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”

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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.

Gene Burns, 1940-2013

I was sad to learn over the weekend that radio talk-show host Gene Burns had died at the age of 72 (via Universal Hub). Burns, who brought intelligence and grace to the airwaves, held down the midday slot at WRKO (AM 680) from 1985 to 1993. Lesley University professor and radio consultant Donna Halper writes:

I will miss him because of what he represented — a more courteous style of conversation. Today’s talk hosts (on BOTH sides) often shout and name-call and insult the other side. Gene Burns was all about exchanging IDEAS; he was a libertarian, but he always respected callers who had other ideologies. In today’s polarized culture, it would be nice if more of us could get beyond the rhetoric and get to know each other better. Talk shows like his used to provide a forum for that to occur. I wish they still did.

The talk-radio world of the 1980s was radically different from today’s. There was a time on WRKO when, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., you could listen to Ted O’Brien and Janet Jeghelian, then Burns and finally the legendary Jerry Williams during afternoon drive. Then you could switch over to WBZ (AM 1030) and hear another legend, David Brudnoy, from 7 p.m. to midnight — 17 hours of intelligent, (mostly) civil talk.

These days Dan Rea, Brudnoy’s successor at WBZ once removed, is the only host on the commercial dial following that tradition. If you want a smart discussion of news and public affairs, public radio is pretty much the only choice.