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Cover Story

Radio killed the radio star

1/23/2013

When MTV announced its presence in August of 1981 with The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star,” it seemed like a simple declaration of truth: Technology changes. Music video was here to stay, and it was just a matter of time before radio would fall by the wayside. Sure, it might always exist, but from this day forward, bands would make money from television, not radio waves.

Fast forward three decades, and now we live in a world where all of MTV’s music programming is in the not-so-highly-coveted 3 to 9 a.m. slot, while even people who are too pretentious or hippy-ish to own televisions still have radios.

Clearly, rumors of the radio star’s demise were highly exaggerated.

The call of “radio is dead” is an easy one to make, and one you will find little opposition to. People love to complain about how radio has lost its relevance; it’s a charge that’s not without merit. According to the 2012 numbers from consumer research company Arbitron, 93 percent of the nation listens to terrestrial radio (any radio station operating on a basic AM or FM frequency) at some point during the day, though that statistic makes no mention of how long each listening duration lasts. One of the more telling stats reveals that the number of people who use terrestrial radio for the purpose of discovering new music has been on the decline for most of the past decade.

One of the reasons people don’t use terrestrial radio as often for new music is because they don’t have to. With the advent of satellite radio, Pandora, Spotify, Bandcamp, LastFM and a host of other online options — to say nothing of torrent sites and other under-board ways of sharing files — people are now knee-deep in ways to hear precisely what they want, exactly when they want it. Many of the above sites come with ready-made ways to expose you to bands with similar sounds to what you already like, taking the guesswork largely out of finding new music.

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Without question, terrestrial radio could have a seat at that particular table. There’s room for radio to expose listeners to new, independent and local music. It just doesn’t really care to.

Throughout the past 30 years, radio markets have become dominated by fewer and fewer companies, which have grown bigger and bigger over time. In April 2012, Cumulus Media bought Citadel Broadcasting Corporation, absorbing the latter’s stations and becoming the second largest radio operator in the nation, with 570 stations. That still leaves it well behind the No. 1 Clear Channel, which owns 850.                

J. Michael McKoy has worked in country, top 40 pop and talk radio for 30 years.

J. Michael McKoy has worked in country, top 40 pop and talk radio for 30 years.    

As more stations have come under the heels of fewer bosses, the number that increasingly became the only one that mattered was the one with a dollar sign in front of it. That’s led directly and unquestionably to stagnation in radio’s message. Giant conglomerates, eager to appeal to as many people as possible at all times, have begun spinning “the hits” and only the hits. New music must first survive a trial by fire on YouTube and iTunes if it wants to see radio play. Once the world has decided that it loves something, though, you can rest assured that it’ll find a home on one radio station or another until the end of time.

This has also led to a controlling of the overall message. Local jocks are cast aside for singular voices coming from New York City and Los Angeles; pre-set song rotations arrive via download, and commercials are added in and queued up without a jock so much as touching a CD or pushing a button. Request lines are becoming a thing of the past, and listener feedback and interaction is virtually nil, save for social media. Even in preparing for this story, several DJs would only talk on the condition of anonymity because of contractual stipulations keeping them from speaking to the press about anything at all, regardless of subject or position.             

So this is where we’re at: Plenty of options for finding new and interesting music on your computer or smart phone, and a terrestrial radio system that’s deliberately painted itself into the corner of being the audio version of TV Land. It didn’t have to be this way, but it’s also not exactly the end of the world. If you really need someone to blame for the current state of radio, you can start with the entity that Americans have been blaming for 200 years now — the government.                

Changing Des Moines’ landscape J. Michael McKoy has been involved in Des Moines radio since 1979. He’s been a jock, manager and even owned a couple of stations in his 30-plus years in town. He’s a highly divisive character, about whom most anyone associated with radio has an opinion. His falling out with one co-host was so complete that the latter refuses to even discuss the former. He’s been described with equal vehemence as one of the hardest workers in town (after being fired from WOW-FM, McKoy launched Webcastonelive.com, which produces radio and online content from a tiny downtown office) and as a megalomaniac (the tagline on his Mac’s World Live blog is, “Your World Through the Eyes of Mac”). He’s also a prodigious talker with a quick mind, an eye for detail and a wealth of knowledge.               

