Every weekday morning you can still hear the Connie and Fish radio show on Z104, WZEE 104.1. The show still features the same zany, off-color questions for listeners.
But since last fall there's a difference. You won't hear Connie or Fish talk much about Madison anymore. Beltline traffic and weather forecasts are now patched in during station breaks.
The Connie and Fish show left Madison last September. It is now syndicated out of Milwaukee.
Since the recession began last year, the share of local radio programming that is live and locally produced has declined at an increasingly rapid pace. Voice tracking and syndication - the prerecorded tools that broadcast companies began widely using earlier this decade to reduce costs - are no longer reserved for evening and overnight shifts. They're beginning to see the light of day.
From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays on WOLX 94.9, Ken Merson hosts Madison's Greatest Hits from a recording studio in Baltimore. On WCHY 105.1, San Francisco-based voice talent Will Morgan poses as a jock named Charlie. At WMAD 96.3 Star Country, local program director and midday host Tyler Reese was laid off in January. He was replaced by another Baltimore radio personality who broadcasts as Michael J.
Another change: The use of syndicated programs with unabashedly national hosts, once the domain of talk radio, has spiked on Madison's commercial music stations. Ryan Seacrest now hosts afternoons on Z104, and 140 other U.S. radio stations, from Hollywood. Bob and Tom wake up Madison morning listeners from Indianapolis on WIBA 101.5. Alice Cooper puts those same listeners to bed from Phoenix. Magic 98, WMGN 98.1, brings us Delilah from Seattle. WJJO 94.1 pipes in Lou Brutus from Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, at least 16 Madison radio jobs have been lost in the past year. Last month, Clear Channel Communications laid off eight Madison-based employees. Last year, after Mid-West Family Broadcasting eliminated one of their stations, WHLK 93.1, eight employees were let go.
Local radio's hard times mirror the broader decline of Madison media outlets. The Capital Times stopped printing as a daily newspaper last year. Even Isthmus has reduced its staff.
For radio, that means the pilots of our airwaves aren't flying over Madison in real time. Sometimes, they're not flying over Madison at all.
Back in the era of the regional hit record, radio thrived as a locally focused medium. Nowadays radio is, more and more, piped in from faraway places. True, there are still local broadcasters, and some are using new technologies to build local networks of listeners.
But the trend is away from local.
Madison's 16 commercial radio stations are owned and operated by three companies, only one of which is based here. Clear Channel Communications, based in San Antonio, Texas, owns six Madison stations, including Z104. Charlie FM and two others are owned by Pennsylvania-based Entercom Communications. Madison-based Mid-West Family Broadcasting owns seven stations, among them Magic 98 and Spanish-language WLMV 1480.
Each ownership group broadcasts all of its frequencies from studios housed in one building. This means that local radio's recent preference for non-live programming has a stark implication: Prerecorded shows often sound live and local, but they're being broadcast from buildings that can be vacant overnight and for much of the weekend.
Tom Teuber, the former program director of Triple M, 105.5 FM, says 'round-the-clock staffing has never been the policy at Entercom. "I remember the first time I walked into the building to do some work on the weekend," he says. "All three stations were voice-tracked, and I was the only person in the building. It took me awhile to get used to that, but it is the norm, not the exception."
Only Mid-West Broadcasting verified a policy requiring at least one staff member to be present in the company's building 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Mid-West CEO Tom Walker says there's a reason for that. "If something happens in the middle of the night that would require us to be broadcasting live," he notes, "we could flip the switch right away and be on with all our frequencies."
Multiple calls made to Entercom Madison's general manager and the current Triple M program director were not returned for comment on voice tracking and syndication in the Madison market.
Mike Ferris, assistant general manager for Clear Channel Madison, directed me to corporate public relations. He said corporate policy does not allow local staffers to respond to questions about local programming. Clear Channel's corporate public relations office responded to my inquiry with an email. "The company isn't commenting on its programming strategies at this time," wrote Michele Clark.
At Mid-West Family Broadcasting, meanwhile, Walker made himself and his staff available for questions. At Mid-West's Magic 98, operations manager and morning host Pat O'Neil says the station broadcasts live at least 12 hours per day, seven days per week, and that doing so is a public service.
"The other morning a woman called me from her car, having just seen a truck flip over on Highway 18/151," O'Neil says. "I put that information on the air within two minutes. Thousands of people were hopefully able to change routes, or at least had some idea of what to expect on the roads. We're staffed for emergency situations. I think that companies that don't do that are ignoring listeners and forgetting why they have an FCC license in the first place."
Instead of retrenching, radio stations could be reaching out to new audiences with innovative practices. So says Jerry Del Colliano, clinical professor of music industry at the University of Southern California. His frequent blog entries at the private Inside Music Media are notable for their unyielding criticism of corporate radio's approach to local programming.
Digital interaction is the key to gaining young listeners, Del Colliano believes. "This is a generation that demands to be the program director of entertainment content that can be time-delayed, deleted, shared, stopped and restarted," he writes. "You don't broadcast to them. They broadcast to others."
Indeed, the most innovative show on Madison radio reflects Del Colliano's thinking.
