Radio Is Worth Saving

Instead of choking itself to death with disc jockeys’ commercials, radio could still find a large and profitable audience. Some of its resources, WILLIAM O’HALLAREN contends from long broadcasting experience in Los Angeles, continue to be superior to those of television.

BY WILLIAM O’HALLAREN

IT IS a common pronouncement at conventions of broadcasters these days that radio is doing nicely, thank you. This cheerful word usually comes from sales managers of local stations and is backed by impressive statistics. In 1957, the nation’s 3143 radio stations reported revenues of $444,400,000, up 8.3 per cent from the preceding year. Profits before taxes were $54,600,000, up 11.9 per cent. It is a safe rule that a station which sold for $100,000 in 1949 is worth at least half a million today.

Sales managers of radio networks are more reticent, but if pressed they will speak bravely of “great gains,” the gains being a cut in losses. The revenues of the four nationwide and three regional radio networks for 1957 came to an anemic $73,500,000, enough, perhaps, to come close to breaking even.

But it is the local stations that are making it, and their sales managers have a ready explanation for the harvest: “Top music and news — that’s the ticket. Get rid of the junk.” Over the nation these stations have been getting rid of the junk, junk being defined as drama, commentary, live music, religion (except the Bible-thumping, sendin-your-quarter type sold at premium rates), all special events from anything more intriguing than the opening of an advertiser’s new fish counter, and all comedy more subtle than an announcer’s malaprops.

The “top music” of the gypsy formula means the thirty or so numbers leading one of the weekly surveys of taste in this field, and a considerable number of stations actually refuse to use any other music. The “and news” of the formula is hardly more than a pious afterthought and generally consists of a five-minute newscast each hour. After commercials have been deducted from the five minutes, there is a net news time of about two and a half minutes, which is filled by a package of bland headlines ripped from the radio wire of the Associated Press and delivered in a confident shout.

In the past there was a tendency to have great blocks of this programing presided over by highly paid and highly publicized disc jockeys, who tried to add some of their own life-of-the-party personalities to the mélange. Lately owners have been discovering that staff announcers working for minimum scale arc just as capable of crying, “Here’s a big one, coming up fast!”

Why is such obvious nonsense profitable? Chiefly because gypsy radio is ludicrously cheap. It not only dispenses with program planners, script writers, actors, sound-effects men, directors, and other production people, but it also reduces broadcasting to the point where only a license, a transmitter, and a subscription to Billboard are essential. Record pluggers will gladly supply the top tunes, and the skimpiest announcer-engineer staff can play the records and stuff in the commercials. More and more announcers are “combination men,” which means they sit at a simplified panel and do the work of an engineer as well as announcer. There is a place in the Rockies where one man is three radio staffs. He plugs himself in at a console and gives a commercial for a station in one town, then he pushes in another plug and speaks on another station in another community, then he goes on to a third station — all owned by the same firm. Staff turnover is said to be high.

Granted it is cheap, but does gypsy radio have any listeners? Not many, but enough. It does not need masses of listeners because it can sell its spots for a few dollars apiece and still be staggered by the profits. Teen-agers listen in considerable numbers, mainly because they buy 90 per cent of the records sold in this country, and the top music of formula broadcasting is their music. There are many adults for whom radio is almost an unbreakable habit, no matter how surly it gets. These people find it a companionable noise while ironing or fighting traffic. There are always some waiting for the weather, the news, the baseball scores, or the word that the single tax has at last been adopted. There are the blind, the lonely, the people who lug portables to beaches and parks.

These are the core of the radio listening public, long suffering, inured to insult, always available as survey statistics. Their number never grows, but nothing erodes it very much either. To advertisers, the cost per thousand of reaching them through radio is attractive. It doesn’t seem to matter that they get reached pretty often.

Leo Guild, while a columnist for the entertainment trade paper Hollywood Reporter, held a stop watch on a half hour’s programing of a typical formula operation in Los Angeles. For the half hour he found:

Music 12 minutes 41 seconds
News 1 minute 45 seconds
Commercials 15 minutes 34 seconds

Such a breakdown means a listener hears at least thirty separate commercial messages every hour. A standard procedure is to play one record, lollow it with three commercials, sometimes bridging them with the temperature or a one-line weather forecast (this is reported to the FCC as public service), then another record, and so on.