“The real dramatic change came in 1980, when Ronald Reagan changed the ownership rules,” McKoy said. “Before that, you could own an AM and an FM (station), and you could only own seven markets. So broadcasters were funded by local businesses — banks or car dealerships a lot of the times — and those businesses would use those stations to benefit themselves.”                

But deregulation quickly began to change that landscape, especially in smaller markets like Des Moines. What was once a market dotted up and down the dial with independently-owned radio stations, each catering to its own format, slowly transformed into a market dominated by fewer and fewer corporate interests — most of which hailed from much larger markets.                

“When I was president of the Des Moines Radio Broadcasters Group, we had 11 different (station owners) involved,” McKoy said. “Today you would have three.”                

In markets across the nation, as more stations were brought to heel, independent station owners found themselves at a competitive disadvantage.                

“Deregulation had a lot to do with it,” one DJ said. “I’ve seen a lot of (independent stations) come and go. They just don’t work. It’s one radio station against 10. They could run ad sales that would cut you off at the knees, and you’re gone in six months.”                

Des Moines was no different, and as the city settled into the final decade of the 20th century, there was one local ownership group left in town: the Palmer sisters, whose family had owned WHO since 1930.          

But they were about to get company.                

The Dot Up to 1992, the Des Moines radio landscape was a fairly traditional mix of rock, country, oldies and talk. That changed when Ron Sorenson purchased the 103.3 frequency and established KFMG.             

“Ron Sorenson gets all the credit for breaking out of (that) mold,” McKoy said. “There was nothing like KFMG when he started it.”                

KFMG quickly established itself as a cultural tour de force, a freeform station with its music tending toward blues, underground and alternative tracks, with a strong focus on the local community.            

“Sorenson’s commitment to local involvement through music is part of what spurred Rich Eychaner (local businessman and activist),” one local DJ said. “Rich had more money than Ron, so he figured he could do it better. Even among local owners, money tends to speak.”                

After a protracted struggle with the Federal Communications Commission to procure its frequency, Eychaner’s local ownership group planted its flag on the far right side of the dial, under the call letters KKDM. The station would become known as “The Dot,” and Eychaner’s partner in the endeavor was a familiar face to Des Moines radio, J. Michael McKoy.                

“It was very exciting to be a part of that group,” said former KKDM staffer Melissa Winters. “Mac was a bullshitter and a salesman, but (Eychaner) was the one who had these big plans for this new, local radio station.”                

Under the command of McKoy and program manager Sophia John, KKDM quickly established itself.              

“In the beginning of the station, there was a lot of passion for the concept of this being music-centered radio,” Winters recalled. “In our launch meeting, Mac made a point of telling us ‘everything we do is about the music.’ ”                

The voice of KIOA for 40 years, Dic “Youngsy” Youngs, was let go in 2007. He died in 2009.

The voice of KIOA for 40 years, Dic “Youngsy” Youngs, was let go in 2007. He died in 2009.

KKDM never really supplanted KFMG in the hearts of Des Moines’ local music supporters. But while losing that battle, the station nevertheless won the war: A year after KKDM launched, Sorenson sold KFMG to Saga Communications (owners of the Des Moines Radio Group, including KIOA, Star 102.5 and KRNT).               

What KKDM did do, however, was create something that Des Moines had lacked up to that point: a radio station devoted to playing new and emerging music with the right staff and financial power to do it well. Under John’s guidance, KKDM became one of the first stations in the nation to give regular airplay to acts as diverse as Chicago’s Sister Soleil, Omaha’s 311, and Des Moines’ own Slipknot.              

“It might be hard to believe now, but there was a brief window in time when the direction of music in the Midwest was dictated by a little station in Des Moines, Iowa,” said Tom Alberts, a former press staffer for Clear Channel Communications.                

“The thing about that station, though, is that Eychaner didn’t really start it with the idea of owning a radio station,” added one local drive-time DJ. “I’m pretty sure he started it with the idea of selling a radio station.”                

