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 AJR  Features

From AJR,   June 1998  issue

Blackout on the Dial   

In much of the world of commercial radio, news has become an elusive commodity.

Related reading:   Print's Weak Stepsister

By Marc Fisher
Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist, is a regular contributor to AJR.     

The interviewer politely relays his questions, live over a phone link to the scene in Garland, Texas, where a Chinese-speaking reporter translates for one of the followers of the guru Chen Heng-ming. The entire bilingual exchange, extending over 12 uninterrupted minutes, goes out to nearly 100 radio stations across the United States.

The story of Master Chen and his prediction that God would appear in Texas at an appointed time one day this spring won wide attention from TV, print and radio. But this interview was unique. No one else offered such wall-to-wall coverage. And nowhere else were questions quite like these posed to one of Chen's acolytes:

"Does he actually think Master Chen is talking to God? Would he kill himself if the Master told him to? Would he allow Master Chen to have sex with his wife?"

The conversation ends and the interviewer thanks his translator. "She's nice," he tells his audience. "I never slept with a Chinese woman."

The interview, just one item in a 75-minute "newscast," is part of the Howard Stern Show, which is, if you listen to the people in charge of radio news these days, how most young listeners get their news.

"To many people, 'And now the news..' means 'And now you're going to be bored,' " says Walter Sabo, a consultant who advises a new genre of talk radio stations that eschew politics.

"The fact is, Mr. Stern devotes an hour a day of his show to the news. The guy at the New York Times' news judgment is no more sacred than Robin Quivers'," Stern's news-reading sidekick.

"Our demographic is comfortable with the news just being brought into the conversation," says Jeremy Coleman, program director at WJFK, a Washington, D.C., FM talk station that wins a hefty audience of 25-to-35-year-old men by airing Stern, G. Gordon Liddy, naughty boys Don and Mike and no traditional newscasts of any kind, ever.

"All of our shows have some news content. Liddy will sit there and read newspaper articles for 45 minutes at a stretch. But our listeners don't want someone to tell them The News. It's not that younger people have less interest in the news, they just don't get it from the radio. They get informed from the Internet, TV and hearing Stern and Liddy talk about the news."

Radio news, which has played third chair to print and TV's concertmasters ever since John Cameron Swayze first read the headlines on the home screen, is tumbling into a time of swift and merciless change. More and more stations are going news-free. Many, perhaps even most, stations that feel compelled to offer some news are sacking their reporters and anchors, and outsourcing the news without ever letting their audience in on the trick. And even those stations that remain strongly committed to their own news operations are wondering just what "news" means these days.

A tidal wave of consolidation generated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996's loosening of ownership limits has put most big- and medium-market stations under the control of a handful of huge corporations, which have shown little interest in paying for local newsgathering and enormous interest in cutting out expensive budget items such as reporters and wire services.

The decline of radio news got rolling back in 1980, when the FCC deregulated radio, ending the requirement that all stations provide news and public affairs programming. Since then, the gospel in radio has required programmers to stay rigidly true to their chosen format, whether Top 40, hip-hop or classical, without taking a chance that five minutes of news might drive away precious listeners.

In fact, radio pioneered "narrowcasting," in which stations seek to reach only a thin, demographically delectable slice of the potential audience. TV is only now heading in that direction, as the expanding number of cable outlets permits channels to focus on a single topic for a narrowly defined audience. No one expects to see news on The Discovery Channel or the Classic Sports Network, just as a generation of listeners now doesn't expect to hear news on its favorite country or rock station.

In most big cities and in an increasing number of middle-sized markets, the only radio news operations that bother sending reporters out on stories are all-news stations and National Public Radio affiliates. On most music stations, news is limited to morning drive time and is delivered from a single centralized newsroom belonging to either Metro Networks or Shadow Broadcast Services, the two behemoths of the outsourcing trend. In most of the top 75 markets now, Metro, Shadow or some combination of the two provide not only traffic and weather reports, but also the newscasts on virtually all the stations in town.

