The way the music died

What regional businesses can learn from the corporatization of radio

Fred Mael

It would seem like a great time in history for music listening. A consumer has access to MP3 technology, satellite radio, Pandora and its competitors, iTunes and more. Yet, what was once the prime source of music for most people – AM/FM music radio – is now a source of aggravation for many. It’s also becoming irrelevant for people under 25. Why this has happened and whether it matters sheds an interesting light on the benefits and downsides of promoting efficiency, homogeneity and cost savings over all other values.

What changed ?

In a 2002 Rolling Stone magazine article, Greg Kot noted that “At a time when a handful of radio corporations are making more money than ever, dissatisfaction with the quality of music programming has reached a breaking point. People are listening to radio less.” This is borne out in a 2007 study in the Journal of Radio Studies that found that people ages 18-24 found “terrestrial” (AM/FM) radio to be inferior to satellite, internet based, or MP3 music listening, especially in terms of lack of control or variety. The youthful participants “loathed anything associated with corporate owned radio or the term ‘mainstream’, and grew frustrated with the perceived repetitive content (‘the same five songs” was a common phrase).” When compared to MP3, satellite or internet listening on satisfaction ratings, AM/FM radio listening was last. Only 9% of the sample listened to AM/FM radio for an hour or more a day and over 50% never did at all.

Why did it change?

In their 2006 book The Quieted Voice: The Rise and Demise of Localism in American Radio, Robert L. Hilliard and Michael C. Keith join others in condemning the government’s deregulation of radio and the resultant corporate control of radio stations, a by-product of the far-reaching and controversial Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Act greatly increased the number of stations that a company could own both nationally and within a given market, and this led to unprecedented mergers and consolidation of media into a few corporate hands. While this might seem most relevant to perceived monopoly of news and news talk, it has had a clear effect on music radio as well. As Kot lamented in 2001:

“Though more than 30,000 CDs are released annually, national radio playlists are becoming tighter than ever. In one recent week, the forty top modern-rock stations added a total of sixteen new songs, and the biggest forty-five Top Forty stations added a total of twenty. Most of the country is based on the lowest-common-denominator programming: Play the fewest songs that appeal to the most people”.

Another tier of independent radio promoters, who act as liaisons between record labels and broadcasters, further limit the ability of new (interesting, offbeat) music to be heard on the radio. From this vantage point, returning some control to the local stations and increasing the variety of music could possibly draw back more total and more diverse listeners.

The Local Angle

According to Larry Justice, that’s only part of the story.

Justice, a longtime on-air personality at legendary Boston stations WMEX and WBZ during the “golden age” of music radio in the 1960s and 1970s, later owned independent radio stations on the East Coast. He contrasts his experience then with his perception of what it is like to work in radio now, and finds the current version lacking for a number of reasons.

Justice argues that in the heyday of music radio stations, station managers and owners spent more time mentoring on-air personalities. The disk jockeys (DJs) actually talked about the music they were playing. They had discretion to play a wide variety of songs and personalize their playlists on a daily basis. There were weekly meetings to decide what to add to the playlist locally. DJs stayed at stations longer and became strongly identified with the stations. There was more unity among the staff, more affection between the audience and DJs, and more community involvement. In his WMEX years, the station had a basketball team that played the faculty of local high schools weekly in the winter and a softball team that played local firefighters and police teams for charity throughout the summer. Justice also personally answered listener letters and phone calls. He felt that the station was intertwined with the local community. By contrast, the current model makes it hard to achieve those types of relationships.

Diane Cota, a 35-year veteran DJ who has been at country station WTHI in Terre Haute, Indiana for 17 years, concurs: “The computer makes it boring to be a DJ now”. Even compared to a few years ago, her role is constrained and defined by a small and relatively rigid playlist dictated by the corporate ownership: “A military veteran called the station and asked me to play God Bless America on Veterans Day, but my boss refused to allow it because it didn’t fit our target demographic. That would never have happened as recently as 2001”. She also sees more DJ movement from station to station, less willingness to engage in community involvement, and less listener attachment to stations.

The Dilemma

It is likely that representatives of the major corporations that own many hundreds of stations would dismiss all this as nostalgia and pining away for a simpler yet more cumbersome life. Whatever the industry – airlines, retail stores, hotels, restaurants, newspapers – some will argue that locally-based suppliers can give a more personal touch, provide service more attuned to local preferences, and a higher ongoing commitment to customers’ needs. Others will argue that economies of scale, efficiency and dependability all favor the standardized service that a corporate structure and a common menu, manual, or playlist can provide. It is possible that in any given place, the residents may prefer the uniquely local, while business and vacation travelers want their familiar McDonalds, USA Today or Holiday Inn more than they desire to be adventurous. What does seem true is that this dilemma will continue to confront small and regional businesses. Progress may be gained, but at the expense of something of value that cannot be easily measured but can certainly be lost.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. ( This article appeared in the October 2013 issues of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine.