Company News · March 13, 2014

What Nationalization Will Mean to American Radio

By Larry Rosin

Over the course of the last year, the programming strategies for American commercial radio’s ‘big boys’ – Clear Channel and Cumulus – have come increasingly into focus. Whether they believe it is the right thing to do for ratings, or for cost containment, or both, the two “Big C’s” are rapidly nationalizing the programming across their groups.

As I live in the New York City area, I’ve been able to witness perhaps the most public manifestation to date from up close. Nash-FM signed on here a little over a year ago with virtually no pretense of being a New York station. From day one it was billed as “America’s Country Station,” and if not for the top of the hour ID and occasional traffic reports one would have no idea at all it was ‘local radio.’ More recently, they signed on “America’s Morning Show,” which is also piped in from Nashville. Cumulus’s public statements have made it clear that Country is just the first of the ‘verticals’ they plan to nationalize.

Meanwhile, Clear Channel has long pursued a strategy of eliminating local talent in its smaller markets via voice tracking and their Orwellian-named “Premium Choice” networks. More recently, moves by Clear Channel leadership seem to be bringing their nationalization strategy into greater focus. Having successfully created a national brand around iHeart Radio, it seems inevitable that they will be replacing their local branding with something built around that name.

The history of American radio branding eliminates the nationalization by Clear Channel or anyone of the “Kiss” or “KIIS” brand. Neither can Z100 be leveraged into a national “Z” brand, nor “Power” nor any of the usual suspects. Cumulus invented its own brand with “Nash;” and you can place your bets on Clear Channel pushing all-in on iHeart. Z100 and KIIS-LA and the ‘big’ Clear Channel Top 40 in every market will eventually lift the iHeart branding above the station brand. Soon Elvis Duran will likely do mornings on every single station and Ryan Seacrest will be on middays – on a national iHeart Radio Hits channel. Similarly, Bobby Bones will anchor mornings on all “iHeart Radio Country” outlets. And repeat for all other formats.

In the process, naturally, dozens if not hundreds of local air personalities will be shoved aside, as well as any local producers.

Is this a bad thing? Well, I’ll say: “Not entirely.” But…mostly.

Certainly, I went on record at Country Radio Seminar a few weeks ago against both Nationalization and Voice-Tracking, calling them a ‘disaster’ for the radio industry. That’s because I’ve been doing research on the American radio industry, but mostly on the consumers of radio for over a quarter century now, and I feel like I have a pretty good sense for what the ‘brand’ of radio is for people. And that brand is ‘local.’

In the last year Edison Research has been hired to perform several studies on just the question of how to keep younger consumers listening to FM radio. We pretty much hear the same things over and over – they do and will continue to go to radio for unique compelling content – and to be in-the-know on what is happening locally. Young listeners talk to us about the chance to actually meet the personality they hear on the radio and the announcements of local events or concerts. They understand – their local radio stations are providing them with something that Pandora and Spotify don’t.

So the question is – will the nationalized radio content be so great, so amazing, so compelling, that the consumers of tomorrow will stay loyal to FM?

That’s really the key. Because when radio is great it should find itself nationalized. Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh were both once local personalities – and they never could have been held in radio had they not been able to nationalize. Radio talents such as these deserve to have fans across the country. These two guys in particular were such major talents that they pretty much got great ratings everywhere they were aired.

But that’s not necessarily what’s happening today. Politeness keeps me from commenting on specific shows, but some of the national options today are barely an improvement or in some cases no upgrade at all from what it is replacing locally.

Nationalization clearly allows radio’s two biggest platform-owners to demonstrate their influence. Clear Channel’s concerts and television specials (both branded around iHeart) and Cumulus’s venture into a “Nash Magazine” would be much harder to execute without national branding. I get that.

But it is hard to deny that a significant part of what makes radio stand out in the media landscape is lost through this process. Nationalized radio stations become USA Today – with that one lame little paragraph of ‘news from your state,’ as opposed to your local paper. There are already TONS of national media options.

If other owners are willing and able to capitalize on it, the decision to nationalize could be a boon to the ‘rest of the industry’ – basically everyone but Cumulus and Clear Channel, because ‘local’ will no longer be a basic price of entry to the business but a clear point of differentiation. I think we can expect the stations that do have ‘live and local DJs’ to find that emphasizing this point will resonate as never before. We may readily see that ‘localness’ will supplant music images as the single most vital aspect of stations competing with the national programs. In this sense the ‘zag’ to the big boys’ strategy could possibly lead to more ‘net localness’ on radio than before.

My guess is that the Cumulus and Clear Channel vision for radio’s future is fully nationalized stations whose only remaining local elements are traffic reports (because they can sell these) and weather (natch). The model is not NBC – where at least one gets local news injected through the day to create local branding – like my local “News 4 New York.” The model is, of course, MTV – a national channel with no local elements that, they hope, exerts enough coast-to-coast influence to assemble the hoped-for ‘leverage’ and ‘scalability.’

And maybe this model will work. But if it doesn’t, then everyone will be agreeing with my use of the word ‘disaster.’ Because if it fails, the re-establishment of ‘local’ on all these stations – and hiring all the local people back – seems inconceivable.

Get our latest insights delivered to your inbox.