In the wake of Ted Bird's departure from CHOM, I got an unsolicited email from Aaron Rand, one of the few remaining veterans of commercial radio in Montreal. It was actually a belated response to comments I made about him after he lost two co-hosts at CFQR. But he included some thoughts about the radio industry that he asked I share with you:
As someone who has been in the radio business for more than 25 years, the latest round of cuts, changes, format shifts - call it what you will - seem to have hit home particularly hard in Montreal.
Morning shows, especially teams, have been among the hardest hit. But while we all mourn the on-air losses of people like Tasso, Terry DiMonte, Suzanne Desautels, and now Ted Bird, I felt it important to point out that these changes, drastic and disturbing as they may be, are not unique to Montreal or even Toronto. A bit of research suggests a much different and industry wide story. Plain and simple, the business is changing. The audience profile is morphing, and the worst economic downturn seen in a generation is forcing the hands of those who run the ship. It's just happening sooner and more dramatically than anyone had a reasonable right to expect it to.
In markets from San Diego to Detroit, to Chicago to St. Louis, Vancouver, Calgary, New York, L.A. (remember Rick Dees?) morning shows are being blown up one after another. So the question isn't why, the question is what's going to work in the future, and how can you adapt and be part of that future.
When I read about Ted Bird (who I know only in passing) and his reasons for leaving, I was struck by one central theme. Not the fact that big corporations now control the business (it's been that way for awhile), not that they seek to, as he said, take the craft out of the hands of the craftsmen (which naively maybe I choose not to believe) but by the fact that it stopped being fun for him. And in a business where translating that fun you feel into fun an audience can share, once you've lost that feeling, it's time to move on, I respect Ted for that.
I still get up every morning (at 4 not 3) and look forward to going to work. Yes, I miss seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the friends I shared that studio with for what seems like forever, but I'm a realist. You can't help but see and feel the business changing, and the choice is to either embrace that change, or be left behind by it.
Is it the right thing to do, am I still being true to myself as a performer by staying? Honestly, I don't know, but I'm willing to at least give it a shot and then make that decision with a bit of perspective to reflect on. The truth is, I still have fun doing what I do on the radio every morning. The only difference is now I'm working with other talentedpeople who offer new perspectives, a different outlook, and maybe, a glimpse into what the future of this business will become.
It's not better, it's not worse, it's just different, But it's still fun. The day it no longer is, I'll walk away too.
On a similarly philosophical note, local radio enthusiast Sheldon Harvey remarked about the state of radio in a post to the Radio in Montreal discussion group:
In a management seminar I attended in my early 20s, the instructor told us that, at some point in our lives, we would realize that money in life is not a motivator. At a young age, I think all of us think that the more money we have, the happier we will be. Eventually most of us realize that life is not long enough to spend it doing things that we really don't enjoy and don't believe in, regardless of what we are getting paid.
Rand is right that the economy is putting pressure on radio station owners to cut back, and one of the biggest expenses is those high-priced morning show veterans. And, like newspapers, even the best ones are suffering in this economic climate and changing media landscape.
My problem with commercial music radio, as I expressed when talking about Rand in October, is that they seem to have given up. With respect to all the professionals working at CHOM, CJFM and CFQR, I find most of their names and voices interchangeable. They seem to lack personality that sets them apart from the rest, because they're not allowed to develop one on the air. It's why some of them, like Kelly Alexander, are starting on their own with podcasts where they can actually connect on a human level with listeners.
Maybe listeners don't want to connect with their DJs, maybe they just want the music. It's a fair stance to take, and studies show that people want music - not talk - from their music stations. But then the music suffers from this same lack of personality. It's all from the same tiny playlist. And while limiting variety concentrates hits and increases the likelihood that someone turning the dial will stop on your station to hear a familiar song, it also decreases the likelihood that someone will discover something new. And if they're just listening to a bunch of songs they already know (some of which they like and some they don't), what competition can that offer to iPods and other recorded media, which are programmed by the user?
Personality and discovery are the advantages that live broadcast radio have over iPods. And yet music radio stations seem to be reluctant to exploit them.
And they wonder why ratings are slowly going down.
UPDATE (Jan. 10): Mitch Joel has some thoughts on local radio from a marketing perspective.