Radio news has never put a premium on depth, serving its audience instead with headlines, service journalism and – at its best – strong commentary and live spot news coverage. "There used to be a crowd of radio people at news events," says Jim Farley, a veteran of radio network news and now program director at Washington's all-news station WTOP, which supplements its nine-reporter staff with Metro traffic reports and Shadow sports. "It's kind of sad because most radio newspeople these days are holed up in their bunker rewriting copy. The public loses because there are fewer reporters out asking questions. Radio as an industry has shot itself in the foot by decreasing the public's ability to depend on us for news."

A while back, when a false anthrax scare paralyzed downtown Washington smack in the midst of evening rush hour, listeners could scan the dial in vain looking for any place other than the all-news station to get details of the evolving story.

"Until five years ago, there was usually one serious news station in a good-sized town, with reporters who actually went to city hall and knew the mayor," says John Mainelli, former program director at New York's WABC-AM and now a consultant to news-talk stations. "There were still stations that didn't just rewrite the local paper. But that's really a dying breed."

The story is similar at most levels of news coverage. In small towns and rural areas, "the little 1,000-watt station that competes in newsgathering with the weekly newspaper is pretty much gone," says Robert Garcia, a member of the board of the Radio-Television News Directors Association and general manager of CNN Radio. "Those news operations are becoming very rare because of a lack of ad revenue. Mom and Pop shops that spent their ad money locally are replaced by large chains like WalMart that spend their ad money nationally, at the expense of local news on the radio."

In most state capitols these days, the only radio microphones at news conferences come from public radio, perhaps a statewide news service and maybe the city's leading all-news or news-talk station – period.

Even in government-dominated Washington, radio is not the presence it was just a decade ago. The consolidation that has swept the industry has reduced the radio network news world to less than a handful of operations, and really only three commercial networks that do much original newsgathering – CBS, ABC and the Associated Press.

To get an idea of how consolidation has affected radio network news, call up the CBS Radio Web site ( www.cbsradio.com ). There you'll find Mutual Radio, NBC Radio, CNBC, CNN Radio, as well as a raft of CBS programming. Mutual and NBC, two of radio's grandest traditions, are now owned by Westwood One, a partially owned wing of CBS, and while they are technically separate, Mutual and NBC actually share their skeletal reporting staffs. Westwood One does not own CNBC or CNN's radio operations but markets them to stations across the country.

CNN Radio, which serves more than 500 U.S. stations with hourly newscasts, relies largely on audio from CNN's TV correspondents' reports. The network has only three reporters of its own, two in Washington and one in New York, Garcia says.

The great radio networks of the past are scaling back their own operations while stations across the country grow ever more reluctant to give up five minutes at the top of the hour to air someone else's news and someone else's ad spots. The result is that radio networks are putting more energy than ever into providing stations with the raw materials from which they can craft their own news, whether delivered by a local anchor or, increasingly, by a wacky sidekick to the morning deejay. Local knock-offs of Stern's Robin Quivers or Don Imus' Charles McCord – the more-or-less straight man who acts as foil to the morning show funnyman – are turning out to be the primary delivery system for radio news, and networks help by passing along sound bites of everything from presidential addresses to Hollywood stars pushing their latest productions.

"We feed 300 cuts of audio daily," says Garcia. "Local stations may not use the newscasts, but they want the resources and the security blanket in case of major news."

Despite the changing nature of network news, it is in no danger of vanishing, says Harvey Nagler, CBS' vice president for radio news. CBS last year shut down its Washington-based news service that provided reports to its owned-and-operated stations, but Nagler says the network is expanding in other ways, adding reporters in Washington, Los Angeles and London in the past six months. "Radio news is an American tradition," he says. "The big battle is to find the stories people are talking about, the water cooler stories. The mix of stories is changing, with a higher story count and stories more geared to the younger demographic, more lifestyle and entertainment news, but also hard news."

CBS, long the most traditional of the radio networks, is changing rapidly. The days of the half-hour flagship newscasts by stentorian announcers such as Douglas Edwards are over.

