Why Local Radio Is No Longer Local Print

20081230(San Diego Reader December 30, 2008)

If San Diego has a voice, it may be the plummy bass of Chris Cantore. Until December 2007, the Brooklyn native was an audible fixture on 91X’s Cantore in the Morning, his 5:00–10:00 a.m. show, an anchor of alternative rock and San Diego bands for 11 years. Cantore’s timbre is startling; he’s often ID’d as “somebody famous” at a drive-through or checkout counter. It—he—sounds like a baritone sax, more Gerry Mulligan than Lisa Simpson. Its long-boarder’s cool stretches those mellifluous o’s: “I’m so-o stoked, man.” Cantore’s been compared to the snarky chafe of Adam Carolla, host of a morning show on CBS Radio in Los Angeles and former cohost of radio and TV’s Loveline and TV’s Man Show. But Cantore’s tone is lighter, lacks bitterness, steers clear of cheeky judgment. His optimism is irrepressible; it has the buoyancy of a surfer expecting that the next wave will be the one.

It’s summer and I’ve got a ringside seat with His Resonance at a café in Little Italy. Chewing a raisin muffin in between sips of a wild berry and green tea smoothie topped with whipped cream, the 38-year-old is wearing knee-length cargo shorts and flat leather slip-ons. On one calf there’s a gnarly bruise-blue tattoo. He’s parked his wife’s Beemer across the street, surfboard roped on top. He needs to keep an eye on it. “Although,” he says, “stealing a surfboard is the worst karma of all.”

Right now, Cantore is in soft-landing mode. Being dumped by 91X messed with his head; like most current radio castaways, he’s reinventing himself. Cantore went to high school in Los Angeles, but he later graduated from San Diego State, and the area’s coastal vibe and small-town feel convinced him to stay. He says he “made a commitment to myself that, because I was so in love with this town, especially 20-plus years ago, I never wanted to leave and go back to L.A.” For work, he wanted the “creative energy” of entertainment, be it screenwriting, acting, music, or the music biz. He applied at all media outlets—the Reader, the Union-Tribune, every TV and radio station. Only one music promoter called, and he was hired as a gofer: “I’d do the [Smashing] Pumpkins’ laundry, take the Beastie Boys out for camera equipment, get Henry Rollins his vegetarian food. It was awesome. I thought I’d made it when I did that stuff. I was making five bucks an hour.”

At Star 100.7, Cantore answered the a.m. phones. “I knew nothing about morning radio, ‘Jeff and Jer,’ ‘Dave, Shelley, and Chainsaw.’ Like, I was sleeping.” But on air, Cantore’s attitude was “fearless.” Having acted in local productions, he says he understood the “theater of being on the air.” The stint at Star put him on the Ear Map. He carried the local persona—good guy, but a bit trashy—to fine ratings and reviews.

In 1997, Cantore got on board 91X. Back in the day, 91X was San Diego’s music citadel, built on grunge music and anything smelling “like teen spirit.” Cantore recalls the hallowed halls of the station on Pacific Highway, where he began working. “That studio reeked of the radio station’s history: It was the most disgusting space—spit, vomit, semen—stained into the carpet and the couch, postcards, dust, ghetto mikes, dirt on the board, razorblade marks from friggin’ jocks of years past doing friggin’ lines of coke off the friggin’ board.”

Cantore had a great run. He attributes success at 91X “not to my talent—there were plenty of people who did it way better than me—but it was my passion for this town. I never put myself above the listeners.” It was also his ability for self-parody, a contemporary version of which, in a 5:57 video, is available on YouTube: “Whatever Happened to Chris Cantore?” In it he asks everyday folks (those coming in and out of a 7-Eleven) how their world has changed since Cantore in the Morning is no longer on the air. The flummoxed looks and dopey rejoinders are worthy of Leno’s “Jaywalking” on The Tonight Show.

Why is radio under duress these days? Cantore gives a perfect example. This past September, Street Scene, San Diego’s annual weekend outdoor live-music bash, returned to the street. It had been hijacked by corporate overlords and moved to what used to be Coors Amphitheater. “I hated it,” Cantore says, that Street Scene, a homegrown entity, was sold on the cultural marketplace to the highest bidder. “What was wrong is that they blew off the flippin’ core. They told the core to go to hell and just focused on the masses. Once you lose your core, you’re done. Done.”

Clear Channel Communications, which today owns some 900 radio stations across America, bought 91X in 1999; the company moved the station to Granite Ridge Road in 2005, “and it changed overnight,” Cantore says. “Suddenly there were too many cooks in the kitchen.” He says that “We”—including his good friend Hilary Chambers, another local veteran, canned this June from another Clear Channel holding—“just got lost in a sea of white walls and cubicles. And policies that were like…What? I was asked to talk about a car wash, some new sales program. You get all these programs forced on you. ‘Here’s a new policy; we’re doing this every Friday; all the stations in the entire cluster are going to do Coupon Fridays.’ ” Cantore laughs, as much at his mimicking the brass as the idiocy of their policies. “I’m, like, ‘Wow. We’re blowing off the core. We’re allowing anyone we want to swoop in on the action.’ ”

Prior to the corporate takeover, Cantore says, “We blew it up, we were killing it”—“blowing” and “killing” being, in radio jive, good things. Then came the suits. “Trust me, man,” he continues, “there were so many jocks in this market who were grabbing their ankles and telling management, “ ‘Yes, yes. I’ll do whatever you want.’ Not me, man.”

