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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How we got here: A look back at how commercial radio in Boston was destroyed

Photo (cc) 2010 by Dan Kennedy

With the bankrupt corporate chain iHeartMedia now in the process of dismantling WBZ Radio (AM 1030), the city’s only commercial news station, I thought I would repost a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in 1997 — a look at the state of radio in Boston one year after passage of the disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1997.

Sound and Fury

Corporate consolidation has destroyed commercial radio. Here’s how it happened — and how to make it better.

The Boston Phoenix
November 13, 1997

It’s cold in Rick Anderson’s office, on the third floor of a red-brick building just outside Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Not see-your-breath, rub-your-hands cold, but cold enough for Anderson to have topped off his casual attire with a heavy flannel shirt. Cold enough for a visitor to keep his sports coat on.

Anderson, 41, is the program director of WILD Radio (AM 1090), where he has worked off and on since 1984. A trim man of medium height, with a shaved head, close-cropped mustache, and goatee, Anderson speaks in the smooth, confident tones of an experienced radio announcer. In fact, in addition to his management duties, Anderson works the afternoon drive time shift, playing new hits by black artists such as SFTP (“My Love Is the Shhh”) and Bobby Brown (“Feelin Inside”).

Anderson boasts that these are good times for WILD. Since adopting a format of what he calls “straight urban music” last year, the station’s ratings have ticked up. And though the station is hardly a threat to ratings monster WJMN (94.5 FM), a/k/a JAM’N, whose music formula occupies the same niche, Anderson insists that WILD has more credibility in the black community.

“It’s all good music,” he says. “It’s just that at one end it’s done by black people, at the other end it’s done by white people. We really know the music. They do a lot of — research.” Obviously pleased with the comparison, he leans back in his chair and smiles.

But there’s another, even more crucial difference between WILD and WJMN. At a time when radio has come to be dominated by megacorporations that gobble up multiple stations in a given market, WILD is one of the last of the independents.

On February 8, 1996, a furious, multimillion-dollar lobbying effort by corporate interests paid off big time, when Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law. Though most of the focus was on the deregulation of the telephone, cable, and television industries, the law also contained a sweet plum for the radio industry — or, rather, for the industry’s wealthiest players. Ownership restrictions in a given market were loosened from four stations to as many as eight. National restrictions, formerly set at 40 stations, were eliminated altogether.

Not surprisingly, this green light set off a feeding frenzy. More than 4000 of the nation’s 10,000 or so commercial radio stations have changed hands since the bill’s passage. The combined price tag: a whopping $25 billion, or slightly more than this year’s federal budget deficit.

The consolidation of Boston’s stations came mainly in two big gulps. The first took place in June 1996, when Westinghouse Electric Company, owner of CBS Radio, purchased Infinity Broadcasting for $3.9 billion, creating a nationwide chain of 82 stations. The second came this past September, when Westinghouse bought out American Radio Systems for $2.6 billion. After the merger is complete, Westinghouse will be the nation’s radio powerhouse. Chancellor Media will have more stations, but Westinghouse/CBS will have more listeners at any given moment. (See “Monopoly Pieces” for an explanation of how listenership is measured.)

As a result, Westinghouse/Infinity and ARS control 10 Boston stations, accounting for some 70 percent of the radio advertising market. Under US Department of Justice antitrust guidelines, Westinghouse will have to sell or trade stations to get that figure down to 40 percent before the sale wins final approval, probably in early 1998. That will still make Westinghouse the big bully on the block. And that bully has the potential to flex its muscle more in the years to come because once it scales back to 40 percent, there is no cap on future ad-sales growth. Continue reading “How we got here: A look back at how commercial radio in Boston was destroyed”

WBZ Radio’s new corporate owner fires program director on Thanksgiving eve

The dismantling of WBZ Radio (AM 1030) has begun. New owner iHeartMedia, the corporate behemoth formerly known as Clear Channel, has fired veteran program director Peter Casey on the day before Thanksgiving. Boston Radio Watch got the memo:

Best wishes to Casey, a good guy who has presided over a successful operation for many years. There is a bit more to Sprague’s memo, and since a source just sent it to me, I’m posting the full text below:

This past weekend marked the beginning of the transition of WBZ-AM to iHeartMedia, and I want to let you know how excited we all are to have the WBZ-AM team join the iHeart family. WBZ is a Boston institution, and we have enormous respect and admiration for what you have accomplished to date — and what we know you will continue to accomplish.

