Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Radio Waves Podcast #104

It started with Jenna, a caller to The Sound’s (100.3 FM) Mark in the Morning who described her suspicions regarding her boyfriend’s potential cheating. So while Jenna listened in the background, show host Mark Thompson called her boyfriend Kevin, pretending to be awarding flowers that could be delivered to anyone he wishes. When Kevin sent them not to Jenna but instead to Jenna’s sister Tanya with a love note, Jenna went ballistic.

Thompson then added Tanya to the call, who fought on the air with Jenna and Kevin and announced she was pregnant. When Thompson added Tanya’s boyfriend David into the mix, all heck broke loose. It was as if we were listening to an audio version of those bad television “talk” shows like Jerry Springer. You know, the shows in which the people fighting on the set are actually actors paid to fight.

Turns out, we were. The entire segment on Thompson’s program was fake, portrayed 100 percent by actors. Deep down you couldn’t have not suspected such, as the scenario became more and more absurd. 
But did you know that all such scenarios presented on radio are fake?

“One of the reasons we did this,” explained Thompson on the air, “is to answer a question we receive frequently.” That question: “why don’t you do those things where they give the roses and they bust people?

“One of the most understood rules in radio is that when I call you on the radio, I have to get your permission to go on the air with me. I can’t even air you saying the word ‘hello’ without your permission. I can’t record you without your permission.” Thompson said. “We would lose our license and be fined into the multi millions of dollars. The lawsuits would be through the roof. If you heard these, they are completely fake.” 

So where do these segments come from? Actors, of course. There are companies that supply comedy (and other) bits to radio stations, including these scenarios. The company supplies a script, and the hosts either talk directly to them over the phone or worse, just splice in their voices to an already prepared script.

To what stations? Many. Not just local, but nationwide. And the companies that provide the service are major programming suppliers, some owned by conglomerate radio station owners. You might hear the same voices, perhaps doing the same bit, on stations across the country, not just here in Los Angeles.

Because I was not able at press time to get comments from the stations and programs that run the alleged fake bits, I will refrain from printing them here. But Sound programmer Dave Beasing confirmed what was stated on the Thompson program: it is illegal under both California law and FCC rules to air or record someone without obtaining consent prior to the start of a recording, and thus “they are all fake.”

All of them. On every station that airs them.

A search under the subject revealed an article from 2011 ( entitled “Your Favorite Wacky Morning Radio Show Is a Festival of Lies,” which describes the exact same situation, including testimonies from actors who work for Premiere Radio Networks and United Stations ... the actors who play the parts of the “callers” and those called. And it’s not just morning shows ... it seems some actors are used as planted callers on traditional talk shows as well, though I assume it happens less in major cities than smaller towns. Is anything real any more?

What About Dees

One of Rick Dees’ better bits when he hosted the morning show on KIIS-FM (102.7) was “Candid Phone,” in which he called people and described, for example, that a man’s Porsche was almost done being painted -- by brushes, or that a woman’s son was “a homo sapien.” “He was just on a date with a girl last night” the mother exclaimed! This is essentially the same as heard on local stations today - were these fake too?

Absolutely not, says one of the former associates to the show who I am leaving anonymous to protect him ... just in case. “I was not present at ALL the tapings, but all the ones that I observed or participated in were all real calls to real people. Of course, they WERE heavily edited, but, to my knowledge, not fake. We often didn't notify callers in advance that we were recording them, but once it was revealed, the participant always gave their consent to the recording AND to airing those recordings.”

“Remember, this was when Rick was at his zenith, EVERYONE wanted to be roasted on Candid Phone.” 

Dees himself says they were real as well. “The key for me with Candid Phone is (and was) to use real people,” he told me.

I should also point out that the laws on recording and airing such bits became stricter sometime in the early 2000s, so Dees Candid Phones probably were indeed both legal and real. 

