Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Terrestrial Radio sucks


Terrestrial Radio is the guy in an iron lung who’s smoking. Except the guy is smart enough to know he’s dying.

For almost a hundred years Terrestrial Radio has ruled the airwaves. And as readers of this blog know, my first love (besides Natalie Wood) is radio. That’s why it really pains me to not only see it heading towards its own demise but sprinting.

Now we have satellite radio (such as it is), internet radio, music services like Pandora, our own playlists, and my book-on-tape. At one time the only way you could hear the hits was to tune to a terrestrial station or maybe two. Now there are literally thousands of alternatives. On iTunes radio there are 543 stations streaming Top 40/pop music. Right this minute a Lady Gaga song is on 523 of them. There’s probably a 24/7 station that plays nothing but Spandau Ballet – and they only had one hit.

So how does Terrestrial Radio deal with this? By ignoring it. By increasing their commercial load. What’s the single biggest complaint listeners have about Terrestrial Radio? No. Rush Limbaugh is number two. Commercials! Of course! So to counter-program all these alternative delivery systems they just add more commercials. Do stations know they’re mortgaging their future? Of course again. But they don’t care. They just want to bring in a profit now. In their list of priorities, the listener falls right below watering the plants in the lobby.

Listen to your local Top 40 station (if you can). There are probably close to 20 minutes of commercials an hour. When one of those stations goes into a spot break it can last up to seven minutes. Do the math. Most commercials these days are 30 seconds. That’s 14 commercials all at once. Even the Guantanamo detainees weren’t subjected to that.

And not only is that horrific for the listener (assuming he hasn’t already tuned out or given the name of Bin Laden’s courier), how’d you like to be the sponsor with your commercial number 8 of 14? What impact does that have? None. You’re taking your advertising budget and lighting cigars with it.

And what about news and sports formats? Those stations are either on AM or if they’re on FM they come with the full load of commercials.

Here’s the problem with AM: You can’t buy AM radios anymore. Go to a Best Buy or any major store selling radios. Good luck finding an AM. And if you want an AM transistor radio – the one-time staple of every teenager -- your best bet is to buy one on ANTIQUE ROADSHOW. Transistor radios that receive AM are almost impossible to locate. You have to special order them as you would a Betamax player or Teri Hatcher’s self help book.

Most people listen to the radio in their cars. For any of these new delivery systems to really make a dent they have to be easily available on the dashboard. Satellite radio already is. For a number of years now auxiliary outlets have been available so you could play your iPods over your auto’s audio. And in newer models iHeart Radio – a collection of stations although most commercial – is an option. Manufacturers are hard at work making receivers that will play streaming internet radio. You’ll be able to set push buttons for your favorite internet station the way you’ve set one for KISS-FM (every city has a KISS-FM). On the new Prius you can mix and match the push buttons. 1 – a satellite station, 2 – your favorite FM station, 3- satellite, 4—an AM station, etc.

And once internet stations are as easy to play in the car as terrestrial stations then the terrestrial stations are toast. Internet stations contain little or no commercials. Their overhead is minimal. And it’s only a matter of time before a few break out and become viral hits. That means that some dude’s station that he runs out of his mother’s walk-in closet could be worth more than the terrestrial stations Clear Channel and Cumulus and CBS overpaid millions for.

This does not just apply to music-based stations. Long-time talk show host Tom Leykis now does his show exclusively on the internet. And in less than a year he has millions of listeners.

I am firmly convinced that the next great radio star, the next Howard Stern, will come from an internet station. Actually, that’s almost a given since Terrestrial Radio, in another effort to cut costs, rarely employs live talent. They just run syndicated programming or voice tracks. So there’s no training ground for young talent anymore.

Asking Terrestrial Radio to clean up its act is like asking Lindsay Lohan to clean up hers. You know it’ll never happen (even after that jaw-dropping Liz Taylor movie). Terrestrial Radio needs to cut way back on the commercials for starters. Then they have to figure out what they can provide that all of the alternatives can’t. Local programming is one answer. I’ve heard so many stories of tornadoes and freak storms hitting cities and the citizens turn to the radio to get disaster coverage and are treated to Carrie Underwood’s greatest hits. It used to be that radio had an obligation to provide public service to the community. That’s now a joke. Who cares where the emergency shelters are located? Taylor Swift has a new single!

The other thing Terrestrial Radio can offer is personalities. If everyone plays the same songs it’s what’s in between them that make the difference. But personalities cost money. And reducing commercials loses money. So it will never happen. Lindsay Lohan will be arrested for urinating on Kim Kardashian and Terrestrial Radio will go on believing surveys that say that most people still listen to them. I think those surveys are from the same pollsters that predicted Romney was going to win.

As Bob Dylan said, “the times they are a ‘changin’.” You can find that song on one of 267 iTunes stations streaming Classic Rock and 212 Oldies streams. With little or no commercials.

Note to Terrestrial Radio: Cigarettes will kill you.


  1. Sadly, you're right on target, Ken. I ended up buying a satellite radio for my car because the local sports station was so bad. It wasn't bad enough that ESPN radio had a ton of commercials, but the local station ran its own commercials OVER the genuine programming. Several years ago, I was ad director for a college. A new, local FM station started, which played great music which was actually programmed by the DJs. It was great. We advertised with them. But the owners were under capitalized and had to sell out to some media conglomerate. The sales rep came to see us to get us to keep advertising. He told us they were making the exciting change to oldies. We asked why. He said because the sales reps couldn't describe the previous format succinctly enough to actually sell the station to advertisers! We said, no thanks!

  2. I totally agree. During the East Coast snowstorm this past weekend, I was listening to a local radio station, and it was clear that the DJs prerecorded their bumps because there was no mention of the massive snowstorm we were experiencing. I could have listened to satellite radio for the same experience, and not had any commercials.

