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Home > Publications > Quill > A shift of substance

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Thursday, May 13, 2004
A shift of substance

Changes in local media ownership have largely led to a decline in radio news.

By Bonnie Bressers

When Jim Schuh was a commercial radio station manager and owner in the central Wisconsin city of Stevens Point (population: 25,000), local radio reporters covered the school board, city and county government, the surrounding towns and villages, the university, the police, local sports and two high schools. On heavy news days, a newscast scheduled to run five minutes could run nearly twice that.

There are about a dozen radio stations that serve Stevens Point today, but none offers local radio news.

“It’s kind of sad, really,” said Schuh who, after a 41-year-career in broadcasting, was inducted last year into the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame. “I looked at it this way: It was the responsibility of the broadcast licensee to do this. You used the public airwaves and, in return, you provided your community with more than what most broadcasters are doing today. Having a contest with the local car dealer isn’t local broadcasting.”

Chris Allen, now an associate professor of communication at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, remembers his days as one of six local journalists at KRNT in Des Moines in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A competing station had seven local news people; even the rock-and-roll station had three.

But there is only one station making a serious attempt at local news in Des Moines today. In Omaha, which at one time had three or four radio stations providing local news, there are none.

Local news on commercial radio, once a competitive information lifeline for millions of Americans, has been on a steady path of decline caused by what more than one expert calls the “Perfect Storm” of trends and events that started some 20 years ago and peaked with the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

“I’m really depressed about what’s happened,” said John Vivian, a journalism professor at Winona (Minn.) State University and author of the popular textbook, “The Media of Mass Communication.” “Years ago radio had immediacy, it was exciting, it was a priority. There were reports from the scenes where things were happening. You got a news update every hour – or more when something was breaking.”

But commercial radio is no longer a reliable source of local information, even during times of breaking news and major emergency, says David Rubin, dean of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in New York. Rubin said he turned to the longtime local AM radio news leader for its emergency broadcasting when the series of electrical failures that crippled parts of the Northeast, Midwest and Canada last August left his home in Fayetteville, N.Y., without power.

“If you don’t have electric power, and you need to know what’s happening, television, the Internet, the local newspaper – none of them are of any use to you,” he said.

Rubin knew what a radio station dedicated to local news would do: The news crew would report to work en masse regardless of pre-arranged shifts and schedules. The station’s disaster coverage plan would be implemented and reporters would be dispatched to gather information at key sites. Local officials would be in the studio taking questions from anxious callers. Commercials would be suspended. A community that was literally in the dark would get information and, thus, the assurance that it had the information it needed to respond.

But the longtime local news leader is now owned by broadcasting conglomerate Clear Channel which, Rubin said, did a “particularly poor job of covering the impact of the outage on the community” despite its assertions that by consolidating local broadcast stations it could pool resources to provide better local coverage than before.

To its credit, Rubin said Clear Channel made some changes as a result of Aug. 24, including replacing the news director, adding newsroom staff and developing a coverage plan for disasters.

“It’s been healthy from that perspective,” Rubin said. “There’s been a little progress. But it will take continued vigilance and a national effort.”

Bob Betcher, who has covered radio and television for 15 years for the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida, shares Rubin’s concerns. For example, he says some local radio stations have an agreement with the CBS network television station in West Palm Beach to simulcast its audio coverage in the event of an emergency. But the television station is 40 to 70 miles from the coverage areas of the radio stations. In addition, many stations are automated overnight, they operate with skeletal staffs on weekends, and AM stations – typically the “talk” band – are required to reduce their signals at night.

“God forbid that anything should happen at 10 a.m. on a Sunday or after 7 p.m. on weeknights,” Betcher said. “I wonder where and how I would learn that information.”

It is no small issue: What does the public-interest standard, long the guiding principle under which broadcasters operated, mean in an era when broadcast consolidation and monopoly ownership make it unlikely that local radio can adequately cover the community – from city councils, school boards and local controversies to emergencies, disasters and threats to national security?

Indeed, the decline of local radio news most greatly affects its historic stronghold: small-town and rural America, where television coverage was not universal and people depended on the ubiquitous radio for everything from tornado warnings to agricultural alerts, says Ed Staats, whose 41-year career in 10 offices of The Associated Press included overseeing broadcast services. And as small-town newspapers cut staff – or closed their doors altogether – the civic life of entire communities has been left unexamined.

