The time of year leading up to Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas is supposed to be a little scary. Happy and joyful supposedly described this time of year, too. Unfortunately, for the radio industry, it is always seems a sad time of year.
It was before Christmas, the last few years, that Clear Channel, the 850-radio-station-owning behemoth, didn’t renew contracts or just let people go. This year, in what it calls a “Reduction in Force,” many, at least hundreds of employees, got release notices near the end of October. Talk about a mean trick, with no treats.
“Reduction in Force” (RIF) is a nice way of saying they are letting workers, such as disc jockeys (Ds) go and not replacing them. Clear Channel plans to rely on more voice tracking from DJs. The duties of some local DJs will expand, perhaps greatly. In other cases, Clear Channel will expand the work of its DJs into new markets.
Clear Channel is also going to use their Premium Choice services more heavily. Premium Choice is a stable of DJs that do generic shows for a given format. These DJs voice station breaks distributed to stations that choose to air these tracks. Most likely, Clear Channel forces its stations to air the tracks.
Many Programme Directors (PD) got release notices, too. What happens to that leadership? Well, PDs from sister stations take over, in some cases. In other cases, someone in another radio market programmes the station. A new layer of management, Regional Vice-presidents now oversees all programming.
Clear Channel always denied it was going to a national programming concept. Although the current firmings doesn’t do that far, it is a step closer, which is scary. I’m sure the regional VPs take direction from the corporate office in Texas, so all this might was well be a national program.
One of my best friends, Allen Beebe, was a casualty of RIF. His PD told him, coldly, his shift, afternoon drive at WMJY-FM was gone. How can you eliminate an afternoon drive show?
You replace the drive show with Premium Choice of course. Instead of a live human being behind the controls, playing a pre-programmed music list, you have automation running an out of town DJ that has no clue what is going on in Biloxi, MS. This must make the locals feel warm and cosy.
I met Beebe when he came to New York City to work at the “All-New” WNBC-AM. That was 1977, when a 24-year-old Bob Pittman ran WNBC-AM. Pittman went on to found MTV and, today, is CEO of Clear Channel and over saw RIF.
Beebe arrived from KMJC-FM in El Cajon, CA., ready to take on New York City. He did, working every shift, at WNBC-AM, including filling in for Don Imus and Howard Stern. Beebe stayed at WNBC-AM until 1985, when he was released. He moved to WAPP-FM 103.5 before it changed to WQHT Hot 103.5.
After New York City, Allen and I lost touch for a number of years. I found him, in 2003, at a radio station in College Station-Bryan, Texas. Because of that reconnection, I came up with the idea of the WNBC-AM reunion, held in 2004. Unfortunately, Beebe couldn’t make the reunion, as he had started the new gig at WMJY-FM, in Biloxi, MS, and couldn’t take the time off.
The funny part about that job was that from the time he arrived, he wanted to find another gig in a bigger market. We always joked about that whenever we talked on the phone. He lasted in Biloxi for 8 years and 9 months, so he must have been doing something right.
Lowry Mays and Red McCombs founded Clear Channel, in 1972. Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners now own the company. Clear Channel is in the business of making money; if laying-off workers is their way of doing business, they shouldn’t disguise it as a reduction in force.
It’s more like a reduction of farce, since they are eliminating jobs and replacing them by automation and satellite distribution. Radio people do not run "Cheap" Channel, if they ever were in charge; it's by and for executives looking only at profits. It’s people like Allen Beebe that get the short end of the stick here, losing his job and being offered a severance package that is nothing short of insulting.
More disturbing firings come from Cumulus Media, which just took over Citadel Broadcasting. In Los Angeles, KLOS-FM PD, Bob Buchmann, got his release, as did long-time night DJ, Jim Ladd. Buchmann had worked in New York for many years, as PD of WBAB-FM, in West Babylon, New York, and WAXQ-FM, in New York City. Buchmann was a victim of an earlier Clear Channel bloodletting, in 2009, when many people in New York City lost job.
Shortly after his 2009 release, Buchmann got the plum job of PD, at KLOS-FM; he did afternoon drive, as well. When the Cumulus-Citadel merger happened, it was a matter of time before heads would roll. As many as 19 jobs vanished in one day at KLOS-FM and KABC-AM.
I mention Buchmann because of an interesting connection. When Buchmann was PD of WBAB-FM, I wrote to the station asking for some help in proposing to Marcy, then my girlfriend and now my wife; that was 21 years ago. We had tickets to a “Yes” concert at Jones Beach. Would WBAB-FM make an announcement before the show?
WBAB-FM agreed. In front of 10,000 people, Bob said the following; “We have two very special people in the audience tonight. Marcy, Matt wants to know if you will marry him.”
If you’ve never heard 10,000 people yell and scream at one time, it’s loud. I opened the engagement ring box right in her face, and she said to do anything, don’t get up, yell, nothing. I wanted to jump up and scream with everyone else.
I saw Buchmann a few years later at an event at the Museum of TV and Radio in New York City. I reminded him of that event. He smiled, nodded his head and said, “Of course he remembered that night.”
When Buchmann moved to California, I made a point to send him a congratulatory email and wish him luck. In return, he sent me some KLOS-FM swag. It’s always nice to get free radio station stuff.
For any music fan, the Jim Ladd evokes memories of free-form radio. Jim was the last DJ to programme, totally, his own show. He was the inspiration for Tom Petty’s song “The Last DJ.”
Ladd spent the last 14 years at KLOS-FM, his second tour of duty at the station. He also spent 1974-1987 on KMET-FM, also known as “The Mighty MET.” In 1991, he wrote a semi-autographical book, “Radio Waves: Life and Revolution on the FM Dial.” The book was inspired by his years on KMET-FM and KLOS-FM. Ladd used co-worker, such as Raechel, Tom Donahue, JJ Jackson and B. Mitchell Reed, as the basis of his characters in “Radio Waves.”
“Radio Waves” is a fascinating study of radio and its personality sides. It was also fun to guess which character was a true-life DJ and which ones weren't.
What does a DJ like Jim Ladd do now? Does he do internet radio and not make money, or try to find a new home that will let him do what he wants to do? Will his former KLOS-FM PD, Rita Wilde, hire him at her new station, KSWD-FM, 103.3 The Sound, in Los Angeles?
Unfortunately, losing a job happens to all of us at one time or another. Sometimes it’s our own fault for not doing a good job, and sometimes because a business is in trouble and closes. Companies like Clear Channel and Cumulus let good people go because they make too much money and they need to maximize profits for their shareholders.
Being out a job in radio is called “being on the beach.” You just hope that you’re not on that beach for too long. Instead of a tan, you’ll get bored and burnt and drink to many margaritas.