  3. I used to listen to ESPN's Mike and Mike but had to give it up because of the five five-minute spot breaks every hour...that's over half the hour taken up with commercials. And most of the commercials on the air these days are "Hi, I'm Jim Smat, and I'll sell you my great new system that will help you corner the market on radish futures!" or "Men: our lab-tested method will keep you virile for 24 months guaranteed!"
    On a purely personal note, old radio talent used to be able to pull a weekend shift or two. Computer voice-tracking put an end to that.

    1. I agree! Look, ESPN's Mike and Mike in the morning is just one big commercial! I quit listening. It made me physically sick. Too many dedicated commercial breaks. Too make matters worse even the nuts and bolts of the show is littered with commercial references. Just giving an opinion has to brought to us by Subway, for example. Then there is the infuriating opinion which directly leads to personal pitch for something and that's before an official 'commercial break.' Their greed gets in the way of analysis, which is too sanitized anyway. But that's a whole other can of worms...nuff said?

  4. I still listen to AM radio in the car. I have found that I actually like conversation better than music while driving. I don't mean call-ins. Put it this way, the best radio program in the last decade or so was Tony Kornheiser's on ESPN. He talked mostly to other sports reporters; he never took listeners' calls -- he hardly ever talked to athletes. So the conversation was interesting. Like the old "Sportswriters" program from Chicago -- Messrs. Jauss, Gleason, et al. -- where viewers could only get on by writing in, and writing in complete sentences.

    Looking back, I actually did look forward to the wacky DJ bits between songs on WLS and WCFL back in the day. Granted, I still wanted to be shiftin' gears in my father's manual transmission Maverick when Radar Love came on -- again -- but I wanted to hear the jocks as well. All that proves, I suppose, is that I'm in a demographic that is increasingly irrelevant....

  5. I listen to cd's (which are also about to go the way of the dinosaur) instead of radio because of the commercials.

    Soon every station will be spanish language anyway...

  6. My brother-in-law asked me recently over supper whether I was going to the (old-time legend) concert. "Oh? I didn't know he was coming thru town doing a concert."

    My brother-in-law was gobsmacked. "Didn't you hear it on the radio? They promote it ten times an hour!"

    My reply: "Who listens to the radio??" gobsmacked him in return.

    There ensued a lively discussion covering many of the points you just outlined. Every now and then the local radio or newspaper actually puts out something of local interest. That's when I feel I may be "out of the loop". Then I listen/read for a couple of weeks until the sheer tonnage of vapid drivel sends me away again.

  7. I tend to listen to Pandora or my music collection on my phone (my entire collection on a device that's a 10th the size of the old cassette Walkman I used to have, wow). I like all kinds, but have a sweet tooth for pop/rock music.

    When I'm feeling like something "new", I use the TuneIn app to listen to radio stations overseas, hoping to catch thier versions of pop/rock. Occasionally I'll hear something I haven't heard over here, but more often than not it's not only the exact same music, but the exact same station intros, background music, etc. If it wasn't in a foreign language, you'd swear it was a Top 40 from Flyover, USA.

  8. I don't listen to much radio anymore, because with five kids I want silence whenever I can get it. But my oldest (10) went through a two-day period of listening to KISS FM and seemed like the entire play list consisted of the same 7 songs over and over again.

  9. Charles H. Bryan2/12/2013 7:40 AM

    There is a terrestrial radio model that seems to have some success: NPR. Yes, you have to listen to them ask for money, but sometimes they get Alec Baldwin or Ira Glass to do so in an entertaining fashion. And my local NPR affiliate actually does a nice job of bulletin style reporting. Even my local ESPN affiliate is owned by a non-profit (http://www.macc.org/Advertising/Espn-1009-Fm-Wlun) but it sells commercial time.

    I think a bigger part of the change is that people are no longer passive receivers of entertainment. I asked my Dad once if he wanted a subscription to TV Guide and he said "No, I just watch what's on." Viewers and listeners are now used to having control over what they see and listen to and when they do so, except for live sports coverage. I rarely turn on the radio for music. I rarely watch shows "when they're on".

  10. Joining the "I agree with Ken camp." The other problem is that the playlists have become so limited.

    I listen to 'alternative' radio stations (over the internet) in a misguided attempt to hold on to my youth and it's the same songs over and over.

    How many times a day do I need to hear Passion Pit or Imagine Dragons? There are literally millions (probably billions) of songs out there; play more than nine.

  11. I guess the older generation always laments the activities of the younger. While the kids don't listen to radio anymore, at least they gave us sexting.

  12. When I'm at home and not watching TV, I listen to music on the Music Choice package on cable. No (audible) commercials although the picture is full of ads, but why look at the screen?

  13. I got my first XM radio about 8 years ago and never looked back. Entire channels dedicated to specific sports (24 hour hockey talk!), commercial free music, and best of all - classic radio.

    There is nothing like listening to Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Mollie, X Minus One, Dragnet, Burns and Allen, or Abbott and Costello while stuck in traffic.

  14. Excellent piece, Ken! "Whatever happened to Radio?" As someone who worked in radio in a slew of markets large and small, I'd have to say the process got its start in the 60's with the "Hit Radio" formats and their cookie cutter formatting. Automation came in in the '60s with FM stereo. The deregulation and the lifting of ownership restrictions in the 80s accelerated the process. I loved the radio business, but by the 70s I found jobs for guys like me going away. The same thing is happening to local TV. You can't tell the "feature story" on the latest iteration of the Big Mac from the paid commercial. In fact, many of that swarm of commercials are giveaways. The sales teams focus on a certain number of "freebies" for every paid spot. No wonder there's no room for local news or personalities.