CBS, with about 600 affiliate stations, is loosening its style and packing more stories into its hourly newscast. Still, CBS delivers a more staid product than ABC, whose radio newscasts have become a virtual whirlwind of voices, with anchors introducing reporters on the scene of not-so-breaking stories for 15-second items that might include a couple more pieces of actuality. Newspeople at CBS and elsewhere accuse ABC Radio of going tabloid, but a comparison of story selection over a several-week period shows that the radio networks report pretty much the same items, though ABC has more passion for Hollywood stories and other entertainment news. The differences among the networks are primarily stylistic: ABC's anchors tend toward a bombastic delivery and often speak in partial sentences, while CBS' still speak standard English. Over at the AP, the radio service is generally as straight as the wire's print copy.

But change is everywhere: "The old days of deep voices intoning the copy are gone," Nagler says. "Our hourly newscasts are harder than ABC's, but everyone is more informal, with a more conversational manner."

Nagler, whose radio claim to fame is his development of the widely copied "traffic and weather together" package, is, like most radio news executives these days, an advocate of redefining news to make it more "relevant" to listeners' daily lives. When he ran WCBS, one of New York City's two all-news stations, Nagler was best known not for any news scoops but for the "guaranteed weather forecast," in which the station promised to give away money if its prediction of the day's high temperature was off the mark. "That speaks to what's important to listeners," Nagler says.

Until last fall, WWNZ in Orlando had a full time news staff of six people, which is a lot for radio, especially for a station devoted largely to talk shows. But on September 30, the entire news staff was let go. "We were highly regarded and had won loads of awards, but the decision was made to do news without having to pay for it," says Peter King, the station's last news director, now a busy freelance reporter for CBS Radio.

In a move that has occurred hundreds of times across the country in the past few years, WWNZ, which is owned by Clear Channel, one of the big players in the industry's consolidation craze, decided to farm out responsibility for its local newscasts to Metro Networks.

Metro began as a traffic service, putting planes and choppers aloft to monitor commuter jams, providing stations with an economy of scale that permitted even small outlets to boast about their eyes in the sky. Eventually, Metro, like its main competitor, Shadow Broadcast Services, realized that if it could provide traffic and weather information to most of the stations in a given city, it could also save those stations the cost of a news operation. Today, Metro delivers newscasts for 490 stations in 62 of the country's top 75 markets and Shadow serves more than 125 stations in 15 markets.

Welcome to the brave new world of news outsourcing. Metro and Shadow cost a station not a penny. Stations simply cede a couple of minutes of time to Metro or Shadow, and those companies fill it with a few headlines. The news providers make their dollar oč a 10-second commercial tagged onto the end of the newscast. In the Washington area, for example, 12 stations take newscasts from Metro and nine from Shadow.

In Orlando, Metro's newspeople "rewrite the newspapers, pull sound from the local cable news channel, and work the phones," King says. "They don't send people out on stories. For WWNZ, it's a sound business decision, but a bad programming decision. We used to do 12 to 15 minutes of local news an hour during drive time. We did series and features that nobody else was doing," including award-winning stories tracing the history of the early days of the space program in Florida and examining why it's so hard to get airline seats with frequent flyer miles.

In most cities, Metro and Shadow have no street reporters. Instead, their newspeople spend most of their time customizing headline packages for each of their many clients. One news reader might appear on several stations, but the reporter is always identified with that station's call letters; Metro and Shadow are not mentioned on the air.

Unless they detect that the same names are delivering the news at various spots on the dial, listeners cannot tell that most news on their local stations emanates from one newsroom. And most Metro and Shadow newscasts do not even rise to the level of tra?itional rip-and-read journalism; neither news service subscribes to the AP, the mainstay of many news operations. Both rely heavily on what radio people like to call "published reports," which means mellifluous voices reading a digest of the morning paper.

In Washington, Metro recently dropped its one wire service, Reuter, relying now primarily on whatever's in the Washington Post or Washington Times, as well as Metro's cooperative agreements with the local cable news channel and a string of suburban newspapers. In one recent morning's Washington area regional news summary, Metro had six stories, three of them barely rewritten from the Post, and three paraphrased from the suburban Journal newspapers.