Whether that was his intent or not, the fact remains that KKDM’s reign as “Iowa’s New Rock Alternative” was both mercurial and short-lived.              

“We got offered $9.3 million (for the station) in 1998, but (Eychaner) thought he could get more than that,” McKoy said. “He wound up getting a little over $7 million for it less than a year later.                

“The next big change came around 2000, when the Palmer sisters sold it to what is now Clear Channel, and Fuller-Jeffery and Stoner — which was KJJY, 97.3, KGGO and 98.3 — sold to what became Cumulus,” he continued. “That was all around 2000-2001, when we basically had no more local ownership.”                

To infinity and beyond Despite the sell-outs, buy-outs and changes in technology, talk radio is stronger than ever. The AM dial continues to flourish, and largely right-wing syndicated political programs dominate the dial on both modulations. But talk radio aside, the landscape of Des Moines’ radio dial isn’t a lot different from the pre-KFMG days. Nobody outside of public radio is taking any kind of risk with programming, and locally-focused content can be counted in hours played, not stations playing.                

But the real differences — and probably the real tragedy in all this assimilation — is the loss of connection to the community. The most obvious example of this is the culling of local jocks.                

“It’s not that anybody lost their passion for the work,” McKoy said. “It’s that it wasn’t respected anymore. Sales and administration think that anybody can do the job of a jock.”             

More directly, radio administrators think that one jock in Los Angeles or Chicago can do the work of a couple dozen others in smaller markets. And it seems they may be right.             

“It used to be that the morning guy on KISS was the night guy in L.A.,” McKoy said. “So he walks in, does his spiel, and it goes on all the radio stations where it’s personalized with a tag. The guy in L.A. never says ‘KISS 107 in Des Moines.’ ”                

Morning shows are a particular point of contention, as they often feature the jocks with whom an audience most interacts.               

“A good local morning team means everything to a radio station,” one drive-time jock said. “Everything.”                

Des Moines’ morning scene saw the end of an era in December of 2011, when KGGO announced the firing of Steve “The Round Guy” Pilchen, breaking up its long-running, three-person morning crew. By the end of the month, the remaining members — Lou Sipolt and Heather Burnside — had been removed from the KGGO morning slot as well, to be replaced by the nationally-syndicated Bob and Tom Show.                

“The cupboard’s bare,” lamented one afternoon jock.            

“With the exception of (WHO’s) Van and Bonnie, that’s it,” added McKoy. “I’m not putting (KIOA’s) Maxwell and Pam down — they do a good job — but for the most part, that’s the end of the longtime, legendary personalities on the air in Des Moines.”                

But, of course, it isn’t just the morning shows that are being replaced with canned heat. Up and down the dial, there’s almost no station in town that doesn’t feature at least one syndicated show. Some are more affected than others. Ames’ Channel Q (105.1) has two local jocks, Tony Tarbox and Benny Black. (Black is also host of one of the few shows to still feature entirely local music, “Iowa Unsigned.”) The Bus (100.3) features just one live voice, Jack Emerson, who mans the booth for four hours each weekday.              

“I’ve worked in some markets where they’ve even sold the idea with remotes,” a nighttime jock added. “They’ll pipe in content from some jock in New York — call her Kelly — then they’ll do a remote where they’ll advertise in these smaller markets saying ‘Kelly will be live at the car dealership tomorrow,’ then just hire a girl to be there. ‘OK, you’re Kelly.’ Every town has a different Kelly.”                

But not everybody sees the changes as bad.               

“A lot of jobs are being weeded out due to automation,” said another morning jock. “It’s not economically feasible to have someone sitting there on midnight to 6 (a.m.). If you don’t adapt, you’re screwed.”                

There is, however, one station that’s bucking the trend and keeping it old-school. And how fitting that it’s Des Moines’ oldies station, KIOA (93.3), which features one syndicated show on Saturdays. The rest of the week is filled with locally-produced content run by local jocks. It’s a way of doing business that brand manager Tim Fox is proud of.                

