The Slow-Motion Suicide of Broadcast Radio

While radio offers nothing particularly exclusive to its format, the internet has a virtual lock on everything worth listening to: every variety of music under the Sun and a nearly limitless menu of podcasts hosted by the funniest and most interesting talkers in the history of recorded entertainment.
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While radio offers nothing particularly exclusive to its format, the internet has a virtual lock on everything worth listening to: every variety of music under the Sun and a nearly limitless menu of podcasts hosted by the funniest and most interesting talkers in the history of recorded entertainment.
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On March 18, 2014, the one radio personality who I never thought would leave radio for the greener pastures of the internet announced that he'll be premiering a subscription-only podcast beginning April 1. The Don Geronimo Show is officially moving to the RELM Network -- the same flotilla of podcasts that happens to also feature the Bubble Genius Bob & Chez Show.

To fully understand the monumental nature of this move, you have to understand several things.

First, Don is one of those mythical half-man, half-console chimeras who breathes radio waves and can talk up any song ever recorded precisely to the downbeat just before the first lyric. Don might be the greatest all around deejay since, well, ever.

And secondly, radio has systematically purged Don and so many others at the expense of its own relevancy.

Make no mistake, on one hand, Don's announcement is absolutely a positive development, but on the other hand, to me at least, 3/18/14 marks the end of broadcast radio as we know it. Before we get into what happened, a little background on my association with radio and with Don.

It sounds hokey to say this but what the hell. I always wanted to be on the radio. As a kid, I used to tape-record fake radio shows using an old phonograph and the same three (very scratched) albums. Eventually, I upgraded to two record players and a Radio Shack-enabled telephone system for making "on air" calls to friends (and more than a few prank calls). My parents probably thought I was nuts.

But it was both the classic TV sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati and a real-life deejay named Don Geronimo who most influenced me to pursue radio as an actual career -- and not just music radio, but personality-driven radio in which the deejay, not the music, was the focus of the show.

When I was in my early teens, Don was the afternoon-drive deejay on WAVA in Washington, D.C. His show was unlike anything I'd heard before: equal parts slick Top 40 music, extended comedy segments, listener calls and anarchic David Letterman-inspired stunts. The show eventually moved to mornings and became one of many "morning zoo" shows found across the dial in the middle 1980s.

Fewer than ten years later, I found myself working for Don at WJFK in Washington, first as an intern and then as a production assistant for the Don & Mike Show's newsroom, run by anchor Buzz Burbank who became my broadcast mentor and close friend. This was the early 1990s and the height of syndicated FM "shock jock" radio, which developed out of the morning zoo shows of the '80s, and I had the rare opportunity to observe it from the inside. The same radio station hosted not just Don & Mike, but also Howard Stern and G. Gordon Liddy (Liddy's nickname for me was "High Pockets" because I'm, you know, tall).

From that lofty platform, I was able to find work in talk radio, news radio and Top 40 radio -- versatility that I fully attribute to having worked with Don and Buzz.

But after five years, the soul crushing aspects of radio drove me away -- the ridiculously low pay, zero job stability, oppressive management and what became my ultimate breaking point: being forced to use a wacky deejay pseudonym because my actual name was "too ethnic" for the Allentown, Pennsylvania radio market. (For the record, management forced me to call myself "Stretch Cunningham" because, again, I'm tall -- a visual joke that works so well on the radio.)

And then there was the internet and, in 1997, a serendipitous opportunity to be the editor for one of the first online "e-zines." So I quit. I'll never forget my station manger trying to convince me to stay, explaining, "Who's on the internet? No one uses the internet."

Uh-huh.

But I wasn't away for very long. After a few months, I accepted a gig hosting a daily morning show in addition to my gig at the e-zine. Indeed, radio "pulled me back in."

Fast forward another ten years and the post-9/11, post-Janet-Jackson's-Nipple-Gate era (I've always blamed Timberlake for that fiasco, not Janet). The personality-driven radio I loved so much was dying under the weight of broadcast consolidation, nonsensical new censorship rules and dwindling budgets. A few years later, Howard Stern bolted to satellite, and more and more former zookeepers like Glenn Beck were magically transforming overnight into paleoconservative political talkers on the AM band for the enjoyment of octogenarians and shut-ins.

Radio was killing itself. In the face of new technologies for listening to music, FM radio drove off the only thing that differentiated it from handheld devices and the MP3 revolution: professional broadcast personalities.

I've never understood the rationale behind FM's doubling-down on music and its purging of live deejays -- or, for that matter, the near abandonment of live, local programming. Instead, rapidly consolidated broadcast mega-corporations opted to embrace automated music rotations and "voice-tracked" announcers who, from their home studios, might perform pre-recorded liners for several stations across the country. One automated system in the late '90s was known as "Prophet." Because of course it was. The double-meaning was too obvious.

Or as the Underpants Gnomes would calculate:

1) Eliminate annoying deejays.
2) ?????
3) Profit!

So now, while radio offers nothing particularly exclusive to its format, the internet has a virtual lock on everything worth listening to: every variety of music under the Sun and a nearly limitless menu of podcasts hosted by the funniest and most interesting talkers in the history of recorded entertainment. On-demand and mostly commercial free.

We're absolutely living in a golden age for broadcast-style online content. Whether political, comedic or miscellaneous, the very best podcasts are hosted by highly creative, engaging men and women who know how to expertly deliver compelling content beyond the reach of meddling program directors and arbitrary content standards. Yet, inexplicably, a great many of them, including Don and Buzz, were driven away from radio by peewit executives who hilariously thought they were making wise decisions in jettisoning the only thing that could keep radio competitive: the real life human deejays. Instead, they slit their own throats while convincing each other: "no one uses the internet."

Radio is a dead technology and its masters have doomed it to irrelevancy. Radio has no one to blame but itself. Death by a thousand idiotic cuts. To paraphrase a classic pop lyric, the internet didn't kill the radio star, the internet gave the radio star a fertile, creative place to flourish. No one killed radio except radio itself.

As for me, I'm back to doing a show from my house. Only now there are a few more listeners and no prank calls.