The new Powers That Be soured him because they decreed that “listeners are stupid. [But I think that] the consumer is smarter than the industry, and they have been for years. No one has recognized that. Listeners are more brilliant than the people pushing the buttons.”

Cantore fumed over “the repetition, the lack of diversity in the programming, the contrived sound, the disconnect from the core—I would hear this stuff and take it to the uppers,” who routinely dismissed his complaints. “I’d stand on desks, go to GMs, to regional VPs of programming, and tell them, ‘You’re fucking up.’ They didn’t care.” What rattled Cantore was hearing from his listeners directly. They’d say, “I listen to you, and then when the music comes on I punch out,” that is, exit 91X because the music—“it was so friggin’ obvious”—was scripted. Cantore’s core liked him because he shared their enthusiasms for the music. Why that had to change he’ll never understand.

Sucking the dregs of his smoothie, Cantore is reluctant to open up about leaving 91X—“I don’t want to come off as bitter; I hate that.” He sums it up with three words: “It was time.” A mutual parting, but “Yeah, ultimately, they cut the cord.” He was replaced by Mat & Mahoney, a local show with two guys who had DJ gigs at Las Vegas radio stations. Last June, Hilary and her midday local show at 94.1 were replaced by Ryan Seacrest of American Idol fame. (Hilary refused comment for this story.) [Note: Hilary now has a show on FM 94.9.]

Hurt, reeling for months, Cantore worked on his “spiritual practice,” bungalowed with family and friends, and found “true happiness in the water,” surfing. “I thought, silly me, I could walk out of 15 years’ radio experience and pick my [next] job. It was the absolute antithesis of that.” The phone rang once or twice. Even New York called. But he turned the offer down. He didn’t want to be chained to yet another corporate environment where the “same financial tightening” was occurring. He wasn’t about to uproot his family or leave Swami’s Point.

What was San Diego’s most famous under-40 jock, with an audience in the thousands, going to do, especially in a radio world that had pigeonholed him as an alternative-rock guru at 91X? If he wouldn’t change, would the format?

Deregulation and Profit: Bring on the Turmoil

The departure of Chris Cantore and Hilary Chambers from San Diego’s airwaves may have been a long time in coming, but come it has, to them, and to other veterans. The first inklings of turmoil began in 1996 with the Telecommunications Act, which deregulated the ownership structure of public media and opened the gates to corporate takeovers of local radio stations as investments. Jacor Communications was the first media conglomerate to own a pocketful of radio stations, purchasing 9 of them in the 1990s, including 91X. Clear Channel purchased Jacor in 1999, then, using loopholes in leasing agreements to own and operate stations in Mexico, bought another 13. By 2004, Clear Channel had cornered nearly 45 percent of local radio stations, three times the market share of its nearest competitor. In 2005, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that Clear Channel had to divest its Mexican-leased properties. That meant selling 91X, Jammin’ Z90, and Magic 92.5, which Clear Channel did to Finest City Broadcasting.

A decade of wheeling and dealing has meant that a lot of deejays and program directors have quit or been laid off. Not long after Finest City bought Clear Channel’s three stations, program director Kevin Stapleford and CEO Mike Glickenhaus left. In 2007, several local deejays were fired: Stephen Kallao, Marco Collins, and Trevor Trent. Jason Riggs quit on the air. Syndicated shows took over. In October 2007, at Z90, the morning deejay “Chino” was replaced by Big Boy’s Neighborhood from Los Angeles; in November 2007, at 91X, Jennifer White, cohost with Chris Cantore for 2 years, left a month before Cantore was fired to do a morning show on Sophie 103.7; in December 2007, at 91X, Al Guerra, who hosted the local-music two-hour radio show Loudspeaker, quit over differences with Finest City managers. In a February 2008 letter to the Reader, Shannon Leder Johnson, who hosted a show at KIOZ for 15 years and maintained her show as one of the top three in her slot, said that “I was number one the day they [Clear Channel] let me go. On my way out, I had to stop at HR and pick up my ratings bonus check.” Most terminations were not prompted by falling ratings but by executive-led decisions to cut costs.

At Star 94.1, replacing Hilary with Ryan Seacrest is a big gamble. Long a local station, niched to the 25–54 age set (moms in minivans), 94.1 is betting that listeners will take to Seacrest’s music and “celebrity sleaze” dirt-dishing on Amy Winehouse and Charlie Sheen. If Seacrest is successful here, the move may send a shockwave through such perennials as Jeff and Jer or Dave, Shelley, and Chainsaw. Already, time for local talk has dropped, especially on Clear Channel stations. Where deejays once made their personal lives part of the show, speaking for as much as 12 minutes per hour, now their “talk breaks” are timed to one minute each.

