This past year, in speaking with hosts and deejays, working and laid-off, as well as program directors and radio mavens, I’ve heard an incessant drumbeat: With the corporatizing spread of “voice-tracked” programs and a dearth of innovative execs, creativity in Radio Land is kaput. What’s more, consolidation continues to produce a climate of self-censorship, in which a lot of people are, as Cantore says, “scared to talk right now,” a sign that many are protecting what little job security they do have. “Here today, gone tomorrow” is the fear local deejays and some of their “uppers” live with daily.
AN OVERVIEW OF SAN DIEGO RADIO
According to Arbitron, radio’s audience-research company, San Diego ranks as the 17th largest radio market in America, with some 2.5 million 12-and-older listeners. (Metro New York City is the largest, with 15.3 million listeners.) As of 2007, 92 percent of those 12 and over listen to radio at least once a week for an hour. Media Audit, in a finer culling, has found that 82 percent of San Diegans listen to radio each week for 18 hours, about 2 3/4 hours a day. In the past decade, tuning in to local radio has fallen off only slightly. The number of people who listen at home or at work has dropped about 5 percent, while those who listen in their cars has risen 7 percent, the latter at least partially explained by longer traffic snarls.
Most news stories about radio these days highlight the demise of terrestrial radio. By one estimate, its audience has dropped by 22 percent since 1999. Earlier this year, Arbitron and Edison Media Research reported that 54 million Americans, almost one in four radio listeners, tune in to radio on the Internet every month. This includes Internet radio and terrestrial radio broadcast on station websites. Not surprisingly, there’s a link between these listeners and social-networking sites such as MySpace: 41 percent of weekly online listeners have personal Internet profiles.
In some markets, radio advertising is doing well: As of 2007, San Diego’s had grown 33 percent since 1999, according to the San Diego Radio Broadcasters Association. But overall, the radio industry is sluggish. The growth rate for subscriber-based satellite radio has topped out at 19 million, adding a mere 200,000 listeners, or 1 percent, this year. Despite a stagnating economy, the satellite audience is finite, with less potential than most thought. Growth has slowed because more than half of listeners who tune in to terrestrial radio once a week also access their iPods and mp3 players. According to eMarketer, half of the online audience listens to nonlocal programming or specialized Internet music sites, and half to local stations. With that many turning a deaf ear, it’s hard to see ad-based radio growing.
Our fair city has 13 AM and 27 FM stations. These are devoted to sports, talk, and music, the latter comprising several formats: adult contemporary, contemporary hits, smooth jazz, urban, country, rock, and alternative. Some stations are locally owned and operated, such as Broadcasting Companies of America. Some are owned by Clear Channel and managed locally. A few stations, their transmission towers located in Mexico, broadcast entirely canned content.
Despite radio’s corporate ownership, what is on the airwaves, say radio critics, is the problem: graying hosts, ad clutter, right-wing talk, piped-in tunes, traffic reports every five minutes — it’s all further fragmenting the audience and driving them, much like TV viewers with remotes, to drop their loyalties and roam the band. Put another way, it’s the leadenness of radio’s need to replicate its formats — for instance, conservative out-of-town hosts Sean Hannity, Dennis Miller, and Michael Medved lord it over midday talk — which is challenged by the swiftness of listeners who, bored by such copies, plug their ears in elsewhere. Once listeners understand that talk and music sources are virtually infinite, fewer of them will stay with the familiar geography of the AM and FM dials.
CANTORE REINVENTS HIS REINVENTED SELF
After months spent assessing his “market equity,” it dawned on Chris Cantore that there might be a future outside terrestrial radio. All media outlets were losing content to the Web. Maybe new online radio technologies were the way to go. (One program Cantore considered is SHOUTcast — “Free Internet Radio!” — where he might start his own station. SHOUTcast lists some 25,000 online radio stations.) “Every discussion I had with program directors or executives came down to new media — how might I reposition myself, be relevant. I heard ‘new media’ so much, I said, ‘Screw it. I’m getting involved.’ ”
Cantore heard from his listeners, too. He read their testimonials, emails, and letters, “And I’d flippin’ cry, hearing how I had touched people over the years. I wanted to stay in the community.” After door-slamming rejection from print, radio, TV, and SignOnSanDiego (“It was like I was just out of college again”), last spring he started putting podcasts online and video spots on YouTube. “Overnight, I got hit by all these new-media companies. They wanted me to podcast for them, do exclusive video content. This was a sign.”
Luis Kaloyan, the owner of Binational Broadcasting, a new-media network in National City, called Cantore to say he wanted to hire him at X1FMradio.com. The live digital broadband radio station, Kaloyan claimed in a company statement, would “transform the old concept of traditional terrestrial radio.” X1FM radio will “define the market to each individual’s profile. Each listener will get direct-marketing advertisements that will impact on their lifestyle.” What’s more, he continued, radio “needs to go back to basics to serve the community. Radio was never meant to be packaged in a corporate environment. Radio needs to live, and it needs to be artistic, it needs to be creative.” Music to Cantore’s unemployed ears.
By May, Cantore was back on the air, 8:00–noon weekdays, at X1FM. The learning curve is steep, he says. “I was real phone-heavy with terrestrial radio; now it’s all computers. It’s like people don’t even want to talk anymore.” The audience is 75 percent “the core” (former 91Xers) and 25 percent from all over the world, new and old listeners who live elsewhere and “mouse” him in via the Web. In this regard, the local-only format must also adapt to a worldwide presence.