  15. Some related points:

    --Long ago, I loved listening to Don Imus, as much as I sometimes thought he went too far (I don't mean Rutgers, either). But there were so many commercials, there was no comedy. That was at least 15 years ago.

    --Thirty years ago, when Reagan destroyed the FCC (among other things) and they eliminated limits on commercials, I was a reporter and interviewed a TV station general manager who said, yes, we can and will add some ads, but not too many, because if you do, you'll lose viewers. He knew it. Why didn't they?

    --At The New York Times, A.M. Rosenthal, the executive editor for many years, said one reason The Times survived is that when troubles came, other newspapers put water in the soup, but The Times added tomatoes. All of journalism could have learned from this. Why should we expect radio to be any different?

    --In Las Vegas, we Dodger fans have had trouble getting games on a radio station, partly due to how the Dodgers demand payment and advertising. But it's also because we have few AM radio stations left that want to carry anything interesting.

  16. The website for WFUV FM is http://wfuv.org/. They don't play Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga. In New York, they're terrestrial radio. In other parts of the world, you can listen to them online, commercial-free.

  17. The CBC in Canada provides two FM terrestrial commercial-free channels. CBC 1 focuses on news, conversations and local and national programming. CBC 2 is all about music.

    What's really interesting about the network is that they are all leading the way in establishing multiple (and diverse) internet music streams. At present, over 40 and growing all the time.

    You can check it out here:

    BBC also does a pretty bang up job of not fearing to move ahead with new technology. It's the dinosaurs that hesitate who will perish.

  18. @The Curmudgeon - Tony Kornheiser is still on the radio, still talking to other sportswriters, still not taking calls (and still great, IMO).

    You can listen to him over the Internet (http://www.espn980.com/shows/the_tony_kornheiser_show.php) or download the podcasts via rss or iTunes.

  19. What is happening to terrestrial radio is exactly what happened to and is still happening to the old record companies.

    As Not acknowledging the changing landscape in any profession is a death sentence. And just as the moronic record companies failed to accept the internet and adapt, so too radio.

    My theory is that as more attorneys run the companies than people who actually love the format itself, the core attraction of the product disappears. It's an old story but still true. The bean counters will kill the golden goose every time.

    I still hunt out the rare cool radio show, but they're usually found on NPR or some fading signal I find late at night on a road trip.

    London & Engelman where are you?

  20. Terrestrial FM is unlistenable. Literally. No receiver can undo the Earbleed City double whammy of record label brickwalling and radio's never-ending loudness wars. Is there some research that shows nine out of ten soccer moms prefer such a fatiguing earful? Even Sirius-XM's low-bitrate music channels don't have the life stomped out of 'em.

    As long as there are bankers and investment groups that profit from the conglomerates' strategies of driving the business into the ground, no amount of rational radio basics preaching will make a whit of difference, listeners be damned. The lobby plants croaked after the staffs were fired. The days when terrestrial radio was an indispensable companion are long gone, and I miss them terribly.

  21. The radio in my old truck was stolen. I didn't notice it until I looked over to check the time.

  22. Your savior is a free app for just about every smartphone and tablet in creation: TuneIn. Hook your phone to your car sound system either via the car's MP3 jack or via Bluetooth in cars so equipped. It literally puts tens of thousands of streams - both internet-only and terrestrial - right in your hand.

    Of course we're on it, but so is just about everything on the planet.

  23. Have XM in the car, and the mornings are CNBC and the afternoons are sports - MLB Network or the games.

    ESPN has worn out its' welcome. Their radio coverage is now mainly football or the hosts talking about themselves.

    At home it is Pandora and my own music, along with podcasts of Jack Benny, Alec Baldwin and Harry Shearer.

    Have an internet app which connects with the thousands of terrestrial radio streams around the world and I'll search for local content - especially to follow breaking news. Sadly, there is damned little remaining. When Joplin, Missouri was devastated by a tornado the local stations droned on with conservative talk and ESPN feeds, with the only local information coming during commercial breaks.

    Breaking news is best followed on Twitter these days!

  24. Terribly uninformed blog Ken. I loved you on your old airchecks - great 70s style jock. You had some cred. But...

    93% of Americans 6 and older sample radio every week. Some more than others. They don't listen for as long a period of time as twenty years ago. But there are many more devices to take up your time.

    While the tragically hip readers of your blog may agree with your analysis of today's radio, regular everyday Americans who shop at Wal-Mart and watch NCIS also listen to the radio daily. They don't seem to have a problem with it.

    I started in radio in the 70s, as you did. It was typical to run 18 minutes of commercials an hour. Today the average is 12 minutes an hour on music stations. Talk stations do run quite a bit more.

    It's easy to target radio as a dying medium, but the facts don't back this up.

    I read your blog daily, and enjoy it, but it's becoming too much "I remember then..." How many times can you re-hash MASH?

    Bill in Raleigh

  25. You hit it on the head with your commentary.
    Having seen it first hand I can sympathsize more with the people I know than The Higher Ups running it all.

    Personality Radio especially is a dying art and it's a shame that all that's done is force a lot of my favorite deejays to seek new venues without it.

    At least in my opinion the lzatter is a good thing.

  26. I've had satellite radio in my car for about a year and a half now, and I pretty much exclusively listen to CNN (which has commercials, but it's a bearable trade-off for the content) plus a few of the music stations. Every once in a while I'll think to myself that I have no idea what songs are current, and I'll switch to my preset terrestrial stations. That usually lasts until the first round of commercials (and all the stations' commercials run at the same time), when I'll switch back to satellite for the next three months.

  27. Hi Ken - the worst is that there are a few stations in every city with the potential to break out, be local and be entertaining - but they are not willing to take a chance! Seriously, what do they have to lose - put the personality and locality back on the radio and make it interesting, not just wallpaper commercials!!

