(By Deborah Parenti) Many years ago, I worked for a very small radio group that struggled to keep the on-air — and office — lights on.
As the business manager, it was my responsibility to see that the bills were paid, payroll was met, and in the end, that some tiny profit was returned to the owner. It wasn’t always easy. Many were the months when I sat on the floor of my family room with two boxes on either side of me, one with a crudely drawn happy face, the other wearing a frown, and in front of me a stack of bills. Station bills. I would pick each one up and review when it had last been paid and how vital that vendor’s service to the upcoming month’s station operation might be. Oh, and what our projected bank balance would be in the near term. I would then assign it to one of the boxes — one for payment this month, the other to be deferred until, well, as long as possible. You can guess which one was the “happy” box. And before I go on, I would like to finally confess and apologize to the music licensing companies who never made it in the “first round” to the happy place in our payment processing. Please know it was not personal. It had one focus – those darn lights that kept the station on the air. Thank you for your patience as we worked to catch up.
Payroll was another thing. More than once I walked into the manager’s office to advise him that if he and I held our checks until the Monday after payday, provided the anticipated receivables came in on time, we could pay the staff on Friday and cash our checks on Monday. And none would be the wiser.
Of course, we did have a safety net if things really went south. In my filing cabinet were pre-signed personal checks that belonged to the owner. In case of emergency, we could fill one out and deposit it. Pride was a great deterrent from using them more than once during my tenure but it was always assuring to know that the option was there.
There are a ton of radio stations, especially small operators and/or those in Nielsen 75+ ranked markets that experience a similar pain every day of the week. And while today’s added competition for revenue from other platforms and services is probably not as significant as in larger markets, owing to the fact that smaller market dollars are driven primarily by local business, any distraction is not helpful.
So, I get it. More so, I love radio and want to see it grow and flourish until the end of time. But when “economy of scale” and “diversity in programming” are poised together in the same thought chain as though one will beget the other, it gives me pause for a moment.
History has taught us that “economy of scale” does not necessarily enhance programming, community service, and all those other little things that occur between music or talk and (often interminable) spot sets. That, even as virtually everyone agrees, radio’s “live and local” ability to connect with listeners up close and personal is its biggest competitive advantage. And one on which radio can and should capitalize.
Over the past several months, broadcasters have debated and discussed, some on our pages, what form a proposal to the FCC regarding license caps should take and the suggested relief for broadcasters it should strive to provide. The result of some of their discussions is a proposal that the NAB has sent to the FCC for consideration. Some believe this proposal could open a window of fresh, added opportunity and relief from radio owners.
The real proof of its success, however, would not become apparent until after the ink is dry on future mergers, acquisitions and the like, especially in smaller markets. Will better programming that helps elevate those stations involved, as well as the industry as a whole, emerge? Or will a “greed is good” mentality foster capitulation to more voice tracking and syndication once the deals are done?
There are lessons to be learned from Telecom 1996. Those need to be examined so the same mistakes aren’t made twice. As the saying goes, “Be careful what you ask for lest you get it.” And the time to start thinking about all of that might be now.
Deborah Parenti is Publisher of Radio Ink. She can be reached at [email protected]