Reading of another round of layoffs, all I can do is shake my head at what radio ownership gets away with. This time, it’s iHeart laying off at least 1500 local radio employees, many of them beloved local disc jockeys.[i]
Radio has been able to fly under the radar, for some reason, while other businesses in the field of creative content providing have been exposed for the greedy, vile, exploitive beasts they are. Truth is, radio is worse. The radio industry has been running on exploiting the dreams of creative people for decades. Radio is built on the sweat equity of many who have been ground down and killed by this machine. Yet, the glorious myth of Radio has protected ownership from facing any consequences.
I bought into the dreams for a long time. Allowed myself to be exploited, my creativity mined for the wealth of other men. Radio runs on the blood and sweat of people like me, willing to put in crazy hours to develop a following because they love the idea of radio. Yet station owners routinely pay the absolute lowest wages — many disc jockeys make minimum wage. There is a demand for the job — people want to be on the radio. Ownership has used this to their advantage.
In small-market Vermont, radio routinely pays on air talent less than half of the state’s Median Wage. Though radio ownership prefers to pay in salaries — which allows them to exploit workers for overtime without pay — these salaries often do not even rise to the $15/hour minimum wage most see as a minimal threshold of payment for employment. Radio ownership lowballs salaries, and health insurance is only provided at bare minimums. It can be slightly better in larger markets.
Radio ownership is brutal to its workers, because it can be. It can get away with it. There are no rewards for longevity or loyalty in radio. Ownership is confident that you, as an on-air talent, can easily be replaced. We’ve just seen iHeart Media fire scores of people. The company, once known as Clear Channel, has been responsible for some of the worst employment policies in radio, and is known for cutting costs by firing local air staff and centralizing control in regional and national hubs.
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio was so alarmed by their recent round of layoffs, he called the company out, noting that its executives have taken millions in bonuses while firing workers[ii]. But what will come of this? Nothing much, if history is any guide.
Clear Channel/iHeart Media has been at this business of buying stations and consolidating talent regionally or nationally, since President Ronald Reagan began deregulating the radio industry in the 1980’s, forcing the rest of the industry to adapt to their “practices” to compete against them, destroying most small town radio in the process. In so doing, they’ve destroyed traditional radio business models, too.
Ever wonder why so much radio sounds the same? That’s one of the reasons. Thank you, Clear Channel/iHeart. Among others — they are not alone in this. Consolidation allowed by deregulation led to several large companies owning large groups of stations across the country, and they act a whole lot like iHeart. Some are worse, as they aren’t in the spotlight as often.
The market research these ownership companies do on the music, driven by corporate risk aversion, is another factor. This creates safe, national playlists which hopefully decrease tune out during commercials. The more familiar the music, the more commercials the station can play, having mitigated any risk in the music, or as much as they figure they can.
These companies do a ton of market research on the music, all the time. The songs become 15 second “hooks” tested on audiences for familiarity, like, and burn. Management watch charts and streaming and other metrics. The tune itself — what it sounds like — doesn’t really matter, so long as it tests well nationally with your target demo. Corporate radio ownership does not believe in music regionalism, and shows no apparent regard or value in the music except as a product they can use to make money.
Maybe it’s not surprising. That is, ultimately, what commercial radio is really all about. Making money. Lining the pockets of owners and executives. Music? That’s just a means to their ends. Are you not entertained?
The best compensated low-level employees in radio are the salespeople. These radio companies that fire local disc jockeys and centralize air talent nationally still keep local sales staffs employed. They bring in the money. Most are paid on commission. But this life, too, can be brutal, despite the compensation. If you bring in money, great! If you don’t bring in enough? Some radio ownership and management will go out of their way to make sure you understand how worthless you are. David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross’s real estate guys had it easy.
There is no loyalty in radio, and aside for a very slim sliver of nationally famous disc jockeys, you do not get rewarded for your accomplishments. I can illustrate this with my own example, from when I was let go a couple of years ago. Actually, I’ll let management do it themselves, from their letters of recommendation:
The station owner and manager said, “…As part of the team, he was instrumental in the radio station being named favorite radio station by (our local weekly) Newspaper annually. Mike is a dependable, hard worker that was a strong part of our organization and would do whatever was asked of him.”
And the former Program Director (my direct boss) said, “He has a great ear for music; it’s because of Mike that (we were) ‘early’ on some huge acts… For example, he identified Of Monters and Men, Lorde, SYML, and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats as having big potential… in some cases way before those artists had album deals. …On the air Mike is relaxed, casual, knowledgeable, engaging, and concise. One of the reasons I hired Mike was his heritage as a DJ in the area, and he did not disappoint. He has that kind of casual gravitas. He also has truly great production skills…”
He goes on, but brevity and modesty tell me that’s enough to give you a general idea. They said such nice things! Didn’t matter. I got a tiny bit of severance pay, and could collect unemployment because it was no fault of my own. But that was it — thanks — you’ve been great! Goodbye! No loyalty, no rewards for jobs well done. And I’m pretty well known around these parts (that “heritage as a DJ” thing). Go figure.
Ah, but the magic and myth of Radio! The Spirit of Radio, as the late, great Neil Peart penned. The illusion of one-to-one communication, the lie of a disc jockey picking out tunes, the false “requests” the station was going to play anyway… it’s mostly all a sham. I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you, if you hadn’t clued in to the fakery yet yourself. Once, maybe, radio was sort of like this… but like so many past “golden ages” longed for, it was never quite as cool as all that.
Are there some radio stations and radio station ownership who don’t exploit their workers and the music? Some, but they are few and far between, and exceptions that prove the rule. There has been a rise in non-commercial radio as well, much of it community-based, filling the gaps in localism and music diversity abdicated by commercial radio.
Internet and satellite radio have also taken over where commercial radio falls short. While satellite stations cannot offer the localism and regionalism commercial radio once valued, internet stations can adapt to their communities, like local radio used to.
With its focus on the local Burlington, Vermont community, and the local music scene, I’ve discovered with WBKM.org the last couple of years how an internet station can fill those gaps. And? Freed of the need to mitigate the risk posed by long breaks of commercials, we can allow the music to take the risks, and mine a music library that dwarfs any commercial station’s.
This is the kind of radio I love! It can be done.
Unfortunately, it isn’t the kind of radio the radio industry is interested in doing. Which is why, I guess, I kinda hate it, now.
Mike Luoma is a science fiction author, comic book creator, writer, podcaster and radio host (WBKM.org) from Vermont . More at http://glowinthedarkradio.com.
[i] Could iHeart layoffs be the beginning of local radio’s endgame? By By Joey Morona, cleveland.com, January 28, 2020. https://www.cleveland.com/entertainment/2020/01/could-iheart-layoffs-be-the-beginning-of-local-radios-endgame.html.
[ii] Following Mass Layoffs in Ohio, Brown Presses iHeartMedia Executive for Answers (Press Release); After CEO Collected Millions in Bonuses before 2018 Bankruptcy, Senator Asking Company Leadership How They Plan to Help Laid Off Workers. By Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. Thursday, January 23, 2020. https://www.brown.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/following-mass-layoffs-in-ohio-brown-presses-iheartmedia-executive-for-answers.