  28. I listen to Radio Wayne. You plug in your MP3 player with the thousands of songs you already KNOW you like or have added, and hit random play.

  29. I have a Friday question:

    I feel I ought to understand this by now, considering how long I've been reading this blog, but: What's the difference between an Executive Producer, a Co-Executive Producer, a Show-Runner, and a Head Writer?

    I thought they were mostly synonymous, but lately I've seen articles that refer to the Head Writer being different from the Show Runner and it confused me!


  30. I think the best hope for radio is stay LOCAL. I listen to our local AM station primarly when I'm driving. They mix music and talk shows. The commercials are mainly for local businesses and in the afternoon, they play rock and roll music and have constest giveaways.

  31. No AM radios for sale, you say? Here's one at Amazon for about $11.

    Sony ICF-S10MK2 Pocket AM/FM Radio, Silver

  32. One problem with AM radio is that many stations' transmitters have been allowed to deteriorate, making signals difficult to hear. In Washington, the station once known as WWDC (1260 AM) was a leader in the metro area throughout the 1960s (it helped break the Beatles' "I Want To Hold Your Hand," for instance). But by the 1980s, the station owners deemed it an afterthought to its FM sister and let the transmitter go to waste. Now it's a weak right-wing talker hardly anyone can pick up.

  33. It's been mentioned a couple of times already, but there's no such thing as a Top 40 station. It's closer to Top 15, maybe 20 if you're lucky. That's the number of songs you'll hear repeated every two hours.

    It's unbearable. I can't listen to the same Adele song 12 times a day. I'm sorry, but I just can't.

    I do listen to radio in the morning, switching back and forth between a couple of morning shows to dodge commercials. So the personalities do carry weight with me. In the afternoon, once the syndicated programming starts, I switch to the iPod.

  34. As a commercial writer in a small market territory, what you started as a rant i could turn into a manifesto. The reason radio sucks now is plain and simple. Sales departments. Instead of trying to lure businesses to advertise on their station, they have now become a fabric of what happens on air, for both commercials and content found in breaks, weaseling in and having a say on things they don't know. Sorry it's been a long day at the office and this post spoke to me.

  35. Jeffrey Mark2/12/2013 12:33 PM

    I was an air talent at K101 in San Francisco from 1980 to '83, the last gasp dying days of hands-on radio where you had to concentrate 100 percent to keep things moving. I remember we played 3 songs in a row and then played 3 commercials and back to music. And there were still big national spots - fairly entertaining commercials - still had singing jingle commercials that in some way actually entertained you. But those kinds of commercials were dying out in that era. We played the Top 20-25 hits plus oldies and it all worked. The great old radio jocks were still around; I worked with the great, late Chuck-Chucker Browning...the early '80s...last of the golden age of Top 40 radio.

  36. When I was a teenager and all we had (or knew about, at least) was AM, I jumped between two NYC stations. Now, as a grumpy old geezer, I listen to two oldies stations and two talk stations. Three are FM and one AM. So, I've doubled my sources of diversion. And it only took 50 years.

  37. Jeffrey Mark2/12/2013 12:42 PM

    I analyzed KFOG in San Francisco one day last week. I listened closely to the air talent, the music mix and the kinds of bland commercials they played. Now it's up to 7 minutes of commercials. By the third commercial you forget all about what the first commercial was all about. By the seventh - forget it - you can't even remember the sixth commercial. Commercials today no longer entertain the way they did in the '60s and '70s. No more singing jingles. There's no budget for big time commercials any longer, so all you hear is car ads and ubiquitous cell/smart phone ads over and over. And they're simply boring as all get out. Where once there was a kind of "show-biz" to commercials, now it's just a bunch of whiny 23 year old voice-overs. Sheesh!!

  38. Jeffrey Mark2/12/2013 12:51 PM

    I still "hunt" for records at all of the local Bay Area flea markets. I'm into "space-age bachelor pad" albums and I've found a ton of 'em. And...get this...I still make mix tapes of this kind of music, and it works just fine for me. I can hear the music I like that you just can't find on the radio. Only one Internet station - KANU out of Lawrence Kansas at the University there - they have a show called The Retro Cocktail Hour that's simply amazing. You'd be surprised how cool this old instrumental music is - lot of bongos, percussion and swinging Jazz. I like to do it the old fashioned way...find a record...put the needle down and search out some cool cuts. Who does this nowadays I ask y'all? Records have come back in a BIG WAY. I see young 20-somethings searching for records - mostly soul and new wave/punk. They f'in hate radio. It's become a big thing here in the Bay Area...lot of guys buying records and hating radio meesus to pieces.

  39. @Johnny Walker: Here you go, Johnny. As Ken has said, executive producer is a catch-all term.

  40. Terrestrial radio's GIANT fault.....listening to the damn consultants! They should all be rounded up, flown to the nearest active volcano and dropped into it.

    Here's a clue for terrestrial radio: ask your LISTENERS what they want....if you have any left!

    The latest plan I have heard the the big companies want to do is dump their local sales staff to save money and just have someone at corporate deal with national advertisers since local people don't seem to want to advertise on radio anymore.To deal with local business' that want to advertise, there will be an automated voice system that will supposedly allow them to chose among several generic commercial formats they could use and put together themselves. If they need help, someone from corporate will get back with them. What a fucking joke! The corporations as well shoot themselves in the head right now and get it over with.

  41. Couldn't agree more, Ken. The station that carried my oldies program flipped to a "comedy" format and they are now polluting the air waves with this tasteless garbage.

    CBC 2 carries non-commercial radio, but not the music I want to hear. I'm heading to the walk-in closet now to set up my internet station.

  42. Stations all spend thousands and thousands of dollars to meet their federally-mandated emergency service .... even little tiny stations that can't afford to. Because it is the law.

