T Dog’s Think Tank: Radio takes another step backward

Today’s feedback in Robert Feder’s column in today’s Sun-Times was about the recent corporate cutbacks at Citadel’s WLS-AM and WZZN-FM. Among the universally critical letters of Citadel were three former WLS staffers – one of which (Jake Hartford) was fired Friday.

If the Citadel firings are any indication, the radio business has taken a major step backwards (again) and has given the middle finger to its listeners (again). According to Citadel, someone had to take the fall for the $848 million debacle in last year’s fourth quarter earnings report and the company’s reckless overspending, and it wasn’t going to be the suits.

Despite what you think on how much WLS leans (personally, yours truly finds news/talk radio – whether left or right – quite boring), it still had a hard-working news department (even in the Musicradio 89 heyday), and a reporter dedicated to local politics. And now, Citadel has stripped most of that out and decimated the place in the process.

And then there’s sister station WZZN’s reluctance to hire local personalities for the True Oldies Channel. While it was understandable when they launched the station in 2005 to start off with a satellite-fed service, it’s 2008 – and they haven’t shown much improvement in hiring local personalities, aside from hiring Dick Biondi, Greg Brown, and Scott Mackay (and they let one go – John Landecker – last year.) Last Friday, they flipped WJZW-FM in Washington, D.C. from Smooth Jazz to True Oldies, firing the entire airstaff, and added Imus in the mornings, in a Radio & Records story that read more like a press release (really, R&R should know better.)

It’s just more proof audience numbers don’t matter in this business anymore, but how much money a show rakes in and what Madison Avenue and Wall Street thinks does (and that goes for television too, since CW thinks most of their aging shows can still draw an audience.) Arbitron and Nielsen numbers are starting to come more and more irrelevant with each passing day (and yes, I know about the LPMs and PPMs, so don’t go there.) It is harder and harder to tell who the winners and losers are, even among demos. After all, McGee was canned and he was in the top five and often in the top three among adults 18-34.

Radio’s cruelness has been on display in recent years – the big, corporate losses. The firings. The bland playlists. Even losing your job because you speak your mind about the state of the business. And much, much, more. And the suits – and even some clueless listeners – still can’t grasp what’s going on.

And you think the politicians care about this? They are too busy raising our taxes to notice. What does your presidential candidates say about this? Oh yeah – they are too interested in selling us “change”, which we all know won’t happen. What does John McCain think about this? Oh, that’s right. He’s for the “free market” – a word people in the corporate boardrooms love to hear. If he becomes the next President, he’ll give corporations free reign over radio and television, which gives them the incentive of stripping them of their soul.

So, the mass firings at Citadel Friday were no surprise. Sadly, we’ve become too numb to this kind of event. And if you think good ratings doesn’t matter anymore, neither does localism.