Jerry Del Colliano, a blogger at Inside Music Media, writes that Clear Channel, a publicly traded company, is unloading stations as it moves toward privatization. To sweeten the sale, Clear Channel is, Colliano warns, “pruning expensive air talent. Voice-tracking [using prerecorded announcers and personalities from outside markets] and program duplication and multitasking” will continue. “If you’re working for Clear Channel now and survive the onslaught of belt-tightening to come, you’ve likely retained a job in a more stable setting. The game plan is obvious: cut costs, improve revenue, sell the assets.”

Firing and laying off locals is indicative of big changes in the scope and identity of San Diego radio, local or corporate, music or talk. Radio is redefining itself, from terrestrial or ground-based transmission to the new satellite and online platforms. The Internet and Sirius/XM Satellite (recently merged) are expanding the way radio is delivered to listeners. In a multiplatform media world, radio stations with online sites are pushing “360” to their listeners, that is, cycling them from the airwaves to online. Listeners are turning off the long commercial interruptions on music radio in favor of iPods and podcasting. In a recession, local program directors seek to jettison local talent as too expensive. And talk and opinion, particularly conservative voices, which rule the radio roost, are remaking radio into a cult of personality, whether the blowhole spouts from Hollywood or Mission Valley.

This past year, in speaking with hosts and deejays, working and laid-off, as well as program directors and radio mavens, I’ve heard an incessant drumbeat: With the corporatizing spread of “voice-tracked” programs and a dearth of innovative execs, creativity in Radio Land is kaput. What’s more, consolidation continues to produce a climate of self-censorship, in which a lot of people are, as Cantore says, “scared to talk right now,” a sign that many are protecting what little job security they do have. “Here today, gone tomorrow” is the fear local deejays and some of their “uppers” live with daily.

An Overview of San Diego Radio

According to Arbitron, radio’s audience-research company, San Diego ranks as the 17th largest radio market in America, with some 2.5 million 12-and-older listeners. (Metro New York City is the largest, with 15.3 million listeners.) As of 2007, 92 percent of those 12 and over listen to radio at least once a week for an hour. Media Audit, in a finer culling, has found that 82 percent of San Diegans listen to radio each week for 18 hours, about 2 3/4 hours a day. In the past decade, tuning in to local radio has fallen off only slightly. The number of people who listen at home or at work has dropped about 5 percent, while those who listen in their cars has risen 7 percent, the latter at least partially explained by longer traffic snarls.

Most news stories about radio these days highlight the demise of terrestrial radio. By one estimate, its audience has dropped by 22 percent since 1999. Earlier this year, Arbitron and Edison Media Research reported that 54 million Americans, almost one in four radio listeners, tune in to radio on the Internet every month. This includes Internet radio and terrestrial radio broadcast on station websites. Not surprisingly, there’s a link between these listeners and social-networking sites such as MySpace: 41 percent of weekly online listeners have personal Internet profiles.

In some markets, radio advertising is doing well: As of 2007, San Diego’s had grown 33 percent since 1999, according to the San Diego Radio Broadcasters Association. But overall, the radio industry is sluggish. The growth rate for subscriber-based satellite radio has topped out at 19 million, adding a mere 200,000 listeners, or 1 percent, this year. Despite a stagnating economy, the satellite audience is finite, with less potential than most thought. Growth has slowed because more than half of listeners who tune in to terrestrial radio once a week also access their iPods and mp3 players. According to eMarketer, half of the online audience listens to nonlocal programming or specialized Internet music sites, and half to local stations. With that many turning a deaf ear, it’s hard to see ad-based radio growing.

Our fair city has 13 AM and 27 FM stations. These are devoted to sports, talk, and music, the latter comprising several formats: adult contemporary, contemporary hits, smooth jazz, urban, country, rock, and alternative. Some stations are locally owned and operated, such as Broadcasting Companies of America. Some are owned by Clear Channel and managed locally. A few stations, their transmission towers located in Mexico, broadcast entirely canned content.

Despite radio’s corporate ownership, what is on the airwaves, say radio critics, is the problem: graying hosts, ad clutter, right-wing talk, piped-in tunes, traffic reports every five minutes—it’s all further fragmenting the audience and driving them, much like TV viewers with remotes, to drop their loyalties and roam the band. Put another way, it’s the leadenness of radio’s need to replicate its formats—for instance, conservative out-of-town hosts Sean Hannity, Dennis Miller, and Michael Medved lord it over midday talk—which is challenged by the swiftness of listeners who, bored by such copies, plug their ears in elsewhere. Once listeners understand that talk and music sources are virtually infinite, fewer of them will stay with the familiar geography of the AM and FM dials.

