Killing the Human Element

Clear Channel-owned radio stations in small to medium-sized markets were decimated last week as the company laid off dozensif not hundreds – of on-air talent. This means that, at some Clear Channel station-clusters, there is literally no local presence on the airwaves anymore.
Clear Channel says it’ll take remaining talent and syndicate their shows across markets, using “custom breaks” and “localized content” to provide a patina of localism on affected stations – a practice otherwise known as voice tracking. The company has also appointed two dozen “Brand Managers” to oversee 11 national station formats.
This is nothing new for a company that made its mark on radio history through massive consolidation and homogenization; Matthew Lasar notes that, as heads roll, Clear Channel is still lobbying the FCC to relax radio station ownership limits.
Meanwhile, Clear Channel’s radio revenues rose by 7% last quarter, to $1.58 billion.
This does not mean that the blood-letting is over at Clear Channel: learned word from inside the radio industry suggests that a round of firings in major markets is in the works.
You can thank Bob Pittman for many of these changes. Pittman joined the company last year and was made Chief Executive Officer just last month.
Pittman has an interesting history: widely known as the “father of MTV,” he’s had a long career spanning several media empires and has specialized in “digital innovation.” It is not coincidental that Clear Channel’s investments in its streaming operations rose while its attention to HD Radio dropped shortly after Pittman’s entrance into the company.
Pittman explained the layoffs as necessary to cement the company’s realization that “the world is different in 2011.” What does this mean? “Any company started before the Internet is almost by definition outmoded in terms of its operational structure,” he opined. Clear Channel has come to understand that smaller radio markets “don’t have an economic structure that allows them to do the same quality of programming as the big markets.”
It is difficult to see how this strategy shares the same head-space with a perspective that proclaimed “radio isn’t dying” just last year. Of course the world is much different in 2011 than it was in 1996 – you can blame the Internet for part of that, but in the specific case of radio much more blame falls on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which effectively spawned the likes of Clear Channel and led to the very practices which bled smaller markets dry and destroyed the “economic structure that allow[ed] them to do the same quality of programming as the big markets.”
It was a smart move for Clear Channel to create an online portal where all of the streams of its radio stations could be accessed in one convenient location – iHeartRadio regularly places high in the ratings for streaming radio listening. But by obliterating the uniqueness of its stations, does that not diminish the overall value of the portal? If the programming in New York is the same as in Nacogdoches, save for differences in the weather and traffic reports, what incentive do I, as a radio listener, have for exploring 800+ streams if they’re all derivatives of a dozen master formats?
It may have been the radio business that helped catapult Clear Channel into the realm of media titans, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that what Clear Channel sees as radio’s future is moving further away from traditional broadcasting. The company’s using its AM and FM properties as a way to drive interest toward its online platform, and the diminution of live and local talent is a large step in that direction.