Killing radio, one station at a time: A requiem for WFNX

By Donna L. Halper

I was getting my car repaired, and I got into a conversation with the 20-something guy who was waiting on me. I told him I had written a book about Boston radio, and I asked him what his favorite station was.

“I never listen to radio,” he said, “but my mother still does.”

I’d like to say I was shocked, but it’s a comment I’ve heard from other young adults, including many of my students at Lesley University. Today, they can easily download their favorite songs without having to sit through endless commercial interruptions. Few of these kids have any emotional connection to radio.

Whenever I discuss this with colleagues, I am often told that radio has simply become yesterday’s technology. But I disagree. I believe many of radio’s problems are an outgrowth of the policies that deregulated broadcasting and allowed a handful of giant conglomerates to dominate what’s on the air.

This has been bad news for independent stations with unique formats, as well as for stations with personality disc jockeys and a finger on the pulse of the city. Many have been replaced by cheaper options — predictable and safe music, syndicated or voice-tracked hosts, minimal local presence.

It’s been great news for the corporate owners: they save lots of money by syndicating, voice-tracking and using cookie-cutter formats. But there is also a serious consequence: they are driving away the next generation of listeners. After all, if most stations sound the same, why bother to listen?

My students don’t dream of becoming disc jockeys (as I did), nor do they hope to have a show of their own. Increasingly, radio has become irrelevant to their lives. As someone who has spent more than four decades in broadcasting, I am deeply saddened by what has happened to the profession I love.

So, naturally, I was disappointed to learn that WFNX was just sold to Clear Channel, which remains one of the biggest media conglomerates. (Disclosure: Some years ago I worked as a consultant for WFNX.) I have nothing personally against Clear Channel, and several friends of mine work at one of their stations. But as I see it, Clear Channel’s bottom-line mentality is part of the larger problem. In our current media environment, corporate owners seem to have less tolerance for the station that is unusual, the station with the niche audience. Part of what makes radio unique as a mass medium is its ability to befriend the listener. So losing a favorite station is much like losing a friend.

Of course, stations get sold and formats change. It happened to WJDA in Quincy, WBCN in Boston and now WFNX. While these stations may not have had the biggest ratings, they had devoted fans who wish things had turned out better. Fortunately, there are still some wonderful stations in Greater Boston. But there should also be an environment where independent owners can thrive, and where the needs of the media conglomerates do not supersede the needs of the listeners.

In my ideal universe, there would be room for well-run corporate stations (with local announcers, please), but also room for stations that want to take chances and do something different, the way WFNX did for such a long time.

Donna L. Halper is associate professor of communication at Lesley University. She is the author of five books about media history, and has two essays in a new SABR book about Boston baseball, “Opening Fenway Park in Style: The 1912 Boston Red Sox.”

About these ads

20 thoughts on “Killing radio, one station at a time: A requiem for WFNX

  1. Margie Arons-Barron

    Donna, The pattern you so effectively lament repeats the story of what has happened in local broadcasting, a trend that started with the spate of deregulation under Ronald Reagan in the eighties. Set free to do mergers and acquisitions, big companies gobbled up local ones, asserted to them that they purchased them because of their unique attributes. The CEO would come to meet with staff and pledge that “we acquired you because of who you are and the good work you do.” Within a year, layoffs took place (“efficiencies,” in corporate lingo, formats got homogenized, and all those distinctive qualities disappeared into the ether.

  2. Stephen Stein

    “In my ideal universe, there would be room for well-run corporate stations, but also room for stations that want to take chances and do something different”

    At work, I do not have a device called a “radio”. I do, however, have access to radio stations via the internet. I’m very partial to WMVY. But there are others that do not have a broadcast analog, which MUST be a lower-budget way to go, and probably where you will find your ideal universe.

  3. Eric Mauro

    We used to listen to WFNX when I worked for a startup in Harvard Square in the late 90s. The station played the same songs every 4-5 hours.