Cantore Reinvents His Reinvented Self

After months spent assessing his “market equity,” it dawned on Chris Cantore that there might be a future outside terrestrial radio. All media outlets were losing content to the Web. Maybe new online radio technologies were the way to go. (One program Cantore considered is SHOUTcast—“Free Internet Radio!”—where he might start his own station. SHOUTcast lists some 25,000 online radio stations.) “Every discussion I had with program directors or executives came down to new media—how might I reposition myself, be relevant. I heard ‘new media’ so much, I said, ‘Screw it. I’m getting involved.’ ”

Cantore heard from his listeners, too. He read their testimonials, emails, and letters, “And I’d flippin’ cry, hearing how I had touched people over the years. I wanted to stay in the community.” After door-slamming rejection from print, radio, TV, and SignOnSanDiego (“It was like I was just out of college again”), last spring he started putting podcasts online and video spots on YouTube. “Overnight, I got hit by all these new-media companies. They wanted me to podcast for them, do exclusive video content. This was a sign.”

Luis Kaloyan, the owner of Binational Broadcasting, a new-media network in National City, called Cantore to say he wanted to hire him at X1FMradio.com. The live digital broadband radio station, Kaloyan claimed in a company statement, would “transform the old concept of traditional terrestrial radio.” X1FM radio will “define the market to each individual’s profile. Each listener will get direct-marketing advertisements that will impact on their lifestyle.” What’s more, he continued, radio “needs to go back to basics to serve the community. Radio was never meant to be packaged in a corporate environment. Radio needs to live, and it needs to be artistic, it needs to be creative.” Music to Cantore’s unemployed ears.

By May, Cantore was back on the air, 8:00–noon weekdays, at X1FM. The learning curve is steep, he says. “I was real phone-heavy with terrestrial radio; now it’s all computers. It’s like people don’t even want to talk anymore.” The audience is 75 percent “the core” (former 91Xers) and 25 percent from all over the world, new and old listeners who live elsewhere and “mouse” him in via the Web. In this regard, the local-only format must also adapt to a worldwide presence.

The station’s Web traffic, Cantore says, rose 44 percent over the summer. “It’s like a big love fest.”

And yet, underscoring the volatility of local media, the love ended almost as quickly as it began. Cantore left X1FM in August. He describes what happened: “I believed in the station, saw the traction, felt the excitement and the fervor of the new medium,” online radio. But X1FM “couldn’t monetize the product, couldn’t produce the revenue streams. They were stoked with the results, but I wasn’t satisfied on my end. So it ended.”

Put simply, Cantore says, the station didn’t know “how to take money—not for greed—but as a business.” Put even more simply, he left because he wasn’t making enough to support himself.

Now Cantore is reinventing himself again with Cantore Creative. His website says that he “produces and distributes online content for your business, event, brand, and nonprofit.” Already, he’s doing blogs, podcasts, video campaigns for the Surfrider Foundation and the Del Mar Racetrack. “I still believe in this community and in new media.”

Anticorporate Revolt, Meek and Wild

Over at FM 94.9, bashing Clear Channel has become a cottage industry. Program director Garett Michaels tells me that he’s been keeping it local since the rock music station set sail in late 2002. FM 94.9 is one of 15 U.S. stations owned by Lincoln Financial Media Group, which includes San Diego’s Smooth Jazz 98.1 and Country KSON-FM, one of San Diego’s highest-rated stations. FM 94.9 has a lineup of local deejays, with Mike Halloran, one of our town’s longest-running talents, still on afternoons.

Michaels says that by going after Clear Channel’s monopoly, FM 94.9 lured rock listeners who were fed up with “generic, cookie-cutter formats, the Clear Channelization of rock radio. I believe competition is good for the consumer; what Clear Channel had done was to make it so virtually no one had to compete with each other.” The way Clear Channel ran its playlists, Michaels says, was to restrict the programming and “control the overlap.” Each of its rock stations would be told what to play. In effect, they engineered a kind of rigid diversity, station by station.

Michaels says his bosses are aware of the cost-cutting benefits of syndication, but the company’s philosophy is to remain local. People forget, he says, “that the reason the FCC grants you a license to broadcast is to serve your community.” Michaels notes that with its local focus, FM 94.9 has grown steadily, despite limiting commercial time to ten minutes per hour. And all this without much marketing. Costly marketing, format changes, and hiring and firing five program directors in five years, he says, is what sank 91X.

For those (few) who believe that the government has no business regulating the airwaves and who want to dump the corporate model entirely, there is pirate radio, also known as Free Radio San Diego (96.9 FM). That is, there was Free Radio. In fall 2007, the station, which uses a 43-foot antenna set up in undisclosed locations, was shut down for the second time in three years.

Lo_Key is the radio ID of a pirate radio host who had a Friday-night show featuring local bands. The station was run by committee; new talent had to audition and pledge themselves to secrecy. The big problem is that for an unlicensed broadcast station to work, someone has to place an antenna on his or her property, thus risking an FCC fine of $10,000.

