Thin Airwaves: Local Broadcasters Do More with Less
“From the listener’s standpoint, it’s as good or better than it ever has been. The music is more on target, we have more custom formats from which to choose, we have more and stronger talent throughout the day,” says Andy Lohman, Alaska and Hawaii Area President of iHeartMedia. “Below the surface, it’s very different. There’s not as many people.”
Two years ago, I was sitting in the tiny room where I had worked for nearly a quarter century. My entire professional radio career was spent in the newsroom at KENI in Anchorage. At that point in 2020, the studios in the Dimond Center were practically empty as a COVID-19 precaution; only essential personnel worked at the station in person. I had a badge that said I, as a news reporter, was essential.
My audience was relatively deserted, too. Radio stations depend so much on drivers listening in their cars that COVID-19 crashed ratings by keeping people at home.
The medium is doing much better now. “It was a record-setting ratings period, as far as the entire cluster,” says Andy Lohman, area president for iHeartMedia’s ten Alaska stations, of the spring “book” results, published in August.
Ratings were also up for independent, locally owned KLEF. Rick Goodfellow, president and general manager of Chinook Concert Broadcasters, says his station placed 7th among commercial stations in Anchorage (non-commercial KSKA always dominates) and 6th nationwide among stations playing classical music. At times, he says, KLEF has been the highest-rated classical station in the country. Goodfellow sees potential for the audience to grow; today’s teenagers don’t know they’re supposed to hate classical music.
Lohman is likewise optimistic about his format mix of news-talk, classic rock, Top 40 pop, new country, adult contemporary, and sports stations. “From the listener’s standpoint, it’s as good or better than it ever has been. The music is more on target, we have more custom formats from which to choose, we have more and stronger talent throughout the day,” Lohman says. “Below the surface, it’s very different. There’s not as many people.”
Don’t I know it. Lohman was my boss for all those years I was on KENI, and he’s the last person still working at the Dimond Center who was there when I started. The company was smaller then, with only three stations, but more people were on the payroll.
Not So Essential
Broadcast announcers and radio DJs in Alaska numbered 117 in 2018, according to the most recent data from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. The department projected a 22 percent decrease in that occupation by 2028, leaving 91 on-air staff. The drop would be the biggest in the category of “Arts, Design, Entertainment, Sports, and Media.”
Engineer Van Craft knows why. “The equipment is more reliable now. Doesn’t fail as often,” Craft says, “so you have fewer people doing the job.” He is the only other person who worked at the Dimond Center longer than I did (although some more senior broadcast veterans arrived later, after a merger with another company). Last year, Craft jumped ship for Alaska Public Media, where he is now the FM broadcast engineer.
He had a choice; I didn’t. Two years ago, I was sitting in my tiny room when I was laid off. A few other very experienced broadcasters lost their jobs that day. The company started scaling down before COVID-19, losing one or two people at a time, but the fat was gone and iHeartMedia was cutting to the bone.
Kim Williams has seen layoffs from both sides. She was a sales manager at the Dimond Center in 2009 when she was let go, but a few months later she was hired back to lead iHeartMedia sister stations in Fairbanks. As the boss in November 2020, she had to cut four positions, leaving just two on-air people, three salespeople, and one engineer for four stations. WKRP in Cincinnati had a larger ensemble.
“It was devastating to the managers who were telling these furloughed employees, ‘Everything’s gonna be fine,’” says Williams.
The situation was similarly bleak in Juneau for Richard Burns, president and CEO of Frontier Media, which owns all six commercial radio stations in the capital city. “At no point in my business career did I ever think—as 99 percent of business people in any sphere thought—that all their revenue sources would be cut off at one point in time,” Burns says. “There was a very deep breath moment where you go, ‘Is this how my business life ends?’”
On the wall of his office/studio at KLEF in Anchorage, Rick Goodfellow keeps a photo of himself working at Juneau’s KINY in the ‘60s.