    When I have stumbled across the station again in the car, it still plays the same songs it did in the 90s! There wasn’t much to its independence back then and there’s less now.

  4. Bob Nelson

    Part of it could indeed be the deregulation that allowed multiple stations in the same market. Part of it also is today’s exploding media environment, where there are smart phones, mp3 players, the Net, and so on. A friend of mine–who is 66–has a smart phone and raved about “with Pandora I can do what I want–do an all Fats Domino playlist!”

    People have shorter attention spans. Do you want music followed by 5 minute commercial breaks, or just music? Do you want DJs to come on and blab? We grew up with personality radio. Do people today want that? I speak as someone who has been on college radio up in Salem for 31 years. We just had our station banquet–awards given out, etc. We love doing alternative rock, blues, jazz, and so on. And we do have some listeners–but people today have other alternatives.

    Entercom was actually doing pretty well with Mike 93.7 before it got killed off to simulcast WEEI. People wanted a glorified mp3 player.

    (I worked as a news intern for 4 months at WFNX, 1983-84.)

    So yes the deregulation can create big profits but take away the local aspect of radio, and the emotional commitment. When Hurricane Irene hit last year, I did my show as usual but we had people calling in with updates
    (Bill Newell ex-WESX) and I helped pass along info to the listeners. Local, local, local. Of course on a small college station. Even that could be disappearing–look at what happened with Bryant college’s station in R.I.
    Now simulcasting WCRB.

  5. Mark Simmons

    “In my ideal universe, there would be room for well-run corporate stations (with local announcers, please), but also room for stations that want to take chances and do something different”

    There IS: That’s what public non-commercial radio was created to do. The fact that many of them are pursuing the exact same policies is the bigger problem.

  6. Russ DiBello

    Do you know what will NEVER happen? When “today’s kids” just download their favorite vampire show or singing competition show, and don’t care about commercials, and don’t care about television as a medium, because they have “no emotional connection to it”. Yeah, right, the TV industry’s about to let THAT model happen…

    For all the perennial dissing of the “disc jockey”… and let’s face it, they WERE society’s dunk-tank buffoons, because who better to put down than us glib, underpaid hucksters on the radio?.. THAT was your “emotional connection”. The big guys made that go away… and voila, here we are.

    The only remaining audience for people speaking TO them on radio are old, low-information white people who are being whipped-into a frenzy of fear by highly-compensated liars like Sean and Rush and Mark and… and then there’s automated, voice-tracked, homogenized music that no one gives a crap about anymore…

    Great.

  7. C.E. Stead

    DK – my family supports Outermost Community Radio WOMR with advertising (used to underwrite show tunes, now underwriting a jazz program). Community radio not only has the format you like, it’s available on line as well as broadcast.

    Local talk is also strong, like WXTK. Even Dan Rea is to a certain extent ‘local talk’.

    I can’t help wondering if the problem isn’t the wide swath of bandwidth given to mega-stations. I once had a local radio show – all local people – and we broadcast on some low-numbre AM frequency. Then, WBZ built a bigger repeater and we were wiped out. Maybe we need to make more bandwidth locally available, like community access television?

  8. Laurence Glavin

    I read the link to the story about radio consolidation and it contained one innacuracy (at least): non-commercial radio stations DID operate on the AM band in the era following the creation of the FCC, but just in certain areas of the country. The most famous was WNYC-AM in New York on which Fiorello LaGuardia read the Sunday funnies when newspapers went on strike (print newspapers…remember them?…went on strike often in those days). There were a few non-commercial AM stations in the midwest also, in Urbana IL and Madison, WI among others. I had experience with a non-commercial AM when I was stationed at an Air Force Base near Spokane, WA where I could pick up the station operated by Washington State University in Pullman. With all the educational institutions around here, it’s odd that there wasn’t one in Boston.