The formatless station was located in Golden Hill and had some 15 deejays and operators. Lo_Key says the reason the station was so appealing to her ears is that it played music by Operation Ivy, later called Rancid, music that would not have been heard on any local station. Lo_Key says the censorship of licensed radio (one need only remember George Carlin’s, and later Howard Stern’s, run-ins with the FCC over one or all of those seven dirty words) is undemocratic. “Everything you hear through mainstream radio—someone is paying for it to be heard. Someone is making money off it. [But] no one was making money off of us. We supported the local music scene. It was all about options: you can surf the channels and hear the same songs over and over again. They’re still playing Aerosmith and shit like that, which was good for its time, but it’s 2008, and we need to move on. Radio stations play music that the majority of people want to hear, but the majority of the people have poor taste. They don’t know any better.”

Lo_Key’s main complaint is that too many people “like what they know.” And it was pirate radio’s job to shake up such dependency. Why not just get an FCC license or set up an Internet station? It’s the thrill of anonymity, Lo_Key says. “I’m not one to curse; I just want to be able to play what I want without restrictions. With a license, we have to watch what we say. And if, after so many years, we dropped the F-bomb, we’d lose the license just like that. It’s a risk no one wants to take. The station definitely has a rebellious spirit. We want to fight the system.” Part of what eggs on Lo_Key and others is that “the FCC considers us terrorists.”

Keeping the station secret was hard, says Lo_Key. “I brought on my friends. My family listened. And I probably told more people than I should have.” Whenever guests came to the broadcast site, “We had to blindfold them for two flights of stairs. That was part of the adventure.” The only thing keeping the station off the air is that the pirates have lost the 96.9 frequency to a legal local station. And, no doubt, the threat of a felony prosecution if caught.

Some of radio’s growing pains may soon ease. David Tanny, a San Diego radio blogger since 1999, says that he’s waiting for the “convergence,” when listeners can get Internet radio away from a computer—in a car or on a portable device. That will, Tanny says, “put terrestrial radio in a heap of trouble.” iRoamer, billed as the world’s first universal Internet radio platform, has been launched in Australia, according to Computerworld Australia. For a small fee, it will “give wireless Internet radio capabilities to almost any consumer electronic device, such as portable media players, hi-fi systems, set-top boxes, IPTV units, car-radio products,” as well as iPhones. “A customizable Internet media aggregation portal”—a phrase that crawled out of a Philip K. Dick novel—will allow “users to listen to live radio in real time from anywhere.”

Cliff Albert and the Demise of KLSD

At first glance, it seems that the talk side of local radio faces less of the turmoil and transition than the music side does. Talk and news radio are the success stories of the medium. Witness those evergreens Rush Limbaugh and Roger Hedgecock.

Since talk “delivers audiences to advertisers” (in Neil Postman’s immortal phrase) so well, ratings-rabid managers want more: it’s cheap to produce, its high-profile personalities are news magnets, and it’s an ideal way to create a market where one may not have existed.

I find something uniquely appealing about talk radio that goes beyond the political mind-meld of host and listener. Radio is an intimate medium, an archaic thing in our visual age. There are no graphics, no hairdo, no cleavage—voice is everything. And the voice of an agile mind is seductive, creating an internal conversation in the listener. The reason you listen may be due to how engaging the host is rather than whether you agree with him. Roger Hedgecock and Stacy Taylor, another local favorite, following a five-minute news update, often open with 25-minute monologues. “What’s going on today? Here’s what’s going on.” Talk without callers, talk without commercials, talk with strong opinion—at times maddening, at times brilliant—may lock in an audience for long spells during a three- or four-hour show.

Clear Channel, betting that an audience existed that was antithetical to its conservative talk programming, debuted KLSD in 2004. KLSD and its national programming from Air America enjoyed a good three-year run. But in November 2007, KLSD went off the air. A few listener rallies were held: one in Clear Channel’s parking lot starred councilmember Donna Frye, city attorney Michael Aguirre, and TV-news star Bree Walker, among other celebrity protesters.

The man who cut KLSD’s cord was Cliff Albert, program director for KLSD and KOGO. Albert was on San Diego radio, first with KFMB in the 1980s, during the halcyon days of Hudson and Bauer, and later and until recently, with KOGO. Many San Diegans recall Albert’s sterling silver voice, whose sound, like Cantore’s, is part of the audible fabric of our community.

Midway through its run, Albert began noticing that when the audiences of conservative KOGO (with Limbaugh, Hedgecock, and Dr. Laura) or KFMB (with Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage) were compared to KLSD’s audience, there was no overlap. “They didn’t share an audience,” Albert says. “They’d listen to music, to sports, to whatever, before they’d go to the other station.” In essence, the audience was much smaller than he had anticipated.

One day Albert realized that “traditional radio advertisers—banks, mortgage companies, and business owners, who tend to be more conservative—didn’t want to advertise on KLSD. They’d try it for a month or two, and they’d get complaints from consumers. They were uncomfortable with advertising on a station where the host was bashing the President and corporate America, U.S. businesses. We were all disappointed that KLSD, the only liberal station in San Diego, was not delivering enough revenue.” This cinched his decision to change the station from progressive talk to sports.