    It is also the law that they broadcast emergency messages.

    If your station didn't, they violated federal and state law. Report them to the FCC and your Attorney General at once.

    By the way - the problem may well lie in your state's emergency notification system that is supposed to alert radio and TV stations. Report that too.

  43. Interesting. Perhaps the market in Raleigh is different. Well, I imagine there are still colonies of real radio filling the airwaves. In Seattle, I want to hear classic rock or real jazz (not syrupy sweet faux jazz), so I have KJR & KZOK-FM for rock; KPLU is great jazz (it's NPR). KIRO AM as you know, is ESPN radio w/some local talking heads, but it's also the Mariners' flagship station. With 18 pre-sets on the car radio, I don't have to listen to many commercials. The locals I listen to are still that - local jocks. When I tire of pushing buttons, I play a CD cuz they have much better sound than MP-whatever number they're up to. Then again, I seldom spend more than 20 consecutive minutes in the car, occasionally up to 40 min. No more talk radio! Local KOMO AM gives me all the news I could ever want (ie, traffic updates). One of these days I'll keep track of some commercials to see how we rank on the national scale of commercial annoyances.

  44. Don't even get me started. The last market I worked in (~30k people) has most of the stations owned by a single out of state owner.

    And for Bill in Raliegh - You are the one kidding yourself. 93% sample every week? You wanna take another minute and look at that again? If I flip on the radio for 5 minutes to catch the school closings I qualify. As a statistic it may be comforting to the head in the sand crowd but truly it's meaningless. Radio is on the decline and it is because it's become generic. And sadly generic at a very low quality level.

  45. I'm in the same market as Bill in Raleigh. Dunno what shape AM radio is in, but this area has a flagship PBS station with considerable self-produced local and regional programming, two fantastic non-commercial jazz stations on FM, and a local AM'er with a 3-hour "personality" morning show from a 30-year-plus veteran and 3-4 hours of local news in the afternoon and evening.

    We also have the usual horde of more typical, and quite ignorable, music and talk drones.

    Mostly, AM radio sucks because its corporate owners have profit-maximized it into suckiness. Too bad more people aren't clever enough to turn the dial or push the Seek button.


    What do you think of Fox's Short-coms plan?

  47. Thanks, Mike! I can't believe I've only just realised that the head writer isn't the show runner!

  48. They don't care.It's a dinosaur soon to be extinct so big media is cashing in for as long as they can.

    I for one have Pandora on at home with out commercials. As soon as more spectrum becomes around it will be readily available in the car.

  49. @Johnny Walker: Straczynski was showrunner & head writer on Babylon 5. He describes the executive producer's job here (spoiler free). The site answers a lot of the questions asked about writing in comments posted on Ken's blog. But the site is full of spoilers. So either you've seen every episode of Babylon 5 or you don't want to see any of them.

  50. I keep hearing people tout stats that say terrestrial radio is alive and well, but I can't get any real proof. My own inquiries echo what many have said in these comments: that there are better alternatives to terrestrial radio.

    Growing up in Chicago in the sixties, I loved the radio. WLS and WCFL and the personalities associated with them were great. For many years, WXRT was an FM favorite. But by the nineties, it just wasn't fun any more. I could make my own cassette mixtapes (and eventually CDs) for music and only listened to radio for traffic and weather. Now with smartphones, no need for that either.

    Music, news, weather, sports, entertainment... whatever I want, is available to me on my terms. I don't need or want terrestrial radio.

  51. Thanks again, Mike. Very interesting read! It sounds amazing that he got to make the show without any interference from the WB (except for when he wanted to fire someone). Wow!

    Also, I'm amazed he managed to write so many scripts given that he only had a few hours a day to produce them.

  52. Gary Sandy Alomar-bar2/12/2013 7:29 PM

    The best radio on TV: WKRP in Cincinnati, on Antenna TV tonight. Jan Smithers, where are you?

  53. I couldn't agree more!

  54. Like KFART, I'm in Seattle. I'm not a sports fan, so rarely listen to KIRO (except for occasional Mariners or Seahawks games if I think about it), but KOMO is great for news and has some fine personalities...though since they dropped mid-day news-oriented talk shows. But I really love KING-FM, the locally endowed non-commercial classical radio station. A little too much Baroque at times, but it beats hearing the same pop over and over (and I like pop!).

  55. I think terrestrial radio is a lost cause, but if I were Obama, I would consider de-Reaganizing the airwaves and getting us back to the garden of pre-deregulation. THE AIRWAVES BELONG TO THE PUBLIC! Pardon me for shouting. How 'bout if we...
    ...get rid of the scourge of Clear Channel. One station, one owner -- local origination. 12 stations in a market, 12 owners, 12 staffs.
    ...Owners must keep stations they buy for 10 years. No flipping (hence no need for shock jocks)
    ...Mandatory news and public affairs.
    Yes, this is a radical re-thinking. But you're right -- radio as we knew it is dead. Let's re-invent it as a community asset.
    Would this work? Who knows? Would it be worse than what we've got now? Ahhhhh.....no.

  56. The real problem with radio is the nationalization of the stations after ownership rules were removed. Every bit of local personality was sucked out of the stations you loved, news reports were cut back, traffic reports were made worthless, and your local guy who wasn't a drive time DJ is now flipping a burger at Wendys because Clear Channel fired him.

    Do commercials suck? Of course they do. But they suck even worse when they're no longer the catchy jingles and ridiculous pitches of the local businesses and DJs you loved, and are now for businesses pitching you herbal boner pills and gold.

    I realized radio was dead when I was listening to the Christmas-only station this past holiday season with my daughter. As they came out of a rousing version of Jingle Bells that she was singing along with, the commercial pitch started.

    "Men, are you finding you have a problem.... down there."

