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December 19, 2014

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First Mediaworks


8/27/01 On The Sidewalk Outside The First Bank Of Radio…
“Our station felt as though it had become a shallow, plastic hall filled with flashy pimps and ugly hookers. None of us wanted to become a pimp or a hooker, but because we had nowhere to run, we had to turn tricks to survive.” The pain contorted Sam’s voice. “Real enthusiasm has been replaced with transparent hype; salesmanship has degenerated into raw deception; and genuine concern has been twisted into sleazy manipulation. It was just time for me to go, Eric. It was just time for me to go.”

Sadly, I'm getting three of four calls like this every week from lifelong friends who have chosen to leave Radio. Phil's metaphor was even more revealing. “Radio is becoming more like a bank every day,” he said. ‘It sounds like a bank when you listen to it, and it feels like a bank when you work there. In my mind, I see a 100-story skyscraper, shaped like one of those old tombstone Radios from the ’30s and ’40s. In the lobby, a talking mannequin greets you, ‘Welcome to the First Bank of Radio. We’re running a special today. If you open an account, you can win a toaster.’ And then it adds really fast, 'The-winning-entry-will-be-selected-from-millions-of-entries-gathered-from-our-1,200- branches.’ Having completed the disclaimer, the mannequin smiles broadly, waves a big plastic arm and says loudly, ‘Congratulations and good luck!’” Phil laughed and I chuckled.

He interpreted my chuckling as his cue to go on: “TV ads for the First Bank of Radio will begin with slow-motion footage of two children, running across a field, and the voice-over will say: ‘Your family comes first. That’s why you need the First Bank of Radio. Because at the First Bank of Radio, we put your Return On Investment above all else. We put it above our own people and above our own product. Actually, we put it above our very survival. You should be pleased to know that we've already merged thousands of branches into other branches to increase your Return On Investment. And you can count on us to keep cutting expenses. Soon we'll be eliminating all tellers and ATMs to save you even more money. We're called the First Bank of Radio because we used to be in the Radio business. We became quite profitable by cutting expenses to zero; and by the time we had eliminated all our people and driven away all our listeners, we had enough money to launch this bank. You can be sure your money is safe with us — because to us, nothing else matters.’ ”

There was an awkward silence; I wasn't chuckling any more. And the smile was gone from Phil's voice, too. “I'll talk to you later,” he said hoarsely, and then he was gone.

I don't wear Birkenstocks, I'm not a member of Greenpeace, and I don't hate big corporations. I even think Radio consolidation is a great idea that has already proven to have positive benefits. But a few trends merit attention:
• Arbitron indicates that Radio listening is declining at an alarming rate. An entire generation has never heard what Radio can be — wildly interesting, highly energized, extremely fun. They've heard only the pasteurized, boring sound wafting from the First Bank of Radio.
• Many Radio people tell me they no longer enjoy the business. The more resourceful Radio veterans are launching new careers, and the committed remainder search desperately to re-light the smothered spark in their hearts.

My deepest fear is that many of the persons currently driving Radio in America fail to realize that the current acceleration in Radio billing is purely short-term and should not be used as an indicator that the engine is running well. The true state of Radio is that its fuel tank is at an all-time low. Americans tune in, purely from habit. How long can we trust in this fragile force of habit? Radio problems stem from the fact that many of its captains are caught in a blood lust of cost-slashing. Impressed with the short-term financial results, they fail to see the long-term damage that they're causing. Is Radio strong enough to survive these wounds?

We can only hope.


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