Local radio follows local newspapers down the drain of corporate chain ownership

Photo (cc) 2017 by Ray Sawhill.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Local radio stations, like local newspapers, are under siege. Newspapers are struggling because the internet undermined the value of advertising and because social media proved more alluring than the latest goings-on at city hall.

Likewise, radio is fighting to be heard in an audioscape increasingly dominated by streaming services and podcasts.

But radio and newspapers have something else in common, too: Corporate greed is making their problems much worse and preventing the kind of investments that are needed to position them for the future.

The latest assault on the public interest arrived last week in the form of massive cuts announced by iHeartMedia, which owns more than 850 radio stations across the country, including nine in Boston. The company, formerly known as Clear Channel, emerged from bankruptcy last July with $5.75 billion in debt (down from $16.1 billion pre-bankruptcy) and under the control of — as The Wall Street Journal’s Anne Steele reported — “lenders and bondholders led by Franklin Advisers Inc.”

In other words, iHeart these days is a financial gambit more than it is a media company. And so it was hardly a surprise when the company cut hundreds of jobs. No one seems to know how many, with Scott Fybush of NorthEast Radio Watch writing that he’s heard estimates ranging from 300 to 1,200. The cuts will be accompanied by an increased reliance on national programming and artificial intelligence.

In Boston, the cuts claimed several jobs at WBZ (AM 1030), the city’s only commercial news station. Among the casualties: political commentator Jon Keller, news anchor Deb Lawler, sports reporter Tom Cuddy and overnight host Bradley Jay.

A petition has been started to bring them back. It might work, as a similar effort in Iowa had an effect. But, ultimately, the iHeart strategy is aimed at squeezing out profits, not at building and operating a great radio network. (Keller remains at WBZ-TV, Channel 4, which is owned by CBS, and will continue to contribute to “Beat the Press” on WGBH-TV, Channel 2. Also, a disclosure: he’s a friend.)

The road to radio ruin began with one giant leap: the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a bipartisan monstrosity that removed any meaningful caps on ownership. Previously, Congress and the FCC strictly limited the number of radio stations someone could control both nationally and in a given market, which meant that most stations operated under local ownership.

Within a year, as I reported for The Boston Phoenix, the feeding frenzy had begun, as national corporations gobbled up radio stations by the dozens, financing them with debt they paid off by cutting expenses. What happened with iHeart last week was just the latest in a hollowing-out that has been playing out for a quarter of a century. You could even say that the success of public radio — including Boston’s two leading news stations, WGBH (89.7 FM) and WBUR (90.9 FM) — is a direct consequence of the implosion of the commercial airwaves.

The destruction of local newspapers, like the demise of local radio stations, has been under way for at least a generation, with chains like GateHouse Media and Gannett merging and slashing jobs.

The consensus choice as the worst of the worst is MediaNews Group, controlled by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and infamous for disemboweling The Denver Post. MediaNews’ holdings include three Massachusetts newspapers — the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg. And now the company has acquired a 32% share of Tribune Publishing, which owns important regional newspapers like the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant and the Orlando Sentinel.

The threat posed by MediaNews in Chicago prompted two of the Tribune’s investigative reporters, David Jackson and Gary Marx, to write an op-ed piece for The New York Times calling for local interests to step forward and buy their paper.

“Unless Alden reverses course — perhaps in repentance for the avaricious destruction it has wrought in Denver and elsewhere — we need a civic-minded local owner or group of owners. So do our Tribune Publishing colleagues,” they said. “The alternative is a ghost version of the Chicago Tribune — a newspaper that can no longer carry out its essential watchdog mission.”

The Orlando Sentinel published a similarly heartfelt column by one of its staff members, Scott Maxwell, who wrote that “hedge funds taking control of newspaper chains are usually more interested in turning quick profits than producing good journalism.” It was to the Sentinel’s credit that Maxwell’s column ran. Still, there’s little reason to hope that anything is going to change at chain-owned newspapers.

But just as public radio has demonstrated that there is a viable alternative to the iHearts of the world, so, too, are there better ways of running newspapers — and not just at the national level, where The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal are all thriving.

Several years ago the Los Angeles Times broke free of Tribune and is now growing under the ownership of Patrick Soon-Shiong, a wealthy surgeon. The Salt Lake Tribune is going nonprofit. The Philadelphia Inquirer is still trying to get past the need for newsroom cuts — but as a for-profit paper owned by a nonprofit foundation, its future is in better hands today than it was during many years of chaotic ownership. The Boston Globe under John Henry achieved some tenuous level of profitability a year ago, and its digital subscription base continues to grow.

So what is to be done about the perilous state of local radio stations and newspapers? Ideally, wealthy business interests and nonprofit foundations would get together and take back their media from the corporations. Since those corporations are clearly in the media business for short-term profits, at some point in the next few years they may be willing to sell. Perhaps Congress could provide them with tax incentives to make it beneficial for them to do so — and disincentives if they don’t.

The alternative is a world without local journalism, giving rise to ignorance, corruption and the decline of civic life.

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