Saturday, February 29, 2020

Our Vanishing Local Media

Several weeks ago, some friends of mine lost their jobs, and based on what I've been told, none of them saw it coming. In fact, none of them did anything wrong. They were all talented and hardworking (and popular). They were all team players. But it wasn't good enough. They worked for Boston album rock station WAAF, owned by Entercom (which also owns more than 200 stations nationwide).  Entercom sold WAAF for $10.75 million to a contemporary Christian radio network from California, thus ending a live and local station that had played rock music (and local artists) for decades.

I have nothing against religious radio networks, nor do I object to satellite programming (I often listen to Sirius/XM); and as a former consultant, I understand there are some circumstances when syndicated shows can save a station money.  But I do object to the loss of live and local programming, especially when a station was doing well, making money, and keeping the community happy, as WAAF was. In so many cities, including the one where I live, local radio stations have either been sold to a national syndication company, or shut down entirely.

And it's not just local radio stations that are disappearing. Local newspapers are also in trouble, including some big names: in Sacramento, the McClatchy family owned the Sacramento Bee since the late 1850s; the family was an integral part of the community, not just reporting on the news but advocating for causes like improving local roads or building public colleges.  But the transition from print to digital has been problematic in many cities, as newspapers have struggled to make the same amount of money online that they were able to make in print. In mid-February, McClatchy filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy: the paper (and the others formerly owned by the company) will survive, but the new owners are a hedge fund from New Jersey, rather than anyone from the McClatchy family.

Some newspapers haven't been so lucky: they have gone out of business, leaving their community with no local coverage at all: by the end of 2018, more than 1,300 US communities no longer had a newspaper, creating so-called "news deserts" where the public is no longer kept informed (and local politicians are no longer kept accountable).  And while in some cities, online publications have sprung up, many are poorly funded and thus, they lack the resources to cover the area as thoroughly as it needs to be covered.

With fewer newspapers, there are fewer experienced reporters, and less fact-checking. With fewer local radio stations, there are fewer announcers who live in and know the community, and one less way to find out what is happening around town (plus local musicians have a harder time getting exposure and becoming better known).  Meanwhile, a lack of local media often leads to less civic engagement-- folks have no idea what the big issues are, or how their tax dollars are being spent.

We're living in a time where many people don't support local journalism; they seem to think that good reporting ought to be free, or that partisan blogs are just as useful. But they're not. I enjoy reading blogs (and I enjoy writing my own); but blogs are no substitute for the professional and thorough reporting of the Boston Globe, nor the local perspectives of my hometown paper, the Quincy Patriot-Ledger.  I also understand that many folks aren't as attached to radio as they were in previous eras. But as I've said many times, local stations provide another good way to stay in touch with your community.

I'm sorry that fans of WAAF no longer have the station they so loyally supported. I'm sorry that too many cities no longer have a local newspaper. Call me old-fashioned, but I truly believe that live and local media still matter. They are one more tie to the place you call home; and they keep you connected to it in a more personal way, which is something that social media cannot do.

5 comments:

  1. So Sad to hear of a good local radio station folding along with local newspapers too
    Awful
    Let's hope a crowd funding can set set up a local community station

    ReplyDelete
  2. I completely agree! 50 years of providing for much of Metrowest and beyond, WAAF covered a lot of ground, playing deep LP cuts in the 70s to breaking bands over recent years.

    I'm so happy to be at an LPFM which supports creativity,localism,and gets the word out regarding other non-profits in the area. We work hard to provide local voices, support local bands, and be an outlet for the Greater Portsmouth, NH area.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. John, I have been up in Portsmouth and happened to tune across your LPFM quite a while ago. Can you give me the web site and frequency that you guys are on? Do you stream? I am not in your coverage area when I am at home but I go to Portsmouth from time to time. In truth, I would prefer to just stream and not worry about coverage issues. Thank you and I hope you had a good weekend. Best of luck with your LPFM. 73

      Delete
  3. Any idea why the station was sold? Is it possible for a local fm outlet to pay for local talent and still make money? It seems to me that part of the problem has to be the new options that allow listening to music in the car, streaming over the internet and satellite radio. I am guessing that ad revenue has been dropping but that may not be the case. It seems that the FM outlets have been shedding costs since at least the 90s. One of those costs unfortunately has been local talent. Is anyone aware of any internet radio stations that are made up of former local talent? There is an advantage to internet radio, you don't have to worry about an FCC license or the expense of maintaining your own transmitter. Your range is not limited either like it would be with your own FM outlet even if you are a 100kw powerhouse like WBLM in Maine or WHOM up on Mt. Washington you can still get better coverage with internet radio. I have to use internet streaming to listen to WBLM even though they used to be loud and clear in N.E. MA. The LPFMs have infringed on their coverage area. I called them about it and they are not protected all the way down here. So until I get near Maine I stream them in the car. The LPFM is an interesting idea but it really has to be backed up with internet radio streaming due to the lack of coverage. If you are a mobile listener you can drive out of the coverage area quite quickly. I am wondering if an internet radio station that will sell enough advertising to support local talent is a possibility to bring back the talent on lost stations such as WAAF, WBCN, who can forget WCOZ 94.5 kick ass rock and roll? Is the FCC making a mistake allowing stations to not hire local talent? Maybe we need to require that if you want to use RF you need local talent and you cannot be part of a network. If you want to cover the entire US with your programming, use the internet. The last issue is what is going to happen with the spectrum no longer used by TV stations? Is the FM broadcast band going to be expanded from 88 mHz down to at least 82 mHz? If so, what kind of emission makes sense? Clearly FM is probably not optimum. Digital would allow for more stations in the same amount of radio spectrum. But, it appears to me that the spectrum in the VHF-Low band, up to 88 mhz , basically from 54 to 88 could be used to enhance the VHF radio broadcast band. I hate to see the loss of jobs and the loss of local talent. I wonder if the local talent from WAAF had considered continuing their operation via streaming audio? Most people at work, or many at least would listen via streaming anyway since they're working at a computer. The amount of data used for streaming audio isn't that much so streaming using your phones data plan isn't a problem, and in many cases wifi can be used or will be used automatically when it is available. For me, I would be happy to continue to listen to WAAF via streaming audio. Another nice thing about streaming audio is that if you move, you take your home radio station with you. If you are on an airplane on the other side of the world you can listen to your home radio station. There is a lot to like about streaming audio including the audio quality, it can greatly exceed that of FM radio if you want it to. If you want to stream 16 bits at 44.1 khz the CD standard, you can do it. Also you get the advantage of adding video to the stream if you want to. I can't believe that a station like WAAF couldn't survive and thrive being delivered by streaming instead of a VHF RF link. They would need to get used to the fact that their listeners will be spread out more. But the potential for a very interesting
    "radio station" is there.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As for why this happened, obviously, Entercom didn't include me in their deliberations (!); but the sense I get is that many companies over-extend themselves, and then when they are not generating enough revenue to service the debt they have, they decide to unload some stations (or cut some personnel) to save money and/or get a fresh influx of cash. It's a bottom-line decision, and even if some fans are disappointed, the corporation gets the money it needs, and that's the only calculation they seem to make.

      Delete