Oct. 5 2011 12:00 AM

Corporations call the shots in the new age of broadcasting

You probably won’t run into Alice Cooper or John Tesh shopping at Lansing City Market; they don’t live here. But you can hear them on the local airwaves night after night, a reminder that radio programming isn’t what it used to be.

Before the consolidation of radio networks in the late 1990s, local studios were buzzing with vibrant energy and DJs were musical trendsetters who connected with youth culture while chatting live over the airwaves.

How times have changed. After a number of corporate buyouts, much of the local on-air talent in Lansing (and beyond) is gradually being replaced by nationally syndicated shows that are recorded and produced in other regions of the country. Yet, somehow radio is still clinging to the “live and local” ideal.

Lansing radio veteran Deb Hart, 42, is one of the survivors. She’s hosted morning shows since 1997 for WMMQ-FM (94.9), a classic rock station now owned by Cumulus Broadcasting. She said she’s not able to comment on the recent Cumulus buyout; however, she did voice her positive thoughts on the future of radio.

“They said television was going to kill radio, they said MTV was going to kill radio, they said cable was going to kill radio,” Hart said. “But it’s an immediate medium. People can pick up their phone and be a part of it. You can e-mail us and hear it read on the air. That is fun for people, I think.

“I am absolutely blessed beyond words to still be working in morning radio in Lansing for 21 years now. I feel really fortunate to have been given enough freedom to do and say what I want to on the air. I think I have earned that, after proving myself to be reliable after 21 years. I still love the freedom of radio. As long as radio will have me, I’ll be here.” 

An endangered species

At some stations, though, live DJs are an endangered species. The human host has been replaced entirely by a computer that plays automated selections of music and programming, an impersonal practice in what used to be a copiously personal form of media. How are homegrown listeners supposed to phone in song requests when a microchip is manning the board?

Like businesses, in recent years there’s unquestionably been downsizing in the radio industry. The blame is placed on a mish-mash of circumstances: the slumping economy, SiriusXM Satellite Radio, the Internet, iPods and the Internet station Pandora Radio.

“I think FM, or music radio, is now at a serious crossroads,” said Michael Patrick Shiels, 44, host of Michigan’s Morning Show on WJIM-AM (1240) for the past five and a half years. “People can get in their car, plug in their iPod, they can get their music any way and any time they want.”

While technological growth in the past decade has undoubtedly left a sizable gash in the radio waves, the current state of radio seems to be a mixture of many fluctuating elements.

Another hazy piece of the radio puzzle is the effect corporate media conglomerates have had on local stations. Are these companies dehumanizing the programming? Or are they keeping the stations alive? Either way, bulky media companies are incessantly buying and selling bundles of stations across the country, which has led to tight consolidation and job losses.

Tim Barron, 51, has seen it firsthand. He has become one of the most recognized voices in Lansing radio since he first hit the city’s airwaves in 1985. He’s now hosting a morning show on WLMI-FM (92.9), but he spent time working alongside former Lansing personality Jaz McKay, and alongside Hart for 15 years on the Tim & Deb morning show on WMMQ-FM (94.9).

Barron said after Citadel Broadcasting bought out WMMQ’s previous owner, Liggett Broadcasting, he knew his days were numbered. In 2005 he was let go from the station, with severance pay. He was replaced by Rich Michaels, who worked for another of Lansing’s Citadel stations.

“Citadel comes in — and I knew the clock was ticking because they’re going to consolidate,” Barron recalled. “Why would you pay Rich Michaels and Tim Barron all that money to fight it out when you own them both? Why wouldn’t you kill one and elevate the other?”

Over the course of two years Citadel decided that would be its strategy. Barron said when consolidation began spreading across the radio market conglomerates began firing what he calls highly paid radio “dinosaurs” in an effort to save money. It was much different than the on-air environment he first encountered when he started his career in

“The trend when consolidation occurred was to take the old, big money guys and do an ‘Old Yeller’: Take them out, shoot them in the head and bring in a younger talent to do the same job, supposedly, for a lot cheaper,” Barron said.

As far as the increase in automated programming and syndicated shows, Barron said it all comes down to money. His station, which is owned by Midwest Communications, has created methods for localizing programs that aren’t recorded anywhere near Lansing.

“Local guys cost money: air conditioning, toilet paper, they have an hourly rate,” Barron said. “Syndicated programming can be very effective, but it will never beat a local person.
“There are also local sounding things that can be done within station groups. For instance, when I leave at 9 o’clock, a guy in another state (Chuck Lakefield, a.k.a. “The Laker”) is doing the mid-day show. He knows Lansing, he gets memos from us every day and he sounds much warmer and very genuine because he knows he’s broadcasting to my audience after I leave. That is a local sound to a large called-in show, but it’s still not the same as a local guy.”  

