Quite the contrary, history shows that broadcasters have been more than willing to roll the dice in search of the big score.
The latest example is the consolidation of programming, with stations in multiple markets carrying essentially the same product.
Major groups are in the midst of consolidating programming to an extent not seen in radio.
The most extreme efforts essentially eliminate programming decisions at the local level. All programming decisions are made at the corporate level.
Even groups that continue to allow local stations to make some programming decisions are making more corporate decisions. Corporate people may not be dictating programming decisions, but they are heavily influencing them.
Never have so few individuals had such an influence on the programming of such a large proportion of radio stations.
We call this process the nationalization of radio.
The goal is to create a consistent radio product across stations in the same way McDonald’s makes Big Macs and Starbucks makes Frappuccinos.
While today’s nationalization of radio has been the focus of a great deal of discussion, nervous hand-ringing, and criticism, radio has embraced nationalism in the past.
The last attempt was in the 1970s.
National programmers like Jim Schulke in Beautiful Music and Paul Drew in Top 40 called the programming shots for dozens of stations insisting on a consistent product across all stations.
Music was chosen, liners written and produced, and air staff hires approved. No major decision was made without their approval.
FM embraced automation, with entire staffs replaced with machines. Programming decisions were handed off to syndicators who provided canned formats on tape.
No air staff, no Program Director, just people to change the tapes. (This writer’s first job in radio was changing 14" reels of tape on a bank of Scully tape machines for a Beautiful Music station.)
Ironically in the 1970s, the dictatorial manner in which corporate decisions were handed down didn’t raise many eyebrows. Perhaps because it produced winners.
Jim Schulke stations were consistent ratings winners, more often than not ranked number one in their market. RKO under Paul Drew’s direction had the leading Top 40 station in virtually every major market in which they competed (during a time when all markets had at least two Top 40 stations).
But radio prior to consolidation was very different. Radio groups could only own a handful of stations.
RKO’s success may have heavily influenced the direction of Top 40 at the time, but there were proportionately far more independent Top 40 stations that didn’t have to follow Paul Drew’s instructions.
Consultants like Jim Schulke and Bill Drake programmed dozens of stations, but there were far more independent stations competing against them that continued to be programmed at the local level.
Today’s much larger groups may seem to be following in the path of 1970s innovators. However, consolidation has changed everything.
Consolidation has reduced the number of independent broadcasters creating fewer more powerful groups with many more stations.
Today the actions of just a few corporate programmers has a much greater impact on the industry as a whole than did the legendary programmers of the 1970s.
Consolidation combined with corporate driven programming puts radio in new uncharted territory.
Perhaps central control will take radio to a new level of sophistication.
Perhaps nearly identical corporate-wide products will enable radio to compete with digital alternatives that offer a consistent national product.
But product homogenization will only drive audience growth if those corporate decisions made by a handful of people are the right decisions.
It’s like putting all your money on one roll of the dice. If you win, you win big. If you lose, you lose everything.
The outcome has enormous consequences for radio. With digital alternatives gunning for broadcast radio’s dollars, the fate of radio may rest on that single roll.
In our next post we’ll explore the reasons why radio moved from the iron-fisted control of the 1970s to more decentralized control, and the implications for today’s consolidation of programming decisions.