The death knell for radio broadcasting rang in early 1996. Too bad it took three years for me and many of my fellow ex-newscasters and DJs to hear the beginning of the slow, mournful drone of the funeral march.
Not that any of us were blind to the sweeping changes that resulted from the Telecommunications Act, designed to deregulate the broadcast industry once President Bill Clinton signed it into law on February 8, 1996. Eliminating most media-ownership rules gave the green light to anyone with money or access to credit to buy almost as many radio and TV stations as they could afford.
Proponents claimed the bill would foster healthy competition in the broadcast industry; consumer activists like Ralph Nader argued that the act was "an example of corporate welfare spawned by political corruption," because it granted broadcasters highly coveted licenses for public-airwave frequencies at relatively little cost. Although its impact wasn't immediate, my beloved "theater of the mind" started to morph into a house of cards.
Consider this: During my first radio-news gig at the Elyria-based WEOL and WNWV ("The Wave") between 1988 and 1993, it was not unusual for me, on assignment, to run into reporters Vic Gideon of then-WWWE, Anita Quinn of WMJI, Francine Kane of WGAR, Tom Moore of WERE and the fine folks of public radio's WCPN and WKSU. Collectively, we nurtured a friendly competition to see who could race back to his or her station to break the story on the air. By the time I was hired at WWWE and its sister station, WLTF, in July 1993, the competition between Cleveland's newsrooms had grown even more fierce because of the rapid succession of owners, each more powerful than the last.
One of those heavy hitters was Randy Michaels and his Cincinnati-based Jacor Communications. Thanks to deregulation and a Wall Street-financed buying spree, he was able to snap up WWWE and WLTF (which changed their call letters to WTAM and WMVX, respectively) to add to his stable of properties. In a mere 18 months, Jacor grew from just 26 stations in 1995 to 149 outlets by the summer of 1997. I remember a tropical August evening when Michaels celebrated his burgeoning empire by renting the Nautica Queen and inviting the two stations' staffs to party with their counterparts from WMJI, WGAR and WMMS, all of which Michaels had acquired around the same time. For the next year and a half, newsroom morale skyrocketed with promises of raises, larger staffs and new high-tech equipment. A year-end "bonus pool" to share company profits with employees netted everybody a sweet windfall (mine totaled a "confidential" $2,000). Program director Bobby Hatfield even sent an upbeat memo in which he implored all on-air jocks, anchors and reporters to "be natural, be real, be genuine, be enthusiastic, be warm, be a personality!"
His abrupt resignation a few months later after an interoffice dispute with his highers-up would be a telling omen of things to come. So would the voluntary departures of newsroom veterans like Tracy St. John, Iris Lynn Shelton, Ed Coury, Beth Fisher and Craig Edwards. Even more stunning was that these stalwarts of Cleveland's airwaves were replaced by relative nobodies whose experience amounted to a 10-month course at Valley View's Ohio Center for Broadcasting. That's why their starting salaries hovered around $20,000 annually.
Enter Clear Channel Communications, or "Cheap Channel," as a few insiders jokingly call it. In the winter of 1999, the San Antonio-based broadcasting behemoth bought the Cleveland "cluster" of Jacor stations to add to its staggering 1,200-property conglomerate. Its mantra of frugality permeated halls and offices. There was even talk of housing all five stations under one roof - and that happened in 2001, in a sprawling complex on Oak Tree Boulevard in Independence. Morale plummeted to depths I'd never seen before in the business.
In October 1999, I covered the exhumation of Marilyn Sheppard's body for DNA testing, so that her son, Sam Reese, could try to clear his dad's name for her 1954 murder in their lakefront home in Bay Village.
Upon returning to the newsroom, an assignment editor told me to tailor-produce 35-second packages for not only Clear Channel's five Cleveland stations, but its newsrooms at WTVN in Columbus, WLW in Cincinnati, WKBN in Youngstown and WSPD in Toledo. Oh, and could I feed a copy of the report to the ABC radio network in New York? In other words, I would record one story and - through the magic of digital-audio editing - tag copies of it with my name and each set of call letters.
The result was humiliating. Not only had I whored my journalism skills for dark-suited pimps, I also felt like I had slept with 10 johns at the same time. As I told a buddy later that night over a couple of pitchers, I had essentially done the work of 10 reporters for a pittance. The next day, with little fanfare, I turned in my letter of resignation and walked out.
The penny-pinching continues today, say some of my former co-workers. I can hear the cost-cutting moves in WTAM's daily newscasts, which are nothing but a combination of rehashed stories on the front page of The Plain Dealer and "rip-and-reads" from the Associated Press. I can tell when a canned network Q&A has been spliced, sliced and diced to make it sound like a Cleveland announcer has conducted the interview in-house. And I know that newscasts for Clear Channel stations in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Youngstown are recorded over a special line at the Oak Tree studios. Most pitifully, I can sense when a DJ is unhappy about his or her workplace. A voice can't disguise the misery.
If the Federal Communications Commission, lawmakers, President-elect Obama - somebody! - doesn't regulate broadcasting again to limit the number of stations an entrepreneur can own, we're better off pulling the plug on the resuscitator that has kept radio on life support for 13 years. Otherwise, I'll soon be visiting a gravesite, where the tombstone will read: "Radio. R.I.P."