Radio cuts to 2-part harmony

Media giants try to put local touch on their 13 Quad Cities stations, but some listeners find the effort lacking.

By Kathy Bergen
Tribune staff reporter

May 11, 2003

DAVENPORT, Iowa -- The cluster of towns hugging the banks of the Mississippi River on the Illinois-Iowa state line was home to the first commercial radio station west of the Big Muddy.

Ronald Reagan took his first broadcasting job here. And, as in many communities across the country, prominent local citizens once owned the radio stations.

Now, the Quad Cities' 13 commercial radio stations are operated by two media giants. It's just the sort of consolidation that has occurred nationwide since radio was significantly deregulated in 1996. And this concentration is coming under intensified scrutiny now that the government is poised to further relax media ownership rules.

Some people involved in Quad Cities government and advertising say the new station owners, San Antonio-based Clear Channel Radio and Atlanta-based Cumulus Broadcasting Inc., have been good corporate citizens, sensitive to local needs and tastes.

But a different tune plays in these largely blue-collar towns--Davenport and Bettendorf on the Iowa side, and Rock Island and Moline in Illinois. Both broadcasters "tend to use the same formats, and play the same things," said Scott Heisel, a punk rock fan majoring in speech communications at Augustana College in Rock Island.

"They play the hell out of a song--it's the same songs over and over again," said James White, a warehouse worker from Moline who's partial to rap and R&B.

"The deejays are far less entertaining than they used to be ... they can't get away with as much," said Alex Hogg, a coffeehouse barrista who lives in Davenport.

"The stuff aimed at older folks in this market is all conservative; it's all Johnny One Note," said Alan Sivell, a communications instructor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.

What has happened in the Quad Cities is hardly unique, and that is the problem, critics say. The special touches that made local radio different here than, say, in Peoria, or Pensacola, are shrinking. Instead, the new owners employ a variety of cost-cutting maneuvers, including consolidation of news operations; use of voice-tracking, in which pre-recorded chat is used to make a show appear to be live; and use of syndicated shows.

"You could throw a dart at a map of the country, and what you describe in the Quad Cities is the rule everywhere, or close to it," said Robert McChesney, professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-author of "Our Media, Not Theirs."

Clear Channel, which owns or operates 8 of the 13 commercial stations in the Quad Cities, runs a consolidated five-person newsroom that provides news for its local stations.

"What we've been able to do is employ people across a larger number of stations to provide more information, more content, to extend their reach, if you will," said John Hogan, chief executive of Clear Channel Radio, the largest U.S. group with nearly 1,200 stations. The company directed all questions on the Quad Cities market to Hogan.

Cumulus, which owns the five other commercial stations in the market, has no news staff in the Quad Cities but partners with a local television station to provide morning news reports.

"The coverage we provide now is as good as having the resources of a local TV news station," said Jack Swart, Quad Cities market manager for Cumulus, the No. 2 radio company in the country with 268 stations.

A local public radio station owned by Augustana College in Rock Island, WVIK-FM, also runs a local news operation with two full-time staffers and part-time help from students.

Some 20 years ago, "the news competition, even in radio, was relatively strong, and that is no longer the case," said Jennifer Nahra, Davenport's public information officer.

Still, "we are very pleased with the response to stories, to issues in the community," she said. "If we have something positive taking place, they participate. If we need to enlist their help during a crisis, they are there to assist."

Clear Channel's WOC-AM news/talk/sports station employs a number of veterans, she said, "and they are trusted; people listen to them."

Others are less impressed.

"You'll know whether the city's aflame, but if you want to know what's happening at city hall, you'll need to read the paper," said Sivell, the communications teacher at St. Ambrose.

Something of a junkie for local political discourse, Sivell uses a high-quality AM radio late at night to search for meaty local talk around the country.

"If you just listen to national, it sounds like we're all this big McDonald's and all operating under one umbrella," he said.

Both companies make use of voice-tracking to some extent.

In the Quad Cities, Clear Channel uses only local personalities to voice-track, rather than out-of-town talent, as is done in some other markets. Voice-tracking accounts for 25 percent to 30 percent of programming on the firm's stations nationwide, Hogan said.

