WTKK and the ongoing collapse of corporate radio

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This commentary was previously published by the Huffington Post.

Update: I’ll be on New England Cable News on Friday at 7:15 a.m. to talk about WTKK and the future of radio.

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan signed off for the last time from the morning talk show they had hosted on Boston’s WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). A few minutes later, the station reemerged as Power 96.9, a faceless entity blasting out robo-music of some sort. And Boston found itself with just one full-time talk radio station. (The station was quickly redubbed Nova 96.9, apparently because of this.)

The demise of WTKK has been portrayed as another nail in the coffin of right-wing talk radio. The estimable D.R. Tucker calls it part of “a downward spiral for a key element of the conservative entertainment complex.” And, yes, that’s surely part of it.

But what we are really seeing is the demise of commercial radio in general, as corporate owners (Greater Media in WTKK’s case) attempt to squeeze the last few nickels of profit out of a medium that may be in its final stage of collapse.

By the end, WTKK wasn’t even a right-wing talk station. Braude, a liberal, and Eagan, a moderate, hosted a civil show that was more about entertainment than politics. Moderate politics and humor were the rule during midday. The only right-winger was afternoon host Michael Graham, whose idea of a good time was to make fun of people with dwarfism.

It was a far cry from the days when WTKK’s signature host, Jay Severin, would call Al Gore “Al Whore” and refer to Hillary Clinton as “a socialist” and “a pig.” Then again, Severin himself was long gone, having made the mistake of joking about sex with interns at a moment when his ratings were falling.

During the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Boston was a terrific town for talk radio, the home of pioneers such as David Brudnoy, Jerry Williams and Gene Burns, among others. Yes, they leaned right, but their approach was intelligent and respectful (OK, Williams often wasn’t respectful), and they were immersed in the local scene in a way that few talk-show hosts are these days.

So now we are left with one full-time talk station, WRKO (AM 680), home to right-wingers Rush Limbaugh and Howie Carr, a local legend whose shtick descended into bitter self-parody years ago. (Limbaugh’s syndicated show recently moved back to WRKO from a weak AM station owned by Clear Channel.) It certainly hasn’t helped either WTKK or WRKO that their ratings pale in comparison to two full-time sports stations — a phenomenon that didn’t exist during the heyday of local talk.

The only bright light is Dan Rea, who helms a very conservative evening program on all-news station WBZ (AM 1030). Rea, a former television reporter, eschews the shouting and demeaning putdowns in favor of smart conversation.

What happened to talk radio in Boston? I would point to three factors. And I would suggest that none of these are unique to our part of the country. Boston may be on the leading edge, but these same trends could sweep away talk elsewhere, too.

Corporate consolidation. Since the passage of the lamentable Telecommunications Act of 1996, corporations have been buying up radio stations in market after market, transforming what was once a strictly local affair into a bottom-line-obsessed business.

As far back as 1997 I wrote in the Boston Phoenix that the rise of chain ownership would eventually kill local talk. We are now seeing that come to fruition. The automated music stations that are on the rise may not garner many listeners. But they are cheap, which means that their owners can bleed some profits out of them regardless.

“In our current media environment, corporate owners seem to have less tolerance for the station that is unusual, the station with the niche audience,” media scholar and radio consultant Donna Halper wrote for Media Nation earlier this year. “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.”

The rise of public radio. Boston is home to an exceptionally vibrant public radio scene. Two stations with strong signals — WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) — broadcast news, public-affairs programming and (yes) talk all day and night, and enjoy some of the largest audiences in the Boston area. (Disclosure #1: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH’s television station, Channel 2.) Other, smaller public stations broadcast far more eclectic musical offerings than anything on commercial radio.

This trend is related to corporate consolidation, as it was the slide in quality on the for-profit side that sent many listeners fleeing to nonprofit radio. If anything, that trend will accelerate.