Frontier Media and its Juneau Radio Center survived, allowing Burns’ secret weapon to exit on top. Pete Carran, the news voice of KINY, had been trying to retire since 2014, but he was only able to leave last spring after convincing Burns to replace him with two newcomers, aged 19 and 23.
“It was like the crowning achievement of my life training those two people,” Carran says. “I think you have to find people with potential and develop them. Like any other field of endeavor, it’s hard to find people.”
At iHeartMedia, nobody replaced me. The news department is gone—or rather, DJs relay whatever news they find. “You see it on social media,” explains Mark Murphy, senior VP of programming for Alaska. “They’re the ones that are breaking the news, really, so we’re just reiterating stories throughout the day that we feel our listeners need to know about.”
Lohman calls it “leveraging talent” for the sake of efficiency. “No matter what industry you’re in anymore, you’re doing a lot more with less,” Lohman says. “There’s been other talent from other markets doing shows on stations in cities for a long time. It’s not something new.”
Indeed, for years iHeart Fairbanks stations relied on my newscasts recorded in Anchorage. I also regularly exchanged material with Carran in Juneau. And a decade before COVID-19, iHeartMedia had personnel, both on and off the air, move away from Alaska while continuing to work remotely.
By 2020, iHeartMedia codified the practice with its “Centers of Excellence” model. Centralizing everything from technical monitoring to the production of commercials allows for scaled-down facilities. The Federal Communications Commission had just rescinded a requirement that stations have at least one main studio, opening the possibility of a radio station originating from a faceless computer server.
With fewer personnel behind the mic, 100.5 The Fox program director Joe “Crash” Albrecht is extra important for promotions that require in-person appearances.
Outlet for Creativity
A corporation with more than 850 stations can centralize. Goodfellow’s KLEF is still a hand-made operation. He’s been at it since 1989, and he has no plans to change or sell.
“Frankly, I do this because I enjoy it. I don’t mind at all if people listen; I like it better if more people listen, but really I do it because it pleases me,” Goodfellow says. “Anybody who doesn’t like my selections, there’s probably an off button on their radio, and occasionally I’ve encouraged people to use it.”
The Alaska Broadcasters Association (ABA) named Goodfellow its Broadcaster of the Year for 1993 and inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2012. He’s been in radio since the ‘60s, including a stint at KINY.
After a career in commercial radio, engineer Van Craft switched to Alaska Public Media last year, coincidentally just like Paul Jewusiak, Craft’s counterpart from Anchorage’s other six-station radio cluster, Alpha Media.
Carran, named an ABA Hall of Famer in 2019, also started his career in the ‘60s. In Pittsburgh, he heard an ad for a four-month broadcasting career academy. He trained further while in the Army, and when he was posted to Fort Richardson, Carran got his first job at KWKO (now KTMB Classic Hits 102.1) from the top of the McKay Building (now the McKinley Tower apartments). He became news director when the previous news director simply didn’t show up. “Not only news director,” Carran recalls. “I became Chief of News Operations, which was me. One person.”
Murphy has been doing what he’s loved since high school. Craft responded to an ad for careers in radio while at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Burns got into radio at age 17. Even I was a teenager when I started in radio.
Is broadcasting still a job that young people can aspire to? Burns suggests they might not need to; they can make the same noise via social media. “You can see talent in people that are developing their own audiences. Thirty years ago, that would happen in a different way,” Burns says. “It’s still very much there, and broadcast gives them another outlet for that creativity.”
Lohman entered the radio business in a more calculated way. He worked a variety of jobs, including the slime line at a seafood processor. It was former Anchorage mayor Rick Mystrom, then running an advertising agency, who suggested that radio sales would open the door to any industry Lohman might care to explore. Lohman discovered that radio itself was the industry he enjoyed.
“I still repeat Rick Mystrom’s advice today,” Lohman says. “Radio presents far greater opportunities than radio sales in general twenty years ago. For example, there’s no geography; we can call on any business, anywhere on a national level and, with our radio stations in 150-plus markets, we can cover those markets. With the digital assets, we can cover anything.”
