Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sending 2008 Away

Much like the NFL's Cleveland Browns, we're quite ready to consign 2008 to a distant memory, as soon as possible...though we have no general manager or head coach to show the door.

There were people who prospered in 2008 in the local media, but the list was rather small.

Local TV and radio stations cut staffing, cut hard, cut deep and did so over many months. (Even so, they were outdone in that regard by the flagging newspaper industry.)

The list of talented media professionals now "on the beach", as the saying goes, is daunting...big enough to start some pretty big stations all on their own.

Is it any wonder that we here at the Mighty Blog of Fun(tm) want to look for optimism as we head into 2009?

Before you read the rest of this, we'd like you to read the annual "Year-End Rant" by our long-time friend and colleague Scott Fybush at his NorthEast Radio Watch. It's posted here.

Scott's been doing these "rants" about as long as we've known him...going on a decade, now.

He's not only a professional colleague, but a trusted, personal friend...and more importantly for this, he's one of those people with a rare handle on where the media business is, and where it could be going. His expertise is recognized literally worldwide.

In these darkest of times, Scott professes hope and optimism for the radio business, in particular.

He bases his hope on such things as the activity of local owners in small markets - owners that aren't beholden to major stockholders, who didn't overextend by buying fleets of stations with millions of dollars in debt, and who are concentrating on something old fashioned - serving their small, local markets directly.

In Northeast Ohio, stations like Dover-New Philadelphia's WJER/1450 come to mind.

Once-and-again WJER owner Gary Petricola continues to focus on that small sub-metro area with local programming, with news, sports and even local on-air personalities.

He took his station back from Clear Channel after that mega-operator peeled off FM 101.7 to turn it into Canton-market AC outlet WHOF "My 101.7"...and probably had a bit of money left over from the couple of million dollars or so that the broadcasting giant originally paid him for both stations.

(We wonder if he's thinking about adding, or would be able to add, one of those AM-to-FM translators to serve the core of Dover and New Philadelphia.)

And Mr. Petricola has competition, of course, with crosstown country WTUZ/99.9 also superserving the Dover-New Philadelphia "market" with local news and sports.

Or, how about Elyria-Lorain Broadcasting talk WEOL/930?

Lorain/Elyria is yet another small sub-market that is swallowed in the shadow of Cleveland.

Though WEOL does feature nationally syndicated hosts like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, WEOL - and crosstown competitor country WOBL/1320-oldies WDLW/1380 - feature local news, sports and other efforts to serve the community...efforts the Cleveland stations do not make, since it's not the core of the market.

Both areas are not exactly thriving, economically. In hard hit Northeast Ohio, the Elyria/Lorain area is right up there at the top of the "hardest hit" category.

But the owners of all of the above stations are far better positioned to weather the 2008-2009 economic storm.

One thing would seem to be clear...the insane run-up of station values is over, at least for now.

The big radio companies can no longer come in and wave a few million at small market clusters.

For that matter, big market stations are in the bargain bin as well, with the recent sale of three full-market FM stations in Denver from CBS Radio to Wilks for UNDER $20 million. Not for one station, but for the ENTIRE CLUSTER.

It's not hard to imagine that some of those former local small and mid-market owners kept some of the piles of cash the big companies gave them for their former stations, and that some of them are looking to jump back in...at a low price.

Radio-Info.com columnist Tom Taylor has been pointing this out recently - saying there are a few of these former owners with money waiting to "pounce" on lower - and much more reasonable - station valuations.

But as our friend Mr. Fybush points out, it won't be as easy as shouting "we're back!". Even the old-new operators hoping to revitalize their end of radio will have to change with the times:

Some signals will (and probably should) go silent, and some jobs will never come back. The old ways of doing business may need to give way to some creative destruction, too; radio has been far too slow to move past the idea of the :60 spot as the universal advertising medium, and that, too, will have to change.

What doesn't change, though, is the fundamental idea of mass communications. In a world where everyone's a content creator, this radio true believer thinks there's still a place for that trusted voice sitting behind a microphone, giving his or her community the information - or the entertainment - they need and still want.

The TV side of the equation is more complex.

For one, TV stations are very dependent on their networks, and at least one of those networks is taking a big risk by putting its long-time late night talk host on at 10 PM, as the lead-in to the local news five nights per week.

The prime-time shows the networks offer are now pretty much all readily available to watch online, free and legally, from the networks' own websites...bypassing that pesky transmitter.

And local news content is available without charge, complete with video, at each station's website...supported financially only by brief commercials or banner ads.

Even without an advertising slump (car companies and dealers, etc. leading that way), local TV stations will have other obstacles, like drawn-out fights over cable TV carriage.

Just the other day, we saw Cleveland CBS affiliate WOIO/19 warning viewers that those who subscribe to the Wadsworth city-run cable system and the tiny "CableSuite 541" system in Conneaut could lose the station - and sister MyNetwork TV affiliate WUAB/43 - over such a dispute.

(The Conneaut system carries Erie CBS affiliate WSEE/35, a fact not mentioned in that WOIO spot, of course.)

From what we're hearing now, which we hinted at in an earlier item, that'll be just the tiniest of icebergs in that category in the coming weeks and months for local TV stations and viewers...involving large cable systems.

And none of this even mentions one of the biggest hurdles this year - the digital TV transition, which takes place just a second before midnight on the night of February 17, 2009. That process will take a lot of attention over the next month and a half - or more - at all local full-power stations.

The first part of 2009, if not the entire year, will be tough for all media - especially if the economic downturn shows no signs of ending soon.

But we're hanging onto some optimism.

Whatever form it takes, well-produced local content on both the TV and radio sides is a product with many takers. The question - will the financials allow such content to prosper?