But after taking a lot of heat from radio newspeople who accuse the outsourcing companies of laying waste to an entire profession, Metro and Shadow are beginning to evolve from "a news-packaging operation into newsgathering," says Metro's Washington news bureau chief, John Irving.

Last fall, Metro opened its National News Operations Center in Phoenix, where a staff of more than 40 editorial employees has put together the company's latest product, Metro Source, a computer service that delivers print and audio news stories, sound bites, all the tools a station might need to create its own newscast or work news bits into a music or comedy show. The machine is being marketed both to stations that already farm out their news to Metro and to stations that will use Metro Source in lieu of wire services.

Most of the news on Metro Source comes from the company's bureaus across the country, which write regional summaries and forward them to Phoenix. For Washington news, Metro uses its recently acquired Washington News Network, a company that provides video clips of capital events for TV stations. Where does Metro get the rest of its national and foreign news? The company's not saying. John Tomlinson, Metro's senior vice president for news, says much of what appears on Metro Source originates with "our silent partners," companies he will describe only as "information gatherers around the world. We're not releasing who they are."

Along with the Phoenix news center, Metro is adding street reporters in some cities and plans to add more in coming years. "Typically, we are the largest newsroom in a city," Tomlinson says. "We're accused of reducing the number of jobs in radio news, but we're actually creating jobs. If a station has to reduce its head count, we can come in and provide late night or weekend newscasts that they otherwise wouldn't have. Our local people aren't necessarily out on the street, but we have access to newsmaker sound. We're seeing a shift in where reporters are operating, but not necessarily in what they're doing."

Executives at the outsourcing companies concede that the days of one station scooping another are largely over – once information reaches a Metro newsroom, it is distributed to all client stations – but they believe the public overall gets more news than it would without outsourcing.

But King and others who've been displaced by outsourcing say listeners are losing out on what made radio special: the ability to tell stories with unmatched speed and, in the best instances, with a personal touch that takes advantage of the medium's intimacy. King, who has served as a judge in several radio journalism contests, says he still hears good original reporting around the country, "but it's getting harder and harder to find."

Everywhere, at every level, what's getting tough to find is not only superior reporting, but journalists with much interest in radio news. From the networks down to small stations, executives report that the talent pool is a thin gruel.

In the past, by the time a radio reporter reached a big city market, he was likely to be a pro, ready to handle virtually any story. "Now, when we get them, we've got to do some Journalism 101," says Farley at Washington's WTOP. "And for many of my interns, this is only a stepping stone to television. Which is OK, if I get a good couple of years out of them."

Says CNN's Garcia, "With so few small stations employing reporters, Metro and Shadow are the new farm system, and that's the problem, because they're not newsgathering."

Even at the bottom of the food chain, talent is scarce, says Metro's Tomlinson. "When I first got into the business, people just wanted to be on the radio," he says. "Now, there's just not that many people interested in being a broadcast journalist on the radio. Instead of nurturing a newsperson as they did in the past, small stations make a deal to get information from the local newspaper, and they give the information to the jock to read."

In part, the narrowing of the talent pipeline stems from the polarization of the business, with those young journalists seeking celebrity drawn to television and those wanting to do serious, gritty reporting lured to print. Radio's unique quality – the chance to tell stories without the multi-level editing of print or the equipment and crew restrictions of TV – is mostly ignored by young reporters.

The way things are going, "I would not encourage parents to let their children go into radio news," says consultant Mainelli.

?adio's notoriously low salaries are partly to blame, some say. In New York, radio reporters can make $50,000, top anchors as much as $100,000. But those jobs are rare. In Orlando, radio reporters generally make $20,000 to $25,000 a year. And when Metro hired at least one of WWNZ's former newspeople, the reporter had to take a pay cut.

"I can do better in two days a week freelancing for CBS than I did full time as news director at WWNZ," King says. "Until you get to the very largest markets, there just isn't the money to keep people in the business."

Of course, money has never been what drives many journalists, and in radio that remains the case, both at the hundreds of stations large and small that still value news and, most notably, in public radio, where low pay is legendary.