There were no computers when Craft started in radio. He recalls the first computer in the office was for traffic (scheduling ads). Then the program director got one for scheduling music. Craft had just installed a “music on hard drive” system when I started at KENI, and it was so buggy that it triggered the “dead air” alarm at least once per day.
“Fast forward from there to now, and you just see all the R&D that we have been able to take advantage of, just because of where IT was when that automation came into being,” Craft says. “We rode on the coattails of all those improvements.”
Automation was key to KLEF starting originally. A live DJ would get bored during a 20-minute concerto, so Goodfellow records tags for every piece of music as it arrives. The human touch comes in assembling the pieces for different dayparts: drive time, daytime, dinner, and evening. Goodfellow does that job himself. “There is no such thing as an automated music selector that will do classical music properly,” he says.
Listeners worldwide have access to Goodfellow’s unique taste, thanks to online streaming. That technology opened a new channel to reach an audience. Stations had been multicasting since the early ‘90s, but internet radio really took off in 2005 with Pandora and in 2006 with Spotify. Late to the game, Clear Channel launched its iHeartRadio app in 2008 and renamed the entire company after the product in 2014.
The killer feature of iHeartRadio, Lohman notes, is streaming live radio stations. Three-quarters of users are finding stations rather than creating their own playlists, which suggests a desire for professionally curated music.
Podcasting, too, complements broadcasting. The largest podcast publisher in the United States is, believe it or not, iHeartMedia. With 678 active shows and 427 million downloads and streams globally, iHeartMedia dwarfs Amazon’s Wondery, with 202 shows and 177 million downloads. National Public Radio is a distant third.
New technology has also had an impact off the air. For the sales department, Lohman says, a local radio station has become a point of contact for advertising clients who don’t want to deal with multiple sellers for every media option. In that respect, Lohman says iHeartMedia’s digital platform is “additive,” not zero-sum.
Sales calls haven’t changed, but sellers have more options for advertisers. Lohman explains, “Years ago, you would drive down the street, and there’d be twenty businesses. A seller would say, ‘I betcha three or four of those are radio prospects.’ Now, nineteen of them buy things that we sell.”
It’s the same story in Juneau. “It doesn’t matter to us whether people listen on AM, FM, they stream it, they get it on an app—we don’t really care,” says Burns. “We’re kind of delivery mechanism agnostic.”
Streaming numbers skyrocketed in the last couple of years, Williams says, as did podcasting. “It’s been a solace for salespeople to sell all of that in addition to radio,” she says. “Now the shift is, let’s get back to the basics on radio because it’s still a popular medium. Everybody loves it. We have seen the numbers come back up again, across the board.”
One area of broadcasting that appears technology-proof is, perhaps ironically, the field most enmeshed in it: engineering. “Technology hasn’t figured out a way to fly a robot out to Hoonah, Alaska and take a helicopter to a mountain to troubleshoot why something isn’t working,” Craft says with a laugh. “As soon as that happens, yeah, I’m out of a job due to technology, too.”
While working out of his Anchorage office, either at iHeartMedia or Alaska Public Media, the engineer has opportunities to take contracts for other stations around the state. Craft, the ABA Broadcaster of the Year for 2008, especially likes visiting places where broadcasting has, for decades, consisted of a walkie-talkie relaying stories from a newspaper carried by a Bush pilot.
“When you go there and install a translator that can rebroadcast, say, a station out of Anchorage or Nome or Bethel or Chevak or anywhere, and then all of a sudden that location can turn on a radio and have that information… That’s one of the things that I gravitated toward was the satisfaction in providing that,” says Craft.
The same technology that makes broadcasting a lonelier workplace also connects its audience. “Yeah, some people may say it’s killing radio,” Craft says, “but it’s technology, you know? Everybody is going to use some kind of technology to try to make their product better.”