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THE FUTURE OF RADIO Are AM, FM fading out?



Published: Thu, June 27, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



By KATIE-NELL SCANLON

and SHERRI L. SHAULIS

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITERS

YOUNGSTOWN -- When he wants to hear something particular -- like a certain type of music, or even Christian radio -- Ron Canacci finds it easier to tune in to his computer rather than fiddle with a radio dial.

"When I want news, or something specific, the variety of selections are better," the Boardman resident said. "Even if you don't like what you find at first, there are so many other options out there. The variety to choose from is incredible."

Many are echoing the sentiments of people such as Canacci; they are abandoning the standard formats of AM and FM radio for everything from satellite radio in the form of XM Radio to streaming audio off the Internet to MP3s downloaded from peer-to-peer music Web sites.

People are simply listening less to the radio and checking out the alternatives more. According to Arbitron, listeners spent an average of 23 hours per week tuned in to the radio; in 2001 the hours dropped to 201/2.

The numbers get even smaller for certain age groups. Teenage girls and boys -- one of the biggest targets for the music industry -- ages 12-17 are listening much less than the national average.

The girls turn up their radio about 16 hours each week; boys only 121/2 hours. There are numerous reasons people abandon the bandwidths of radio for higher technology.

Better reception

In Canacci's case, he enjoys the ease of never having to work to tune in a station.

"One thing is for sure, the reception is always a constant with a computer; there are no worries," he explained. "You may be able to get good reception while driving around in your car, but in an office you can always kind of be fiddling with the antenna."

Another reason is what some feel is the "corporate rock" approach of today's radio stations.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act initiated the monopolization of radio stations across the country. Before then, ownership was capped at 40 stations nationally and four in any market -- two AM and two FM. The world of radio went haywire when the limit vanished and local ownership doubled.

Conglomerates drove out mom-and-pop stations, along with local personality and community flavor that radio provided.

"We play what people want to hear," John Hogan, president and chief operating officer of Clear Channel Radio and its 1,200 stations, told The Associated Press. "And if we play too little of what people want to hear, they're going to go somewhere else."

The San Antonio-based Clear Channel has stations in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Clear Channel estimates that it reaches 54 percent of people ages 18-49 in the United States.

Lacking local flavor

But according to John Trout, program director and radio personality for WHOT and former disc jockey for a Clear Channel station, they may be reaching people, but that doesn't mean they're satisfying them.

"When you have a medium as personal as radio can be, nothing is better than live, local personalities, who live in your own back yard," Trout said.

Trout believes that if on-air personalities are doing their job, they won't be able to work in another city.

However, Clear Channel uses a method called voice-tracking, which weaves local copy into the standard format and gives the local call letters from other cities. This allows them to operate more profitably, since they don't have to pay full salaries.

Trout said the national voices perform on as many as 15 stations a day, reading the local copy and plugging station identification in front of tracks. This method has allowed Clear Channel to cut more than half of the employees out of the radio industry.

How do rising artists feel about the lack of diversity and locality on the radio?

Members of The Clarks, a Pittsburgh band that released its second album on the Razor & amp; Tie label, said radio has been a big help. But with the infiltration of conglomerates many of today's striving artists have to find other ways of getting their music heard.

Robert James, guitarist for the band, said newcomers are "sending out a message to the radio industry saying, 'We want this and you're not giving us this.'"

Not giving up

Although Clear Channel may be doing all it can to increase profits and effectively run its business, local personalities are not surrendering.

Dick Thompson, local radio personality in Youngstown since 1958, said live radio is hard to come by.

"It's become part of the corporate structure," Thompson explained. "It's difficult to remain personal when that happens."

His broadcast on WSOM AM 600, accompanied by Johnny Kay and newcomer Gary Rhamy, is an attempt to preserve the way radio used to be.

Whether they're announcing birthdays, anniversaries or Scrappers baseball games, Thompson said the three work to bring back the old days of accessible personalities and local favorites.

"We're trying to hold on to the old game," Thompson said. "So far it seems to be working well."

Although Thompson admits he can understand the threat radio voices are faced with when competing against voice-tracking, he thinks the local aspect of radio will survive.

Clear Channel's Hogan defended his company as good for both audience and advertisers. He said Clear Channel has become radio's bogeyman, taking the blame for any radio wrong.

"We're a big target, and I don't think anybody's bashful about taking a shot at us," Hogan said. "A part of me wishes we were as powerful as people think."

Trout said powerhouses such as Clear Channel are taking money away from local listeners and personalities and putting it toward stockholders on Wall Street.

"I don't think they're taking over anything," Trout explained. "They're just trying to save a buck."

kscanlon@vindy.comslshaulis@vindy.com




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