The new Powers That Be soured him because they decreed that “listeners are stupid. [But I think that] the consumer is smarter than the industry, and they have been for years. No one has recognized that. Listeners are more brilliant than the people pushing the buttons.”
Cantore fumed over “the repetition, the lack of diversity in the programming, the contrived sound, the disconnect from the core — I would hear this stuff and take it to the uppers,” who routinely dismissed his complaints. “I’d stand on desks, go to GMs, to regional VPs of programming, and tell them, ‘You’re fucking up.’ They didn’t care.” What rattled Cantore was hearing from his listeners directly. They’d say, “I listen to you, and then when the music comes on I punch out,” that is, exit 91X because the music — “it was so friggin’ obvious” — was scripted. Cantore’s core liked him because he shared their enthusiasms for the music. Why that had to change he’ll never understand.
Sucking the dregs of his smoothie, Cantore is reluctant to open up about leaving 91X — “I don’t want to come off as bitter; I hate that.” He sums it up with three words: “It was time.” A mutual parting, but “Yeah, ultimately, they cut the cord.” He was replaced by Mat & Mahoney, a local show with two guys who had DJ gigs at Las Vegas radio stations. Last June, Hilary and her midday local show at 94.1 were replaced by Ryan Seacrest of American Idol fame. (Hilary refused comment for this story.)
Hurt, reeling for months, Cantore worked on his “spiritual practice,” bungalowed with family and friends, and found “true happiness in the water,” surfing. “I thought, silly me, I could walk out of 15 years’ radio experience and pick my [next] job. It was the absolute antithesis of that.” The phone rang once or twice. Even New York called. But he turned the offer down. He didn’t want to be chained to yet another corporate environment where the “same financial tightening” was occurring. He wasn’t about to uproot his family or leave Swami’s Point.
What was San Diego’s most famous under-40 jock, with an audience in the thousands, going to do, especially in a radio world that had pigeonholed him as an alternative-rock guru at 91X? If he wouldn’t change, would the format?
DEREGULATION AND PROFIT: BRING ON THE TURMOIL
The departure of Chris Cantore and Hilary Chambers from San Diego’s airwaves may have been a long time in coming, but come it has, to them, and to other veterans. The first inklings of turmoil began in 1996 with the Telecommunications Act, which deregulated the ownership structure of public media and opened the gates to corporate takeovers of local radio stations as investments. Jacor Communications was the first media conglomerate to own a pocketful of radio stations, purchasing 9 of them in the 1990s, including 91X. Clear Channel purchased Jacor in 1999, then, using loopholes in leasing agreements to own and operate stations in Mexico, bought another 13. By 2004, Clear Channel had cornered nearly 45 percent of local radio stations, three times the market share of its nearest competitor. In 2005, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that Clear Channel had to divest its Mexican-leased properties. That meant selling 91X, Jammin’ Z90, and Magic 92.5, which Clear Channel did to Finest City Broadcasting.
A decade of wheeling and dealing has meant that a lot of deejays and program directors have quit or been laid off. Not long after Finest City bought Clear Channel’s three stations, program director Kevin Stapleford and CEO Mike Glickenhaus left. In 2007, several local deejays were fired: Stephen Kallao, Marco Collins, Trevor Trent, and Jason Riggs. Syndicated shows took over. In October 2007, at Z90, the morning deejay “Chino” was replaced by Big Boy’s Neighborhood from Los Angeles; in November 2007, at 91X, Jennifer White, cohost with Chris Cantore for 2 years, left a month before Cantore was fired to do a morning show on Sophie 103.7; in December 2007, at 91X, Al Guerra, who hosted the local-music two-hour radio show Loudspeaker, quit over differences with Finest City managers. In a February 2008 letter to the Reader, Shannon Leder Johnson, who hosted a show at KIOZ for 15 years and maintained her show as one of the top three in her slot, said that “I was number one the day they [Clear Channel] let me go. On my way out, I had to stop at HR and pick up my ratings bonus check.” Most terminations were not prompted by falling ratings but by executive-led decisions to cut costs.
At Star 94.1, replacing Hilary with Ryan Seacrest is a big gamble. Long a local station, niched to the 25–54 age set (moms in minivans), 94.1 is betting that listeners will take to Seacrest’s music and “celebrity sleaze” dirt-dishing on Amy Winehouse and Charlie Sheen. If Seacrest is successful here, the move may send a shockwave through such perennials as Jeff and Jer or Dave, Shelley, and Chainsaw. Already, time for local talk has dropped, especially on Clear Channel stations. Where deejays once made their personal lives part of the show, speaking for as much as 12 minutes per hour, now their “talk breaks” are timed to one minute each.
Jerry Del Colliano, a blogger at Inside Music Media, writes that Clear Channel, a publicly traded company, is unloading stations as it moves toward privatization. To sweeten the sale, Clear Channel is, Colliano warns, “pruning expensive air talent. Voice-tracking [using prerecorded announcers and personalities from outside markets] and program duplication and multitasking” will continue. “If you’re working for Clear Channel now and survive the onslaught of belt-tightening to come, you’ve likely retained a job in a more stable setting. The game plan is obvious: cut costs, improve revenue, sell the assets.”
Firing and laying off locals is indicative of big changes in the scope and identity of San Diego radio, local or corporate, music or talk. Radio is redefining itself, from terrestrial or ground-based transmission to the new satellite and online platforms. The Internet and Sirius/XM Satellite (recently merged) are expanding the way radio is delivered to listeners. In a multiplatform media world, radio stations with online sites are pushing “360” to their listeners, that is, cycling them from the airwaves to online. Listeners are turning off the long commercial interruptions on music radio in favor of iPods and podcasting. In a recession, local program directors seek to jettison local talent as too expensive. And talk and opinion, particularly conservative voices, which rule the radio roost, are remaking radio into a cult of personality, whether the blowhole spouts from Hollywood or Mission Valley.