“Radio news was bubbling all over America,” Staats said. “Now there’s nobody out in the 3,000-plus counties in the United States covering local news the way they were. That’s a major loss. That’s at the heart of what the impact has been.”

But there are some bright spots on the local news landscape, Staats and others agree. The University of Nebraska’s Allen sees annual broadcast contest entries as a member of the Board of Directors of the Northwest Broadcast News Association, a six-state regional news organization. He says some small-market stations in rural communities still do excellent reporting on city government, school boards, the environment, local controversies and human-interest stories.

“But almost all of the stations we’re talking about are operations with one and two people who work 20 hours a day,” Allen said. “They’re invisible. York, Nebraska, has 4,000 people. They have a great radio station there, but it’s not a huge market.”

Another of those bright spots may be KORN Radio, a station with a long-held commitment to local news that serves a 70-mile radius of Mitchell, S.D. News director J.P. Skelly covers government bodies such as city council, school board and county commission and generates local talk programming that examines community issues and often features local newsmakers.

“If there’s news to be found, I’ll find it,” Skelly said. “But I also have to be very selective.”

Still, many media observers say, the overall role of local radio news has been seriously eroding for decades and the future is unclear. Deregulation, consolidation, economics, technology, demographics and declining audience interest are among the trends that coalesced to move local commercial radio news away from its historical position as pivotal in meeting the information needs of the local citizenry.

Many media observers lay blame for the current state of local radio news with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which increased the number of stations a broadcast group can own in a market to up to eight, depending on the market size, and eliminated the rule that capped the number of stations one company can own at 40. But the 1996 Act, passed in the Clinton administration, was the outcome of a steady erosion of broadcast regulations that actually began a quarter of a century earlier under the Carter administration.

“The genie had been out of the bottle,” said Alan G. Stavitsky, associate dean and professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication in Eugene, Ore., and a reviewer for The State of the News Media 2004 report released in March by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “If you trace the deregulation flow, it began with Carter FCC when we first chipped away at ownership and content rules. It kept gaining momentum and, in 1996, the dam burst.”

The Carter administration likely did not foresee the outcome when it launched its government-wide initiative against bureaucratic red tape and burdensome paperwork. But in its attempt to “pare away the regulatory underbrush,” as Stavitsky puts is, the Federal Communications Commission began reviewing regulations that had been enacted decades earlier when radio was in its infancy. The broadcast industry, which chaffed under the regulations, saw an opening with the Carter FCC and began a massive and ongoing lobbying effort. The Reagan FCC followed with its philosophy that TV was more akin to an appliance – nothing more than a “toaster with pictures.” One regulation after another that had defined “public interest” was eliminated and, by the late 1980s, the requirement that broadcasters applying for license renewals report how many hours they would devote to public affairs programming was gone.

“But you don’t leave the public-interest standard out until you have something to replace it with,” said Syracuse University’s Rubin. “The last time I looked, the public still owned the airwaves.”

Public ownership notwithstanding, radio stations throughout the country cut their local news operations in favor of far less costly fare, including entertainment programming and often “lowbrow” talk shows.

In addition to eliminating public affairs content requirements, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed multiple-station ownership, which exacerbated the problem and contributed to the decline of local commercial radio news.

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2004 report, broadcast groups Clear Channel, Cumulus Broadcasting and Citadel Communication Corp. owned fewer than 1,000 stations in 1999. They now own about 1,600 stations, with Clear Channel owning 1,207. The 1996 Act, the report says, allowed Clear Channel, which had owned only 43 stations, to buy the 460-station AMFM Inc. The five largest broadcast groups now own more than 14 percent of the total number of stations in the United States.

But the debt involved with consolidation encourages broadcast owners to cut jobs and costs to pay the debt service and make the networks profitable. Most of the companies are publicly owned, which experts suggest encourages their allegiance to Wall Street and corporate stockholders rather than a public that owns the airwaves. General managers who historically have become rooted in the community as they worked their way up the station ladder increasingly are being replaced with corporate managers who have little loyalty and commitment to the locality.

“It’s all designed to produce as cheap a product as possible and to appeal to as many people as possible in your demographic niche and to squeeze out all competition so the public doesn’t have a place to go except to, maybe, the satellite networks which, of course, are not local,” Rubin said.

