It's getting more and more painful to read the radio trades these days. It seems like every morning, there's another raft of companies running into financial problems, flirting with bankruptcy, and firing more employees. As the names have scrolled by over the past year, you cannot help but react personally as a person who has worked in this industry for many years.
Some of the moves are surprising, while others aren't. If there's an upside to economic downturns, it's that they force companies to take that hard look at their operations, and make the difficult decisions about who can do what, and how to keep operating during these challenging times. But the nasty downside is that some companies panic, make devastating decisions that are guaranteed to make things worse, and shoot themselves in the foot. Remember your reaction the first time you saw someone with lung cancer still smoking? That's what's happening in too many radio operations these days, as ownership panics, and the self-fulfilling prophecy of failure becomes closer to becoming a reality.
With little more than a quarter of 2009 in the books, it is looking like more of the moves are falling into the "nasty downside" category. Case in point: Cumulus firing Dave Benson yesterday. I know from my dealings with stations that there is always more to these stories than what you read in the trades. But understand that Benson was already programming two highly successful major market stations in San Francisco - KFOG and KSAN (The Bone) - because the company axed the latter's PD, Larry Sharp, in 2008. Benson was already doing double-duty in a Top 5 market, not even a year into PPM.
In Dave and Larry, you're talking about two guys who could program any two Rock-formatted stations in the country. They are a dream team of programming, marketing, and strategic talent, each of whom has valuable experience with companies like Entercom, Clear Channel, and Susquehanna, where they first programmed in the same building.
With all due respect to the seconds-in-command at Cumulus in San Francisco and the company's corporate staff, my questions are these: Who's supposed to manage Lamont & Tonelli, keep the Bone sounding like San Francisco's radio version of Maxim, and carefully juggle the nuances that have made KFOG a legendary station, and one of the few truly successful Triple A's in the country? And what do these moves say to whoever's left at these operations about the company's commitment to doing "great radio?"
Great radio stations don't run on auto-pilot. And programming, marketing, and strategy still matter. This recession is going to end, and while radio may not ever come close to reaching its historic heights, stations, brands, content, and talent will still count.
For the privately held companies out there, who don't have debt, who aren't being judged by Wall Street, and who can actually afford a couple of crappy years (relatively speaking), this is the time to grow market share, and come out smiling on the other side of this economic meltdown. The Dave Benson decision speaks volumes about radio's shortsightedness and inability to adjust to the times.
If anyone needs a couple of great PDs, call me.