Thursday, February 12, 2009

Political Wrong-Headedness

As I’ve said before, I’m apolitical. I think that all political factions have valid points of view—but they also have a big stash of stupid pills. Right now, it seems, at least when it comes to issues important to our industry, the majority party is popping those pills like candy corn at Halloween.

Take this Fairness Doctrine thing. Debbie Stabenow says that there is an imbalance in the points of view expressed on the air and, by gum, it’s up to the government to right this grievous wrong.

Let me get this straight. Our economy is a shambles; people are losing their jobs, their homes, their hope. But our elected officials somehow find the time to indulge their petty retributive feelings to make sure there is an equal number of idiots on the air from the far left and the far right.

Here’s a novel idea: let the market decide. Personally I think there is a resurgence in the offing for progressive talk. Just the fact that the very smart people at Dial Global are snapping up marquee liberal talkers is a good bellwether. But if not, that’s the way it works: popular programming survives, the rest doesn’t.

While they’re at it, our too-much-time-on-their-hands legislators should redress another disgraceful disparity: the lack of Westerns on network television. There ought to be a doctrine ...

The Perils of Irrelevant Media

This week we had two reminders of why certain media are doomed ... and why others are fated to survive all challenges.

Both the venerable Muzak and the embattled Sirius-XM are facing Chapter 11 bankruptcy. At first glance the two have little in common; one is the very definition of “old media,” 75 years old, limping along; the other burst on the scene purporting to be a game-changer, full of sound and fury.

But on closer examination, Muzak and Sirius-XM are but two sides of the same coin. Neither is providing meaningful service to its consumers. Neither deserves to survive.

When I was a kid I sold Muzak for a while, and at the time the story was somewhat compelling: the music was scientifically designed to have a specific effect—energizing for a factory, soothing for a dentist’s office. But at its core, it’s just repackaged music.

Although Sirius-XM has myriad talk channels, most are music. And with certain high-profile exceptions—the over-exposed Howard Stern and Oprah Winfrey, for example—the wobbly satellite radio outfit offers nothing the media consumer can’t get elsewhere for free.

And then there’s radio. As we and others have said many times, our medium does pretty well, considering how badly we screw it up ... and right now we’re really excelling at that. But there is just enough genuinely relevant content—mostly in smaller markets, I have to say—to stave off the grim media reaper.

As long as we specialize in content that our communities find relevant and of service, we can survive. Actually, if we’re truly committed to our communities, we can do much better than survive.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Air America and the Fairness Doctrine

You have to hand it to Air America. Now on its third or fourth owner, the scrappy little liberal network has refused to die, in spite of being at odds with prevailing political thought since its inception.

Now, with the tide turning, it’s possible that Air America will fall victim to the more supportive climate. Instead of being buffeted by conservative talk radio, which now has problems of its own, the network is being dismantled by the defection of its stars to weightier distributors, most notably Dial Global (see story, Page 2).

It’s a familiar story: a pioneer creates and popularizes a franchise, only to see that franchise coopted by one or more more powerful competitors. I certainly don’t think ill of the coopters. . .but Air America deserves a little appreciation its pioneering.

I for one welcome a more balanced radio dial—if you can call extreme points of view from both the far left and the far right “balanced”—if for no other reason than it renders the Fairness Doctrine irrelevant.

Rush Judgment

In my newsletter a couple of weeks ago I wrote the following:
Recently on his radio program Rush Limbaugh blasted members of his own party who are sniffing the winds of change in Washington and are willing to engage in constructive dialog with the new administration. Rather than helping Mr. Obama, Rush said, Republicans should do everything they can to bring him down: “I hope he fails.”

What an appalling statement. If I had any vestigial respect left for Limbaugh’s talent or the positive attention he once brought to radio, this pretty much eradicated it. Not long ago, his divisive railings were in tune with the times; but times have changed. Unfortunately, Limbaugh has not changed with them. Americans have resoundingly rejected the antagonistic values Mr. Limbaugh espouses; in the context of today, he has been revealed as an anachronism, a bombastic blowhard, aptly described by Shakespeare’s line, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

If you are a Limbaugh affiliate, beware: before long his ditto-head audience will comprise only the 22% of the population who said, to the end, that the previous administration was doing a heck of a job. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.
You'd think I waved a commie flag or something, judging from the response. Herewith, a sampler:
NO PASSES. After your comments about Rush Limbaugh, I can only assume that you have also joined the millions of liberal Americans who believe that Obama has surpassed Jesus as the savior of the world. I don’t believe that and neither does Rush. And because McCain got nearly 50% of the popular vote last November, I believe that there are a LOT more than 22 million people who don’t believe that either.

I agree that we should support our new president and support his efforts to improve the lives of Americans. But, when he supports values and policies that I do not believe are truly in the best interest of America (gay marriage, increased government in our lives, government-paid abortion, nationalized health care, a smaller military), I think that we should speak out and point out that these are not the values or desires of the MAJORITY of Americans.