I also wanted to update you on a change in programming leadership as we continue this transition.  Bill Flaherty, WBZ-AM’s Assistant Program Director, will now serve as interim Program Director for WBZ-AM.  I am impressed with Bill’s operational knowledge, strategic thinking and can-do attitude, and believe he will be the perfect leader to guide us through the transition. I also know that change can be hard, but when we embrace change we often discover fresh opportunities for growth and innovation. I am excited for what the future will bring for you, for us and for this great brand, and I’m committed to working with you to ensure that WBZ continues on its path as Boston’s most respected news and information leader.

I also want to say a few words about Peter Casey. There is no doubt that under his leadership this brand has excelled and established its leadership in the market. We deeply respect Peter and the contributions he has made to WBZ-AM over the years, and the impact he has left on WBZ and Boston radio will be felt for years to come. I also know that the WBZ-AM brand is strong and will continue to be powered by a team of expert, skilled professionals performing at the highest level, and I look forward to partnering with you to help WBZ reach its full potential.

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Why the Olympics defeat is the Market Basket saga of 2015

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Market Basket protesters in 2014

The defeat of the Boston Olympics bid was this summer’s Market Basket story — a feel-good saga about ordinary people triumphing over the moneyed interests. Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi calls the opponents “heroes.”

Of course, there were a lot of good people involved in Boston 2024, and they don’t deserve to be cast as the bad guys. But it was a great moment on Monday when Boston Mayor Marty Walsh stepped to the podium to say that he wasn’t willing to put taxpayers at risk, thus bringing this contentious chapter to a close.

Some of us opposed to the Olympics began cautiously celebrating on July 17, when The Boston Globe ran a story by its veteran Olympics reporter, John Powers, that made it sound like Walsh, Gov. Charlie Baker and the U.S. Olympic Committee were all trying to send a signal that it was over. In particular, Powers noted that the political establishment is always a driving force behind successful Olympic bids, and that was entirely lacking with Boston 2024.

There’s already plenty of discussion about what went wrong with the proposal. Personally, I don’t think anything went wrong. We didn’t want the Olympics, and nobody asked us. A better job of salesmanship wasn’t going to matter. As Michael Jonas writes in CommonWealth Magazine:

Far from being small-minded killjoys, Bostonians proved to be a pretty forward-looking, sophisticated lot. We asked a lot of questions, didn’t settle for half-baked answers, and weren’t overly wowed by the shiny objects the US Olympic Committee dangled in front of us.

As for the public improvements we will supposedly lose now that the Olympics won’t be disrupting our lives for the next nine years, there isn’t a single unmet need — be it transportation improvements, affordable housing or the redevelopment of blighted areas — that can’t be met better without the games. Former WCVB-TV (Channel 5) editorial director Marjorie Arons-Barron writes:

If Boston 2024 boosters are really serious about a long-term vision and strategy for greater Boston, why not join forces with Mayor Walsh in his nascent Boston 2030 planning? If this wasn’t just marketing palaver, they could put their resources (including their unspent budget) and talent together with others in the city (including the No Boston Olympic supporters) to develop and implement a smart and integrated plan to upgrade housing, roads and bridges, public transit, education, creating jobs and more so that greater Boston can express its aspirations in a practical and achievable blueprint that can transform the city and meet the needs of all its people. That would be a gold-medal-winning performance.

Kudos to everyone on a tremendous victory.

More: The Market Basket analogy occurred to Jon Keller of WBZ as well.