As for the sometimes controversial Michaels, who was fired from WMMQ by Citadel in December 2010, he’s been back on the air since July 2011 — only this time in south Florida working at talk radio station WIOD-AM (610). He’s ditched his on-air name and is now using his real name, Rich Minaya.

Locally owned and operated stations have become a rarity in the business — and with conglomerates being able to own four FM stations, and two AM stations in the same market, many stations owned by the same company share offices.

Each of the top stations in Lansing is owned by one of three corporations: Midwest Communications (of Wausau, Wis.), MacDonald Broadcasting (based in Lansing) and the latest conglomerate to come to Lansing, Cumulus Media, Inc. (of Atlanta), which formed in 1997.

On Sept. 16, Cumulus acquired all stations across the country owned by Citadel Broadcasting (of Las Vegas). The deal was finalized after months of negotiations and Federal Communications Commission approval. The now-defunct Citadel, formed in 1984, was a leader in the radio market; it was in the ranks with industry giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. In 2007 Citadel’s reported revenue was $719,760,000. But in 2008 Citadel began facing severe financial trouble, letting go hundreds of personalities and staffers. In December 2009 it filed for bankruptcy and then re-emerged in June 2010 — but only lasted until September 2011. 

After this merger Cumulus has become a major part of the Lansing media industry. It now controls WMMQ, WFMK-FM (99.1), WJIM-FM/NOW-FM (97.5), WJIM-AM, WVFN-AM The Game (730) and Lansing’s frontrunner in the ratings, WITL-FM (100.7). So what’s the story with this new massive company that recently planted its corporate roots in Lansing?

Lansing-based Cumulus representatives refused to comment on the merger. Before the Citadel merger, Cumulus employed roughly 3,400 full-time employees. With the completion of the Citadel acquisition, Cumulus Media is the second largest radio station owner in the country, owning or operating more than 570 radio stations in 120
markets and a nationwide radio network serving over 4,000 stations.

Buying and selling

J.P. Hannan, Cumulus Media Inc. senior vice president, treasurer and chief financial officer, estimated the Citadel purchase to be $2.4 billion. This is the company’s first acquisition since 2002, and it’s Cumulus’ biggest buy to date. Before that, the company did 145 acquisitions between 1997 and 2002; only a few periodic one-off deals followed, until recently.

With corporate buyouts often comes loss of jobs. Although Hannan said he feels the stations Cumulus acquired from Citadel are strong, he isn’t sure what the Lansing stations can expect. "Our operating team is out evaluating (in Lansing),” he said. “I mean, I’m not familiar with what’s on the ground in Lansing, so I don’t know what the team will be doing there.

“It’s a unique property acquisition for us. We take our time, we’re evaluating it and we’ll see. These are great assets — we didn’t buy this company to gut it.”

Scott Truman, Midwest Communication’s market manager in Lansing, said he’s been through this type of sale (in July 2010, Midwest bought out his previous employer, the Rubber City Radio Group) and he understands the apprehension former Citadel employees may be feeling. Truman manages WJXQ-FM (106.1), WQTX-FM Big Country (92.1), WLMI-FM and WVIC-FM The Edge (94.1), all out of the same building in Holt. Altogether, Midwest owns 47 stations. 

“For us, just coming off a sale — immediately, I sympathize,” Truman said. “I have friends over there. I know what it’s like to be bought and sold and have the uncertainty of what your job is going to be. I was very fortunate with Midwest. It’s a company that talked to us in advance. There was a lot of dialogue I had with management before they actually took over the stations.”

Shiels, whose “Michigan’s Morning Show” has been simulcast on FOX-47 television for the past two years, said the purchase of his station didn’t come as a surprise, adding “that’s the way it’s going in the industry.”

“These stations switch hands between these giant broadcasting companies on a regular basis all across the country,”
Shiels said. “There are a number of big ones now. As far as I understand it, they may own it from Atlanta, Las Vegas or New York, but there’s a definite value to a local face.”

Shiels said listeners of his show, which is recorded live at a storefront studio on Michigan Avenue in the Stadium District building, won’t notice a change in his locally themed program, which often invites area politicians, business people and newsmakers on the air.

“Nobody that’s listening right now on Michigan Avenue cares that (WJIM) is owned by Cumulus,” Shiels said. “They care that they get the person they want to hear, the information they want to hear, and the music they want to hear. I don’t know how much it affects the average person. When Citadel owned it, we were still a local radio station.”

As for the longevity of radio, Shiels said talk radio has an advantage over music-based stations. “The thing that gives talk radio the upper hand is that it’s totally unique," he said. "On a day-to-day basis you get the freshest and latest of what’s going on — and you get it with personality. Right now it’s on AM, but there’s a national trend to move talk shows on to FM. I think eventually that will happen.”