Is venerable Akron market talker WNIR/100.1 "The Talk of Akron" looking smart here?

We've taken a few (mostly playful) shots over the years at the locally-owned station's well-known reputation for cheapness.

We've mentioned roughly 100 times that the station still runs its car dealer remotes via unequalized phone lines. We've noted that WNIR's studios best resemble trashed college dorm rooms, and its equipment may be actually taped together.

But...the station continues with its full schedule of locked-in local programming, 5 AM to 11 PM weekdays, 6 AM to 7 PM weekends. There's no talk of layoffs on Route 59 between Kent and Ravenna as far as we know...slow and steady, the station goes on as it has for decades.

It continues to be at or near the top in the Akron ratings, though there's some argument to be made for the fact that the station's audience skews older...and that's something WNIR will have to address at some point. At times, WNIR seems perpetually frozen in time at about 1984.

The important stuff is local content, with studios and offices long paid for, with very little capital expense....even for WNIR's sister low-power TV operation, which is not at all required to go digital this coming February 17th.

The station never built fancy studios in Summit County after changing its focus from Portage County to Akron back in the 1980s, around the time the 100.1 signal increased to 4200 watts to greater cover the area.

In general, when the entire media business crumbles around you, would you rather be inside an old studio with aging equipment and worn carpet...or standing outside a new studio complex without a job?

Yes, "The Talk of Akron" seems built for survival in times both good and tough.

And we couldn't list "local service" stations that have done this ownership thing right, without giving a nod to the fine folks at Akron's Rubber City Radio (WAKR/1590 -WONE/97.5 - WQMX/94.9), who continue a long tradition of local programming and community service.

The cluster has been full since the late 1980s, when the company bought now-country powerhouse WQMX to add to the historic pairing of WAKR and WONE. The company's home on West Market Street has seen modest, but still functional improvements.

Though Rubber City did buy other stations - four in or near Lansing MI - they did so nearly a decade ago...and probably weren't caught up in inflated pricing. The company has resisted the temptation to "build an empire".

Like the other stations above, the Akron-based group has continued to concentrate on local service and programming to connect its stations to the community.

We're not at all optimistic about the print side of things. Even before the economy dove south, newspapers were dealing with a growing sense of doom.

Back in 2006, we reported on the then-pending sale of the Akron Beacon Journal...which eventually ended up passing from Knight-Ridder, through McClatchy, to Canada's Black Press.

We chided the Beacon Journal's Debra Adams Simmons, who said - quoting from a Beacon Journal article - "I believe that the Akron Beacon Journal will continue to exist, whether or not the (parent) company is sold."

Here's our response from the 2006 item:

Huh?

Ummm...when was the last time a major daily newspaper with no in-city competition actually FOLDED? Sure, companies could make drastic changes in the newspaper and its contents, but the newspaper business isn't in THAT bad a shape...at least yet.

Now, back to the end of 2008 going into 2009, where the newspaper business IS in that predicament, and then some.

Just about any expert on newspaper finances you can find is predicting that dozens and dozens of newspapers in cities large and small will be folding in the next few years...printing no more.

Just up the Ohio Turnpike and I-75 in Detroit, that city's two daily newspapers announced they'll no longer provide home delivery of their print editions four days each week. Readers of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press will have to get the content online on those days, or if they want newsprint in their hands, they'll have to hoof it to a newspaper box or store.

And both newspapers and TV newsrooms are sharing resources like never before (read: saving money on costly local news coverage).

We've already written about the agreement between some NBC and FOX owned TV stations, where a shared assignment desk will send out single crews for such things as spot news, press conferences or other news both stations would otherwise separately cover.

We hadn't yet mentioned the recent pact between the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun (the New York Times article on it is here), where the two separately-owned newspapers will divide routine local news coverage in the Maryland suburbs between them, among other things.

We're wondering if similar agreements won't become commonplace in the newsrooms of Northeast Ohio, and elsewhere, in 2009...assuming all the local newspapers survive at all as separate entities. And we'd almost bet the OMW World Headquarters that a TV news crew sharing arrangement will pop up at local TV stations in the Cleveland market sometime in 2009.

Whew. We need some more optimism.

We'll close out with this from Scott Fybush's "Year-End Rant" at NorthEast Radio Watch...where Scott specifically talks about radio:

But hope for the future of radio, in some form, is not gone. It is not beyond salvaging. There is still magic to be had in these old airwaves, for those with the patience and vision to see beyond the short-term gloom.

We're hoping to, indeed, see beyond the gloom...and our most sincere wishes to all of you in local media, that 2009 will end up being a Much Better Year.

It could hardly be worse, after all.

Happy New Year! We'll be back "full strength" on Monday...

5 comments:

firebird said...

Maybe we will see WNIR's new website with streaming audio before the end of the decade, if not century!

Editor of the Remember Love Canal blog said...

Please do a special post wishing Fred Griffith a happy 80th!

ohiobiz said...

firebird - your wish has been granted. WNIR's new site is now "live" along with streaming. I'm adding it to my directory

ohiobiz said...

Stream is here - http://media.streamads.com/playersdk/stationdata/wnir/player.asx.

Found the new site by doing a search on "WNIR." It looks like it is in the transition process.

Allen said...

Actually, regarding the all new Freq 1540 WRTK, the station is a stand alone format. Playing Contemporary Christian Music rather than heavy Christian Rock like you would find on the parent station Freq 107.1. The station features yours truly (Gregg Allen) in the mornings, as for the other Beacon Stations, WGRP / WLOA is the only simulcast station. 107.1, 1570am & 1540am are all their own format. For more details, you can visit http://www.beaconbroadcasting.net/ .