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MEMPHIS RADIO TODAY: A COMMENTARY

The Good, The Bad, The Coming Battle Vs. Satellite & Internet Broadcasting

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The radio station industry has seen a decreasing number of total owners since the 1970s and a decreasing quality of programming as fewer companies control the airwaves. With the relaxation of media marketplace ownership rules and media crossover limits brought on by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, fewer corporations control more of the national as well as the Memphis radio landscape. Clear Channel has been the most recent symbol and whipping boy of this anti-listener, pro-media company movement. As CEO Lowry Mays proudly told Forbes in 1997, “I’m in the business of selling automobiles and tamales.” No fan of entertaining radio nor great disc jockeys is he. Since 1996, Clear Channel has increased its radio station portfolio from 101 to 1202 stations! In addition to this consolidation in media ownership, Clear Channel purchased SFX Entertainment and almost completed its vertical monopoly in the radio/concert/advertising businesses it controls and virtually monopolizes in many markets. What this unbridled consolidation of radio media has meant to music fans is that fewer songs by fewer musical acts are heard. There are fewer choices on local radio waves. Literally a listener can choose from the cut by Young Buck if he likes rap, or he can choose from the cut by Uncle Kracker if he likes alterna-rock. Pray that is a good song because it will come up next hour too. And the hour after that. Even “classic rock” artists who have benefited from the long-standing process of preventing most acts from ever reaching the commercial radio marketplace decry current radio playlists as the tightest ever. Two major equalizers that counter-balance this consolidation towards mediocrity are the increase of diverse internet radio stations and the creation satellite radio, whose accessibility has seen a major increase by striking installation deals with GM and other car manufacturers. This week’s “defection” of Howard Stern to Sirius Radio (read “pay radio” a la cable tv in the 1980’s) beginning in 2006 is the first major shock and awe to Clear Channel, Viacom, and others who control current commercial AM/FM radio waves. The Wall Street Journal reports this week that commercial radio listenership is declining and revenues have been flat. (Hmm, might be that over-consolidation has sent listeners bored with bad radio packing?) The worse “local” radio gets, the more likely both of these two relatively new delivery systems will continue to grow and succeed. With the continued corporatization and consolidation of the radio waves, what has happened to local Memphis radio? Memphis has had a long history of excellent radio personalities from Nat D. Williams, Rufus Thomas, and Dewey Phillips in the late 1940s and 1950s to the hilarious antics of Rick Dees and his Cast of Idiots (Memphis could certainly use his “Nossir, Mr. Dees” send-ups of local politics right now) in the 1970s. Memphis radio has suffered greatly in the last 20 years. Rest assured as satellite radio and internet radio continues to grow, only the strongest and the weakest will survive the new competition. Great aspects of Memphis radio today:
1) Henry Nelson and his crew of feel-good hometown soul & r&b on Soul Classics 103.5: Nelson has grabbed some of the strongest assets of this city--its soul/blues music roots--and taken full advantage of the local talent here. Bringing in celebrity guest hosts like the Bar-Kays or Little Milton every Friday morning has been a great way to bring attention to the Memphis stars and created a very entertaining program heading into the weekend. 2) WEVL FM 89.9 on Fridays: From the deep soul theme-shows of music aficionado Eddie Hankins to the Dr. Demento-gone-South selections of Brian Roper to the near-perfect late night blues sound of Captain Pete on the midnight shift, this community radio station has Friday covered. 3) 98.1 Syndicated show Sunday Nights with Little Steven’s Underground Garage: Soprano character Silvio, Bruce Springsteen headband wearing guitarist, and music fiend has the most eclectic national music radio show going. For a couple of hours, radio harkens back to the pre-program list days when a dj could spin a range of music as diverse as Daddy-o Dewey Phillips would have. Not just one genre of formatted, paid to play drivel, but great music in any genre along with a personality in between the songs. 4) WDIA‘s soul and r&b commitment-1070 am: They are no longer in mid-town--moved decades ago--and now they have no downtown presence (Part of Clear Channel’s community busting efforts?), but there is something so right about hearing a Soul Children 45 blasting in perfect am sound on WDIA. 50+ years of r&b is something you can count on. 5) Chris Vernon Overtime 56 WHBQ Sports Talk Radio: Sports radio has exploded in the last ten years. Too often “local” sports coverage and especially sports talk radio is overrun with “homers”--condescending guys who cover-up for the hometown team and make excuses for them. Vernon is definitely not one of those, and he and his producers have done a great job chasing down national interviews. It’s surprising how often he brings in heavy hitters for a local Memphis sports radio show. Could be a national star one day if these efforts keep up. 6) Isaac Hayes on 103.5: Again, another coup for Soul Classics. So simple, why did no other station think of it? Having one of Memphis’ biggest stars on the air every night and telling stories about the songs he is spinning is too cool, even if we know it’s not live. 7) George Flinn. The Memphis Radio Wild Card: A radio fan never knows what he will get when he wakes up with any of Flinn’s stations. Reflecting the large growth of the Hispanic population of Memphis, Flinn has brought the diverse Mexican radio sound to Memphis by leasing to 1030 am Radio Caliente. Sometimes, as with the early days of 107.5 the Pig, Flinn commits to relatively great adventurous commercial radio but unfortunately then pulls the plug before the format can catch on. The current version of the Pig, albeit watered down with Led Zep & other bizarre classic rock retreads, is on 1220 am, a place on the dial which just does not fit the format. 8) Don Poier/Sean Tuohy Grizzlie Game Broadcasts: Poier entertains with the excitement of a kid but obviously has the knowledge of and history with the league without being condescending. You can feel a tough loss through this man’s microphone. Touhy is a great complement with a great basketball mind. 9) DJ Superman 107.1: Self-proclaimed “most knowledgeable Memphian in Memphis” and his crew are doing what they can to create a local sound. 10) Rock 103’s Ronald McDonald House Fund Raisers: Over $5,000,000 raised for this cause. Cannot complain about anyone who stays so committed to such a good cause.

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