    Nothing like talking about ED with your kid during the holiday season.

  57. Ken, Sadly you are right on the money. I programmed a lot of Top 40 stations from the early 70's through the early 90's, and I always believed that the talent on the air made the difference. I challenged my talent to find things about our market that only locals would understand. I always said that "talent is like icing on the cake....a good cake (our radio station) can be destroyed by bad icing (our talent), but a good cake with good icing will always be a hit". Someone recently sent me a link on you tube to a reunion of WLS jocks. It is about 8 minutes long and it is awesome. Radio the way it should be, exciting, entertaining, motivating. And the jocks all sound like they not only love the music but LOVE what they are doing. Bravo to your observation but sadly the future of "our" kind of radio has been determined by the bean counters of corporate America. Ralph Wimmer

  58. Radio was my first love. But turning on a radio now is much like running into my first high school girlfriend, now a hooker in an alley with a needle sticking out of her arm in a pool of her own vomit. Mixed feelings at best. I recently completed a cross country tour driving from coast to coast. This was my first trip entirely radio-free. I listened to music I love on Pandora, NPR , and audiobooks, all streamed from my iPhone. Severe weather alerts via text kept me from having to tune around to find a live station with actual services. It was sad. I missed tuning around to hear local radio....a passion since I was about eight years old....because there is nothing to hear.....just more right-wing fringe jobs going on about Obama taking their guns away. There are so many ways to get audio programming. Radio ate the seed corn, and now can only kick the massive debt can down the road. Completely irrelevant to this era. My grandchildren don't even know the names of their local CHR stations. Why would they care. Dude, if anything your rant is an understatement.

  59. Our voice over guy sent your link to me. VERY interesting. Our internet radio station (4-5 years old) is all talk radio for entrepreneurs. (at times we play music when there isn't a live show) We have a huge array of topics, with over 100 show hosts. We have a total of 8 minutes of commercials, most of which are promos of other shows we produce. Back 5 years ago, the founder saw where the trend of "traditional radio" was going and so jumped at the opportunity of internet radio. All of our hosts have benefited tremendously by having their own shows.

  60. I'm in agreement with the other two Seattleites. I listen to great radio here: Five commercial-free (except for pledge drives) stations with "block programming" playing news, classical, jazz and cutting-edge pop and rock, one good news station, a baseball franchise station, a soccer franchise station, and six or seven "pop" and "oldies" music stations. Yeah, the commercial stations run lots of commercials, but that's what the buttons are for--and have been since I listened to WABC, WINS and CKLW in my Ford Galaxie 500. Me and the wife wake up every morning with a local station set on my internet bedside radio (we like to know the local weather) and spend Saturday evenings with Amanda Wilde's "The Swing Years"

    Sure, I miss the days of Dan Ingrahm and Murray the K, but here we have Dick Stein and Mary McCann, and they don't talk over the beginnings and ends of the songs. Heck, my biggest complaint is that on KOOL-AM (yes, it's a computerized national feed) you hear a song in the middle of a four or five song set but you never hear who the artist was, mostly because you've flipped to another station--which is maybe in the middle of one of those ten-commercials-in-a-row sets and you hear ad number seven and it catches your ear before you flip to something else.

    That's how commercial radio works nowadays, by the way: people push buttons in their cars and catch whatever is playing, music or commercials. Nobody listens to a single commercial radio station for more than a few minutes at a time, which is why the commercial to content ratio seems so skewed, even though it really isn't so different than it's been for decades.

    I'm 62 years old, and as far as I can tell, radio isn't all that much different than since the post-TV changes. Music and news and personalities. We don't have Henry Morgan or Jean Shepherd, we have Ira Glass, Garrison Keillor and a whole slew of AM-Radio "talk-show" comedians posing as pundits. Of course, I've mostly listened to "big city" radio all my life. I've never had much interest in small 500-watt sunrise-to-sunset stations, since my experience was they usually just tried to do what the bigger stations did, but badly. Fun to listen to when passing through, but not something I'd want for a steady diet. I was always more interested in college and public stations on the low end of the FM dial. Now those were fun. And you know what? They're all still there! (Except when they're blocked out by the so-called "Christian" stations that purposely drown them out--that's a big problem).

    But I do agree with this: No, terrestrial radio not like it was in "our day." It's tweaked itself for the twenty-first century, and doing quite well. So should we.

    (Approps of nothing: John Lennon: "It's not like in your day; my dad used to tell me--" Eric Morecombe: "Oh, you got a little dad, do you?")

  61. I'm one of those people who grew up with radio. Of course the iPods did a lot of damage, but as you said internet radio is doing great. So what happened? In my view what happened is that the bean counters took control of the music. I remember some years back there was a local soft rock station that EVERYONE knew and listened to. It was everywhere. Some bean counter got hold of it and decided to change the format. Six months later, I don't think they had listeners any more and kept trying to fix things by changing the format. Every time I discover a great station that plays more than the latest interchangeable blonde chicks, I end up mourning it's demise in a matter of months. Do the people who make these decisions actually listen to radio themselves? It says something when the two strongest hold out stations in my area are classical music and C&W. Why? Because they know what their listeners want, and they don't monkey around with it.

    Okay, I'll step down off this soap box now. My, it's a long way down.

  62. Oh, a couple more things:

    (1) I used to love tuning the AM radio dial around at night. Then it was the low end of the FM dial. Then it was shortwave. Now it's the internet.

    (2) And speaking of the internet, anyone know the meaning of the phrase "The September Problem"?

    (3) I loved WOR-FM in NY when it went 'free-form' when the FCC dictated that FM stations couldn't simulcast more than 50% of a sister station's AM programming. That lasted, what, maybe a year before they went to a strict playlist? Remember live drama from New York on TV? How about "The Chicago School?"

