Technology changes in radio make DJs obsolete [The Virginian-Pilot :: ]
(Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) July 07--The room doesn't look much like a radio studio, but the man inside is clearly a disc jockey -- disheveled sandy blond hair, a nondescript button-down oxford, shorts and white sneakers with athletic socks.
It's the look of someone who doesn't care about stock options or board meetings but could easily spend a half-hour debating the best cover of Sam & Dave's "I Thank You."
Eric Worden has worked 35 years in radio. It's all he has known. He's good at it. He has the pipes -- and encyclopedic music knowledge -- to entertain listeners for four hours a day.
Worden, 53, works the weekday morning drive on 102.1 FM The Tide, a fairly new station that operates in the adult album alternative format. Worden's show is something of a throwback, a program that allows him to play what he wants and talk music for more than the typical four minutes an hour.
For those not old enough to remember, it's what radio used to be like.
The medium's cultural impact has diminished considerably in the past 20 years. Fewer voices, limited playlists and the Internet's growing influence, especially among the coveted younger demographic, means DJs like Worden may be the last of their kind.
Their numbers have dropped by more than 20 percent in the past 17 years, and according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the outlook will only get worse. A 2014 BLS report said station consolidation and the increased use of computers will continue to eliminate shifts and allow multiple stations to use the same announcers.
Given this, it's easy to see why Worden is thrilled with his new job. Still, he is realistic.
"If this job ends tomorrow," he said, "I'm probably not going down this road anymore."
So don't become some background noise / A backdrop for the girls and boys
Who just don't know or just don't care / And just complain when you're not there -- "RADIO GA GA," QUEEN
On a recent Friday, Worden was in The Tide's small studio, scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad, preparing for his trademark "9 at 9" program. He begins and ends each segment with a long breakdown of the songs, tossing in facts about the tunes, or the musicians.
The program, which caused a small controversy when he brought it over from his last job at BOB-FM last fall, gives Worden the freedom to play music from any year. And not just the hits. So, for example, while a recent set list from 1993 included the obvious hit "Bittersweet" by Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Worden also sneaked in the obscure treat "Biker Like an Icon" by Paul McCartney.
"I like to think of this station as one of discovery," he said. "Maybe out there, someone tunes in and hears something they missed. Maybe they learn something. Maybe they become a fan."
Some would call that kind of thinking quaint in a world where a growing number of people turn to the Internet for their music. Sites like Pandora, Spot¬ify and TuneIn allow us to access radio stations, or create one catering specifically to our tastes.
With more than 80 million users, Pandora is the biggest name in this trend. It's already in the car stereos of several manufacturers, including Chevrolet, Hyundai and Toyota.
Edison Research found that as many as 75 percent of 12- to 24-year-olds were listening to online radio, with nearly half of them using their phones to do so while in the car. Essentially, if you are younger than a certain age, you don't listen to terrestrial radio anymore.
The numbers don't surprise Tim J. Anderson, an Old Dominion University professor and author of the new book "Popular Music in a Digital Music Economy."
"You go into my class and ask the students, 'Who likes radio?' No one will raise their hand," he said. "No one."
A long time ago there were pirates / Beaming in waves from the sea
But now all the stations are silent / 'Cos they ain't got government license -- "CAPITAL RADIO ONE,"
Worden still remembers the first record he played on air -- the one-hit wonder "Driver's Seat" by Sniff 'n' the Tears. He still has it.
"I was 14," he said. "My voice hadn't even changed yet."
Born in Los Angeles, Worden grew up in Roseburg, Ore., where his father worked as the station director for KRSB, the small lumber town's only FM radio station (home of the "Dog Gone" report -- if you lost your dog, call the station).
As a teen, he ran the station's "American Top 40" program and dreamed of becoming an architect. But he loved music and couldn't leave it.
Now, three decades, three marriages and more than a dozen DJ jobs later, he still loves spinning records and engaging listeners.
He came to Virginia Beach in 1993 and became a well-known disc jockey and sought-after voice-over artist, working the longest at WKOC The Coast, now known as BOB-FM.