At National Public Radio and at dozens of smaller public outlets across the country, longer-form radio news thrives in a way that is virtually unknown on the commercial side of the dial. With 15 domestic bureaus, nine foreign correspondents and a total staff of about 60 reporters, NPR considers itself more in competition with the major daily newspapers and the TV networks than with anyone in radio, says Managing Editor Bruce Drake.

And in both the style and content of its programs, NPR is a completely different animal from commercial radio. News stories routinely spin out over three or four minutes; features often extend to 10 or 12 minutes. And the network's most ambitious reportage can sometimes take up 30 minutes of airtime.

So while NPR's news does not belong in a story about the troubles facing news in commercial radio, NPR does face the same problem its commercial counterparts encounter in staffing: "It's really difficult," says Drake, who came to NPR from the New York Daily News in 1991. "There aren't a lot of people out there doing what we do. Our salaries are significantly lower than newspapers, but we demand the same skills, plus a good ear and a knack for radio."

NPR ends up hiring almost equally from print and radio, managers there say, with most of the experienced radio talent coming from the relative handful of public stations with strong local news operations.

But even though NPR is a form of radio unto itself, it shares the dial with commercial stations, and many listeners move easily between the two worlds – sometimes more easily than many radio executives might want to admit. In some cities, according to an analysis of recent Arbitron ratings, one of the most popular second-choice stations among Howard Stern listeners is the local NPR affiliate. "Young people aren't as rigid about how they define news," says Coleman, the talk station program director. "News is what interests them, wherever they find it."

WBT in Charlotte is what radio folks call a heritage station, a historic outlet with a long tradition of local news and community service. And true to its reputation, in addition to its diet of Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura and local talk shows, WBT maintains a six-person news staff, well more than any other station in the city.

But change is sweeping WBT just as it is the rest of the industry. "Really, we have no local competition, and that's not a good thing," says program and news director Randall Bloomquist. "Our newspeople know if they don't get the story for this newscast, it will hold for the next one."

To break his staff out of its complacency, and to deepen the station's connection to its core listenership, Bloomquist is trying to redefine news. "My audience doesn't want NPR-style news," he says. "They want headlines and a little more. But they want the stories to be about their lives."

So on WBT, routine crime news is out. So are stories about parts of the city where WBT's overwhelmingly white, educated and upper middleclass audience don't go. "Our listeners don't care that another 19-year-old drug dealer has been shot," Bloomquist says. "The place where that happens might as well be in another dimension. But if the city is holding a hearing on putting more retail into a development where our listeners live, we'll carry that hearing live. News is what happens where our listeners live, not some shooting in Shitsville."

Bloomquist is taking news where the rest of radio has been for many years, to a world of narrowcasting where old traditions of a common culture and an equally informed citizenry are discarded much as music radio gave up on the notion of Top 40 music that could appeal to all Americans – black or white, urban or rural.

"For years, radio stations have targeted listeners with music, deejays, everything selected exactly for our particular audience," the news director says. "But when it came to news, whatever the AP sent over was good enough. No more."

WBT will keep its news but give its listeners a thinner slice of reality, even if it is just their reality. Elsewhere on the dial, stations target, dissect and customize the news to reach various commercial goals. Whatever the label, the result generally is less news.

And that, some radio veterans say, is shortsighted even for those interested only in the bottom line. "When we were growing up," says consultant Sabo, "even basic teeny Top 40 radio had news, as they used to say, 'First, fast, five minutes sooner.' I think we're giving away a key strategic advantage." By eliminating their strongest connection with their local communities, "stations that drop news are laying a red carpet for cable radio" and for satellite-delivered radio, which sometime in the next few years will deliver music and talk nationwide from the sky to your car.

Will news be a part of the package? Surely. Is radio ready to supply that content? Earlier this year, the first deal between a satellite radio service and a news provider was signed. The news service is neither a radio network nor a commercial broadcaster of any kind. It is C-SPAN, the public affairs and political news service of the cable TV industry. Content – real, meaty content – may yet be king. l