Sometimes the choice of which record will follow the commercial is determined by simple bribery. Record companies, desperately competitive to air their offerings for the malt-shop buyers, have simply been paying disc jockeys to use their releases. Vick Knight, president and owner of Key Records, told a convention of the Southern California Broadcasters Association that pay-offs have grown high enough to force some record companies out of business. Knight said it was time the broadcasters started policing their own employees.

The following day, a number of prominent disc jockeys throughout the country issued virtuous “not me" statements. One such refutation came from a veteran Los Angeles radio personality. A couple of days later an ad paid for by Knight appeared in the Hollywood trade papers. It said:

Dear Al:
I’ll take back what I said if you’ll give back the money.
Vick

So far there is no record of Knight taking back what he said.

All this being true, a proper reaction might be, why bother? Why not let radio splutter itself out?

One good answer is that the gypsies are destroying something that does not belong to them. Radio frequencies are still public property, and Congress has said that a license to use them should be granted only in the public interest. The Federal Communications Commission has never taken this very seriously, though once, in the Truman Administration, it issued a document called the Blue Book, which suggested that stations might restrain themselves in the matter of commercials. Broadcasters generally scoffed at the Blue Book, and in time the FCC shamefacedly pulled it from sight.

Another reason for saving radio is that there are still millions searching for acceptable radio programing. These are the people who listen to the good music stations, the people who will find out about Mort Sahl’s evening spear throwings on NBC, who know when to catch Bob and Ray on Monitor, who listen to Eric Sevareid and Edward P. Morgan. The volume of all such programs in a given week is small, and most of the programs are under constant attack from the formula pitchmen, who know that they could make more money by putting on spots. But programs of merit are still with us, and so are the people who listen to them. Whether the programs will be with us next year or five years from now is another matter.

IT IS indicative of radio’s sickness that worthwhile programs, programs with a number of listeners, do not bring in as much revenue as the same amount of time given over to a mishmash of records and jingles. A program of local origin, filled with as many spots as the owner’s conscience will allow, will always bring in more revenue than the most brilliantly executed network show.

Yet the struggle to save radio centers on the networks. If the networks were to go under because of the sweep to formula radio, radio sets would simply become coinless jukeboxes. In the past two years, major station after major station has been dropping network affiliation, not because of any serious quarrel with the quality of network programing, but simply because it is more profitable to fill the time with local spots. The networks have also found it increasingly difficult to get the affiliates who remain to carry their programing.

They have sought to placate the affiliates with various plans designed to give the local stations more holes for spots. At the start of 1959 CBS Radio unveiled what it called its Program Consolidation Plan, described by CBS Radio president Arthur Hull Hayes as “a more truly national network service.” The one feature of the plan most quickly noted by CBS staffers was that about half the network’s programing was dropped. As Mr. Hayes put it. local stations “now have longer blocks of contiguous time in which to develop and build local personalities . . . and in which to bring listeners top sports and other attractions in the evenings and on weekends. Mr. Hayes knows that the “top sports and other attractions which the local stations are now inserting in place of his programing are chiefly caterwauling records and barbaric commercials, but there is little that he or anyone else seems able to do about it.

The next feature of the Program Consolidation Plan was a change in the format of most of the surviving network shows so that local stations could jam in commercials. Seven hours of network news a week were opened to local sponsorship. In one way, it is a plan to enable seven hours of network news to survive. In another way, it means that seven hours of the highly regarded CBS news will now be afflicted with the same type of screeching commercials heard on most locally originated tear-it-off-the-wireand-read-it-cold, skip-the-hard-names newscasts.

Mr. Hayes says that the CBS plan will mean the survival of the network and therefore the survival of “Edward R. Murrow, Lowell Thomas, Eric Sevareid, Walter Cronkite. ‘Capitol Cloakroom, ‘The Leading Question,’ Unit One actuality reports (CBSese for documentary) such as ‘Who Killed Michael Farmer?’ and ‘The Hidden Revolution,’ special coverage of world events . . . the Metropolitan Opera, ‘Suspense,’ ‘Gunsmoke’ and the new-to-radio ‘Have Gun, Will Travel.’”

No one can quarrel with this objective, and it good radio must have the dollars and larynges of local used-car dealers in order to survive, so be it. But it is doubtful if the CBS plan will really be a solution, because it does not alter the tact that a local station can make more money by jamming spots into a record program than it can by carrying any kind of network program.

