A few days ago, your righteous scribe was chatting with a highly placed radio executive-a honcho, a guy who makes things happen in the business. In between babbling about the "real strength of the radio business" and why satellite radio is a bunch of crap, he said something fairly radical-he said commercial radio needs to add more personality and really spice up shows to keep listeners.
Now, wait a minute. Isn't that the exact opposite of the "less talk, more music" strategy that has guided the stripping down and cornholing of commercial radio over the past few decades? And, if that's the case, doesn't that make radio executives seem a wee bit dopey, considering they've been firing disc jockeys and pre-recording shows?
"Every survey we ever did, when we asked people what they wanted, they said less talk and more music," he said. "Radio picked up on that mantra and was misled by it."
In business lingo, this is known as "screwing the pooch." For decades, radio executives turned stations into jukeboxes for top-40 hits, surgically removing any personality, dumping personalities that wouldn't follow the rules and finding new ways to make stations as bland as possible, under the direction of focus groups and detailed research studies. And it worked swell for years, especially as traffic jams increased and more and more So Cal commuters were trapped in their cars with only a radio between them and a bad case of road rage.
But now any geek can carry around an iPod with thousands of his favorite songs, tune in Internet radio or fork over the bucks for satellite radio and listen to all music and no talk, guaranteed. Radio is decidedly not cool, which might be old news to anybody who doesn't actually work in the radio industry.
Yet, there are signs that some people in radio have actually figured out that giving radio stations the personality of an automated operator at a gymnastics camp may have been a bad move. Maybe, deep down, radio executives understand the world has changed and if they don't get their act together soon, advertisers will rank radio right below posters in toilet stalls, in terms of priority buys.
In the next few weeks, Clear Channel stations around the country are launching a campaign designed to convince listeners and advertisers that they get it, that they really, really understand listeners' pain. Under the catchy slogan, "less is more," Clear Channel is promising to cut down on the number of commercials and self-promotional spots its stations air every hour, in some cases by as much as 30 percent.
In the radio game, this is fairly wacko stuff, and it sounds just peachy to every dork who may not like listening to 20 minutes an hour of ads for anti-fungal cream and bad strip joints in between a smattering of Rolling Stones songs. It arrives after years of Clear Channel and other corporate radio operations desperately trying to cram as many ads as possible into every hour to greedily extract every dime possible, in order to justify the nutty prices they paid to buy the stations in the first place.
The Clear Channel high-end scientific research team apparently deduced that a few people may, actually, switch stations during some of these five-minute commercial blocks. It was a shocking hypothesis, although advertisers had already suspected that being spot No. 6 of nine in a row wasn't really a big attention grabber. And Wall Street long ago stopped buying the radio happy talk. Stock prices for the big radio companies have tumbled, which is almost certainly why Clear Channel has leapt into action. Clear Channel may be what is known in the business as "motivated."
Within the industry, Clear Channel's move is a huge deal. Warmly known as the "evil empire," Clear Channel controls more than 1,200 stations around the country, including a good chunk of the San Diego dial. As much as anything, the "less is more" campaign is a chance to show listeners and advertisers that radio executives get it, that they are ready to make up for years of Jeff & Jer and Celine Dion.
Unfortunately, the grand effort is being implemented with typical Clear Channel charm. The company is not simply cutting the number of ads. It's also trying to force advertisers to use 30-second spots instead of the more traditional 60-second ads, which they don't necessarily want to do. Even worse, instead of simply charging half as much for a 30-second ad as a 60-second ad, the company is trying to raise the rates for the 30-second spots.
Needless to say, the advertising community is not exactly thrilled. It turns out "less is more" actually refers to Clear Channel's attempt to raise revenue while cutting the number of ads, which is fairly insane, considering the climate surrounding radio. Maybe a few years ago Clear Channel could have bullied advertisers into taking the deal. But now there is blood in the water. Nobody desperately needs to advertise on radio.
To top it off, sooner or later Clear Channel will need to convince listeners that radio is really changing, that maybe it can compete as real entertainment and not just background music for a day of gardening. Clear Channel may be talking the talk, but it doesn't mean a thing when the dial is still full of perky DJs, prerecorded shows and playlists that sound like they were put together by the assistant sales manager at the Carlsbad Best Buy.
Write to MsBeak1@aol.com and editor@SDcitybeat.com.