"There are people in the Quad Cities who do multiple shifts on multiple stations," he said. "The goal behind it is to have the highest quality voice talent on the air at all times."

"One of the complaints is that it eliminates jobs, and I concur," he said. "It has eliminated jobs--the mediocre and worse talent."

Clear Channel also uses syndicated programming for 9 percent of its airtime in the Quad Cities.

Cumulus, which broadcasts from well-worn studios in a former Davenport funeral home, also uses a mixture of live shows, syndicated material and voice-tracked programming. But local management said it strives to provide as much live programming as possible.

"We try to keep a live body in the studio," said Darren Pitra, program director.

And the stations strive in a number of ways to keep content local. For instance, contests always have local winners, and one rock station offers air time on Friday nights for two songs from a local band, said Pitra, who also serves as a host on WXLP-FM, a classic rock station.

And then there's the local color. On Pitra's morning show, for instance, there's a feature called "Amazing Larry's Almost Amazing Fact." The highly eccentric Larry, a neighbor of one of Pitra's friends, shouts out hellos to listeners, shares tales of a friend's wayward spider monkey and dishes up a factual tidbit that is almost amazing.

Still, deejays no longer pick their own music to play but work off play lists generated by their employers. The lists are tailored to fit certain formats. At Cumulus, there's classic rock, current rock, Top 40 and classic country, while at Clear Channel there's modern country, hits from the '70s and '80s, adult contemporary, Top 40, oldies and adult standards.

The mix just doesn't satisfy many in town.

"I wish we had a blues station here," said George Tournear, a recently laid-off laborer who lives in Rock Island.

Heavy-metal fan Robert Chandler, a groundskeeper who lives in Davenport, also says he has a hard time finding what he wants to hear on local radio.

He found a Des Moines alternative rock station he likes but says, "The only place you can get it in, I discovered, is in the Lowe's parking lot in Moline."

Heisel, the fan of underground rock, says the lack of diversity is more of an issue in a small or midsize market.

"When you go to Chicago, the stations are way more cutting edge, even though they still play major labels," he said.

In smaller markets, Heisel said, stations are fighting for pieces of a smaller pie, and so are less likely to veer from the mainstream.

Clear Channel spends millions of dollars researching what music is desired by its audiences, Hogan said.

Music fans searching for an eclectic mix may have to look for that on a college station, he said. The Quad Cities market has two small college stations plus the well-regarded WVIK public station, which runs locally produced news, public affairs and music programming for about half its air time.

"Deejays stopped picking music 35 years ago," Hogan said. "That is the job of the program director, and it's a sophisticated one. This is a commercial business, and playing things that are unpopular or appealing to a narrow target is a pretty quick way to find yourself at the bottom of the ratings."

Many members of the local community are satisfied with the choices.

"I believe the two companies bring a pretty good representation of the available formats out there," said Mike Vondras, a Davenport resident who is president of The Ad Group, a Bettendorf-based ad-buying firm.

He and others who buy radio advertising in the market say the concentration of ownership has not presented a problem.

"The stations are intensely competitive, even within their own groups," he said. "Rates have grown as the market has grown, but there has been no rate shock as a direct result of mega-ownership."

Jennifer Fowler, executive director of The District, a non-profit organization that promotes the redeveloped entertainment district in downtown Rock Island, also noted that Cumulus has been an active partner in promoting events that draw people to the district.

"For example, for our Gumbo Ya Ya, which will be a Mardi Gras in the District, they will do a crawfish-eating contest," she said. "It works for them, gives them an edge, and will be an extra draw to the festival."

Still, some observers are disturbed by how the big players wield their power politically. They cite rallies supporting the Iraq war sponsored by some Clear Channel stations in March, and the two-month ban on the Dixie Chicks by Cumulus.

For others, the disappointment is personal.

"When I graduate, I will work in music somehow," said Augustana student Heisel, who plays drums in the school jazz band and combo and sings in the choir. "It's my life, my passion.

"At one time I wanted to go into radio," he said. "As a kid, I thought it was the greatest job ever. But when I look at what community radio is now, and that deejays are just robots, it sickens me."

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune


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