Nobody gave Bush a pass. Nobody gave Clinton a pass. And nobody should give Obama a pass. I agree that Rush can be a blustering blowhard at times, and occasionally I hear him on my station and wish he would just shut up already. But even if he is a little over the top at times, I still believe that what he is saying resonates with my audience and will continue to do so even more in the next few months when the shine wears off and Americans are disappointed to find out that Obama is not going to be able to save the world after all.
—Jeff Lovett, WGRA, Cairo, GA
STATING THE OBVIOUS. Congratulations for stating the obvious about Rush Limbaugh. Extend my subscription for ten years to help replace the feckless who will cancel in protest. The missing ingredient in our civic discourse in America today is civility. Regardless of your partisan affiliations, it is more essential than ever to restore civility to civic discourse.

Good work.
—Roger Utnehmer,, Sturgeon Bay, WI
HE SAVED AM RADIO. I look forward each week to receiving SMRN. You are a tireless advocate for a medium I live, breathe and sleep. However, I was appalled to read your vicious attack in the 1/22/09 newsletter on Rush Limbaugh, a man who has done more for small market radio than anyone alive today.

Prior to reading your partisan cheap shot on Rush, I have never paid much attention to your politics, preferring to tap your insight and sources advocating for small market radio. But your blistering attack was out of context (as most attacks on Rush are) and unfair. Allow me to quote him directly from a recent interview with Sean Hannity:

“Now, if he (Pres. Barack Obama) turns out to be a Reagan, if he adds Reagan to his recipe of FDR and Lincoln—and if he does cut some taxes—if he does not eliminate the Bush tax cuts, I would call that success. So yes, I would hope he would succeed if he acts like Reagan. But if he’s going to do FDR—if he’s going to do The New New Deal all over, which we will call here The Raw Deal—why would I want him to succeed? Look, he’s my president. The fact that he is historic is irrelevant to me now. It matters not at all. If he is going to implement a far-left agenda. . .

Look, I think it’s already decided: $2 trillion in stimulus? The growth of government? I think the intent here is to create as many dependant Americans as possible looking to government for their hope and salvation. If he gets nationalized health care, I mean, it’s over, Sean. We’re never going to roll that back. That’s the end of America as we have known it, because that’s then going to set the stage for everything being government owned, operated, or provided. Why would I want that to succeed? I don’t believe in that.

I know that’s not how this country is going to be great in the future; it’s not what made this country great. So I shamelessly say, “No! I want him to fail.” If his agenda is a far-left collectivism—some people say socialism—as a conservative heartfelt, deeply, why would I want socialism to succeed?”

I’m sure you understand how someone with Rush’s firmly-held conservative beliefs, shared by millions of Americans, is not going to toss aside his principles and walk lockstep with someone who wishes to take the country in a completely different direction. And given Rush’s record ratings, 20 years of broadcast excellence and a recently-signed $400-million contract, your morbid wish for his demise is not going to happen.

Please leave the partisan attacks on Rush to the mainstream media and stick to commonsense reporting on small market radio. Or at least balance your attack with a companion piece in the next issue answering the question: Does President Obama want Rush to fail? Since Obama attacked Rush in one of his very first acts as president, I think we know the answer. What would that mean for small market radio?

Lastly, I also have a suggestion that might better serve your readers: Undertake a research project by identifying the revenue and value of most AM sticks in the mid-80’s. Then compare that to the mid-90’s and since. AM radio was DOA when Rush Limbaugh arrived on the scene. The man singlehandedly saved the AM radio band. He should be celebrated by your publication daily.
—Scott Hennen, Great Plains Integrated Marketing/SMAHH Communications, Fargo, ND
HE’S LOST IT. A nice piece on Limbaugh.

I used to admire the guy as a radio pro, a true showman who understood what it took to hold onto an audience (granted, a niche audience, but a large niche). Now, yeah, I think he’s lost it.

At least he’s forgotten what made him successful, tapping into unexpressed feelings of millions of people.

I wonder if his gazillion-dollar contract is looking so good to his syndicator now.
—Jay Douglas, Los Angeles, CA
HERD MENTALITY. As an owner and manager of a real small market station, I rarely have the time or motivation to respond to the trite nonsense that passes as journalism and intelligent commentary in this day and age of herd mentality. However, your final thought in the January 22 newsletter was truly over the top for me.

To the specific: Your four-word quote from Mr. Limbaugh was your evidence that he is just a mean obstructionist to “constructive dialog.” Even the most superficial research would have revealed that Mr. Limbaugh had just listed a number of Mr. Obama’s positions and goals that represent a destruction of the free-market capitalist system (socialism) and the negative effects that result for small business and all Americans. It is in these endeavors, “I hope he fails.” That is the context in which the final phrase was made. You simply took the last four words from the CNN/MSNBC sound bite and came to your own conclusion as to the intent and, thereby, surrounded yourself with the dust of the herd. Was this simply from laziness or the chance to reinforce an existing bias?