    (4) Boy, it's gotten hard to concentrate on the game when the right-field wall is covered with advertising! Someone should complain to Ban Johnson!

    (5) My dad: "Shut off that damned
    rock'n'roll!" My grand-dad: "Shut off that dammed jazz!" My great-grand-dad: "Shut off that damned ragtime!"

    Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

  63. Tony Santiago - New York Dance Music Coalition2/13/2013 4:04 PM


    As one that has been continually fighting close to 20 years for a dance format in New York (edgier than what 'KTU is currently offering), seeing your article was a breath of fresh air.

    If you haven't already, check out the documentary "Corporate FM". It's basically what you're saying but on film with those in the radio industry.

  64. I grew up listening to the radio, here in Nova Scotia. I loved the medium.

    I love it so much that now, in mid life, I have taken to interviewing local radio personalities for my blog. Without exception they are interesting people who all want to put out the best product possible. They are constrained by shrinking budgets brought on by fewer sales.

    Here in Halifax, there are stations that play much of the same music, over and over. But I can always find something I want to listen to.

    I got my first radio 38 years ago. I can remember the older days very well. But today's terrestrial radio, at least in Canada, is not the scourge and the dregs of the medium.

    Of course, I listen to half a dozen different stations to and from work. Maybe you should, too.


  65. Tom Galloway2/13/2013 6:29 PM

    Faboofour: While I've not heard the term "September Problem", in the relatively early days of the 'net September was infamous for the number of newbies due to school starting up. They usually wouldn't have been taught any nettiqette, so it was a painful period for the veterans. Around '92-3, AOL etc. connected to the Internet and from then on we were constantly swamped with newbies and thus entered a state of Eternal September.

  66. Tom Galloway has got it. I was on the net then. Today, when I think of the Green Day song WAKE ME UP WHEN SEPTEMBER ENDS, I think of that year.

    However, I wanted to point out that nobody has yet commented on the irony of someone claiming that terrestrial radio is a dinosaur using the phrase "book-on-tape". Without a laugh track, it's difficult to tell if the jokes have all been spotted on. Rest assured, that one has.

  67. Howard Stern is the next Howard Stern. Since his relationship with his Sirius bosses has soured, if he doesn't retire from broadcasting his show when his latest contract is up (he's hinting that he will, but I can't believe it being the workaholic that he is), I can see him starting an internet radio station. It will play his show as well as host other talent, like he does with the two channels Sirius has dedicated to him.

    And a wise fellow named Declan Patrick MacManus once had some wise words put to verse in regards to the corporatization and commercialization of FM radio back in the 1970s:

         I wanna bite the hand that feeds me
         I wanna bite that hand so badly
         I want to make them wish they'd never seen me!

    You can listen to the rest of what he had to say about it here.

  68. Neil Rattigan2/14/2013 6:41 AM

    Localism and relevance are important to radio's success. KYW Newsradio 1060 in Philadelphia succeeds in delivering both. And it's one of the few AM stations that's tops in its market. If I had deep pockets, I'd do all news on FM, and keep it local.

  69. Much of the blame lies with corporate greed and their INCREDIBLY BAD purchases over the years. However, there's another cancer on the radio industry that's been sucking the lifeblood out of the creativity for years. That cancer is "consultants", the original "one-size-fits-all" sales pigs. Together with corporate programmers, they have systematically squashed the creative local jock. The only reason for it is to reinforce their own importance the THEIR clients, the owners. That's where their $$$ comes from and they couldn't care less about the listeners.

    Radio started as a hobby industry. I suppose it might return to that once the sharks and the shysters have bled all the value from it.

  70. OUTside of Shotgun Tom, and Tim Conway Jr in LA, there is little I enjoy on the radio locally. (I have always been partial to "Coast To Coast AM" on the national circuit.)

    Regular radio cookie cutter radio is dead. Locally programmed radio LIVES!

  71. I worked on the radio for almost 30 years, including about 14 years in a top-five market. I watched the beginning of the end when the beancounters came up with the idea of running two nine-minute stopsets (commercial breaks) per hour.

    A) What listener wants to sit through that much non-entertainment all at once? And 2) What advertiser wants to shell out big bucks, only to have his or her announcement buried smack-dab in the middle of a nine-pound bag of shit?

    And of course, when listenership began to plummet, the same beancounters blamed the programmers and the on-air personalities -- the same ones who tried to tell the beancounters that they shouldn't run so many commercials.

  72. Whoops! Forgot to add my name to the above. It's Geno. (Sorry!)

  73. While doing the morning show at KLUV in Dallas for 3 years, my log ended up with 23 minutes of spots, 7 minutes of news, 6 traffic reports, promos and liners too. And I thought "WTF?" CBS thought the revenue was fantastic. At $300 a pop it worked for them, but the listeners disagreed. When they brought Ron Chapman over from KVIL, he demanded only 15 minutes an hour. With his talent and crew, they moved into the top 3. So, great local personalities and lighter commercial loads do work. For 14 years in Tampa Bay we proved that at WUSA.

  74. girard31

    I hope "Bill in Raleigh" sells his radio stock soon. My youngest, who is 16, never turns on the radio, even in the car. She plugs in her smartphone.

    Besides, Bill, starting out with ad hominem attacks denotes a weak argument every time. And why not just come out in say it, Bill? Radio hinges its future on America's growing lower middle class.

    I worked in radio, and the guy who fired me admitted that the new PPM form of measurement "Isn't being used by the upper middle class people we want to listen to our station". In other words, they were dumbing down. While I appreciated the compliment, I'd rather be employed.

  75. Why listen to the radio when I can carry around 16,000 of my favorite songs on my Ipod 160 classic and plug it into a listening system almost anywhere I go....