Last January, local KLSD guru Stacy Taylor, whose sardonic wit branded him an intelligent and caustic liberal, landed in the coveted “drive-time” hole from 3:00–6:00 p.m. on 1700 AM, a new talk station. Albert wanted Taylor at KOGO in the “after-Roger slot,” but John Lynch, owner of 1700 AM and head of Broadcast Companies of the Americas, upped the ante and signed Taylor, whose edgy, progressive libertarianism continues to froth the airwaves.

From Both Sides Now

Many San Diegans know the shoeshine polish of Mark Larson’s voice. Whether zany skit or conservative talk, his style features a flip, deadpan persona reminiscent of Bob and Ray and their witty send-ups of the medium in which they worked. An on-air presence for 23 years, Larson used to produce Hudson and Bauer during the KFMB heyday. Four years ago at KOGO, Cliff Albert switched Dr. Laura from noon–3:00 to an evening show and put Larson in. But, Albert says, by 2007, when “the ratings were not as strong as they needed to be, I moved Dr. Laura back” to her slot, “to attract younger women listeners.” With that, Larson took his leave from KOGO.

Larson casts his departure with a bit more corporate complication. It was, he tells me, gobbling a late-lunch turkey sandwich, “Clear Channel’s dictate to move Dr. Laura back into that spot. Cliff does a marvelous job, and the station speaks for itself. Clear Channel is a fine company. But there’s a lot of out-of-town influence. As evidence, with my first contract there, it was simple enough to be hired by two or three people. By the time I got to my last contract last year, it looked like the Magna Carta, there were so many signatures by out-of-town managers. My last year I decided it wasn’t as much fun.” He was surprised to hear Albert say it was only a local decision—“Pressure was coming from somewhere to get Dr. Laura back in.” In the end, Larson was not let go. He opted out of his contract and said so on the air.

Did Larson feel his content was constricted by KOGO or Clear Channel?

“I didn’t until that last year. There was more going on, on the lifestyle front. We were encouraged to do some of the softer stuff, less of the politics. There was a companywide buzz” to change, he says, since Dr. Laura, with a new book, was pushing toward a focus on family problems and personal morality. Right-wing political opinion had waned following the 2006 elections; it lost some of its steam, Larson says, because “people were tired of talking about the war.”

Off the air, Larson, a Republican and a Christian, played with the notion of running for the congressional seat of Duncan Hunter, who, after a failed presidential bid, is retiring from the 52nd District. Conferring with Hunter and Duncan Hunter Jr., Larson discovered that wasn’t an option. (Junior went on to win the primary and the general election.) John Lynch at 1700 AM signed Larson to do the 5:00–9:00 morning show and to be the station’s program director.

Lynch then tapped Stacy Taylor for the afternoons, so that, in Larson’s words, 1700 AM would “be the only station in San Diego with both sides.” Offering both liberal and conservative views is either an anomaly or a brilliant bit of programming. Larson is hoping the word spreads “where I am, where Stacy is, and that a different kind of format is evolving.”

Larson’s strength as a talk-show host, he says, is that he can’t be “pigeonholed. People can like me—and disagree with me. These kinds of emails make my day: ‘I disagree with almost everything you say, but you make me think.’ ” Larson’s ideal is to disagree with listeners in ways that keep them tuned in. On this point, he dresses down Limbaugh, who during the presidential election never found a candidate to his liking. It makes no sense, Larson says, that Limbaugh would “demonize McCain while beating up on Obama. What’s the point? Everybody ends up bruised. If you demagogue it a certain way, there’s a point where I ask, ‘Is this all about you? Or is it about caring about your community?’ ”

[Note: Mark Larson was let go from 1700 AM in January 2009.]

The Conundrum of KPBS Radio

One man who’s been dealing with untidiness on the programming side is John Decker, program director of KPBS radio since 1998. In his San Diego State office, Decker tells me that he’d prefer steering clear of controversy, but it has, with regard to city attorney (now “ex”) Mike Aguirre, found him, his general manager Doug Myrland, and his station nonetheless.

In 2007, KPBS canceled two local programs, A Way with Words on radio and Full Focus on TV. A Way with Words was cut, Decker tells me, because its yearly budget was $250,000, a tag Myrland deemed too pricey. The wordsmiths, though, created a local production company and kept the show going in San Diego and in syndication. With the cancellation of Full Focus, 12 employees were laid off; news director Michael Marcotte retired. The program, at $1 million annually, had good content, Myrland told the Union-Tribune, “but few people watched.”

In response to the show’s termination, Aguirre, a frequent guest on Full Focus, initiated an investigation into why the show was canned: he charged that “KPBS abrogated its duty to maintain objectivity and balance in its local public-affairs television programming.” He requested the station hand over paperwork about the show’s demise. He expanded his inquiry to include Editors Roundtable, a one-hour Friday-morning radio talk show featuring three local newspaper editors, Tim McClain, editor of San Diego Metropolitan Magazine; John Warren, editor and publisher of San Diego Voice and Viewpoint; and Robert Kittle, editorial page editor of the Union-Tribune.

