Your local DJ – a few time zones away

Radio stations are axing staff and subbing in syndicated hosts to cut costs.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Tuning out: Veteran disc jockey Pete Fornatale at WFUV in New York City is one of a disappearing breed of local DJs.
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You could call it the culling of the heard.

In Boston, a popular AM station has stopped broadcasting live overnight for the first time since 1952. In San Diego, the nation's ninth-largest city, just two major local talk-show hosts remain on the air after cutbacks. And across the country, stations are banishing local disc jockeys to the unemployment line in favor of nationally syndicated hosts like Ryan Seacrest and John Tesh.

There's a common theme here: With all of its costs, live and local radio programming is in decline. In essence, many in the radio industry are concluding that it doesn't matter if the voice introducing the next "seven-song rock bloc" is in the same time zone.

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But observers fear radio is dooming itself to irrelevance in a world full of rivals like satellite radio and iPods.

Local programming is the only thing that sets radio stations apart, says radio consultant Donna Halper, an assistant professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. "I want something I can't get anywhere else," she says.

The radio industry, just like newspapers and books and other forms of media, is facing an unprecedented financial crunch. Radio advertising revenue dropped by9 percent in the third quarter of 2008 compared with the same period in the previous year, and many radio companies are saddled with huge amounts of debt.

Just this week, the giant Clear Channel Communications company, which owns more than 1,200 US radio stations, laid off 1,850 workers, many of them radio personalities and executives. The cuts account for 9 percent of the company's employees.

Then there's the matter of precedent: Radio stations have been moving away from live and local programming for more than a decade without falling apart. Owners have centralized operations, leaving many smaller stations with few – or any – local radio personalities. Live request shows and call-in contests have become rarer than ever; in some cases, disc jockeys try to fool listeners into thinking they're local even though they prerecord their between-song patter in faraway cities.

Still, many stations tried to remain local, at least during daytime and evening hours on weekdays. But then the economy slumped in 2008, and more cuts came.

"These are tough decisions people are making in a real scary time," says Charlie Quinn, a CBS Radio executive who works at KyXy, a soft-rock station in San Diego.

The station is one of only two in the city of 1.3 million that airs live and local programming 24 hours a day. But Mr. Quinn acknowledges that his station may soon begin airing a syndicated show in the evening.

Quinn has plenty of company. More stations are turning to syndicated programming. Radio stations typically can broadcast syndicated shows at no cost; they just have to allow a distributor to sell some of the commercials on the show. In some cases, it's cheaper for a station to air syndicated programming than to hire a local disc jockey or talk show host.

As a result of cutbacks, national radio personalities such as Mr. Seacrest – who hosts a weekday music show in addition to his duties as host of "American Idol" – are now heard in cities like Atlanta and San Diego, where local disc jockeys lost their jobs to make room for him.

Talk show hosts are suffering, too, finding themselves replaced by national hosts who only talk about national issues. Boston's WBZ, for instance, dumped a local overnight host earlier this month in favor of a syndicated show.

Some listeners were unhappy. One online commenter said the show was an oasis amid shows that have "no connection to life in Boston, or New England, for that matter. Not local; not relevant; annoying; boring; repetitive; disconnected. That's the bottom line."

But some argue that radio doesn't need to be local to be compelling. "I have a very simple philosophy ... put the very best product you can on the air, regardless of origin," says Gabe Hobbs, a senior vice president for programming at Clear Channel.

That may be a wise strategy, but a heavy focus on national shows creates another problem: The next generations of Rush Limbaughs and Ryan Seacrests won't have the opportunity to learn their craft at small radio stations if there are no on-air shifts for them to take.

For now, the radio industry seems likely to continue what a San Diego radio executive calls a "terrific experiment" in moving away from a local focus.

"There are a couple of us left who will continue doing it the way it's always been done," says Darrel Goodin, general manager of three San Diego music stations that retain a local focus.

"It's what I'll call the right way."

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