  76. Well, you pulled no punches. Ken realizes radio is using a business model that's decades old. Soon someone just MIGHT develop a method of making the "paying" advertisements actually listenable (for all of your shopping needs)- monetizing the graphics of the online experience -and helping radio out of the chasm that will be created. Oh then there's the other side of the coin. Online "radio" will adopt the terrestrial model and cram 15 spots into a 7-minute stopset. I kinda like that "Spandau Ballet" channel -where is it?

  77. as to saying a Top 40 station only plays 15 songs an hour. You're incorrect for some stations. I myslef do on-air talent for a Top 40 station, WFMG-Indiana, and i know for a fact we have five songs, that play 5 times a day from 12am - midnight. literally wont hear the same one within three hours. a radio isn't set up for all day listnership. Most listners are in and out of the car. radio isn't set up for you to listen from 8am - 5pm. that's impossible. they'd need so much music.

  78. Interesting post. I started in radio in 1979 and worked most of the time in media and radio until 2004, when I was replaced by a satellite receiver.

    The word that comes to mi d is "sterile." Radio is cold and lifeless. AM in my market is totally dead. All the stations together on AM have less than a 1.5 share.

    I have an Internet classic and current country station that is little, but still has had more than 203,000 listeners. I sometimes feel very discouraged because I can't make a living with it.

    I have enough music that no song needs to repeat on any given day.

  79. I came of age long after the heyday of legendary stations like WABC, WRKO, KHJ, etc...but I still wanted to get into radio and be the next Dan Ingram or Bob Shannon. Should have tried to be Seacrest instead I guess...

    Some radio groups are better than others when it comes to local staffing and content (Greater Media, Townsquare to name two) - the sad fact is that deregulation & Wall Street have wrecked the biz.

    Internet radio is the hope for the future for many of us - like Howard Hoffman, I have my own station that tried to not sound like everything else on the dial.

    Next step...trying to monetize the audience without killing them.

    Love reading the blog...more radio war stories please!

  80. Thanks, Mike! I can't believe I've only just realized that the head writer isn't the show runner!

    mass notifications

  81. Since I'm still trying to make a living in radio I am posting anonymously. Ken you've nailed the issue on all fronts. But sadly the hope of independent we thought the internet would provide is being and has been crushed by the draconian royalty charges from the RIAA etc.

    In the beginning days of I-Net streaming I had several streams on-line that played music no longer heard on radio. Classic Country, Oldies form the 50's and 60's and deep cut album rock.

    When the royalty fees were jacked through the stratosphere I had to stop since I could not afford the operating costs.

    Today in this top 5 radio market the major operators all have their national format choices, CHR, Hot A/C, Classic Rock, Talk, and Sports Talk.

    The remaining stations are foreign language on AM. Freely available entertainment for listeners over 40 via over the air radio is gone...likely forever.

  82. I agree with what you say about satellite radio. I have one in my car and two in the house. One is in the living room that my wife listens to mostly, and the other is in my office.

  83. You should send a copy of your rant to each and every FM radio station in America! US Radio is dying slowly! I swear that even AM radio is at least 10 times more entertaining than FM.

  84. The reason terrestrial radio still seems to be in business is because of "lethargy" - lethargy of most Americans to look beyond the realms of terrestrial radio. It's too much work and effort. People place ease over quality when it comes to music. This is why terrestrial radio knows they can get away with their incompetence. I mean, they've been doing this for the last 16 years - and getting away with it. Why would they change course at this point?

  85. Ken no you are off target. Check your facts. Why the bias. Radio survives despite you, Clear Channel and Cumulus. What's your negative deal?


  87. Outlaw Radio on Saturday Afternoons with Magic Matt Alan can be interesting.

  88. Satellite radio is what I like. Lots of variety plus the surprise factor, just like a box of chocolates.

  89. Hurricane gonzalo hit Bermuda with category force winds head on.
    I was curious to hear what was happening there.
    Using the "Tune in Radio" app.I searched for Bermuda based stations. All but 4 were kocked out. Out of the 4, 2 were broadcasting a tone (obviously in operation but unmanned. ) The other 2 FM's were playing that Iggy Azaleas crap and that annoying" Happy" song! Followed by more music!!

    FM sucks. HD Radio allows multiple channels on a frequency but now FM's are reluctant to "rent" their HD2-3-4's to "competing FM formats. Terrestrial is Doomed.

  90. I have to say that everything said here is true.

    Just went bowling today with family and the songs that were being played are very much the same stuff I heard a few years ago. Honestly it's just the same songs over and over. Unfortunately I don't think too many people care anymore, because today we can just use Spotify, Pandora, or any other service that provides us the songs we love.

    Hip-hop stations used to be pretty good on terrestrial radio back in the late 80s, early 90s. That was basically the time to get into that genre. Lots of talent and styles to be had. Today you can pretty much guarantee if you heard one hip-hop song, you've probably heard all the others. That's how much they sound alike nowadays.

  91. I am 67 yrs old. There is absolutely nothing on the Milwaukee FM or AM band to listen to. No classical or easy listening, the same oldies over and over, and noise that can't be classified as music.

  92. I am 67 yrs old. There is absolutely nothing on the Milwaukee FM or AM band to listen to. No classical or easy listening, the same oldies over and over, and noise that can't be classified as music.

  93. We're all telling radio stations that they suck for running too many terrible and repetitive ads by not tuning in. They're obviously not getting the message. Unfortunately, my fav online app is now paying they're own ads over the stream's current ad slots and even extending they're ads beyond. I think this is a symptom of the problem. Too many ads forces even ardent radio fans to tune out. I'm getting fed up. The over priced satellite subscription was supposed to originally support ad free listening. Those days are over. Satellite radio needs to choose ad based or subscription based services. They can't keep having it both ways. Again, I'm fed up. Looking for another reasonable option.


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