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As Goes the Nation, So Goes the Station
Here’s some context: I’m a small businessman. In addition to being a talk show host, I run a small, modestly successful music and entertainment production company. Because of the Cliff, the Ceiling, and Obamacare’s paralyzing lack of clarity, I’m not spending one dollar more than I have to on salaried staff, independent contractors, and infrastructure/equipment.
This stingy posture isn’t because I’m a greedy bastard. It’s because neither I (the producer of goods and services), nor the consumers I sell them to, know where our next batch of greenbacks is coming from, or going to. And clients, those a rung above me on the ladder, are behaving in kind. We’re like kidnap victims who’ve had black hoods pulled over our heads, while the van we’re in careens through a sketchy neighborhood of miserably thought out economic policies.
Which brings me to the afternoon of December 20, 2012, the day the major overhaul at WOR in New York City began in earnest. I walked into the station at 4:30 pm. I was there to prep for my M-F 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm internet stream show. The show’s existence was an anomaly, as the rule of thumb is to carry the entirety of one’s terrestrial programming on one’s primary stream. I was grateful for the anomaly.
I was greeted by a cacophony of sights, sounds, and most importantly, feelings that were close to overwhelming. The day has been described in the trades as everything from a house-cleaning to a bloodbath. Those are surface descriptions that make the point, but don’t paint the deeper human picture. And a bloodbath it wasn’t. We all saw one of those recently, and for the time being, at least, that particular figurative and hyperbolic word play doesn’t ring right, at least to me.
The sight of 10-plus radio engineers, some union, some not (we’ll get to that later), dressed in what they thought was appropriate attire to meet with management, was, um, unique. Brilliant, eccentric fellows, including my guy, who, having been there for 30 years, was like a radio big brother to me. (Full disclosure: having engineered albums for Grammy winning recording artists, I’m not unfamiliar with the offbeat mental terrain, or the less than up-to-date sartorial choices of folks on that side of the glass. I’ve been one.)
Clear Channel, which acquired WOR, was until relatively recently a publicly traded company with a fiduciary duty to shareholders to keep their share price stable at worst, and rising at best. The company’s present position of being burdened by debt and even greater debt looming still puts its top management in an excruciating pressure cooker. Their employees keep their jobs and their executives are compensated when they adapt and excel not just within their industry, but within the larger opaque economic climate described above.
So most of the union engineers, who drew larger paychecks than their non-union brethren, were out. Sounds a lot like the state by state “right to work” issue we’ve been talking about on a regular basis. There’s a fine line between cutthroat capitalism and survival during changing times.
The station mimics the nation. And it continues:
Some of the award-winning, high-profile talent was let go, as the station began to sculpt its new sound. Consolidation breeds efficiency, but by definition, it also breeds a lack of variety, a lack of choice. This may be an unintended consequence, but it’s not a surprising one. Our personal options, whether they’re in areas as disparate as radio programming or job opportunities, are becoming fewer in number as productivity rules the roost. One host broadcasts on 300 stations rather than many more hosts on fewer stations each, just as one employee at an insurance company does the work that two or three used to do.
The frayed nerves of all employed parties concerned had been in evidence since the eventual transfer of ownership was made known, and created the working equivalent of a “sleeping with one eye open” mentality, as there was an amorphous foreboding in the air. It’s not unlike the workplaces of today, where those with a job fear losing it, while those without one, on the outside looking in, fear not being able to get another one that involves their skill set and a pay level that had, up until now, been assumed.
There wasn’t anger, there was sadness. Certainly not because of change itself, but because of the human toll it currently extracts. In the early 1900’s the workers in a buggy whip shop went on to work in automobile plants; such innovation and expansion is not currently in evidence. So unemployment will rise a bit more (if you swear by the Labor Department numbers, perhaps you’d like to join my Friday night poker game), and the government coffers will be further depleted as new claims are filed, checks are written, and deficits grow.
Most importantly, there’s now yet another group of good, talented, skilled folks who have, for the time being at least, nowhere to employ those skills, and may well be feeling an emptiness and facing an unknown future that serves none of us well. The national skittishness increases. Even the corporations that abide by their corporate charters and mission statements end up losing, as the pool of consumers continues leaking, which then takes its toll on advertising dollars. Which then, in a Catch-22 fashion, leads to further consolidation in order to contain costs.
And understanding and being prepared for where and how and when it stops is the challenge at hand.