Beat Radio

NPR's All Things Considered
January 3, 1999

Telecomm: it's changing what you hear

Radio vs Reality

DANIEL ZWERDLING, HOST: We're going to spend the rest of our show considering a topic close to our hearts, and close to your hearts too, we hope: radio.

In this case, we're going to examine a trend that's been drastically changing the world of commercial radio. The more you listen to various stations, the more they sound the same. And there's a crucial economic reason why.

A few years ago, Congress passed a law that allows corporations to own as many radio stations as they want. Before that, there was a limit. So now, a small number of corporate owners have been gobbling up the independents. In fact, some companies own 100 stations each.

And as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, it's changing what you hear.

WADE GOODWYN, NPR REPORTER: Some of the changes in commercial radio have been dramatic. But if you don't know what you're listening for, you might not be able to hear them on your favorite local station.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE DJ NUMBER ONE: The all-new, all-hit B-98 mighty show on the radio, hitting the phones for a little request.

Hello, who is this?

SADIE (PH): Hi, my name is Sadie, and I'd like to request "Harry Let My Heart...

GOODWYN: The consolidation of commercial radio stations around the country has brought new opportunities to use advanced technology. And one effect of this coupling of corporate ownership and computer wizardry is that now what you think you're hearing on the air isn't always what you're really hearing.

DON MILLER: In Louisiana, Saturday night, that's Mel McDaniel. I'm Don Miller, and I'm out of here. Hey, for a Wednesday night, coming up next, it's Steve Eberhardt (ph). Steve!

STEVE EBERHARDT: Hey, hey, Don, how are you doing tonight?

MILLER: I'm doing terrifically well.

EBERHARDT: How was the show? Did you have a good show?

MILLER: Did you hear it?

EBERHARDT: No, I never listen.


MILLER: You got me back, you got me back.


GOODWYN: The exchange you just listened to, two DJs yucking it up in the studio during their shift change, never happened. The DJs aren't even in the same state. And the first DJ had gone home long before his replacement ever got to work. They never actually talked to each other at all.

Could you tell it wasn't real? Most people can't. This technology is called "star system," and it's a new way of doing commercial radio. It makes a station sound like it is being broadcast live locally, even though it's not.

It's being used by Texas-based CapStar Broadcasting, which, along with its sister company Chancellor Media, now owns more radio stations than anyone in the country.

Steve Hicks is the president of CapStar, which specializes in small and medium market radio.

STEVE HICKS, PRESIDENT, CAPSTAR BROADCASTING: What you're seeing in a market, especially a small market, is, you put a bunch of radio stations together, and it's a viable competitor to the newspaper. We can offer an advertiser five different stations in different formats, and we can reach a lot of people. Sometimes we have a higher reach than what the local newspaper has.

GOODWYN: Profits are way up. CapStar's operating profits are increasing at a rate of 20 percent a year.

It has worked like this. A company like CapStar comes into a region and buys anywhere from three to eight radio stations, depending on the size of the market. The stations are then combined into one building. Support staff is cut. Instead of five receptionists, there's only one, and only one rent payment too.

Station formats are often changed, depending on what the local market research shows. If two competing rock stations are purchased, one may suddenly find itself playing country music the day after the deal is finalized.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE DJ NUMBER TWO: 101.5, KNUE, today's best new country, your all-time favorites. Travis Tritt, "If I Lost You." It's eight minutes after 12 o'clock. Doing the KNUE country...

GOODWYN: The town of Tyler in rural East Texas is one of those small markets that has felt the effects of consolidation. CapStar now owns five radio stations in Tyler. John Moore was the program director at KNUE when CapStar bought it. Moore has had a ringside seat from which to view the changes in radio that have come to Tyler.

JOHN MOORE, PROGRAM DIRECTOR KNUE: For years, radio owners owned one station, or maybe an AM and an FM combo. And everybody else was your mortal enemy, in the community. Well, over time I watched people that had been my mortal enemy set up shop down the hall, and I'd pass them going to get coffee.

So, it was quite different, and kind of tough to get used to at first, going, "Hey, how are you doing? Nice to see you."

GOODWYN: Like many program directors in small markets like Tyler, Moore is also the morning drive time host.

Before CapStar owned KNUE, Moore used to call down to the local music store, to see which country albums were selling best. That was the extent of his market research. Not any more.

MOORE: You can pick up the phone and ask what the CD is doing, not only around here, but regionally, because they have that information, they do that research. We have consultants who find out what the listeners want to hear. They test songs in auditoriums.

And in that sense, that's something that we could never even dream of affording to do, on a local level.

GOODWYN: There are other differences as well. Steve Joase is a vice president of CapStar, in charge of 14 radio stations in East Texas.

STEVE JOASE, VICE PRESIDENT, CAPSTAR: When I was back in Columbus, Ohio in my early days as a program director, we had a news department that had about ten people. And we had a person who was stationed at the county courthouse. At one time, when I first got in this business, everybody had a news department.