  9. Jon Chaisson

    Thanks, Donna…this is exactly the conclusion I’m coming to as well in my research (I’m writing a book on the “college rock” era of the late 80s). I feel very conflicted about this–part of me is deeply saddened that a station that was extremely important to the history of rock radio in the Boston area has been solde, and part of me kind of expected this, given the way the field works.

    I do think that there are some satellite and internet stations out there that might end up being the next generation of sort-of free-form radio…I’m thinking some of the Sirius stations and especially Save Alternative…if terrestrial radio ever fades away, I’m thinking these stations might end up being the ones to carry the torch.

    [On a side note--I had you as a teacher back in 1990 or so at Emerson College for a History of Radio class...thanks for planting that seed of interest! :) ]

  10. Todd Miller

    Donna, you always seem to be on the cutting edge of things. I admire your honesty.

    While I am in Canada, the situation is much the same…2 or 3 big players, monopolizing and homogenizing the end product. While some of it actually appeals to my 13 year old, she is savvy enough to realize how tightly formatted it truly is.

    I wanted to buy a station, but not only is the cost prohibitive, unless you ARE a conglomerate, you have to deal with so many regulatory bodies, that you have no option but to capitulate and play to the lowest common denominator. Which is why I set up my own station, on the internet. Diverse playlists, deep tracks, indies, forgotten hits, and has attracted the services of people like Michael Tearson of Sirius/XM, Paul Cavalconte of Sirius/XM, Gene Godfrey of WMMR, Bob “The Iceman” Segarini of Sirius Canada, and more. If it’s music that people are seeking, I think the home should be the internet. Terrestrial will likely soon become talk and specialty programming, from those I have talked to…

    I miss my old AM transistor radio, with Wolfman Jack intro-ing Chicago’s “Saturday In The Park”…

    Cheers!

  11. James Conrad

    I haven’t listened to earth bound radio for four years now. We got hocked on XM radio when we got a new car. It’s the radio the way radio should be. More than variety across the spectrum, the announcers when the talk know what they are talking about. It is my pleasure to listen to Pat St. John over the 3 channels he works on. He has been referred to as the DJ’s, DJ. Here in Toronto FM radio has been dying a slow death for years now. Most of the on-air personal have the personality’s of paper. The Classic Rock station plays the same stuff for the most part, that they did 4 years ago. I wonder though; how can anyone compete with mp3 players and satellite radio. I see no real effort being put unto improving the FM product. It is what it always has been. a delivery tool for advertising. Long gone are the days when evenings had less ads. The few times I’m near a radio and have to hear the product, I always ask myself, how can people listen to this all day.

  12. Derrill Holly

    The industry is dieing. You are right Mega conglomerate ownership and cookie cutter formats doomed the business, and Google, better, best group sales now keep anyone from shaking up the rate cards. Heaven help the communicators who do not learn how to multitask. Without a good mix of talents they will starve. The collapse will repeat itself for our local television friends in 20 years.

  13. Donna L. Halper

    I miss working in radio. And I still believe radio could make a triumphant return. The things that radio can do so well, it still does well at certain stations. But the policies that led to deregulation are still in place and did not benefit the listeners at all. I feel like the Lorax, who speaks for the trees: I ask, who will speak for the listeners? Who will defend their interests, as opposed to the interests of the six giant conglomerates who were allowed to take over the industry?

  14. Matt Kelly

    I certainly agree with your sentiments about the death of radio, and the consolidation that’s ruined the industry and what it means for fans of the industry– I’m just not sure that change is significant for *consumers* of radio (or more precisely, what used to be radio).

    For example, the vast majority of stations in Boston now kinda stink, and kinda sound the same. But you can’t argue that people who listen to music and everything else that used to be broadcast on radio now have fewer option. They have exponentially more options; the options are simply online. I can listen to all sorts of online stations, or compose a stream to my own liking. I can use Pandora to recommend similar songs I might like, or tune into some lone kook broadcasting his own material in Montana.

