The signature bit of my radio career – one that built a 20-year morning show and was nationally syndicated – started with this phrase, a mocking of “adult” stories: I never thought this would happen to me. And considering that I’ve spent the vast majority of my radio career working for independent operators, it hadn’t happened to me.
Until this month. It was my turn to be on the business end of a reduction in force.
RIF’s have become an extremely painful staple of the radio industry, and they’re a huge problem for the broadcasters they disenfranchise and the companies who find themselves labor-poor.
Shocking news: I’ve got some thoughts. And a solution.
A really good solution.
Just one problem: it’s illegal.
If you know me at all, then you know I’ve got a solution for that little illegality issue as well. But first, let’s analyze the situation.
We know two things about the state of radio as we barrel toward 2023:
- We have a major industry cash crunch. I mean, a really major cash crunch, and while a lot of smart people are working on a lot of (mostly) digital solutions to the problem, the reality is this: it ain’t going away anytime soon. Across radio, more RIF’s are always just around the corner.
- You can’t, in a creative business, budget cut your way to content success. Fewer creative bodies means less great content. It also means less great talent to form relationships with listeners and advertisers, and those relationships are our stock in trade. Again, sorry.
It seems like we have a tiny little conundrum here, don’t we?
There’s more demand for great audio content every day, but people – and not just younger people (though good luck targeting an audience under 35) – are giving radio less and less of their time and attention every single day. Do you think that’s going to change when we have fewer performers (and programmers) creating great content and fostering great relationships?
Of course it won’t. And still, we have to deal a major industry cash crunch, don’t we?
A Silicon Valley friend of mine heard this and said, “It sounds like a death spiral to me…or do you have one of your crazy solutions?”
Of course I do.
Say hello to the collusion solution.
Webster’s defines collusion as a “secret agreement or cooperation especially for an illegal or deceitful purpose.” Let’s forget the last time the word “collusion” entered the public consciousness and engage in a little fun, pro-radio collusion!
What kind of secret agreement or cooperation does radio need?
Simple. We need to engage in rampant antitrust violations. (And whaddya know? Engaging in rampant antitrust violations would be an illegal purpose!) We have a secret agreement about cooperating with each other, and our purpose will be illegal.
For my lawyer friends, look at that! We’ve met all the elements of the “crime” in a dazzlingly elegant and concise manner!
For my radio friends, what am I talking about? Well, two things really.
First, we need to stop cannibalizing each other. Every time one operator in town goes rogue with regard to rate – and one operator in town always goes rogue with regard to rate – everyone suffers. The next thing you know, market revenue is down, people are being RIFfed again, and the industry takes another body blow.
We need to collude with regard to rate, whether that’s via CPP or some other measure.
Second, we need to start building unique, overly-niched radio stations that will never succeed financially on their own but will draw customers (sorry, that’s listeners), especially younger ones, back to radio. You can’t do that when we’re all fighting over the same small handful of profitable hills that we call, say, “Adult Contemporary” or “Classic Rock.”
We fight over those hills because, we’re “broad”casters and well, they’re profitable. We’ll leave the hills that you can’t make enough money with to justify the use of our slice of the limited FM spectrum to streaming “narrow”casters. That, mon ami, drives listeners away from the radio.
Why? This piece I wrote a while back goes into detail. The simple summary: when there are fewer reasons to listen to the radio, more people spend less time listening to the radio.
When we all fight over the Ed Sheeran hill or the Led Zeppelin hill – and when we all break at the same time across either the bowtie or hourglass quarter hours because PPM quarter hour maintenance demands it – we drive people away from terrestrial radio and toward…other options, options we don’t want them driven towards.
We need to stop doing that, and that’s where collusion comes in.
We need an industry sit-down, the kind that causes Congress to investigate and find rampant antitrust violations. The Dons of radio need to decide who takes what turf and who takes a financial hit. We can do it locally, nationally, whatever, but it needs to happen.
Of course, no one wants to (or should have to) take the financial bullet so that others may live. That means that we need do each other a little favor. Our Dons need to agree to share the revenue (and the expenses) in a way that enhances bottom lines for everyone involved in this thing of ours.
Hold up, Steve. You’re talking about a collusive, illegal cartel engaging in obvious antitrust violations? How can we get away with that?
The solution is simple. I could say it in one word, but how interesting would that be? Instead, let me tell you about something that you already know.
Broadcast radio doesn’t pay royalties for the recorded music that we play. (We pay royalties on the compositions, but not on the actual songs, known at various times as “sound recordings” or “mechanical recordings.”)
In fact, sound recordings weren’t even protected by copyright law until 1972. Said differently, when The Beatles went splitsville in 1970, exactly zero of their recorded music was protected by copyright.
Why? The short version is that Congress – our federal government – had gone out of its way to keep sound recordings outside the ambit of copyright protection.
Any guesses why that was?
Perhaps there was an industry that had a little influence that went out of its way to pay lobbyists to make sure that Congress kept sound recordings outside the ambit of copyright protection. If I have to tell you what industry that was, please go directly to Jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
When protection was finally extended to sound recordings, it was with the caveat that playing sound recordings on terrestrial radio would not be considered a public performance that necessitates the paying of royalties. Thanks, lobbyists.
To summarize: the solution is an antitrust exemption. Is that something that even exists? Well, why don’t you call 212-931-7800, and ask for Rob Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, which, as of this May, has enjoyed an antitrust exemption for 100 years? It exists.
So, how does radio get an antitrust exemption? Well, in 1922, the route to that was through the Supreme Court. Today, the route is presumably through Congress.
And that, amigo, is where the lobbyists come in. Radio has them. They are hard at work, and rightfully so, pushing the Local Radio Freedom Act, which protects that royalty exemption we just talked about, and which is incredibly important to the survival of broadcast radio, and they appear to be winning the fight. Good on ‘em!
The fight, however, needs to be expanded to a Save Free Radio Act. (Okay, SFRA isn’t a very appealing acronym. Can you come up with something better, maybe come up with the words that abbreviate to SOAR or something? The best I can do is SPUR: The Save the Public Utility that is Radio act, which, to put it bluntly, is a terrible name.)
Is it going to be easy to make an antitrust exemption happen? Of course not.
You got a better idea of how to Save Our Freaking Transmitters? (The SOFT Act? No, that acronym sucks too.)
A Brief Personal Note
I was going to write a separate blog post about the very personal effects of being RIFfed – I’ve done something similar when a whole radio station died – but I’m going to save the long read and do it here.
To my former peers, particularly the young ones – and if you even suspect that I’m talking to you, I am: You are stars.
You are not future stars. You are stars. Right now. And you are headed for much bigger things.
As I told each of you at some point, I sat at one convention keynote a few years ago and was stunned at how few people in the room hadn’t been in the business since before you were born.
I remain equally stunned at the collection of young, impressive talent I had the privilege of sharing a building with until this month.
Radio is lucky to have you. Radio needs you. It needs your youth. It needs your creativity. It needs your energy. It needs your complete lack of interest in doing things the way they have always been done.
Keep growing. Keep looking to do things that radio hasn’t done before.
More important for you, keep building your game and your brand.
Radio needs you. Here’s hoping radio continues to deserve to have you.
I admire each and every one of you, and nothing will make me happier than to watch you all continue to grow.*
*Okay, a Bruin Football national championship would make me happier, but that ain’t happening, and your growth definitely is.
Break a leg, y’all!