NBC set off on a slightly different tack some years ago with its weekend programing service, Monitor. There are many radio men who believe that Monitor is better than anything NBC did in network radio’s palmiest days. It is in essence a relaxed variety program which begins on Friday night and continues through Sunday. It is anchored on news which seems to have been prepared by responsible people, and it uses comics briefly but frequently, like whiffs of oxygen. It is the home of such as Bob and Ray, whose acid levels were too high for television. There are a mild amount of music, some pleasant interviews by people like Dave Garroway, and enough sports to placate the fancy.

Monitor has been a success not only for these reasons but also for its loose lormula, which allows the network to sell its features individually (sponsors buy the news, interviews, comics, even the weather). Local stations can then fill the leftover time with spots of their own, and they can drop out of the show at will in favor of purely local programing. (This sometimes means that a listener hears the call of a race but never learns the official result.) Monitor is about the best thing on network radio today and would be close to ideal if it could be heard without fear of unexpected and prolonged interruption.

Another argument for saving radio is that it is the last refuge of the commentator. Television fears rational comment more than blasphemy, and local stations usually cannot be bothered. Granted that some of the commentators were, and are, outrageously bad. even the worst can hardly be as annoying as an equivalent number of minutes of whimpering about lost love and screaming about laxatives. Radio still offers Scvareid and Morgan, Fulton Lewis, Cedric Foster. Quincy Howe, William Winter, Leon Pearson, and a few others who usually have something to say, and there are numbers of people who will be either exalted or outraged to hear them say it.

Probably the most heroic fighters to save radio are those individual station owners who think their licenses call for something more than selfenrichment. These are the men who will stoutly carry six hours of a critical UN debate or even put a school board meeting on the air. In Los Angeles, stubbornly individualistic Earle C. Anthony, owner of 50,000-watt KFI, for years devoted fifteen minutes of choice time each night to a poetry program, with live musical accompaniment. It had many listeners and was sustained. Critics say that Mr. Anthony is a wealthy man and could devote twenty-four hours a day to sustaining poetry programs if he wished. He is still one of those rare owners who has meditated about the duties inherent in a license to broadcast.

The good music stations are often cited as examples of radio’s finding itself. The good music stations certainly deserve credit for not being bad music stations, but the fact is that they are not doing much that could not be done by a record player. There is a world of difference between playing a symphony record and broadcasting an on-the-spot report by a capable correspondent from a scene of trouble in Algeria.

THE problem of saving radio, then, is to create conditions whereby programs are forced to compete on their merits. The FCC could create these conditions overnight by taking the simple step of limiting the number of commercials that can be broadcast in any given time period. A limit of three minutes of advertising in each fifteen minutes of broadcast time would clear the airways at once. It would mean that all stations would have to fill their air with something besides commercials and that owners would find themselves asking directions to the program department.

Complaints from radio spokesmen would be sure to wring congressional hearts, and there would be dire tales of hardships. It is also a hardship on the lumberman forced to stop despoiling the forest, on the lobstcrman made to throw back the little ones.

In the long run, radio would be saved, and every license would be more valuable for it. The owner limited in the number of commercials he could sell would soon be selling them for a higher price. There might even be buyers for offerings like the Stan Freberg Show of a few seasons ago, which drew critical huzzas, a good audience, and a yawn from Madison Avenue.

Radio in which the volume of commercials was limited would be certain to flourish, perhaps spectacularly. Television has probably reached a leveling off in its audience, and may even be heading for a decline if a tenth of the people who say they are tired of it really mean it. The decline of television would create still more of an opportunity for a revitalized radio. Not that radio is ever going to gather the family into the living room again, but it can reach individuals, individuals who want to hear Eric Sevareid as well as those whose chemistry bubbles for Elvis. With a little prodding and a little encouragement, radio would still be capable of doing handsomely by a great many individuals.

If the FCC were to find the courage to save radio from the gypsies, there would almost certainly be a national debate covering the whole question of federal authority over broadcasting. That might be a good time to discuss why broadcasting licenses, radio and television, valued to the millions, are given away.

FCC action to rein in destructive radio commercialism would provoke the angriest type of opposition, and there would be a rallying around the local enterprise clichés such as man has seldom witnessed. Perhaps the gypsy is too deeply in radio’s soul ever to be exorcised. But those who think that radio is worth saving would at least like to give it a try.