I just spent the last few days at the annual National Association of people who want to be broadcasters when they grow up convention and, as you would expect I have a few observations.
But let me put those observations into context.
For those readers who don’t know, I am the former owner of eight radio stations and have spent the bulk of my media career in broadcasting. There are few, if any, jobs in a radio or television station that I have not done. And there are quite a few jobs at the network level that I have done as well.
That said, it’s time for a reality check.
I’m well aware that people who work in radio and television think of themselves as somehow "special". They think, for the most part, that their choice of employment is a "profession". And they are almost always ready to heap scorn on the people who run the companies which employ them.
Three points. One is that broadcasters are no more or less special than casino employees. Two is that broadcasting may be a craft but it is not a profession. And three, if they’re so smart, how come they work for people they don’t like?
More important is a fourth point. The "airwaves" don’t belong to the public any more than the Las Vegas monorail does.
The fact is that when broadcasting began, there was a fairly simple law of physics. You couldn’t put two radio stations in the same town on the same frequency. So the same folks who were busy rigging the stock market, came up with a concept that the "airwaves" were a scarce natural resource and thus were the property of the government.
Licenses to use those "airwaves" were passed out to many people whose only qualification to use a scarce natural resource was similar to the qualifications of the first folks in Nevada to hold a gaming license. (That ought to be enough said.)
And the system we have today largely developed from there.
But now, that original law of physics has been modified as we learned about digital transmission. In point of fact, we can now put a virtually unlimited number of radio or television stations on the same frequency in the same town and the very thought has the panties of the direct descendents of the first broadcasters in a real wad.
After all, how can you bring 40 cents on the dollar to the bottom line when you’re faced with a ton of competition? That’s a question the broadcast television networks are trying to deal with as their audience goes down while the number of cable and satellite networks increases. As an example, consider that ESPN is going to pay over a billion dollars a year to broadcast Monday Night Football.
ESPN is owned by the same company that owns ABC which is losing the NFL altogether.
If cable networks weren’t serious competition for broadcast networks do you think that deal would have ever been considered much less finalized?
Radio is next.
For four years now, two companies have broadcast over 100 channels each from satellites. You pay about $13 a month for the privilege and as of this week slightly over four million people are doing just that.
You can’t listen to your local radio station in the car when you’re listening to the Fox News Channel or CNBC on your XM receiver.
Now the local broadcasters want to fight back.
Only many of them don’t want to fight with superior programming.
No, they want to get the government to tell the satellite companies to stop acting like radio companies with traffic, weather and sports. They want to fight with sleazy lawyer tricks.
Well, they can forget about it.
Getting listeners isn’t rocket science—hence my point about broadcasters not being special and broadcasting being a craft but not a profession. And if the current crop isn’t up to the job, the marketplace will replace them with a new crop.
The only way to keep listeners is to put things on the radio that people want to listen to.
And if the current descendents of the former radio monopoly don’t stick to their knitting and worry about what is on their stations as opposed to competitive signals, someone else will.
A bankruptcy judge.