That job didn't end well. Worden said the changes happening to DJs everywhere started happening to him: less air time, less money.
The reasons for this are complicated. They include the changing tastes of listeners, a growing set of music options and two major changes in the industry.
The first change came in 1996 when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, a law that eliminated caps on the number of stations a company could own nationally and increased to eight the number of stations a company could own in a single listening area.
Eighteen years later, 10 companies control two-thirds of the country's listeners and ad revenue; two of them -- Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting -- own more than 40 percent of all stations.
There are around 40 radio stations in the area, about two dozen of them operating in the world of commercial popular music, which includes everything from Top 40 to urban and rock. Six companies rule this world, owning almost all of them: Clear Channel, Saga Communication, Sinclair Communications, Entercom Communications, Max Media Radio and Local Voice Media. That is about average for the country.
According to the nonprofit Future of Music Coalition, the effect of consolidation has been fewer opportunities for musicians on air and a limited selection of songs on the radio. You've probably noticed this as you're driving along and hearing the same songs over and over again on multiple channels. Same company. Same playlist.
It's not hard to see how that kind of music oligarchy would limit opportunities for disc jockeys, especially when companies specialize in certain types of music. It wouldn't help the bottom line to split a market between DJs.
In my mind and in my car / We can't rewind we've gone too far
Pictures came and broke your heart -- "VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR," THE BUGGLES
The second major change came in the early 2000s. That's when Arbitron, the agency that researches station ratings, shifted from a diary system to "personal people meters."
Ratings have always been something of a devil's agreement between TV and radio programmers and the advertisers they woo. Both sides realize the numbers are not reality but agree to live with the results.
For years Arbitron, now Nielsen Audio, asked participants to record every station they frequented. The concept was flawed from the beginning. What 25-year-old college student would diligently fill out a radio diary?
Radio companies long suspected the system didn't accurately reflect listening habits. So around 2001, Arbitron started using PPMs, or portable people meters, which were little beeper-sized units that allowed participants to record data on every radio frequency they came into contact with.
The new devices also were far from perfect. The results were only as good as the focus group. Arbitron lost a lawsuit over failing to send the meters to a culturally diverse group of listeners, a mistake that could lead to unfairly low ad rates for minority-owned stations.
And, to be fair, the meters judge not what you like, but rather what you come into contact with, whether it's in your car or in a colleague's office. Still, with the data, programmers across the country devised new strategies, which included eliminating clutter, being judicious with new music and cutting down on DJ patter.
The results were dramatic. The changes came overnight.
Bob Frantz co-hosted the popular "Mike and Bob Show," an irreverent all-talk program that had been a mainstay on 96X for a decade. PPMs debuted in Hampton Roads in 2010. Within a year, Frantz was out of a job.
"We went from being the No. 2-rated show in the afternoon to last in a matter of months," he said. "For 10 years we were geniuses. Then we were unemployed."
In an interview at the time, station owner Bob Sinclair was quoted as saying, "According to the ratings, listeners want more music, less talk."
Frantz said after the initial drop in ratings, the station moved the team to mornings. When that didn't work, he found himself getting paid a lot to do very little.
"I went from talking 45 minutes an hour to talking 6 minutes an hour," he said. "They were paying me too much to do that, so it was really just a matter of time."
Frantz, 36, now lives in Cincinnati and is a stay-at-home dad. He tried to get another radio job in Hampton Roads, but with only a handful of companies owning stations, he quickly ran out of options.
He left the area to get away from the constant reminders. The end came one night when he was waiting tables.
"It's New Year's Eve and I'm signing somebody's shirt after bringing him a salad and I think to myself, 'I'm done,' " Frantz said.
Frantz said he would love to get back into radio, but the opportunities are no longer there. The role of DJs has been so reduced that there is no money in the job for experienced professionals.
"I don't want to be 40 and making $10 an hour," he said. "What kind of life is that?"
I was trying to find my way home / But all I heard was a drone.