Wisconsin broadcaster Schuh, who was general manager of one station and owner of another, acknowledges that “wall-to-wall music” has a greater profit margin than news, but he doesn’t agree the stations that provide good local news coverage can’t make handsome profits. And it’s important, he says, to look at the psychographics of the listenership rather than the demographics.

“The listeners are the 40-plus or 50-plus people, but they’re community leaders and business owners,” he said. “They are the ones who are generally your sponsors, and that ties in with good community involvement. The decision-makers listen to your product to keep up with things in the community.”

Even with groups that retain a barebones commitment to local news, the University of Oregon’s Stavitsky says reduced staffs now produce news for multiple stations.

“Before you had six news people, with six takes on local news, working at six different stations,” he said. “Now you may have one or two people providing the same news product across all six stations. You ask if they’re doing local news and they say ‘Yes, absolutely, we’re doing six newscasts during morning drive-time.’ But there’s less diversity of voices.”

And those six people are stretched so thin, experts say, they must rely on press releases, telephone interviews and stories lifted from the local newspaper rather than attending city council meetings, going to news conferences and covering local events.

Commercial stations committed to cost reductions turned to another source of programming in the 1980s and 1990s that was cheaper than local news: the so-called news/talk format. At one end of the spectrum, news/talk shows include programs such as National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation,” which provides serious – albeit not local – programming. But while some stations point to news/talk programming as evidence they have not abandoned the local news market, media observers are quick to point out that taking stories from the local newspaper and inviting often vitriolic local listeners to voice their opinions is a far cry from doing serious, in-depth reporting on the local issues of the day.

Regardless of the level of quality, news/talk was the most common format on AM radio in the 1990s, and Rush Limbaugh is still the most-listened to talk show in the nation with an audience of more than 14 million people a week.

Radio, sandwiched in the evolutionary media timeline between newspapers and television, is experiencing what newspapers experienced before and what local television news has started experiencing since, says Bob Priddy, chairman-elect of the national Radio Television News Directors Association and news director of MissouriNet, a statewide commercial network that provides primarily state government reporting and political news to 65 Missouri radio stations.

“What we have seen in radio in the last 20 years we will see in television: the consolidation of more and more newsrooms, doing news for more than one station without many additional resources, reduced commitment to news, fewer people being spread thinner,” Priddy said. “What we have seen in radio in the last 20 years we will see in television. We have been seeing it already in the last 10 years.”

Technological advances also have contributed to the homogenization of local news, media observers say. Satellite and broadband delivery now enables broadcast companies to generate programming from a central hub for distribution throughout the network of radio stations. Pieces of local information can be transparently spliced into generic news broadcasts, giving listeners the erroneous impression that local newscasters within their local communities generate the newscasts.

Finally, the University of Oregon’s Stavitsky says, the latest technological phenomenon – satellite networks such as Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio – offers “anti-local” radio programming that allows listeners to access the same radio station from New York City to San Francisco.

But, like a pendulum that has swung too far, anti-local programming may offer a solution to the current state of local radio news.

“Some people in the industry are saying the only way we can compete against satellite and the Internet is to rediscover our local roots,” Stavitsky said. “That will be what differentiates us. The problem is news is expensive. But if they continue to get their lunch eaten by satellite and the Web and young people abandoning radio, that may be the only way to survive.”

Local commercial radio news is following a pattern first seen in the local newspaper industry as circulations started declining 30 years ago, largely because of the industry’s failure to attract younger readers for whom local news is not a top priority.

Local radio, both local news and music, is less a part of the “media diet” of young people, says Stavitsky. For one thing, he says, young people today have portable music players that contain their complete CD libraries. For another, commercial talk radio, which requires less fidelity, is on the AM band, “which young people ignore.”

Indeed, Winona University’s Vivian and other academicians point to a gradual disengagement of young people in the civic affairs of the community.

“Civic affairs,” Vivian said simply, “is a gigantic tune-out.”

But, media observers say, the problem extends well beyond the younger generation and involves a society that seems to place less value on news and information.

“Look at some of the political issues,” said RTNDA’s Priddy. “People clamor for better roads but they reject fuel tax increases when fuel taxes are the only way to pay for better roads. They don’t have to watch politicians because, with term limits, the politicians will be gone. You have a certain amount of public irresponsibility. Lethargy and irresponsibility are combined to bring a slump in the service they get. They don’t demand better. And federal deregulation has played a role in this.”

