A Radio Geek Looks at 50

April 9, 2020

Two days ago, I celebrated my 50th birthday. It’s true, kids: your author is as old as the Ford Mustang! By the way, I’ve been thinking it would be great to commemorate this occasion by purchasing a new 2014 Mustang GT. If you’d like to contribute to the fund for my indulgence, please let me know! 🙂

Most 50-year-olds are looking forward to retirement. I’m not. Instead, I’m searching for a new adventure. I don’t feel 50. Not in the least. I suppose this is because I have never been married and don’t have any kids. I basically live the same way now as I did when I was 25. Minus all the stupid things that I did in my wayward youth, of course.

On my birthday, I thought back to all the places I’ve been, all the accomplishments I’ve made, and how much the world has changed over the past 5 decades. My maternal grandmother lived to be 100 years old. She used to tell me how technology had progressed throughout her lifetime. She had witnessed the birth of the telephone, the automobile, radio, television, computers, and the Internet. Indeed, she was fortunate to have lived during the time of the greatest technological innovations this world has ever seen.

Specifically, I began thinking about all the changes radio has gone through during my life. When I was born in 1964, radio was the dominant medium in the U.S. Television was still in it’s infancy. Not everyone had a TV. But nearly every household had a radio. Most cars had radios. Aside from a few educational, “beautiful music”, and experimental stations, there was no FM to speak of. When someone said “radio”, they meant AM. Amplitude Modulation. Ancient Mary. 540 to 1600 kilohertz. Music of the Beatles had just arrived in America. The radio dial was filled with high energy, personality DJs who brought those sounds into our homes and our cars. The first song I remember hearing on the radio was “Penny Lane” at age 3.

Throughout the 1970s, commercial radio was vibrant and profitable. FM radio became a force to be reckoned with in many markets. In Minneapolis, our first Top 40 FM was WYOO-FM 101.3, known as “U100.” I remember hearing it in glorious FM stereo and thinking “the music sounds so much better on this station.” CB radio became popular, due to the truckers’ strike and the record “Convoy” by C.W. McCall. Now, the average person could talk to others by using inexpensive 2-way mobile radios in their cars and with “base stations” at home. CB radio was the cell phone and the Facebook of the 1970s and 80s.

In the 1980s, radio remained strong. FCC regulations prohibited any one entity from owning more than 7 AM, 7 FM, and 7 TV stations. This was known as “the 7-7-7 rule.” In 1985, the limits were raised to 12 AM, 12 FM, and 12 TV. So for the most part, radio stations were independently owned and operated. Now, more people listened to FM vs AM. Top 40 was now known as “CHR” or Contemporary Hit Radio. It was very much an exciting time to get started as a broadcaster, as I did in 1983. The future was bright on the airwaves!

The 1990s were the beginning of the end. “Duopoly” passed in 1992. Radio entities could now own two AM and two FM stations per market. Total ownership caps were raised to 18 AM and 18 FM stations. This profoundly changed the radio landscape in many markets. Now, instead of owning a sole FM station and trying to make it dominant, companies would often use a second frequency as a “flanker” station to protect their cash cow. If your established FM was traditional country FM, you would program “Young Country” or “New Country” on the new station. If your established FM was running a rock format, put “Alternative” or “Modern Rock” on the recently acquired station. The purpose was to “tag team” a direct competitor or to keep another company from launching a direct competitor against you. In 1996, the ownership caps were basically eliminated as the Telecommunications Act was passed. This allowed huge national conglomerates like Clear Channel and Cumulus to purchase hundreds of radio stations and operate multi-station “clusters” in several markets.

The new millennium saw increasing levels of radio consolidation. Many independent owners sold out to the national operators, often for a huge profit. Faster computers and improved Internet/Intranet technology allowed the proliferation of voice tracking. One DJ could now prerecord shows for multiple stations in their cluster and/or for multiple markets. Jobs were cut and live airstaffs reduced as companies realized the cost savings of sharing voice talent among several stations. Listeners soon discovered radio was not as entertaining as it used to be. The local disc-jockey had been replaced by an unknown voice, often emanating from several states away. First listenership, then revenues began to fall in many markets.

In 2014, radio is very much a corporate playground. In all but the smallest markets, the radio landscape is dominated by the large national conglomerates. Nationally syndicated morning hosts have replaced local talents. Radio’s share of the media pie continues to shrink. It has become a downward spiral. Faced with lower ratings and revenues, companies continue to cut payroll costs by eliminating more live personalities. This causes ratings and revenues to sink even lower. The process then repeats itself. It’s a race to the bottom. My last day on-the-air was Friday, May 21, 1999. I saw this “consolidation tsunami” approaching and decided to cash out of the game before the house of cards came tumbling down.

Can the present state of radio be reversed? I certainly hope so. Even though I have been “out” for 15 years, I still love the industry very much. The existence of this website should provide sufficient proof! I would like to get back in the game someday IF the landscape and the outlook for radio’s future were to improve markedly. That’s a big “if.” But all things are possible. Time will tell. Until then, this 50-year-old radio geek still has 5 decades of great memories to look back on.