Radio Killed the Radio Star

Rereading that statement may sound like a mass genocide of radio DJs, but in a sense, that’s almost exactly what’s happening in today’s media world.

In light of Boston’s WFNX being bought out by Clear Channel Communications a week ago, the discussion of what’s happening in radio these days is unavoidable.

First, here’s a little back story. WFNX has been broadcasting since 1983, making this its 29th year on air. Before the sale, it was owned by Phoenix Media/Communications Group. The station, operating under an alternative rock format, was one of the first commercial stations in America to play this type of music. Over the years, WFNX broke many bands and artists into the scene, such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, as well as recently, Foster the People, Gotye, and fun. Along with the Boston Phoenix, they hosted Green Day at the DCR Hatch Shell in 1994. In previous years, they hosted a free concert in City Hall Plaza called Best Music Poll, with up and coming artists who the listeners voted as the best of the year.

And that’s just the beginning. What WFNX did for the local music scene is groundbreaking. With programming including “Boston Accents” a show dedicated to playing local acts, and their spotlight on a different Boston band every month, the station made sure to pull the underground up and give artists the exposure they deserved. Some examples of these bands are Dresden Dolls, Passion Pit, and the Pixies.

With so few of these independent stations remaining, the sale of WFNX to Clear Channel removes a huge part of the Boston music scene that could never be filled by a lack of DJs and the disappearance of shows such as “Boston Accents” and “The Nightly News.” One of WFNX’s main priorities was the listeners. By adapting the slogan “We Are WFNX” when Paul Driscoll became Program Director, the station showed how much they cared about the listener, the artists, and their employees. Corporate companies like Clear Channel most often do not carry the values that a station like WFNX or any other independent (or small corporate owned) station does.

But before sputtering out many more things that you probably already knew, here’s some information that might be detrimental to the final sale.

Clear Channel already has holds in the Boston market, including Kiss 108 and Jam’n 94.5, both Top 40 stations, as well as two other AM stations. Ironically enough, before becoming Jam’n 94.5, the station was a rock station trying to compete with the late WBCN (which is another story entirely). When that failed, they turned into Top 40 to try to compete with Kiss 108, and now both stations are owned by Clear Channel. With two stations of the Top 40 genre in Boston, where’s the variety in music? Also Kiss 108 relies heavily on syndication, removing the effect of the live DJ from radio. However, with the sale of one Top 40 station to the same owner of another, it is shown that compromise of some sort is possible and plausible.

The rumor going around is that 101.7 on the dial will turn into a Spanish or country station when approved by the FCC, thus furthering the limitation of music the audience is receiving. Especially with other country stations in the area (102.5 WKLB in Boston and Cat Country 98.1 in Providence), and not much of a market for Spanish radio, especially since Spanish station Power 102.9 already exists. If this is about ratings, why wouldn’t they keep what they know works and try to improve on it with the funds they can provide?

(However, part of that is shame on Stephen Mindich, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Phoenix Media/Communications Group, for not negotiating a contract enabling the format and DJs to remain after the sale, or finding another communications group to form an alliance with to establish the necessary funding to keep WFNX on air.)

In the press release of the sale, John Hogan, Chairman and CEO of Clear Channel Media and Entertainment stated, “This was a great opportunity to expand our footprint and our listenership in Boston, a key market with millions of fans who love radio as much as we do.”

However, there is an argument at hand here. If they love radio as much as the listener, they wouldn’t make it so cut-copy in the rut of corporate America. They would preserve the format that tens of thousands of listeners grew up with.

Also, another interesting side to bring up is that, with all of the other stations being basically the same, wouldn’t a difference make more of an impact? That said, maintaining a tried and true format that rarely exists in the area, nevertheless among the masses (sure there’s Radio 92.9, but they don’t have DJs like WFNX, and 95.5 WBRU in Providence (also an independent station), which doesn’t have the range to Boston) would hold more promise than conforming to an already widespread genre.

