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Radio is changing its tune

February 17, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

The news that WARX radio personality Jim Nettleton broadcasts to Tri-State area listeners is local. His broadcast isn't. It originates in New Jersey.

Thanks to advances in recording technology, Nettleton's voice can be digitally recorded and inserted into the day's oldies programming line-up, beamed through cyberspace, broadcast to WARX-FM 106.9 listeners and Webcast worldwide at www.warx.com, said Gene Manning, owner of Hagerstown-based WARX and WARK-AM 1490.

Listeners get a broadcast that sounds better than live; the station benefits from Nettleton's four decades of experience; and Nettleton doesn't have to leave his home studio.

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"We hope to make it a better experience for the listener. Employing the technology allows us to do that," Manning said.

Voice-tracking, Webcasting and digital audio are but a few of the changes rocking the airwaves nationwide. Local industry insiders laud the tools that are making delivery of their product easier than ever before, and they praise other shifts in radio they say have added more musical choices for local listeners.

"I personally like the direction radio has taken," said Rick Alexander, operations manager for Dame Broadcasting in Chambersburg, Pa., which owns five local radio stations.

But radio critics say automation has zapped some of the spontaneity from radio broadcasting. They say stations air more commercials than ever before to cover the costs of expanding and upgrading the technology that has streamlined the mechanics of radio but led to the elimination of jobs.

Mass consolidation of station ownership has squeezed more jobs from the radio industry, critics say. They say dependence upon market research has stripped many stations of local character and reduced the diversity of entertainment and opinion content carried on the airwaves.

And the emergence of XM satellite radio in 2001 gave listeners willing to pay for radio a new alternative to the often homogenous AM/FM dial: Dozens of nearly commercial-free music and talk formats.

Ownership changes


Ownership is perhaps the greatest change in radio. Many independent stations once staffed by creative disc jockeys and program directors have been bought up by larger corporations intent on increasing market efficiencies.

After consolidating, owners often cut management level jobs within their cluster of radio stations to save money. It isn't unusual now for one or two program directors to do the work of five, industry insiders said.

During his 24 years in the radio business, including nearly 20 at WIKZ-FM in Chambersburg, Alexander has witnessed changes in local station ownership, formats and frequencies.

Ten individuals and small companies once owned the radio stations in the Hagerstown market, which includes Washington County and Franklin County, Pa., Alexander said. The number of Hagerstown market station owners has dropped by 40 percent - down to six - since the federal government in 1996 lifted limits on how many radio stations an individual or corporation could own.

Nationwide, the number of radio station owners had fallen 34 percent by last year, but the number of stations had increased, according to information from the Federal Communications Commission.

The end to ownership limits sparked a buying and merger frenzy that drove up station prices, forcing buyers to look for ways to cut costs within their radio station clusters.

"It's a chess game now," said Alexander, who went to work for Dame Broadcasting after the corporation bought out Chambersburg Broadcasting in 2000.

Re-organization of the new radio station cluster opened more sales positions, and consolidation in the local radio market prompted more format options, Alexander said.

Consolidation


Before the consolidation boom, classic rock and country formats dominated local FM frequencies as the area's independently owned stations competed against each other for listeners and the high ratings that attract advertising dollars, he said. Now, clusters seek out niche markets to offer genres their competitors don't. Alexander credits consolidation with introducing new music formats such as hip-hop to the area.

The big down-side to consolidation is the loss of some management and creative, on-air jobs, industry insiders said.

"Back in the day, you had a lot of characters," Alexander said.

Now, nationwide syndicates and canned programming driven by market research have replaced many of those characters. Radio critics say market research has boiled the industry down to a half-dozen money-making formats with programming cut from the same template of popular songs and syndicated talk shows. Market studies that measure listener numbers, demographics and listening time increasingly drive radio station programming.

Programming wasn't a science when Manning broke into the business more than 30 years ago. The sensibilities of program directors and disc jockeys determined which 45s or album cuts would get air time, he said.

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