Last year, when Edison Media Research put forth its call for nominations in our first “30 Under 30″ spotlight, amidst the overwhelmingly positive feedback there was a lone dissent that stood out, from a well-known Top 40 jock whose greatest prominence was in the late ’80s/early ’90s, and who felt that fostering younger talent was necessarily encouraging age discrimination.
It all depended, of course, on your viewpoint. “30 Under 30″ was born from our experiences of being, in our mid 40s, the youngest people in the conference room as broadcasters wondered why younger listeners were no longer interested in radio. But that was on the management side where the world certainly appears to be ruled by middle-aged men. It certainly seemed plausible that a veteran CHR jock could feel that his place in the firmament was constantly under attack.
Fast forward to last Friday’s call for nominations for the 2008 version of “30 Under 30.” The first e-mail came back within minutes. By the end of the afternoon, we had received 10 of them, all saying essentially the same thing:
- “I am writing in regards to your ‘Top 30 under 30′. I work with [one of last year’s winners] and have seen his ‘Top 30′ designation make his career. This distinction has resulted in job promotions, higher pay and unwarranted interest from beautiful women. Since I am celebrating my 42nd birthday today, I am ineligible for this competition. Have you given any thought to a ‘Top 40 over 40’?” That one came from an air talent, but there were several identical sentiments expressed, if less humorously, by a currently prominent major-market PD, consultant, and TV executive.
- “When you get to the “50 Over 50,” call me.” From a contemporary of last year’s correspondent, now also working in a smaller market.
- “When do you spotlight old broadcasters who are still working and doing great radio?” This from a veteran broadcaster who was indeed still working in major-market radio.
- “How about the 50 over 50: the top 50 programmers over 50 who have been the victims of age discrimination by corporate media?” This slightly different take from a well-known broadcaster now working in small-market radio.
The irritation in that last e-mail was the exception, not the rule, to the relatively light tone of many we received. But it was certainly a broader group that weighed in. In 2008, it’s not just a 37-year-old jock who feels that older broadcasters are being minimized: we heard from programmers and even consultants.
It’s hardly that radio has exactly become a “young person’s business” since last year. We’re not yet sitting in conference rooms surrounded by twentysomethings with radical plans for revitalizing radio. The bulk of the dial is devoted to adult-leaning formats and there is no rush to turn on younger ones or research younger listeners. (As evidence of who’s out there, a Ross On Radio column about Mainstream AC or even Oldies will be read by as many people as typically read our columns about Top 40, Urban, or Alternative combined.)
But clearly there are a lot of 50 year old broadcasters who are not the ones sitting in that conference room who feel at best underappreciated, at worst disenfranchised by the 50 year olds who are still running things. And that includes a lot of the people who were responsible for many of us wanting to join the radio business years ago.
After last fall’s latest round of budget-cut brutality, it’s not surprising that so many people should feel this way. As noted around the holiday season, we’re talking to veteran programmers of relative prominence who now wonder if they will ever again work in this business–or at least on the traditional radio side of it.
To some extent, the gulf between those in power and those suddenly on the outside began a decade ago in the busiest days of consolidation. That was the era when it was not merely enough to buy your format competition. It was also necessary to fire the programmer who had been beating you, and make sure that his non-compete kept him from showing up anywhere else in the market (assuming you didn’t already own every other station in the market). Those exiled from the business were dismissed as whiners, unable to adapt to the new reality, but often those who prided themselves on getting with the program were exiled themselves a few years later.
It is likely cold comfort to a 50-year-old programmer who isn’t working at the moment (or who isn’t running things at a group level like some of his contemporaries) to know that their employed counterparts aren’t having such a great time either right now. The job has become about sales and marketing, or about keeping your job, often about anything except programming. Content is what will allow radio to compete on other platforms, but content is not “Job One” for most people.
With or without the age spread that one would like to see in this business, fewer voices necessarily results in fewer unique solutions for radio’s issues. It also means (or at least has coincided with) a greater defensiveness from those remaining in charge. We’re very proud of “30 Under 30″ and appreciate the positive response that it has again prompted this year. But we’ve also put out, and will repeat the call to, “Don’t forget, hire a vet.” Ideally, there would be as much phenomenal young talent in this business as possible and a wide variety of veteran broadcasters to mentor them. Radio needs both new thinking and resident memory and it’s too bad if the current circumstances of our business have made anybody feel that the two are being played off against each other.