Terrestrial radio is often taken for granted as a free thing that is always around and always will be, and even though most of it is invariably not very good, it’s a comforting curiosity to see how it varies from city to city any time you find yourself driving late at night in a rental car far from home.
There are always left-of-the-dial curiosities to be found and strange, static-filled discoveries to be made, even amidst the standardized pop, hip-hop, and classic-rock playlists. And for artists, there was the ever-present chance that a DJ could fall in love with a song and help it break out on a national level.
Though those playlists are carefully controlled and closely adhered to, there was typically enough room for variation to allow for some surprises in between spins of the latest Rihanna single or the umpteenth play of “Moves Like Jagger.”
Those days may be gone for good, though, with the recent moves made by Clear Channel, the country’s largest radio company and controller of roughly 850 radio stations. The company laid off hundreds of local DJs late last week, further cutting into one of the few things their 600-ish small market stations had going for them: Their inherent connection to the cities and towns they spring from.
ClearChannel’s plan is to eventually move away from local programming altogether and consolidate stations with the aid of syndicated national shows that will operate off a centrally-devised playlist that is market-tested to death (and, let’s face it, far more susceptible to payola or other shady radio dealings that still go on even though nobody ever talks about them), free of much (if any) deviation and completely devoid of local flavor.
You could fill hundreds of terrible stand-up comedy routines with the complaints about local radio DJs — especially the borderline-psychotic morning show zoo crews — but the charm of those personalities was often rooted in the fact that they belonged to the area they were broadcasting to.
They hung out at the same bars, reacted to the same news, drove on the same roads in the traffic reports, listened to the same bands who came around to play the station’s festival at the local raceway. It wasn’t always charming, but it was distinct, and those shows were often a comforting entry point in the entertainment world of any given city.
The music will suffer, too. Playlists are already hammered out in boardrooms and have become much more limited and streamlined for the sake of advertising dollars, and with centralized programming having to serve a handful of distinct markets, there will be even less wiggle room than there is now. Local acts won’t be able to get on the air at all, all but the most heavily-marketed indie groups will be turned away, and even second-tier major label artists will have a tough time breaking in.
Sure, there’s satellite radio and the entirety of the Internet, so music discovery will still be available via other avenues, but there are still a lot of people with limited time and resources who depend on their local terrestrial station to let them know what’s happening in the music world.
Here in New York, local radio stations aren’t as big a deal (there’s not really a car culture, which plays heavily into radio listenership). But growing up in suburban Connecticut, my local radio stations were my entry point into the greater music world. Even though the modern rock station that emanated from Hartford had a pretty sturdy regular playlist, there was always room for more underground stuff (in fact, sometimes entire programming blocks devoted to under-heard and local music).
I distinctly remember first hearing songs on the radio that became instant obsessions and went on to become huge hits. Obviously, people stopped relying on other people to curate their music for them about 10 years ago, but there was something to be said for having some educated guidance (which is likely part of the reason you come to websites like this in the first place).
ClearChannel is clearly in trouble, as the New York Times reports that they are carrying nearly $20 billion in debt. They are also reporting that most all of the syndicated programming that has replaced local shows has done better ratings, so if people want to hear the centralized shows, it’s hard to stand in the way of the numbers.
And yeah, a lot of people like Ryan Seacrest. But tell us: Have your listening habits been impacted by these layoffs? And what do you think of ClearChannel’s new philosophy? Broadcast your thoughts in the comments below.