Somehow I am relieved.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Radio Waves Podcast #103

Two weeks ago I presented an indictment of the current radio model in general, in which a few companies own and operate a huge number of stations, along with details of a shakeup at Cumulus Media specifically, as the Dickey brothers who founded the company were essentially forced out by a Board of Directors coup.

I did not realize that what I wrote would affect so many readers personally, and I have to say it was humbling. I received a huge number of emails from people who work, or worked in the industry, and according to the responses received, I underestimated the damage done by consolidation and by the Dickeys. Here is a sample, with anything incriminating removed to protect identities:
“Stellar article you wrote, precisely nailing how the Dickey Brothers took down the best radio stations on the planet. Thanks for writing what so many of us have felt for way too long. Goodbye Dickeys and Dickey sycophants...don't let the screen door hit ya.”
“Bravo! I have been in radio for 48 years and have never, ever read an article so informative to the professional, the lay reader, and the investor. Nor, have I ever read an article about the medium as factual as yours. It's greatly appreciated.”
“The Dickey's should be in jail. So should the Mays. (I am a) 40 year vet.”
“Your article regarding Cumulus could not be MORE spot on. Back in the 90s, I earned a degree in Television and Radio, and had several courses specifically about Deregulation and Consolidation and how it would impact the industry. Even back in 1992, when deregulation was just around the corner, our professors talked about a world where content was dominated by advertisers and corporations, while they eroded our freedom of speech and journalistic integrity. 
“Those dark days forecasted 20 years ago are here. Corporate interests have sucked all of the fun, true talent and creativity out of radio. Advertisers determine what content hits the air, and that touches all air personalities. Talent has been abandoned and those that remain are the people willing to still work for $8 an hour.”
“I could not possibly love your story more. After 18 years, I got a snootful of their business model in 2012 in the form of an insulting contract renewal that I was blessed to be able to decline. I have landed in the arms of a competitor, and life could not be better. Many others have not been so lucky. Yours is the best idea — they need to get out of the radio business which still, for all its modern challenges, is an industry that relies on organic, emotional bonds between personalities and audience, a concept that is Kryptonite to them.”
Your article was spot on.  Its amazing that companies keep cutting the source of their revenue. Its not rocket science. Thanks again for the brutal honesty in your article.”
“I work in the business you're reviewing here, and I can tell you that there's a lot of quiet desperation inside.”
“Whenever a conglomerate moves in, we have to find a new station, as we’re always the first to go. So far Cumulus hasn’t made it up this far ... But taking KGO from #1 to #20 in a matter of months is (quite a) feat.”
“I'm not sure where you got your info about Cumulus...but you nailed it.”
Westwood One was once the company's most profitable division and really humming along. Then Cumulus bought the company. They gutted the business and starved it for resources.  The Dickeys unraveled most of what was built, fired 90% of the staff. What they did was actually worse than you wrote: they created a culture of fear. There is no saving Cumulus.”
“I  applaud you for exposing this big flop to the public. I  can tell you some things that happened to me personally while under the  stress of this group. My prayers have been answered. I was so violated and hurt by the powers that be until I still have crying spells and nightmares. You are a VICA for all hurt by the actions of these folk.”
Only two emails countered my position, and neither actually refuted what I wrote about Cumulus. One was from a competing company and essentially questioned some of the data I spoke of, specifically the downward trend in listening. Related to that was an email that was directed not to me but my Publisher.   “I am writing to question the level of journalism the Los Angeles Daily News uses regarding its articles. I refer to the 10/6 article entitled “Cumulus Media, a dark cloud on the Radio Industry” by Richard Wagoner. If this was to be an opinion piece, it should have been clearly labeled as such since there was absolutely no factual information or anything close to that in making the wild accusations made by Mr. Wagoner.” This was written by the President of the Southern California Broadcasters Association, Thom Callahan.
In the email, Callahan asserts that outside of Cumulus, every major radio group is experiencing strong stock value and bringing solid returns to its investors. He sites NASDAQ but doesn’t give specifics, such as Emmis losing 66% of its value since February, 2014 and iHeartMedia dropping over 50% in the past year (and these are just two examples); the stunning amount of debt being carried by many of these companies and the fact that at least two are teetering on bankruptcy.
He also stated in the email that radio listening is at an all-time high. Yet he sites data that refutes the reality. Yes, “reach” is at an all-time high, that is the number of people who do happen to tune in a radio. But Time Spent Listening to radio has been in a gradual decline according to ratings company Nielsen, and other studies from such companies as Edison Research back that up. The longterm trend is clear.
“I have to ask the obvious; is Mr. Wagoner a disgruntled former employee from a Radio station? What does he hate so much about Radio and why is he assigned to cover it?” he asks.
For the head of the SCBA to not know that my column has been around since 1987 and for him to not know the difference between a reporter and a columnist is at best embarrassing. It is my love of radio (and yours) that keeps this column going, not a hatred of anything but bad programming. And paid hacks for a broadcast organization that, according to at least one former programmer I know, has no reason to still exist.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Radio Waves Podcast #102

