On Radio: Money will be stations' 2009 focus
By BILL VIRGIN
You may not miss all the political ads of 2008, but here's someone who does: the radio industry.
Political ads aren't the most lucrative of accounts, but given what's happening or projected to happen with such segments as retailing and auto manufacturers, at this point the industry will take whatever it can get.
Money is never far from the center of discussion when it comes to radio; it is, after all, a business. But in 2009, as in 2008, money -- how much of it is coming in, and what it's spent on -- will be the paramount topic for the industry.
For the first three quarters of 2008, local and national radio advertising was down 9 percent from 2007 levels, the Radio Advertising Bureau reported. The trend appeared to be moving in the wrong direction; ad revenue in the third quarter was down 11 percent from a year ago.
The impact of declining revenue and tighter budgets is showing up on the radio dial in ways listeners notice. Steve Slaton, one of the veterans of Seattle rock radio, was let go from KZOK-FM/102.5. Meanwhile, an industry trade publication reported this week that more cuts might be coming out of a meeting of Clear Channel managers in early January.
Budget crunches are also hitting the noncommercial, public-radio side of the business. As noted earlier, National Public Radio announced a round of job cuts that will mean dropping two programs heard locally: "Day to Day" on KUOW-FM/94.9 and "News & Notes" on sister station KXOT-FM/91.7.
In the latest development, American Public Media said it would end production as of Jan. 31 of "Weekend America," a syndicated show also carried by KUOW-FM. It hasn't decided what programs will replace the shows that are disappearing.
(KUOW has other connections to "Weekend America," through alumni of the Seattle station. Bill Radke used to be co-host of the show; John Moe is now its host.)
The pressure on budgets and competition to snare what advertising dollars are out there will get more intense in 2009, says Tony Stevens, who has been on both sides of the equation, as program director at KRKO-AM/1380 in Everett and now as the owner of a Mukilteo-based advertising company.
"Stations are totally undercutting each other on rates," he says.
Stevens believes radio can still have an OK year on advertising provided stations make the case to potential advertisers about the efficiency of their medium in reaching customers.
"The days of just accepting orders are over," he says.
But radio also faces a long-term issue of retaining listeners those advertisers want to reach. While satellite and Internet radio have yet to prove themselves as substantial competitors, radio's bigger problem is potential listeners who have dropped the habit of tuning in because of portable music players or the like, or who (in the case of younger consumers) never got started in the first place.
And that gets to the issue of how much money radio has to spend, and what it spends its revenue on. In times of tight budgets the temptation is to unload expensive locally based announcers and hosts and substitute automated or syndicated programming (a frequently mentioned example of the latter who might make an appearance in Seattle in 2009 is Ryan Seacrest).
But the more stations do that, Stevens says, the greater the risk of a disconnect between stations and their audience. The one point of differentiation local radio has is local talent and personality (the looming competition in local sports between KJR-AM/950 and KIRO-AM/710 will be a demonstration of that notion).
"There comes a point at which programmers' bosses have to understand what brought them to the party in the first place," he says.
In other radio notes:
The Capitol Steps musical-comedy group performs "Politics Takes a Holiday" at 9 a.m. Thursday on KUOW-FM.
Josh Ottum and The Laughing Academy perform live on "Audioasis" at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on KEXP-FM/90.3.
The Metropolitan Opera performs Puccini's "La Boheme" at 10 a.m. Saturday on KING-FM/98.1.
Bill Virgin's Radio Beat, Thursdays in the Seattle P-I