[ Following article courtesy of The Oakland Tribune and RedOrbit ]
Radio Fans Lament Loss of Local Feel
By John Geluardi
FOR THOSE of us who remember life before the Internet, MP3 players, satellite feeds or, gasp, cable TV, radio was our most vital connection to the outside world. It was our link to current events, culture and things that made our communities unique.
Broadcast radio was the ultimate accessible medium. Because there were no pictures, listeners had to participate with thought and imagination. Radio was a loyal companion and a ready escape hatch in the family den, by the bed or in the dashboard of our first car. It brought us breaking news, local sports and the latest hot song by a variety of musical artists.
Longtime Bay Area listeners, who regarded their favorite disc jockeys as friends and neighbors, say they can remember with remarkable clarity the voices of local radio personalities like Red Blanchard, who broadcast his variety show from the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, and Dr. Donald D. Rose, whose raucous morning program aired on KFRC. Then there was the steady flow of smooth "soul" music from KDIA and the freewheeling, alternate programming of KTIM.
But in the last several years, broadcast radio has steadily lost listeners while paid satellite radio subscriptions have skyrocketed. Those who are dissatisfied complain that traditional radio has become too corporate, there are too many advertisements and musical playlists have become generic and predictable. Critics say the radio industry is failing to develop a following among young people who have a plethora of entertainment choices and aren't as loyal to their local stations as their parents were.
Radio has taken a huge hit when it comes to young listeners, says Quincy McCoy of Richmond, author of "No Static; A Guide to Creative Radio Programming.""Go up to someone between the ages of 12 and 20 years old and ask them what their favorite radio station is or which disc jockey they like the most, and chances are they won't have an answer for you," McCoy says.
The signs of trouble are undeniable. According to Arbitron's most recent annual report on radio trends, the average listener in 2004 spent 19.45 hours a week tuned into radio, down from 20.45 hours in 2000.
While that may not seem like a huge drop, those numbers have the radio industry very worried. Clear Channel Communications, a radio giant that owns 1,200 stations nationwide, including 11 stations in the Bay Area, was so concerned about the loss of listeners that executives began a "less is more" policy that drastically cut advertising time. The move resulted in a modest increase in overall ratings, but at a cost. The company's second quarter radio earnings showed a $65 million loss compared with 2004.
And there was more bad news for radio. Sirius Satellite Radio recently announced it has doubled its subscriber base to 2 million listeners in the last year. Subscribers pay about $13 a month for more than 120 channels -- all of which are commercial free. Sirius executives say they are confident subscriptions will jump even more early next year when the hugely popular shock jock Howard Stern leaves terrestrial radio behind for satellite.
While radio is eager to attract young listeners, it has turned its back on the 55 and older crowd. There is little programming in the youth-oriented Bay Area that reflects the tastes of older listeners.
"I grew up listening to music on the radio in the 1950s," says lifelong Oakland resident Jan Bossetto, 65. "My husband and I listen to KFRC sometimes because they have a lot of 1960s music, but they've completely got rid of anything from the 1950s."
Bossetto quickly adds that she still relies on stations such as KCBS 740-AM and KGO 810-AM for local news and information, though she would like to hear more programming geared toward adults. Radio is losing listeners because it's not as spontaneous or locally vital, says McCoy, who has worked in radio as a programmer and on- air personality for the last 30 years. A series of actions by the Federal Communications Commission is responsible, he says, starting with the Deregulation of Radio Act in 1981 and ending with the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The actions all favored corporate consolidations and shortchanged local listeners, McCoy says.
"In the old days, every radio station was required by the FCC to go to the public and ask what their concerns were and then do shows about them. Things like local crime trends, education and transportation were typical issues," McCoy says. "There was more emphasis on local news and local editorials. Now stations don't have a news or public affairs department."
Because of the consolidation of so many stations, radio programs are often recorded in one location and sent out to stations in as many as 100 different markets. And what is heard on the radio is increasingly controlled by survey group research used to develop uniform playlists. Even the disc jockeys are affected. The available pool of creative on-air talent has drastically shrunk because consolidation has greatly reduced the need for local on-air talent.
It isn't all bad news. Some corporate-owned stations such as KFOG 104.5-FM (97.7-FM San Jose), which is owned by Susquehanna Radio Corp., and Alice 97.3-FM (KLLC), owned by Infinity Broadcasting, heavily emphasize local promotions. KFOG promotes local musicians such as Chuck Prophet, The Rowen Brothers and Tea Leaf Green. The station also holds an annual popular fireworks show Kaboom, which has attracted thousands of people since 1996.
"All of our programming decisions are made at the local level," says John Peak, program director at Alice 97.3. "Especially with the Sarah and No Name (Alice's morning show). We do a lot of man-on-the- street stuff and on-site, live broadcasts."
But for some listeners, local promotions aren't enough. Scott Guitteau, 45, of Richmond came of age listening to free-form radio in Southern California. Such programming usually was characterized by a fair amount of political content and diverse musical playlists that included new artists. After moving to the Bay Area in 1981, Guitteau became an avid KFOG listener.
"The jocks had personality, and they played a lot of new music," he says. "But around 1987 the programming became stagnant or my taste in music diversified."
Guitteau, who remains a regular radio listener, mostly tunes into KPFA 94.1-FM, a Berkeley-based listener-supported station that's part of the Pacifica Network. The station has a strong focus on local issues, and the programming includes a variety of music. He says after listening to radio for free most of his life, paying for satellite radio seems like a sacrilege.
"I don't mind donating to KPFA, because it interacts with the community by broadcasting local politics, local activists and local artists," he says. "It contributes much more to the community than a big fireworks show every year."
KFOG Program Director Dave Benson says there is some merit to listeners' complaints about the dearth of local radio, but he says there are still a lot of locally programmed stations that are heavily focused on their communities.
"KFOG is probably one of the last music stations that has an actual live news person who does local news on our morning program," he says. "And the station has raised millions of dollars for local food banks as well as money for music programs at local schools."
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