Aguirre wrote that Editors Roundtable “limited” its guest commentators by alternating these three men every week with another bevy of local editors. He stated that the discussions by McClain, Warren, and Kittle were sometimes televised, but not those of other editors. Aguirre thought this unfair and wanted to know why the TV format favored the Big Three. He cited an email from Kittle to the station, objecting that producers had invited Dave Rolland, editor of San Diego City Beat, to be on a televised episode with Kittle. For Aguirre, the station’s ostensible kowtowing to Kittle’s demand violated “objectivity” and the “balance [of] federal law” in which the “Corporation for Public Broadcasting is statutorily directed to support those objectives.”

Decker says that as executive producer of Editors Roundtable, he understands the issues involved. When the Big Three were on every week, did the public pressure the station to expand its stock of commentators? “No,” he says, “we changed it. We wanted as many voices at the table as possible.” In his words, KPBS thought McClain, Warren, and Kittle “represented a significant number of readers in this town. The show does well. It really does. I’m really surprised. I’m very pleased. Even if you have these guys on every other week, people respond positively to them, and that’s a public service.”

Behind Aguirre’s charge was the presumption that someone other than KPBS may have been directing the show’s, and by extension, the station’s editorial content. Not a chance, Decker says. Neither David Copley nor Bob Kittle nor the Copley Foundation (which put up millions to build KPBS’s studios in 1995) nor anyone in the community has directly influenced the decisions he and Doug Myrland have made over the format of their news programs.

Decker remains indignant over Aguirre’s request for internal documents from KPBS, a public institution, which, by law, must make such documents available to the public and, even more so, the city attorney’s office. In the end, the investigation—and the dustup—was a waste of the station’s time, Decker says. According to the Union-Tribune, Aguirre in late 2007 “withdrew the request…on the advice of a First Amendment expert.”

Decker cites, as evidence of the station’s ongoing commitment to local programming, the hour-long documentaries Envision San Diego, produced about ten times a year; a bit more than two hours a day of local news during Morning Edition and All Things Considered in the afternoon; and the four-day-a-week, two-hour program These Days. This amounts to 20–25 hours a week of local shows.

If Editors Roundtable is so popular, and the station believes in the “local mission,” why not produce more such shows? To expand the local focus is a “conundrum,” Decker says. What the station is broadcasting right now is all it can afford. “We haven’t debuted a new show in a long time. We haven’t done a Lounge lately”—the local arts and culture show, sacked four years ago, whose “OK ratings” did not equal the expense.

He notes that one hour of These Days costs ten times what a syndicated news show like The World costs. Funds for new programming don’t exist, he says, since KPBS allocates only 25 percent of the station’s total budget to the radio side. The costliest part is TV: Public Television programs are far more expensive than National Public Radio shows. Even though TV gets more funding, there are fewer employees on that side: 6 on TV versus 20 on radio. This spring, 6 employees were laid off in the latest belt-tightening, not to mention the resignation of Myrland, whose $218,000 salaried position will no doubt be filled quickly. In short, the lion’s share of KPBS’s $20 million yearly budget (which has fallen three percent since 2005) goes to television.

I ask Decker if he has any mad money with which to experiment. After all, isn’t taking a chance on shows like A Way with Words or These Days the way things get started?

It’s “another conundrum,” he says. “If you innovate, will you lose your audience? Innovation takes time, energy, experimentation, devotion, and commitment to do something differently. Our move has been to increase audience—to pick shows that reach as many people [as possible] in any given quarter-hour.”

Decker says KPBS “probably has the only growing audience on radio. Music radio is losing audience, while public radio has gained audience. And our ability to remain relevant is going to depend on our ability to do more local programming.” Which he can’t do, he says, acknowledging the irony. Even though the radio audience is growing, even though “all the other local radio stations have given up on doing news,” neither of these opportunities has translated into KPBS doing much more than downsizing.

Opinion Is News

Talk radio targets a very particular audience. Cliff Albert at KOGO says he aims for people in their 40s, who are “professionals or career-oriented, employed, have families, close relationships with people, above-average income, own cars, and generally lean moderate to conservative, as opposed to moderate to liberal.” Albert estimates the audience at roughly 300,000 during a typical week (up from 200,000 five years ago), listening 60/40 between car and home or office. Albert sees the station’s sizable advance as an aging and longer-living population interested in hearing about “politics, government, psychology.” They listen to the radio hosts “to be affirmed in what they believe. We ask them, ‘Why do you listen?’ ‘He says what I’m thinking.’ And that’s music to our ears because we know we have a listener who will tune in every day. They want to go to the office that day and know how to argue their point.”

