While the specifics of precisely who got axed during this week's Clear Channel "restructuring" are still woefully incomplete, a perusal of the cobbled together lists reveals that sales departments may have taken the biggest hits. Tom Taylor's "Radio-Info" reports that Bain Capital has a preference toward sales people who have been around a long time. Obviously, those are the people with the deepest client and agency relationships, which translate into a greater likelihood of immediate sales.
But if in the process, younger reps have been the chief victims, what does this say about new business development? And what does it say about radio having any chance of attracting youth to an industry that is increasingly profiling like the newspaper business?
Way back in the '70s when I first joined ABC's WRIF, programmer Tom Bender was regularly knocking down big 12+ shares of Detroit rockers. The problem was that legacy buyers didn't really understand FM rock radio, making it tough for the salespeople to crack big agency accounts. They had every record store, soda pop, and zit cream on the air, but trying to convince the Darcys, BBD&Os, Doners, and McCanns about the efficacy of AOR radio in the '70s was a tough putt.
So WRIF did the smart thing. They plucked a middle-aged secretary out of Campbell-Ewald (or General Motors' shop), and essentially assigned her every big agency in town. It worked. She had solid contacts, gave great lunches, and was able to bring some big name accounts to WRIF. Yet, she knew absolutely nothing about the station or the audience. Way out of demo, she had no real incentive to "learn the listener." She also developed absolutely no new accounts because, of course, she was a "senior seller." Eventually management tired of her mostly because of her inability to "learn new tricks."
The firing of all those junior AEs sends a message to advertisers and to the remaining employees in the radio industry. Radio doesn't value youth. It only respects the immediate return on sales efforts. And if you go up and down the Clear Channel layoffs lists as reported in the various trades, they feel young. There are many part-timers, music directors, programming assistants, producers, co-hosts, sidekicks - in short, the youth of an industry that ought to be valuing and hanging onto every Gen Y employee it can.
No one said that the nation's biggest broadcaster ought to have the onus of ensuring that new generations of Americans will find a home in radio stations. Every CEO shares in that burden and responsibility. But Clear Channel has deservedly been the poster child of big consolidation - a failed model that pleased Wall Street (for a while), but is ultimately ill-suited to compete in a media and entertainment world where young people set the pace. Bain Capital is doing precisely what an investment firm should do. As John Hogan puts it, these mass layoffs were "necessary and prudent business decisions." For today.
That's precisely the operating philosophy that's gotten us to the brink of obsolescence. Both "old timers" and the up-and-comers have been shaken by these tectonic shifts. And who can blame them. These are the moments where you look in the mirror, sit down with your family, and start making "prudent business decisions" of your own.
In all honesty, could any of us counsel a high school or college kid to get into radio? And don't think that we're just going through some tough times now that will turn around when the economy stabilizes. The decisions made now by radio CEOs will resonate for years to come. For those of us fortunate enough to be "in radio” but observe much of this from the sidelines, it is difficult not to question whether radio will be capable of recovering from the long term impact of this flip of the bird to the industry's youth.