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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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?
Buying and selling
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
’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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”