    As to the DJs who had their pulse on the city– the discussions we have here are still multiplying too quickly to count. They simply exist via online discussion boards or other media.

    My point: the business model to provide interesting radio– that’s broken. But the delivery systems to bring interesting radio material to consumers– that’s still flourishing. So I lament the death of radio as we knew it, but I can’t say my life is emptier because of it. My life is overflowing with opportunities to hear interesting material as it is.

  15. Joe Blunt

    Donna, thanks for blogging this subject.

    As a struggling wannabe professional musician who grew up in the 80s and worked at a ‘college rock’ station, I got to see first hand how bands went from birth pangs to fame based mostly on the merits of their talent and art.

    Musicians have famously complained about the technology allowing unpaid sharing and theft of their works. I think too much blame is cast on file sharing technology for the lack of support to budding music. I totally agree with you that the main problem has been the conglomerate controlled FM playlists that take all decision for song rotations out of the program director and the DJ’s purvey and place in in the hands of a corporate ‘bean counter’.

    The DJ’s of the 60s, 70s and somewhat the 80s were empowered to discover new music and bring the audience to the artists across the country. This freedom of choice for DJs provided the infrastructure for new artists to establish a career and established artists to continue their career. This problem you have identified is also a concern for established musicians as well. Why is every new artist these days a ‘one hit wonder’? They are viewed as disposable product, much like corporations tend to view their human resources.

    I love that satellite radio and the internet provides some respite from the very dull experience that FM radio has become. The fact however is that radio will always be a ubiquitous, location independent and potentially a connection to masses of people, while all other forms of transmission will be location dependent and connect to much more fragmented audiences.

  16. Robert W. Knight

    Bloody {Literally!} Awesome Donna!

    You Hit The Nail-on-the-head! Soo True & Soo Sad!

    I added your Article to my FACEBOOK Page.

    As you say: “This has been bad news for independent stations with unique formats, as well as for stations with personality disc jockeys and a finger on the pulse of the city…”

    I was The #1 Jock of 5 Stations in Canada’s Capital City = OTTAWA Ontario ~ Owned by one of those “conglomerates” of which you speak >>>”ROGERS”<<< & was WHACKED!

    Official Reason? "The other 4 Stations had a bad Fiscal"!
    Nice Huh?

    RaYdIo… R.I.P.

    "Robert W. Knight"

    http://www.facebook.com/KnightTimeInTheCity

  17. Mike Benedict

    I’ve been reading (and enjoying) the back and forth with interest. Here’s my two cents.

    1. The content itself isn’t the major issue. People still listen to music, and more so now than ever, just through different, more personal devices.

    2. Over the air radio ate itself. Consolidation has brought/forced more a formulaic approach that many listeners find less attractive given the sheer volume of available content. Today’s listeners have 20 to 30 years more available content to choose from than those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 80s. It’s like every newspaper becoming a slight variant of USA Today, when in fact the one-size-fits-all model isn’t what consumers want.

    3. Today’s breakthrough artists in my opinion have far more staying power than those of yesteryear, much in the same way that the same best-selling authors dominate the NYT list year in and out.

    Look at the No. 1 hits from last year: A total of 11 artists held the top spot: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Hot_100_number-one_singles_of_2011_%28U.S.%29

    That was down from 19 in 1971, 15 in 1981, and 24 in 1991.

    There are lots of potential reasons for this — programmers playing it safe, the record industry’s increasing tight grip on the commercial end-market, and so on — but the data run counter to the “one-hit wonder” idea.

    4. Satellite radio has more than 21 million subscribers. So much like newspaper, the notion that radio is dead is greatly exaggerated. It’s migrated from over-the-air to satellite, but it’s still extremely active.

    5. Given that Bain owns Clear Channel, what would be better than seeing them consolidate an industry just in time for it to die on the vine?

Comments are closed.