. Same IDs. Same promotions. I think they took "If it works, don't change it" a little too much to heart. Follow that line of reasoning and we'd all still be driving Model T Fords.

Go ahead, make yourself sick. Tune up and down the San Francisco Bay Area radio dial. Every station has at least one duplicate format. Most stations don't play anything "new" until it's six months old, vetted for controversy and audience tested. Although they have different names, every San Francisco commercial radio station has the same formula morning show of a guy or two and a woman all trying to do Howard Stern from twenty-years ago.

Why is everything so homogenized? Basically three major companies own all the major stations in the San Francisco Market; Cumulus, CBS Radio and Clear Channel. As a matter of fact, they are the biggest players in the entire nation. And, most San Francisco stations are programmed in the Mid-West or some other remote locale out of the market. So not only are these stations in a contest to see who can be least offensive to listeners, they also have no idea what listeners even want around the country. For a number of years San Francisco was without an oldies station! That's like Houston Texas being without a Country station.

Furthermore, listenership and revenue are way down in commercial radio. One reason is because Satellite Radio and internet services like Pandora have come to the rescue of true music lovers. Bloated radio executives think it's because they are commercial free. But the real reason is they are programming new music people want to hear. Sirius XM Satellite has multiple stations for every genre. With internet based Pandora you actually tell the site specifically what to play! And the numbers do not lie. In every major US city and many minor ones, Pandora has more listeners than the top rated FM or AM radio station. Contrary to the bloated radio execs, they do have sponsors, which shoots to hell the commercial free argument for its popularity.

And this is just the beginning. Opening Pandora's box has led car manufacturers, who already equip most cars with satellite radio, with internet capabilities, first and foremost to tune in Pandora. Ford has even gone as far as to offer "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" buttons on steering wheels of certain models so drivers can rate their Pandora music selection without taking their hands off the wheel.

Enabling internet to function as a mobile music source is putting the last nail in the coffin for local FM radio. There are too many better alternatives than the tired "Two in a row Tuesdays." The one thing it still has going for it that Satellite or Pandora can never take away is localism. Local stations have local personalities, promote local bands and do local events. And if they listen to their local audience, listeners will sit through a certain amount of commercial breaks.

I love radio. I love how radio waves work. I love picking up distant signals on AM. I love listening to old broadcasts of legendary personalities. I love taking off the case of my receiver and looking inside. I love staring at radio towers in awe of their massive height and structure. I love being in a radio studio. I love being on the air. I love programing a show. I love buying vintage radios. My mistress lives in my car's dashboard or at home on a big shelf. Radio is my wife. It is my life.

I think what corporate America has forgotten is that the airwaves are public. They are just renting them. If you read their broadcasting license, it says they must do everything "in the public interest." Well, the public is not interested anymore.


Street Talk

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