Technological change. Earlier this year The Phoenix sold the FM signal for its independent rock station, WFNX, to Clear Channel — but kept streaming online. The Boston Globe, meanwhile, hired a few of the people who were laid off when WFNX left the air and now streams its own indie rock station, RadioBDC. All of a sudden, we’ve got a war between two local music stations, neither one of which can be heard over the air. (Disclosure #2: I’m an occasional contributor to The Phoenix.)

These days it’s not difficult to stream Internet radio in your car, which is where most radio listening takes place. Pandora, Spotify and out-of-town music stations (WWOZ of New Orleans is a favorite of mine) are powerful draws, which gives the local flavor of online stations like RadioBDC and WFNX a considerable edge over computer-programmed corporate radio — or, for that matter, subscription-based satellite radio.

It is this last development that gives me reason for optimism. Radio has always been held back by the physical limits of the broadcast spectrum. In a world in which those limits don’t exist, “radio” stations must compete on the strength of their programming rather than their stranglehold on the AM and FM dials.

Seen in that light, the end of WTKK is just another step on the road toward what may be a brighter, more diverse radio future.

16 thoughts on “WTKK and the ongoing collapse of corporate radio

  1. Lou Gawab

    **(The station was quickly redubbed Nova 96.9, apparently because of this.)**

    I don’t think so….

    You think a multimillion dollar station would “redub” a station in one day due to a rogue twitter handle?

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Lou: Have a better explanation? Apparently they had been planning this for months, and then they change the branding in one day. Makes no sense.

      1. Lou Gawab

        It’s called Stunting”. Getting attention, getting people to talk about them, building curiosity, driving the competitors crazy. The name “Power969″ has not been in the works for months….It started with the BostonBeat969 rumors Went on with Power969…and today is Nova969…what will it be tomorrow? Or the day after? There are always rogue FB pages, rogue twitter accounts. If it was an issue, Gr. Media could have had that account deleted with a call and a fax from a lawyer, as they would claim intellectual property and/or impersonation, etc.)

        Again, they wouldn’t throw out months of research…based on one registered twitter handle.

        When a stations flips, they basically “clear the room” of all the old listeners, and start again at ground zero. Stunting, or anything that creates a buzz…..and gets people talking is good (and cheap!)

  2. Rick McCarthy

    Can you please stop using “corporate” as some short hand epithet? It is lazy and inaccurate. I would bet almost every Boston radio station in the last fifty years has been owned by a corporation or similar limited liability entity. Corporate does not mean owned by outsiders or owned by a public traded company. It simply describes the type of ownership.

    Please describe what you mean when you call something “corporate”? Is is a large company? Is it a company that is publicly traded? It is any company that seeks the protection of a corporation or LLC?

    And every host that you praised worked for a corporation, LLC, or partnership. Please explain how those companies’ legal structure did not affect the product, but today’s current “corporations” ruin radio?

    1. Lou Gawab

      Radio Dial in the 60′s & 70′s? WEEI = CBS Corporation WRKO = RKO General Corporation WHDH = Blair Corporation WBZ = Westinghouse Corporation WCOP = Ploug/Schering Corporation WVBF/WKOX = Fairbanks Corporation WJIB – GE Corporation None of which were based in Boston

      1. Dan Kennedy Post author

        None of which were allowed to own more than a handful of stations either locally or nationally.

      2. lou gawab

        Is 12 a handful? OK.

        “Before that local ownership was essentially mandated as a result of federal regulation,” he says.”

        This is really wishful Lefty thinking. That someone how ‘corporations’ came in and ruined radio back in the Reagan/Bush/Bush era’s. Baloney. Out of town corporations always owned radio. Local ownership was NOT mandated.

      3. Dan Kennedy Post author

        “Is 12 a handful? OK.”

        @Lou: Yeah, I’d say so. From Clear Channel’s website:

        With 239 million monthly listeners in the U.S., Clear Channel Media and Entertainment has the largest reach of any radio or television outlet in America. Clear Channel Media and Entertainment serves 150 cities through 850 owned radio stations.

