Clear Channel is consolidating sales much like it has consolidated on-air positions over the past few years. Cumulus continues with its rollout of the Nash brand. Univision is creating content hubs. The pieces that have defined American radio throughout history are slowly fading away in favor of nationalized efforts.
Instead of going fully national though Clear Channel, Cumulus, and Univision are going about it in an even worse way. These companies are trying to have the best of both worlds and end up belonging in none with a mix of syndication, voicetracking, and maybe one or two live jocks if they are lucky on top of their attempt to stay relevant locally with a skeleton crew.
Outside of North America nationalized programming has been a fact of life since radio’s inception. In the United Kingdom, BBC Radio 1 has such a hold on the nation’s cultural identity. Artists become stars and the station’s presenters become national celebrities. With the rise of owner consolidation and the transition to DAB, many of the nation’s commercial stations are in the process of gaining national reach.
One company has found quite a bit of success here in the United States quietly building not one, but two nationalized music stations. Educational Media Foundation’s “KLove” has stations in 46 states serving markets such as New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Detroit with scores of stations and translators while “Air-1” reaches listeners in 42 different states. EMF’s networks are truly nationalized with the same programming airing live no matter where you are located in the country.
Wouldn’t Clear Channel’s CHR stations or Cumulus’ Nash branded Country stations be better served going to this model? One of the things that has been lost from many stations is that larger than life presentation that makes radio seem important when compared to say Pandora or ITunes. Having the best personalities live nationally with national programming will lead to their station brands being bigger. There will be more national advertising and sponsorship opportunities for say IHeart Hits or Nash as having the same programming nationally will create appointment listening. If Katy Perry will be in studio to debut a new single at 6pm eastern, people across the country will be ready to tune and be all over social media to hype and discuss.
In many major markets Clear Channel has a CHR leaning Hot AC flanked with their CHR. They have the means in place to place the national branding on say KBIG Los Angeles, WLIT Chicago, WISX Philadelphia, and KDMX Dallas while retaining local programming on KIIS, WKSC, WIOQ, and KHKS or vice versa enabling the big heritage brands to remain on top of the national one.
How does this help improve local radio? With the increase of more digital media brands, there’s only so many ad dollars to spread around. The top billing radio stations all share one common thread; mostly local programming. With more stations pushing national ad sales, the remnants will have less competition for the local buys. As a hypothetical scenario, let’s say Clear Channel placed a national CHR brand on WZEE Madison. It will open the door for a competitor to have the opportunity to go in the opposite direction with an emphasis on local. Be everywhere in the community. Do the things that great stations always do. Capital FM succeeds competing against BBC Radio 1. Both will be serving different niches.
Particularly as CHR and Hot AC converge towards similar music sounds differentiation has to happen for a WNOW-FM, WPLJ, WHTZ, and WKTU to all stay viable in New York or KKOB-FM, KLQT, KPEK, and KDLW in Albuquerque. Instead of minor playlist differences, serve the audience with different types of content between the songs.
American radio began with nationalized programming from CBS, NBC Red & Blue, and Mutual. It wasn’t until the Top 40 boom of the late 50s/early 60s that local programming became the norm. Since the 80s we’ve been stuck in the middle first with syndication and then voicetracking, but no commercial operator willing to fully go all the way back to where we came from for the sake of both national and local programmers.