Bouncin' off a satellite / Crushing the last lone American night. -- "RADIO NOWHERE,"
James Duvall used to dream about being a disc jockey. That fantasy died one day in college when a professor delivered some hard truth.
"He said, 'If you are getting into radio for the music, don't get into radio,' " Duvall said. "It was a wake-up call."
Duvall, 35, is music director for AltRadio.org, an alternative music stream created by John Heimerl in 2005. The stream is available on the website of WHRO, the local public radio station that also features "Out of the Box" with Paul Shugrue on its sister station, WHRV-FM. Shugrue's program likewise presents an eclectic mix of artists and styles.
Shugrue, who has worked in radio since 1978, said his program would not exist on commercial stations.
"Shooting for the numbers is all they are about," he said.
But then, really, that's all commercial radio was ever about.
Longtime DJ and local icon Mike Arlo still pumps out the classic rock on 106.9 The Fox. He said that even in the glory days, only certain jocks could play whatever they wanted.
And, while he acknowledges that there are fewer jobs for DJs and less time for interacting with listeners, he tries to remember that the world has changed. And will keep changing.
"Look, people used to listen to only one station. They were loyal.
But now, man, you go to commercial and they're punching that button," he said. "So I understand why we have to be careful with which songs we play and how long we're on the air."
Arlo is in his mid-60s and hopes to keep working in the industry well into the golden years. He still loves it. And this isn't the first time someone has predicted radio's demise.
"MTV was supposed to be the end of radio. Well, we're still here, and I don't even think they play music anymore," Arlo said. "The world is changing, but I believe, in some form, you will always have that voice booming from the dashboard."
And I'm sending you out / This signal here
I hope you can pick it up / Loud and clear -- "YOU TURN ME ON, I'M A
RADIO," JONI MITCHELL
Worden lives in a spacious house near the Lafayette River in Norfolk with his son, Colby, and his beagle, Dierks.
Art, music and family are the most important things in his life; his walls are testament to that.
Scattered around the two-story home are photos of his three children -- two of whom are grown -- and pieces of his own art. Worden likes to take old guitars and alter the bodies into interesting, colorful shapes.
He bought the home during better times, when salaries were climbing. He is fortunate his voice-over work remains steady. Chances are, even if you haven't heard the show, you've heard him pitch a product.
"Look, we all knew this day was coming," he said of the changes that he believes are killing radio. "But there should be a place for a well-done radio show; for something more than just playing the same 20 songs all day. I mean, where would you rather eat, Todd Jurich's Bistro or Golden Corral?"
In this analogy, the Bistro is The Tide, a small boutique station that offers a different menu. Worden started in November and loves the format and free-wheeling style.
How is the station doing? Hard to say. Nielsen Audio doesn't make its ratings public. Stations pay as much as $100,000 a year for the research and share it at their discretion. The Tide doesn't subscribe.
"The kind of people who would take part in that are not the kind of people who listen to this kind of station," said Tom Davis, The Tide's owner. "But the number of people who like this kind of variety is very high."
Davis' company, Local Voice Media, operates nine stations in four markets. He owns four in Hampton Roads. He believes in the format and points out that The Tide has 20,000 followers on TunIn.
He also believes in his DJ, even allowing Worden to begin his show every other morning from home, so the now-single father can get his 14-year-old son off to school.
If you listen, every so often you can hear Dierks howl in the background. The bay window downstairs provides too tempting a view of squirrels in the yard.
On those mornings Worden gets the playlist moving and jumps in his car to drive Colby to the bus stop. From there, he races down the interstate to the station.
It is a small irony that some of the same technology pushing DJs out of work enables him to keep doing his job. But the only people who care about irony are writers and graduate students. Worden will do whatever he can to keep playing music.
So if you see his gray SUV cruising down I-264 some morning before 9 a.m., maybe wave to him -- and move out of the way.
He's got a show to do. For now.
Clay Barbour's Pop(totem) column appears regularly in the Evening Pilot, The Virginian-Pilot's online magazine for tablets. Reach him at 446-2379 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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