San Diego is blessed with a keen contrarian mind in Mark Ramsey, the president of Mercury Research, who takes issue with much of the prevailing wisdom about radio. At Mercury, Ramsey has consulted for CBS Radio, Clear Channel, and Broadcast Companies of the Americas. His blog is Hear 2.0, where he writes about new media and the need, especially now, for “research and development.” So much opportunity exists in radio these days—“margins are slipping, alternatives are burgeoning”—that stations need to “reposition.”

Ramsey disputes Albert’s notion that San Diego’s radio audience is moderate to conservative. He says you can’t label San Diego by its largely conservative talk-radio personae. He calls it a “weird notion that because so much of talk radio is conservative-leaning there is no room for talk radio that is liberal-leaning—to which I say, ‘Where’s the evidence of that?’ ” Jeff and Jer and Dave, Shelly, and Chainsaw, the station KPRI, KPBS, Stacy Taylor, and a lot of the youth-oriented or lifestyle-oriented deejays are anything but conservative.

I ask Ramsey if he’s worried about the news getting lost in the putative world of opinion or entertainment radio.

First, he says, contrary to conventional wisdom, there’s a reason why there’s a scarcity of news-radio stations. Research has demonstrated that “there’s only one hour a day when there’s a demand for news. Maybe 7:00–8:00 in the morning.” Here the ratings are huge. The rest of the day, at news stations like KNX in Los Angeles, the ratings collapse.

Second, “The history of news in America is opinion” as the means of dissemination. “If you go back to Benjamin Franklin, that’s true. If you go back to Thomas Paine, that’s true. This was advocacy journalism—long before Edward R. Murrow. These were people with sharp points of view. The reason why conservative talk radio is so successful is that the point of view” has become the voice of AM radio, which has always sought to reach moderate Americans. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to hear information through your own filter.”

The way conservative radio racks up the ratings (no different from cable TV news) is, Ramsey says, by air-mongering primal issues. These days, these include child abuse, terrorism, drugs, teachers having sex with their students. Such “issues” have no opposing side, he says; no one is for child abuse. They are exploited because it’s far easier to get people to care about such stomach-turning tales than it is to get people to, for instance, care about President Mugabe’s terrorist government in Zimbabwe.

On a similar note, Ramsey says the notion that radio is being hurt by the trend toward corporatizing and syndication is another misnomer. “Is it necessarily wrong that Sean Hannity is on the air” locally while “he broadcasts out of New York? No, not if Sean Hannity is better than whoever else might be on in Sean Hannity’s slot.” As a cultural comparison, it’s why the New York Philharmonic is on Great Performances and not the Tijuana Symphony (no offense). “No matter what field you’re in, talent is the scarcest of commodities.”

Ramsey says that though San Diegans tell researchers they’d like local programming, they are often just giving “the right answer.” It’s the sort of question that supposes local should be preferred to regional or national. People also confide to survey-takers that they want “some connection to their community” on radio. “TV does this with local news,” Ramsey says. “But beyond that, people need to have something worth listening to. And there is nothing inherently interesting about being inherently local. Nothing. If you put local before good, you’re making a big mistake. If you put good before local—and you’re also local—so much the better. But good is better than local. This has been proven when Howard Stern raked in the ratings that he did.”

And yet, despite his talent and his stellar success, once Stern changed his format, he tanked. All those habituated listeners went elsewhere.

Talk About Turmoil

A year of turmoil in local radio has culminated in a slew of December changes.

Longtime general manager, Bob Bolinger, Clear Channel Radio San Diego, is out, replaced by Debbie Wagner from Tucson, Arizona. After almost ten years, Tom Fudge no longer hosts KPBS’s These Days. He’s been reassigned as an “investigative healthcare reporter.” (These Days is expanding its four-day-a-week morning show from two to three hours, with KPBS reporter Maureen Cavanaugh taking the helm.) Jimmy Valentine, producer of The Roger Hedgecock Show at KOGO, has been let go as part of Hedgecock and his show’s national syndication beginning in January.

Stacy Taylor, the afternoon talk-show host at 1700 AM, is gone. He writes on his website that “Yes, I have been ‘eliminated’ by 1700.... This comes a few days after a couple prime-time sports hosts were fired by B.C.A. Later in the day, on the way in to do my show, Jorge Espinoza, my producer called to say I’d been fired. So, sure enough, when I arrived at the studio, the general manager, Gregg Wolfson was waiting for me at the door with the official news. He explained that the station had lost $1 million in the previous year and that changes had to be made. When I suggested to him that I was the only host who actually had good ratings at the station, he replied that he was well aware of that.... What ultimately becomes of 1700 is a mystery. Deep recessions tend to put a damper on radio advertising revenue. Admittedly, this is a set-back for so-called ‘progressive radio’ in the market, although rumors continuously swirl about plans for a new outlet in San Diego. My understanding is that those plans are vague and, in the immortal words of the N.S.A., ‘more aspirational than operational.’ As for me, I’ll weigh my limited options and chill for a few days before moving forward. Thanks for the support.”