Monday marks a new day for Ellen K. Longtime (25 years) sidekick to both Rick Dees and Ryan Seacrest on the KIIS-FM (102.7 FM) morning drive shift, Ellen will move down the hallway of the IHeartMedia building in Burbank to take over the morning shift on KOST (103.5 FM).
Current KOST morning host Mark Wallengren -- 30 years in that position -- moves to afternoons on the same station, forcing out current afternoon drive host Bruce Scott who leaves the company. No word at press time for Ellen’s replacement with Seacrest on KIIS.

Changes at KFI

Mid day (1-3 p.m.) hosts Mark Thompson and Elizabeth Espinoza have been replaced at KFI (640 AM); their last day was October 9th. Replacing them is Gary Hoffmann from the morning Bill Handel show and Shannon Farren from afternoon drive’s John and Ken. Jo Kwon will do the news during the program.

Be a Rebel

Rebel Industries, which is a marketing company dedicated to tying a client company more closely to culture at large as a way to make products stand out, recently launched Rebel Radio, designed to highlight underground culture and underground influences.

“All culture starts underground, the Rebel Radio website explains. “The hit-makers impacting modern culture today began as underground phenomena.” Rebel Radio shines a spotlight on these “rebels,” showcasing their influence and “reflecting on the roots and future of underground culture.”

Hosted by Josh Levine, CEO of the company, the weekly interview program explores youth culture and the journeys of those involved in what Levine feels is the creative next big thing.

Hear it for yourself via the website (recordings of all past shows are available at or hear the program live each week via Dash Radio, itself an up and coming internet radio service that provides live 24/7 programming via smartphone apps and an online presence at Rebel Radio airs live on Dash’s “Hot Topic” station Thursdays at 6 PM locally.

New Station

Low power FM station KCLA (100.7 FM) is broadcasting from somewhere in San Pedro. Not sure where yet as the clear weather has allowed San Diego’s KFMB-FM to come in about as strong as a local on that frequency and saturate most of San Pedro with contemporary music. I’ll have details on KCLA as soon as I can get them.


Last week’s column on the changes happening at Cumulus and the radio industry as a whole brought more letters than I have ever received from a single column; all but two were in support, many telling impassioned stories of what it was like to work in or around Lew and John Dickey. I have never been so humbled by something I have written in my life. 

I unfortunately made a mistake in regard to the genesis of the company, and I’ll leave it to a reader -- wishing to remain anonymous -- to fix it for me:

“The Citadel/Dial Global purchase didn't happen until 2011.  Cumulus DID start in 1997, but on the local level in the Atlanta market. The big transformation came in 2006 when the Dickey's partnered with three capital investment firms to purchase Susquehanna Radio. This purchase is what allowed Cumulus to catapult to the national level with a stable of medium and large market stations. Up until Susquehanna, they were small potatoes.”