At 10 p.m. on Saturdays, the new frontier of local radio is on Madison's only hip-hop station, jAMZ-FM (93.1 and 106.7 FM), which is owned by Mid-West Family Broadcasting. The show is called Planet Jamz.
For four hours each week, local hip-hop producer DJ Pain 1 works his laptop to create an original remix of MP3s using Serato Scratch, a software program that lets DJs splice and mix digital files the same way they scratch vinyl. "What's unique about this show is that you've got local hip-hop artists controlling the mix," he says. "We grew up here, and we're connected to the Madison hip-hop community. We know what kind of vibe they're looking for on a Saturday night."
Fridays, two other local hip-hop personalities - DJ Fusion and DJ Brook - are live on the microphones at jAMZ.
The innovation of these mix shows, as they are called, stems from radio's role as a kind of online moderator. The local shows belong to a broader network of Internet socializing. During the broadcast, DJ Pain 1 and co-host MC Starr guide listeners to their MySpace page, which functions as a digital companion to the show. Listeners are encouraged to submit shout-outs to friends.
Innovation like that of Planet Jamz is not being overlooked by all corporate radio talent.
"I don't know why everyone doesn't realize this in radio," says Fish of Z104 - and now, also, Milwaukee's WQBW 97.3 The Brew. "Everyone wants to be a star. And that's really the concept of Connie and Fish. We're not the stars; the people that call are the stars."
Still, Jerry Del Colliano isn't optimistic about the prospects for reform by corporate owners managing losses and looking to sell stations. "Virtually no attention will be paid to the digital future because the only future these owners want is to get out," he writes. "As a result, radio will sink further into irrelevancy with the next generation - 80 million young people without whom radio is condemned to no future."
If innovation fails, local radio studios will continue to sit empty much of the time, and a once-glorious medium will fade into irrelevance.
If innovation succeeds, more local hosts like DJ Pain 1 and MC Starr will be live at the mike, connecting one Madisonian to another.
Connie and Fish change radio from inside the box
This story was supposed to be a personality profile of Z104 morning hosts Connie and Fish. That is, until their recent syndication became a hook I couldn't resist.
I had big questions about the direction and future of Madison radio. But after spending an hour talking to Connie and Fish, I'm inclined to say that the highest-profile corporate-generated morning team on Madison radio is part of the solution, not the problem.
That's because Connie and Fish are innovating radio content in significant, if not local, ways. Their rapid-fire direct interaction with up to 400 listeners every morning via phone, email and text is a model for plugging a new generation of media consumers into radio.
When I talked to Connie and Fish, who go only by their first names, they vigorously defended their Clear Channel bosses and discussed their ambition to syndicate across Wisconsin.
You've said you lived through experiences with single-owner stations in the '90s that made you want to work for corporate radio. Can you explain?
Connie: We were hired by a Grand Rapids station in 1999. And this guy was buying the station through a lease management agreement. He was not a radio guy, but man, he had some great dreams, and he pooled some great staff. He had all these high hopes for millions of dollars. In September of '99 the original owners took it back because he was not making payments. One day in the 9 o'clock hour of our show, the station switched to elevator music.
We went through nine months of unemployment. Our credit cards were maxed out. I had to move in with Fish. Our plan was to work for a company where we could go and beat the hell out of a Clear Channel or an Entercom so they would hire us away into our dream job.
And you found that in Mississippi?
Connie: When we started in Jackson, we were at like a 2.6 [in the Arbitron ratings]. After two books - and if you follow Arbitron you know it never happens - we went to like a 12.8.
How did you make the leap from Madison to Mississippi?
Fish: One of the former program directors for Z104 is Jimmy Steele. He was the brand manager for the Clear Channel station in Jackson, Miss.
Connie: He listened to our show, and when Marc and Vicki were leaving Z, he called [Clear Channel Madison general manager] Jeff Tyler and said, "I think we might have your new morning show."
You've credited your listeners with being your writers. Can you provide an example?
Connie: Like today we did this "question for guys and question for girls." Those all come from listeners. We do those on Thursdays and we'll say, okay, if you want to pose a question to the opposite sex, or your own sex, go ahead and email us. And they do.
It's such a show about life. Like one day we had a listener call in and say, 'My husband I are fighting because I say you don't look at toilet paper when you wipe and he says you do and that you should.' We want on the air with that. It was hysterical. We call it the Connie and Fish Poll. We're like - all right, do you or don't you? It's like things you never think about.
Let's talk a little bit about what's happened since September, which is that you guys moved your show. Was this something you wanted?
Fish: We've always wanted to be syndicated. It's a new adventure to tackle.
Connie: We said we wanted to do it. We wanted to take over Wisconsin.
Fish: We want Green Bay. We want La Crosse. We want Eau Claire.
Connie: [Clear Channel] has been great to us. They don't want to lose us so they help us do the things we want to do.
Fish: And Clear Channel Madison, the local chapter of Clear Channel, is a great place. Some people would disagree, but they've been great to us. In regard to radio syndication, I'm confident in what we do. We work very hard for people to enjoy it.