Archive for August 2008

Pulling the plug on radio

August 15, 2008

Today, the Reasonable Reporter will pull the plug on her radio career, in favor of a challenging new pursuit that starts in mid-September. The new gig is outside the media. It’s an exciting and long-overdue change. There is nonetheless an emotional tug-of-war in process, as the professional comfort zone is left behind.

The broadcaster’s life has been a source of variety, creative triumphs, close friendships, and spurts of personal growth. (It’s also offered bitter disappointments, personal betrayals, and many dysfunctional relationships. How could two decades worth of anything be otherwise?)

Mostly, though, it’s a field that rewards big thinking and teaches adaptability. The lessons learned will continue to serve.

The Reasonable Reporter has spent recent weeks contemplating the ways in which today’s radio business resembles today’s housing market. Broadcasting speculators binged in the 90s, buying up far more property than they could reasonably expect to maintain. The binge drove the up the price of a radio signal, especially a signal in a nice neighborhood. (Was it 16-times earnings? The Reasonable Reporter can’t remember the multiple, but she remembers it seemed a bit like paying three-quarters of a million for a 2,000 square-foot ranch house with a shopping center across the street.)

Then the value began to drop, as listeners discovered new media alternatives. Many owners are left with property that’s producing less – maybe a lot less. Unlike a house, which would collapse if you began to pull out its support beams, broadcasters were able for some time to disguise the diminishing value by dismantling the product, beam by beam.

The product is cheaper to produce, but weaker now as a result. Not that there weren’t inefficiencies to tweak. There were. But here’s what’s magical about working in radio. There’s just a degree or two of separation between the radio listener in his car, and the back-office operation of the station. In most broadcast operations, every employee is very close to the end product, and that’s historic, not recent.

This is a business where every person serves a mission-critical function. Every person’s performance reflects on the product, negatively or positively – and audibly, by the way, even if that person never goes near a microphone.

This is why we once leaned so hard on a particular phrase that it became an industry cliché. “It’s a people business,” we used to say.

In those days, everyone with any longevity was retained on the basis of energy, commitment and authentic contribution. Creative entrepreneurs thrived. But the tools of entrepreneurship have been largely stripped away, and the people who applied them have gone elsewhere. It’s still a people business, but it’s been a long time since anyone has actually said so.

As the Reasonable Reporter leaves the business, she mourns its entry into its lowest period since she entered it. At the same time, she is determined not to sound like the cranky and embittered talent who spent the mergers-and-acquisitions decade in chat rooms devoted exclusively to their invective and their lamentations for the lost good old days.

Radio is resilient. The industry will reinvent itself, as it has done twice previously. Once, when television eclipsed it as the dominant venue for home entertainment. Once again, when FM killed AM for the delivery of music.

It will reinvent itself, but it had better hurry. The reinvention has so far been leisurely and uninspiring. It is stalled in phase one nearly a decade after we began to discover that teens no longer consider radio to be a cultural imperative.

The older demographics were a safe harbor for a time, but that time is almost up, and we’re still undertaking our reinvention as if the mountain will come to us. We’ve stubbornly applied our long-cherished old formula to new media, as if that should be enough. It works in a limited fashion. But it’s not enough to save us.

For her many friends in the business, and for the hard-working talent who continue to bat home runs in a creaky old stadium, the Reasonable Reporter hopes to see the industry adopt greater urgency in the matter of its reinvention.

Meanwhile, this space will soon be devoted to discussions of a particular subset of law. (As an avocation, unrelated to the new gig.) The name will need to change, since “Reasonable Reporter” will be only half accurate after today. More details to come.