Kevin Klose, president and chief executive officer of National Public Radio, sees a far different confluence of coincidental phenomena that he says have contributed to huge increases in audiences for NPR and its member stations: As commercial radio stations consolidated and gutted their local news offerings in the 1980s and 1990s, public radio’s evolving capacity to produce national news programming was followed by its extension into local news. The second- and third-most-listened-to programs on both commercial and noncommercial radio – “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” respectively – were both formatted to encourage local member stations to generate local news programming that can be added to the national mix.

Of the 275 mother ship stations, about 150 produce local news, a total that Klose says is increasing. And the signals from those 275 stations are “repeated” to 475 other stations throughout the country.

Twenty years of evolution in the production of news and information programming were capped by two events early in the 21st Century that caused a dramatic surge in NPR’s already growing audience. The 37-day end to the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore became riveting news of continuous interest for more than a month. And less than a year later, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, produced an audience desperate for in-depth and high-quality, credible news.

“NPR and the local stations mixed up a marvelous tapestry of authentic local news, local hosts, local perspectives, interwoven with superb national and foreign coverage from us,” Klose said. “And NPR audiences don’t spike – once they start listening, they keep listening.”

Indeed, Klose says, Abitron statistics bear that out. In 1999, 13 million of the 20 million people who listened to NPR stations each week listened to NPR-generated programming. That 13 million had increased to 16 million on Sept. 10. 2001, and to 20 on Sept. 12. Today, 30 million people listen to NPR stations, with 22 million listening to NPR-generated programming.

Steve Chiotakis, who is the local “Morning Edition” host and a producer with NPR’s member station WBHM in Birmingham, Ala., has split his 16-year career equally between public and commercial radio.

Like Klose, he sees public radio as the last bastion for people serious about local radio news.

“I love my medium,” he said. “I love radio. People want news and they want it now. Who better than radio? We’ve been doing it for 80 years.”

But commercial radio news, Chiotakis says, “is dying a really fast death.”

Without doubt, NPR is attracting larger and larger audiences as commercial radio moves away from news, says the University of Oregon’s Stavitsky, but the bottom line remains: Local news is expensive. Two-thirds of the NPR member stations are licensed to universities, many of which are questioning where to put increasingly scarce resources in the face of colossal state budget deficits. Declining local economies may affect the level of underwriting available to the member stations.

“A lot of them are struggling to keep the local news there,” Stavitsky said. “But overall, public radio is still a much more hospitable place for local journalism than commercial radio is.”

So if a windstorm of trends and events contributed to the current state of local commercial radio news, what is the possibility that forces can be reversed or, at the least, moderated? Many media observers are not optimistic.

Stavitsky and the University of Nebraska’s Allen agree that there are pockets of good local news programming in both small and large markets, but both question a future for local radio news in the face of public indifference to news in general.

And while RTNDA’s Priddy argues that radio has reinvented itself many times in many ways – and will do so again – others suggest a more systemic problem that will require significant public will to reverse. Syracuse University’s Rubin, for example, says change needs to come from a federal government willing to confront the broadcast industry’s powerful lobby.

Inroads could be made, he says, under scenarios such as these:

• Broadcast groups that didn’t meet revenue targets decided to sell stations, and the FCC, in an effort to prevent station-trading among big chains, enacted rules to encourage local ownership.

•Congress and the FCC recognized the results of their actions and rolled back the number of stations an owner could own, although that’s admittedly unlikely.

• The FCC enacted regulations that made chain ownership more expensive and more accountable to the public in hopes of encouraging chains to divest. For example, if the FCC re-enacted the Fairness Doctrine, which had required that broadcast stations air all sides of public issues, so talk show programming such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage could be challenged station-by-station, market-by-market.

• The FCC returned to license renewal every three years and, as part of the renewal process, required that stations ascertain whether they were meeting the public interest and report their findings in an open forum as they did in the past.

• The FCC again required public affairs programming.

n Commercial broadcasters were taxed, and the tax revenues were used to support robust noncommercial local news operations.

“If I can think of this sitting here in Syracuse, why can’t the people in Washington? This will take a national effort, a new administration, a new FCC and a new FCC chairman,” Rubin said. “Am I optimistic? No, I’m not.”

Bonnie Bressers is an assistant professor of journalism at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.

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