 Next week: a sampling of the responses pro and con, edited to remove the identities of those brave enough to speak out.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Radio Waves Podcast #101

The current ownership model for radio stations in which a few corporations own a huge number of stations in each market has been documented here and elsewhere to be a dismal failure.

The promised cost savings from efficient operations of “clusters” of stations never materialized, leading owners to cut other costs ... such as the money spent on personalities and staff ...  the very people that made stations sound great.

Programming quality decreased because stations that once competed for listeners were now under the same ownership, and care was taken not to attract listeners to a station at the expense of a co-owned sister station. The net result: listeners tuned out and the industry changed radically to the point where many stations have become background entertainment, leading advertising revenue to tank.

Few areas experienced this decline as much as Los Angeles, in which two companies, IHeart Media and CBS, control a huge percentage of the listening pie -- 47.4 percent in the most recent Nielsen ratings -- and even one of the better group owners, Entercom, is running a national contest on its Los Angeles station, The Sound (100.3 FM).

To put the last statement into perspective (though I am not meaning to pick on the company), Entercom is giving away $1000 four times ($4000 total) in a contest available to listeners of Entercom stations nationwide. In the pre-consolidation days, RKO’s KHJ gave away $1000 a day, and that was in 1975 and but one example. Even in 1984, KHJ gave away a car a day for a month. For many stations, such contests -- all local since companies were limited to owning a total of 14 stations nationwide, seven AM and seven FM -- this was typical.

No wonder radio listening, especially among young people, is at an all-time low. Radio is forcing listeners to discover alternative means of entertainment since radio itself is in such decline, disarray ... and denial.

While all of the major group owners can be considered guilty to some extent, the absolute worst offender by far has been Cumulus Media. Founded by Lew Dickey in 1997 when he purchased and combined Citadel Broadcasting -- itself a poorly-run conglomerate -- and Dial Global, the company soon became a radio giant, with 460 stations in 90 radio markets along with programming providers such as Westwood and ABC Radio. It is the second-largest radio group owner in the country, second only to IHeart Media.

Too bad the giant has no clue how radio works. Lew Dickey and his brother John had no business ever running anything related to radio, and the proof is seen locally on KABC (790 AM) and KLOS (95.5 FM), two once-great stations that -- especially in the case of KABC -- were allowed to wither and die. 

And it wasn’t just in Los Angeles; it was seemingly everywhere. In San Francisco, the Dickey’s meddling caused the destruction of KGO. In New York, their “expertise” killed WABC. The story is repeated over and over in almost every one of their 90 markets, and the situation got so bad that Wall Street even noticed: the company stock dropped more than 80 percent over the past year, closing at a mere 73 cents October 2, leaving it with a market cap of just under $171 million.

Compare that to its debt load of $2.5 billion and net operating income of just $11.8 million, and you can see there is a problem. The market cap itself -- about the equivalent of a mere ten major market FMs -- has the company worth far more broken up than together. The question is: why isn’t the Cumulus Board of Directors taking notice? 

Well they finally did. Announced last week and effective October 13, Lew Dickey will step down from his position of President and CEO of Cumulus, while brother John -- an executive VP in charge of content and programming has already left the company. Lew will unfortunately stay on as Vice Chairman.

John’s replacement was not announced at press time, but my dog Shadow could put together a better programming team. Lew is being replaced by Mary G. Berner who came to the company from the magazine side of the media industry and has no radio experience herself. She has her work cut out for her, and her lack of radio experience is not helpful: Cumulus stations have for so long been so badly programmed and/or promoted that most -- dare I say all -- would be better off in the hands of other, hopefully small or independent owners.

What should be done? Cumulus should divest itself of all stations. Staggering debt, a total company valuation that is worth far less than the station portfolio and a dearth of programming expertise at the top make my point. That won’t happen, yet at least. But if real radio programmers are not brought in soon, there’s a good chance it will have to happen. Just turn off the lights if you are the last one to leave the building. Or buildings ...