Your other comments further reveal that you obviously avoid listening to his program, which is certainly your right. However, passing yourself off as an expert on his content and style is a bit disingenuous to say the least.

Clint Eastwood famously observed that “a man has to know his limitations.” I would suggest you stick to the broadcasting business and leave the political analysis to others. I’m paying for the broadcasting news. I can get the expert analysis from the vapid bubble brains on cable who probably really think there are 57 states in this country.

The breeze from bombastic blowhards wafts from many directions. Better to be a bombastic blowhard than an ignorant bombastic blowhard driven by the herd. I find it best to stay upwind of both.
—Jay B. Cessna, Cessna Communications, Inc.

MY TURN (AGAIN). First, a bit of housekeeping. Scott correctly pointed out that the quote came from an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News TV show. Scott’s transcript is essentially accurate; to get it from the fox’s mouth, read and watch here.

I was interested but not surprised to find that most of the responses assumed that I was taking a political stance; in fact, my comments were intended to be about radio. I hate politics as usual. I have voted Republican, Libertarian, Democrat, Natural Law; my guy is always the one who lies to me the least. And I listen to Rush’s show often.

Thanks, Scott, for complimenting me as a “tireless advocate for radio.” I try to be, as do we all. It’s true that Rush, more than anyone else, reinvented AM radio. I just don’t want him to undo all the good he’s done for our medium by becoming irrelevant and out of step.

I have been kind of hoping that we were entering an era of more respectful discourse, but recent events have dashed those hopes. Given the resumption of politics as usual, not to mention Rush becoming Topic A on both sides of the aisle, I only hope the attention will be beneficial to our medium. Time will tell.

THE LAST GASP. I received one more letter, from Adam Wright, WSNW, Seneca, SC about my opinion that Rush has to be careful not to turn into a marginalized wacko; let this be the end of it:
I have been reading The Small Market Radio Newsletter on and off for several years. What most don’t seem to understand is Rush is an entertainer, not a news source. The same goes for Hannity, Ingraham and Boortz. It just amazes me the number of people who listen who actually consider their comments news. If these were actual news sources, we would have little or no use for the traditional news we get at the top of the hour from ABC and CBS.

As far as your comments go, I have no problem with you sharing your thoughts, political or otherwise, in this publication from time to time. Keep up the good work.

Spreading the News

I was struck by the sound reasoning of Paul McDonnold in his recent commentary in the Christian Science Monitor: “While things in the economy truly are bad, this is not simply about reporting the truth; it’s about representing that truth in the most responsible way. A media that is too much in love with stories that bleed is capable of making the recession worse than it has to be.”

We need to take these words to heart and remember that we have a great deal of influence over the thinking of the business people in our markets.

That influence comes in two forms: first, as a powerful news medium, our choice of stories and wording contributes to a climate of hope or despair (which is McDonnold’s point).

But equally important is the more subtle effect of the hundreds of personal interactions between our sales people and our clients that take place every week. As the saying goes, a sale is always made; either we buy into the clients’ fears or they buy into our optimism.

But for our people to make the “sale” of hope—which often will lead to the sale of radio advertising—we need to be absolutely positive in our thought, speech and action. . .and be vigilant against negativity among our people.

Which leads us right back to the whole cutback thing: part of the art of prudent pruning is preserving the spirit of our people.

Think Small

I don’t know about you, but I’m not getting any bailout money. I’m also not ordering any private jets, hosting any Super Bowl parties or redecorating my office to the tune of $50,000. I’m also not cutting my workforce by 10%.

The responses to current economic conditions dramatically spotlight the difference between most big companies and most small operators. But, as we see from our Costco article on Page 8, a sense of responsibility for employees, vendors and our communities is not at odds with being a large company. As Costco CEO Jim Sinegal exemplifies, if you’re successful, you can better resist the pressure of Wall Street and/or your investors; if you are not successful, the money guys are completely in control.

If a big radio company is not successful, it’s rarely a case of gross incompetence. Usually it’s a case of a flawed business plan—not understanding the consequences of being national in a local industry. No matter the reason, weakness puts the capitalists firmly in the driver’s seat.

As Mr. Sinegal puts it, “People in that business are trying to make money between now and next Thursday.”

Every day, too many good radio people are broomed in the name of fiscal responsibility. I’ve run radio stations and other businesses, and I can find lots of other ways to cut back before I hit the payroll. (This assumes that I have a reasonable staff level to begin with.) I might still have to hit the payroll, but by making tough calls elsewhere first, I can minimize the human toll.

Putting aside for a moment the consequences to those who are put out of work, the practice could seriously damage our business when we need it least. Formula music radio cannot compete with new media, but compelling personalities can. (That includes you, Mr. Limbaugh.)

And to those who are cutting successful sellers because they make “too much money”: You are just crazy.

Let’s do all we can, at every level, to preserve the strength of our business. I urge our leading radio companies to halt the bloodshed, reset your priorities and put people first.