GOODWYN: Those days are probably gone forever. Now, a market often has just one station, usually AM, that has a news-talk format. All those radio reporters have had to find work elsewhere, or take a job inside the company doing something else.

And it's not just news reporters that are getting laid off. New technologies are allowing companies like CapStar to almost completely eliminate local disk jockeys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE DJ NUMBER THREE: Playing 30 years of quality rock, loud and proud!


DJ NUMBER THREE: We are nice in Tex, the classic rock station.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) GOODWYN: In Tyler, for example, only one of CapStar's five stations has full time local DJs. The other stations rely on DJs in Austin, Texas, who service the local station using the Star system. By using this computer system, each disk jockey in Austin can handle between six and eight different radio stations at once. And those stations can be anywhere in the country.

DJs pre-record their voice tracks, and then send them to the local stations over special telephone lines. A computer then drops those voice tracks into the broadcast at a precise moment at the beginning or end of a song.

For the stars of the Star system, the DJs in Austin, this new technology turbo charges their careers. Michelle Lee is one of them. She's a DJ for seven different CapStar stations.

MICHELLE LEE, DISK JOCKEY: It's fast and furious. In fact, after you do this, and then you go back and do a live show at a radio station, you actually have to sit through every song, it gets a little boring.

Hi, KTYL, you're the ninth caller. Who's this?

PAM: Oh, this is Pam.

LEE: Hi, Pam! How are you today?

PAM: Hi. How are you?

LEE: I'm great.

PAM: Great!

LEE: Are you ready to guess?

PAM: Yes.

LEE: How much money do you think is in the KTYL super high-low money-jackpot?


PAM: $160...

GOODWYN: It's hard to tell that this is not live radio, but it's not. And it's not really local either.

But this technology has allowed CapStar manager Steve Joase to cut his on-air staff in East Texas by nearly 50 percent. Instead of six or seven disk jockeys, there is just one production assistant, who babysits the computer and answers the phone.

The technology is so supple, CapStar stations can even do phone-in contests long after the DJs in Austin have finished their shifts.

KRISTEN PARKER (PH), DJ: Hi, KTYL, you're caller number nine. Who is this?

TINA: Tina.

PARKER: OK. Do you know how much is in the jackpot now?

TINA: I would guess $181.41.

PARKER: Nope. You're too low.

TINA: Oh, thank you.

PARKER: Thank you.

GOODWYN: In a tiny windowless room, production assistant Kristen Parker takes the phone calls, after a pre-recorded DJ announces the contest on the air. As soon as the caller hangs up, she goes to work. First, she digitally cuts her voice out.

PARKER: Thank you. Cut.


PARKER: Thank you. Cut.


PARKER: Thank you. Cut.

GOODWYN: Then, she drops the Austin DJ's voice in as a replacement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE DJ NUMBER FOUR: Hey, we'll play again next hour at 4:20...

GOODWYN: Parker is very fast. The pointer flies across the computer screen as she cuts and pastes. Less than four minutes later, the new version of the contest goes out on the air.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE DJ NUMBER FIVE: Hi, KTYL, you're caller number nine. What's your name?

TINA: Tina.

DJ NUMBER FIVE: All right. So, how much do you think we have in the KTYL super high-low jackpot right now?

TINA: I would guess $181.41.

DJ NUMBER FIVE: Oh, sorry about that. You're too low this time.

TINA: Thank you.

DJ NUMBER FIVE: Hey, we'll play again next hour at 4:20.


GOODWYN: One wonders what the contestant in Tyler must think when, four minutes later, she hears herself playing the game with a DJ she's never spoken to in her life.

Commercial radio has always used technology to blur the line between what is live and what is taped. But with corporate consolidation, live radio broadcast using local disk jockeys may slowly be going the way of the dinosaur.

In a sign of just how far consolidation has progressed, out of 23 radio stations in Tyler, only one is still independently owned and operated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE DJ NUMBER SIX: Kicking country weather flash flood watch continues in effect for us tonight, for Monday or for Friday night...

GOODWYN: KKUS plays country music with live local disk jockeys. It broadcasts out of a small storefront in a strip mall. Station owner Rick Reynolds is a holdout. Reynolds has not sold his station at a big profit to one of the media corporations. And he's still doing radio the traditional way.

RICK REYNOLDS, OWNER, KKUS: I believe in live radio. I've always believed in live radio. I think it gives us a distinct advantage. I believe in the creativity of live talent. It just, you know, it's something that's been very good to me. I came from the talent side of the business, and have a very high regard for that.

GOODWYN: Reynolds appears to be competing just fine with his one station. He says the last two months have been his best ever.

Industry analysts say it's too soon to predict how the consolidation of the commercial radio industry is going to play out over the long haul. What is certain is that an era when radio stations were owned by local, independent operators is quickly coming to an end.

I'm Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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