iHeart Media announces cuts nationwide; Chicago stations lays off three (so far)

Nation’s largest radio chain eliminates positions in belt-tightening

In 2009, Clear Channel Communications announced one of the biggest radio layoffs in history, cutting 1,850 positions announced on January 20, the same day President Obama was inaugurated into office. At the time, I wrote: “Even more appalling is their plan to cut back on live, local programming and add more syndicated content. The audience has been telling them for years they demand live and local programming. But since Clear Channel doesn’t listen to or care about the listener, why bother?”

Well, here we are eleven years later, and it looks like we’re reading and repeating the same script.

In a massive restructuring, iHeartMedia – the former Clear Channel – announced sweeping layoffs across the country, as they “reorganize” to become something else. From All Access: 

“iHEARTMEDIA has revamped the organizational structure of its Markets Group that it says will put markets into three divisions and add a fourth covering multiple markets and will create hubs to consolidate programming, marketing, digital, podcasts, sales and sales support resources. The company characterizes the move as “moderniz(ing) the company to take advantage of the significant investments it has made in technology and artificial intelligence (AI) and its unique scale and leadership position in the audio marketplace.” 

“The consolidation will create “Centers of Excellence” using artificial intelligence and other technology into hubs that the company claims will “provide a better experience for listeners and business partners and a more efficient process for all of its employees.”

Translation: There will be more syndicated programming and less live and local content as they merge functions in numerous markets. For example, the Dayton cluster and the Cincinnati one could share the same hub in the newly-created “Southern Ohio Center Of Excellence”.

Instead of live and local programming, iHeartMedia is directing more of its resources to producing awards shows and music festivals.

In a memo sent to employees, [BOB] PITTMAN and RICH BRESSLER said that “there will be some employee dislocation — some by geography and some by function — which is the unfortunate price we pay to modernize the company.  We have had to make some tough decisions, and in the process some employees have been affected.  Please know we were thoughtful in this process and have provided enhanced severance benefits as well as outplacement assistance for any impacted employees, and we want to thank them for the valuable contributions they have made.”

The process of those “employee dislocations” began Tuesday morning with on-air layoffs in Des Moines, Indianapolis, Nashville, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Toledo among others. Later in the day, the iHeart Media cutting caravan came to Chicago with three on-air personalities axed at the cluster as reported by Robert Feder: Chris Michaels of urban AC V103 (WVAZ-FM); DJ MoonDog (aka Michael Muniz) of urban contemporary WGCI-FM and Trace Hamilton of country outlet Big 95.5 (WEBG-FM.) All three worked evenings; this means – at least for now – there are no live jocks on Chicago iHeartMedia stations after 7 p.m. One tweeter said a Bobby Bones rerun would air in evenings as a replacement at Big, and syndicated programming for V103 and WGCI could be in the offering.

And this isn’t all – more layoffs are expected this week and could include Chicago and other markets. When all is said and done, the number of layoffs nationwide could match or surpass those of the 2009 massacre. iHeartMedia took the unprecedented step of removing their entire roster of on-air personalities from all of their websites.

The news of the iHeartMedia layoffs were greeted with scorn on Twitter. Here’s a sampling of responses:

 

 

 

 

 

The layoffs comes despite iHeartMedia’s WLIT-FM dominating the last book with Christmas music, sweeping all dayparts. V103 is among the top three stations in Chicago, while Kiss 103.5 (WKSC) is marginally successful and WGCI and Big 95.5 are clearly struggling as their respective formats are also in a slump. Some of the fired personalities in the affected markets (such as Louisville) were tops in their daypart overall and in key demos.

The layoffs come as Rolling Stone reported Tuesday iHeartMedia’s two contemporary-hit radio stations in the top two markets (New York and Los Angeles) refused to play songs from Korean boy band BTS and Lil Nas X despite their successful chart runs because the songs were – and I’m paraphrasing here – “not white enough”, harking back to the post-disco and pre-Michael Jackson Thriller era (roughly early 1980 to early 1983) when Top 40 stations and MTV basically refused to play songs from black artists.

As I said over a decade ago, cutting back on live and local programming isn’t the way to attract audiences, and iHeartMedia is making the same mistakes it did back then. And it has doubled-down on the way it operates business – in the last decade, iHeartMedia has held Jingle Balls, Music Festivals, and awards shows to attract A-talent superstars, even though the music artists do not get a single penny from their airplay from terrestrial radio. The iHeart deals basically shuts them up, preventing them from speaking out against the company (in fact, not one performer has said anything about Tuesday’s major layoffs.)

So much for having artists in employees’ corner, many of whom (usually off-air personnel) are earning hardly anything to make ends meet – a problem brought up more and more in the past year in the media business as the #PayUpHollywood tag attests.

With the massive layoffs in radio and newspapers (with Alden Capital flexing its muscle on the board of Tribune Publishing), traditional media has still not figured out how to navigate the changes taking place. Tuesday’s actions means iHeartMedia is throwing up their hands, despite the gibberish they were crowing about in their press release. The one thing iHeartMedia had in their arsenal to compete with Sirius/XM, podcasting, and streaming services such as Spotify and Amazon Music  – live and local content – is no longer a priority. Watching the same scenario play out again 11 years later is like a rerun of a bad TV show that never ends.

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