The Big Squeeze

By Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.

The business of radio isn't what it used to be, and it will never be that way again. Gone are the days of local ownership. Gone are the days of programming-as-king. Vanishing are the days of creative license. Fading fast is radio's glorious past.

This doesn't mean radio is in bad shape, especially if you're a fan of IPOs, billion dollar companies, short-term thinking, and considerable greed. In fact, radio's new golden era is based on group ownership-as-king, economies of scale, and a long run of increased advertising revenue.

Let's look at the data first. Radio revenues are up ten to fourteen percent over the last two years. At no time in recent history has the revenue stream gone up so consistently and sharply. Moreover, the newest gains are based on how far they surpass the inflated revenues of the previous year. If your salary has not risen by twenty to twenty-eight percent over the last two years, you're not keeping pace. The sad fact of the matter is that salaries for people in production have barely kept pace with inflation, and the workload is going through the roof. This means that you are being paid less for each piece of work you are doing while the station is reaping more revenue than ever before for your work. (This understates the real return to ownership in this era of skyrocketing station prices.)

On the bright side, you are not alone in being taken advantage of by the New Radio Order. Programmers, engineers, and most air talent are not going to need a Brinks truck to pick up their monthly stipend. Indeed, programmers and engineers face another problem common to Production Directors--lots more work. When you add a second or third station to the responsibilities list, you do not also add more hours to the day. What you do is reduce the amount of time available for creativity and replace it with more mechanical work. You take a brilliant talent that can rebuild an engine and turn him/her into a tune-up mechanic. What a waste.

If you were to interview every Production Director in radio today, you would find that the number one problem is overwork. More radio revenue means more spots have to be cut. There are more salespeople than ever to deal with. Many of those salespeople have virtually no background in radio and no understanding of or respect for the job Production Directors are doing.

Perhaps you are lucky enough to be an imaging-based Production Director and don't have to cut spots. Your reward, most commonly, is to add more co-owned radio stations to your responsibilities without any additional personnel. You get a second or third Program Director to deal with, perhaps an Operations Manager plus the delight of dealing with more outside voices, production libraries, etc..

While it is true that the vanishing commodity in American life is time, and while it is true that many businesses are requiring employees to be more productive, the workload of radio production is out of all proportion to reality. If it takes twenty to thirty minutes to do a decent sweeper, forty to forty-five minutes to do a reasonable promo, and an hour or more to do a passable commercial, nothing on this planet (other than doing a poorer job) will cut the amount of time it takes. Let management get over this myth that workstations will make Production Directors creatures of death-defying speed. I don't know any Production Directors who subscribe to that myth.

Another time-sucking technique of modern radio is endless meetings and administration. There is a form for everything, a rule to be followed blindly, and more chiefs than ever before. When programmers call me searching for the next "young genius Production Director," they are not enamored of my response. The pipeline is pretty thin and most young Production Directors of today drew the short straw with other air talent, thus being doomed to a life of ten to twelve hour days and pale skin.

One of the avenues pursued by modern Production Directors to augment their income is moonlighting. This comes in two forms. The first is doing spots for outside advertisers in the market. Recently, I was told of a Production Director job in Chicago (a prestigious station, actually) that paid $39,000. But the applicant (who would have had to take a salary cut) was told that he could get unlimited outside work from ad agencies, etc.. Aside from the fact that good outside work is hard to get in any market and that competition is especially fierce in a market like Chicago, when would he get the time to do the work?

The other opportunity to augment income comes from doing free-lance work for other radio stations. This is becoming a major trend of the nineties. Some Production Directors, most notably those with home studios and high thresholds of pain, have found this to be a reasonable situation. In the majority of cases though, Production Directors have found that this approach is fraught with perils: low pay, additional bosses, long distance creativity, and difficulties in billing and collecting.

It is safe to say that being a Production Director was never a glamorous, high-paying, easy job. It is just as safe to say that the job has been getting more intense without offering much added compensation. The trend has accelerated during the duopoly era. Did the duopolies cause the problem? Which is the cart and which is the horse?

Let's hypothesize that duopoly or not, the job of Production Director was bound to get harder. Duopolies provided a convenient excuse to jack up workloads quickly. What does the future hold? Apparently, radio owners will be allowed to virtually run wild. Within a few months these companies will be allowed to own a hundred radio stations, many of which will be in the same market. In fact, it's safe to say that most medium markets will be completely controlled by two owners. Some large markets are already down to three or four real "players" as it is. Forget how badly the advertisers and listeners will get gouged in this situation. It may be even worse for you.

Imagine a scenario where four people produce eight radio stations and deal with fifty plus salespeople. Imagine a workday that lasts twelve hours with virtually no break and no time for enhanced creativity. Imagine a greatly reduced ability to live in the market you want to and work for a company you believe in. Imagine skyrocketing radio revenues, record profit for ownership, and a three percent salary raise for yourself.

Change can be good for individuals and organizations. Change can be good for radio. I look forward to that possibility. In the meantime, what we have is the Big Squeeze. How tight does it feel?

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