Photo (cc) by Val D’Aquila and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

Drip, drip, drip: The third person’s name is leaking out

Who is the Rhode Island person being questioned by authorities in the alleged terrorist plot that ended in the shooting death of a Boston man on Tuesday? So far, at least, most of the local media aren’t saying. But already a Rhode Island television station has breached the wall of silence, so you can be sure we’ll all know soon enough.

According to The Associated Press and numerous other news reports, police confronted Usaama Rahim on Tuesday as Rahim was preparing to carry out a plot to behead a police officer. Rahim was killed by police after he reportedly refused to drop a military-style knife. Rahim, a relative named David Wright and the Rhode Island man met recently on a beach in that state, according to news accounts.

On Wednesday’s 10 p.m. news on WBZ-TV (the Channel 38 version), we were told that the station would not identify the man unless he is charged with a crime. The Boston Globe takes the same stance this morning: “The Globe is not naming the third person Rahim and Wright allegedly met with because he has not been charged. But after Rahim’s shooting, officials searched his Warwick, R.I., home on Aspinet Drive.”

The Boston Herald refers to the man only as “a third unidentified person.” WFXT-TV (Channel 25) informs us, “His name was being withheld by authorities.”

The Providence Journal takes us one step closer, publishing not just the street he lives on but his exact address. The Journal also quotes a neighbor who calls the person of interest “a nice young man” who has cerebral palsy, walks with a limp and works at a gas station.

Using a reverse address directory, I found the name of a man whose age bracket (18-24) made him seem likely. So I Googled his name and discovered that, in fact, WJAR-TV (Channel 10) of Providence had already identified him as the person of interest. The story includes this: “At one point, according to a neighbor, he was the area paperboy. Within the last few years, though, neighbors claim he changed his appearance. He grew a long beard, wore robes, and prayed often outside.”

A search for the man’s name on Google News suggests that WJAR is the only news organization so far that has identified the man, though I can’t be sure. I will not identify him, nor will I link to the WJAR story.

The question is whether this is ethical journalism. I say it’s not, and it’s clear that other news organizations saw no problem with holding back on naming him in these early, confusing days of the investigation. What you gain by being first with his name is minuscule; what you lose if he turns out to be uninvolved could be considerable depending on the circumstances.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

What is the frequency?

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The tower outside WBZ on Soldiers Field Road, Tuesday at about 7:50 p.m.

FBI wants to know if journalists have been naughty or nice

I’ll be on “NightSide with Dan Rea” at 8 p.m. on WBZ Radio (AM 1030) to talk about this article in The Washington Times revealing an FBI plan to rate news stories about the agency as “positive,” “negative” or “neutral.” Reporter Jim McElhatton interviewed me for the story. And here is the FBI document (pdf) he unearthed.

Update, Aug. 8. The FBI backs off.

Talking about Facebook and emotional manipulation

Click on image to watch video
Click on image to watch video

Jon Keller of WBZ-TV (Channel 4) and I talked Monday about Facebook’s experiment in surreptitiously changing the emotional content in the newsfeed of some of its users to see if it made them happy or sad.

Author and Microsoft Jaron Larnier weighs in on The New York Times’ opinion pages today, writing:

The manipulation of emotion is no small thing. An estimated 60 percent of suicides are preceded by a mood disorder. Even mild depression has been shown to increase the risk of heart failure by 5 percent; moderate to severe depression increases it by 40 percent.

And if you want to get up to speed quickly, Mathew Ingram of GigaOm has written a terrific all-known-facts round-up.

This is an important issue, and it should not sink beneath a morass of outrage about other issues — although, sadly, it probably will.

Talking with Jon Keller about “The Wired City”

Keller at Large

Many thanks to Jon Keller for having me on “Keller at Large” this past Sunday (WBZ-TV, Channel 4) to talk about “The Wired City.” You can watch our two-part conversation by clicking here or on the image above.

Interview with Jon Keller this Sunday

I’ll be talking about “The Wired City” this Sunday, July 7, at 8:30 a.m. with old friend Jon Keller on “Keller at Large,” on WBZ-TV (Channel 4) in Boston. I’ll also be popping up in his WBZ radio commentaries (AM 1030) throughout the weekend.