        So now you have debt-ridden chains going with the cheapest programming possible in order to pay for stations that aren’t worth anywhere near what they paid for them back in the day.

        What’s more, yes, corporate ownership is nothing new, but there were always important locally owned radio stations like WBCN and WILD, as well as community stations in the suburbs and beyond. Now there are none.

      4. Lou Gawab

        **What’s more, yes, corporate ownership is nothing new, but there were always important locally owned radio stations like WBCN and WILD***

        When was the last time WBCN was “locally owned” 35-40 ago? 1978?

        **as well as community stations in the suburbs and beyond.**

        Most of the local, community and suburban stations are still locally owned.

        **Now there are none.**

        They are still there.

      5. Lou Gawab

        **I’d say so. From Clear Channel’s website:**

        Greater Media is not Clear Channel. They own 15 or so stations.

  3. Matt Kelly

    First, I think this column does raise an interesting point– that if you define radio as ‘the sounds coming from a little box with transistors inside,’ then yes, it’s in a death spiral. But if you define radio as ‘the ability to hear music and information that you want to hear,’ then business is booming; it just comes through other means that *aren’t* a little box with transistors inside. We can all lament the death of radio stations on the dial, and I do; but nobody can say we have fewer listening options today than we did in 1985. We have more.

    Second, as I recall, many of the popular local radio stations back in the day– WXKS, WAAF, WCOZ, WFNX– were all locally owned. I’m surprised anyone would need a primer on what the word ‘corporate’ means in Dan’s context.

  4. Dan Petitpas

    Well, if turning into Power969 with a hip-hop/rap format and then the next day turning into Nova969 with an electronica (EDM) format is a stunt, it’s a really bad stunt. The station had everyone’s attention at 10 am Wednesday when it powered on its automated music system. People said, just what we need, another hip hop station, and turned off their radios. How many tuned in the next day to find it had changed to EDM? And how many people cared about that, especially since WFNX just switched from its ’80s “Harbor” format to EDM two weeks ago! Very strange. That’s really clearing the deck of old listeners!

    As for your comment: “Dan Rea, who helms a very conservative evening program on all-news station WBZ,” uh, he’s a moderate, maybe leaning right a bit, but essentially a moderate. To call him “very conservative” is unfair. He’s not in the same category as Rush, Beck, Hannity, Levin, etc.

    By the way, you’re correct about Howie, but he runs an entertaining show that’s damned funny at times.

    It is strange, however, that Boston went from having three talk radio stations a year ago to having one now, and there are times throughout the day and on weekends when there’s no local talk shows on at all.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @Dan: Clarification for the benefit of my friends at The Phoenix: Clear Channel bought the 101.7 FM frequency but not the call letters. WFNX is still a locally owned indy music station, and you can hear it at WFNX.com. Good app, too. I was listening to it in my car this morning.

  5. Rick McCarthy

    Instead of “corporate” use the terms local/outsider if that is what you are getting at. Or large chain and mom and pop. You admit that corporate ownership isn’t the issue. The problem in your eyes is something else, so use a term that is more accurate and descriptive.

  6. Chris Major

    I’ve been a listener of Boston radio, both rock and talk, since the early 70s. I agree on all your points of the collapse of corporate radio. I think we have seen a progression of radio listeners tired of the lack of intimacy between their stations and listeners. If there was a connection to a group of listeners, it usually didn’t cover a big enough demographic and the GM or PD would be under pressure to change the format.
    I don’t think radio is “dead” in Boston. I’ve been listening to stations on the lower end of the dial since the early-mid 90s when I noticed a difference in the larger stations. (So long BCN, hello MBR and MFO).
    The corporate stations were slow to embrace internet radio and smart phone apps. I don’t know if they will be able to bring back the intimacy stations once had with their listeners but I’m glad that there are more choices to choose from. Now I just wish there was a real person spinning the tunes instead of a computer.

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