“A radio station doesn’t get to the top if it’s not local,” he said. “That’s how you connect with your community. If you’re broadcasting content that’s coming from another market, you’re relying on someone who doesn’t have credibility with the listener. All of our jockeys are people who are from Des Moines. They’ve lived here, they’ve gone to school here, they’ve raised families here. If you dedicate yourself to being local and serving the community, you’ll do well.”                

If you serve the local community, you’ll do well — that’s a mantra that many wish the Clear Channels and Cumuluses of the world would take to heart. Even the Saga Communications owned Des Moines Radio Group isn’t immune to the trend of sacrificing local connections in the name of corporate homogony. Despite its stated commitment to fostering local connections between station and listener, KIOA said goodbye to longtime jock Dic Youngs on his 66th birthday in 2007.                

“It’s one of the worst things that ever happened to me,” Youngs told The Des Moines Register at the time, “and I didn’t see it coming.”               

Youngs refused to elaborate at the time. He died in 2009, and KIOA didn’t reply to Cityview by press time, but that hasn’t stopped others from speaking their minds.                

“They tell you what to say, when to say it and how,” said McKoy. “I remember when (stations) went to card-reading, and I was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ I never allowed card-reading at The Dot. Everybody else, you flip a card, and there’s what you say, word for word, with a blank for song, a blank for artist and a blank for time. KGGO never did that. KJJY never did that. Q102 went to it. Dic Youngs over at KIOA refused to start reading cards. And that, quite frankly, is one of the reasons they let him go.”                

KIOA declined to comment on the reasons for Youngs’ leaving the station.                

But, again, community ties are not what the radio conglomerates are here for. Rather than try to compete with Pandora or SoundCloud and take risks on emerging talent, local bands and new music, the major players have bottom lines to worry about and investors to please. There’s money to be made, and going local isn’t the way to make the most of it. Jocks can be expensive, and when you can have one do the work of a couple dozen, it just makes financial sense, even if it is at the expense of credibility with the listeners. And ultimately, as long as there’s money to be made, the course won’t reverse.                

“I’ll tell you where local radio is headed,” one jock predicted. “It’s going to be a couple of 21-year-old guys, sitting in a room, watching a server.”               

Just because radio is free to the public, doesn’t mean it comes without a price. CV

 

Station ratings for fall 2012

Date disclaimer for fall 2012: Arbitron does not release audience estimates for stations that do not pay for ratings. So the only audience estimates available are for stations that subscribe to Arbitron’s service. Therefore, you can’t conclude that stations listed are shown in rank order. Some non-subscribers may actually be ranked higher than those that are posted here. Source: www.stationratings.com                                                                      

Station Format Owner/LMA Fall 2012 Rating
WHO (WHO 1040) news/talk Clear Channel Media and Entertainment 9.5
KKDM (KISS 107/5) CHR Clear Channel Media and Entertainment 7.4
KDRB (The Bus 100.3) adult hits Clear Channel Media and Entertainment 6.9
KGGO (94.9) classic rock Cumulus Media, Inc. 5.5
KJJY (92.5) country Cumulus Media, Inc. 4.9
KHKI (The Hawk 97.3) country Cumulus Media, Inc. 4.2
KXNO (AM 1460) sports Clear Channel Media and Entertainment 2.2
KPTL (Capitol 106.3) adult altern. Clear Channel Media and Entertainment 1.6
KWQW (98.3 Wow FM) talk Cumulus Media, Inc. 1.4
KCCQ (New Rock 105.1) modern rock Clear Channel Media and Entertainment 0.9
KBGG (1700 The Champ) sports Cumulus Media, Inc. 0.9
non-subscribing stations include:      
KASI-AM (1430 KASI) talk Clear Channel Media and Entertainment N/A
KAZR-FM (Lazer 103.3) rock Saga Communications N/A
KIOA-FM (93.39) classic hits Saga Communications N/A
KLTI-FM (Lite 104.1) soft AC Saga Communications N/A
KPSZ-AM (Praise 940) cont. christian Saga Communications N/A
KRNT-AM (1350 KRNT) adult standards Saga Communications N/A
KSTZ-FM (Star 102.5) hot AC Saga Communications N/A
KWKY-AM (94.5 FM) religious teach St. Gabriel Communications, Inc. N/A

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