For an example of this, there’s Radio 104.5 in Philadelphia, a Clear Channel station since 2001. For not even a year, the station became a Spanish station between August 2006 and May 2007, before Clear Channel made the switch to alternative rock, the genre it remains now. They switched because Spanish programming didn’t receive the ratings they desired. The station is also more popular than the previous station of the alt rock format in the area.

However, while this is an option for the future of WFNX, we have to consider that maybe they don’t want to be a part of the Clear Channel corporate conglomeration. In the press release it was stated that, “WFNX’s intellectual property — including the call letters, the archives, interviews, videos, etc. — are being retained by Phoenix Media/Communications Group in the deal that sends 101.7 FM to Clear Channel, leaving open the possibility that WFNX could live on as a non-terrestrial radio station of some sort.” Thus being that WFNX could live on online, such as syndicated show host Ian Camfield’s London Calling on XFM, or any other show on Redefined Media’s channel. Maybe a WFN-X-FM of some sorts is in the works, but more news of this is at the discretion of those making the decision.

Even still, online radio is removing the thrill of a live DJ, the fun of remotes, and world premieres of newly released songs, as well as up to the minute news updates (much like FNX’s Henry Santoro was known for). In essence, corporate radio stations are removing the personality (as well as personal touch) from the airwaves. While not every single station has gotten to this, it’s only a matter of time if the pattern continues the way it is now. Although, having the online option is better than none, it still costs the listener money to get satellite radio, which defeats the purpose of radio’s accessibility. It also removes the station’s impact on the community.

There is another option that is probably less likely, but taking Radio 104.1 WMRQ in Connecticut for example, it is possible for a station to buy itself back, or ally with another media group to buy the station back from Clear Channel. The station switched formats and call letters many times before 1994 when it became an alternative rock outlet WMRQ. In 2003, it was switched to Hip Hop and R&B, and then continued to switch formats and call letters again and again for many years, all under control of Clear Channel, failing to receive satisfying ratings. Finally, in 2009, Clear Channel was above the ownership limits of the FCC and Red Wolf Broadcasting Corporation bought the station and immediately restored it to WMRQ’s letters and alternative rock format which it remains today.

Continuing on, 91X in California (a ‘border blaster’ station, meaning it’s located in the US but Mexican owned), started off as their own independent modern alternative rock station, before being acquired by Jacor Communications in 1996. Jacor was then bought by Clear Channel in 1999, and lasted until 2005 when the FCC ruled that Clear Channel was over their area threshold (this seems to be a pattern) and was forced to sell the station to Finest City Broadcasting (under direction of former Clear Channel worker Mike Glickenhaus) who put the station into debt and foreclosure. Thankfully, Local Media of America (the current owner) purchased the station in 2010 and saved it from debt, remaining the same format all the way through.

What can be taken from that example is that Clear Channel purchases stations in mass quantities just to attain channels and make a profit. When they’re faced with breaking the FCC threshold, they get rid of the station as fast as they can to a corporation who most likely cannot handle the funding, putting the station at risk for foreclosure unless another company who can handle the station comes along. Where is the love of radio in that? As they say, quality not quantity counts, but apparently not to Clear Channel, who is more interested in making a profit.

In fact, Clear Channel currently owns 866 stations across the country, which is down from their maximum ownership of about 1,300 stations a decade or go. The reason for this being that the stations that made the cut were not receiving the satisfactory ratings that Clear Channel desired to make a profit on. So does this mean that radio is now disposable? Survival of the fittest, natural selection taking place in what was once America’s passtime and independent pride?

The list could go on and on the more research you do, especially with the amount of stations Clear Channel currently has in possession, but for the sake of the argument at hand, the story will end with this simple conclusion: radio is a monopoly, and while independent stations have as much heart and love for music and radio as possible, they unfortunately do not have the funding that big corporations like Clear Channel do, so it’s up to the listener to take control and demand what they want by playing a part in the ratings and voicing their opinions, or it’s only going to get worse. Artists and DJs are there for the listener, it’s time for the listener to be there for them. Support radio. Support local music. Support good music.

Please, feel free to add comments, opinions, other examples, personal stories, and what have you. This is about a community standing up for the love of radio.

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