Chris Holman, publisher of Greater Lansing Business Monthly and the Michigan Business Network website, spent 14 years on the air, 12 of those at WJIM-AM.  He said he feels mom-and-pop operations are a thing of the past. “Small, locally owned stations are not making it,” Holman explained. “Most of them grow because they want to be bought by somebody bigger: They’re all waiting for Clear Channel to buy them, basically. It’s more of a dollar game than a radio game.”

Brock Elsesser, 32, started as a rookie disc jockey in 1997 on 92.1-FM The Edge, which signed off in 2003 (it’s now back on the air at 94.1 FM). He also spent a few years as program director at 88.9-FM The Impact, the Michigan State University radio station. He left radio altogether in 2009 after a four-year stint at Q101-FM in Chicago.

Elsesser said he feels the radio giants dropped the ball on the creative side of radio, as well as the opportunities the Web offers, and now the industry is suffering. He said he began to lose faith in the industry after attending a few National Association of Broadcasters conferences while working at The Impact.

“Every year I’d see the people that would get together, the big head honchoes who are in charge of radio, so to speak,”
Elsesser recalled. “I’d hear them talk, hear their plans. Honestly, it was a big group of 60-year-old white guys who used to be sales managers, who didn’t have an artistic bone in their body and had absolutely no idea what the fuck was going on.

“They dropped the ball on podcasting, dropped the ball on any Internet content whatsoever. They were so backwards. … They were saying stuff like, ‘We really need to push the fact that terrestrial radio is live and local, and blah, blah, blah’ — all this bullshit. Now, 90 percent of radio stations across the country are automated.”

’Its days are over’

Elsesser, who now teaches audio production classes at Lansing Community College, said listeners are turned off by the preset programming radio depends upon.

“It’s the cheap way to put something together,” Elsesser said. “It’s all about dollar signs and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when there’s no real thought behind it people can feel that and are not going to take it seriously.

“People are not as dumb as radio broadcasters like to think they are. You can only push so much shitty content for so long before people just say, ‘Why?’ It’s too bad it’s become what it has. Aside from talk and sports radio, in my opinion,
there’s no future for music radio. Its days are over.”

In Elsesser’s eyes, program directors — who were once responsible for determining what went on the air and how it was presented — have been taken out of the mix by the conglomerates. “They’re essentially just managers of the employees,” he said. “They really don’t have a say over the programming or the music they’re playing — they don’t have the ability to be creative or innovative. It all comes down from the head office.” 

With batches of stations across the map being owned by the same companies, Elsesser said it’s simple to spot the striking similarities, even across state lines. “You can drive across the country and listen to a conglomerate’s radio stations, and as you cross Michigan, Illinois, all the way over to California, you’re going to hear the same music, same imaging, many times even the same voice guy: There’s no differentiation,” he said. 

Elsesser may be fed up with corporate radio today, but he spoke highly of his early days at The Edge, as well as his time at the student-operated The Impact, a station that’s been managed by Gary Reid since it debuted in 1989. Reid is a 35-year MSU employee and also WKAR’s director of radio and television broadcasting services.

“We struggle every day to try and remain relevant to our listeners,” Reid said. “We try to be open-minded enough to find new music that will be of value to listeners and move forward.”

Back when The Impact first hit the airwaves, the Internet didn’t even exist. Reid, 58, said his student staff today is technologically savvy. “They think much more broadly about radio and what radio could be in today’s world,” Reid said. “I find they have broader tastes in music and are interested in doing other things than just being a DJ. We have a bunch of people who are interested in video; we have a branded YouTube site. The young people look at media in a much broader way than we have in the past.” 

Robert Waggley, 55, a former Cumulus employee and now the general sales manager at MacDonald Broadcasting, has a more optimistic look on the slumping radio numbers. MacDonald, which owns WHZZ-FM/MIKE FM (101.7), Power 96.5 WQHH-FM, WILS-AM (1320) and WXLA-AM (1130), is one of the few private, locally owned broadcasters still in operation.It owns stations in just two markets, Saginaw and Lansing. 

“In the industry, radio revenue is down some,” Waggley said. “It’s not down huge — some people would call it huge, I guess. But I firmly believe the radio industry can re-grow some of those numbers and move back in a positive direction. The last couple years haven’t been easy for anybody.” 

Peter Tanz, 51, vice president of Michigan operations for Midwest Communications, said even with the intense changes, he feels what comes out of the speakers hasn’t waned.

“What the audience experiences and what the audience feels isn’t necessarily what’s changed,” Tanz said. “It’s how we deliver content and how we look at our own internal business model; it’s just changed dramatically. Change is constant. There’s constant change, but as long as you continue to serve the advertisers and serve the community, you’re going to continue to do well.”