Can a radio station outsource more programming to national and regional voices and, at the same time, become more responsive to the community it serves? Clear Channel Communications, which owns three music and three talk radio stations in the Madison market, is about to try.
On April 15, the San Antonio-based company announced major programming and public affairs initiatives that will make more nationally distributed and "cross-market" shows available to its stations. Clear Channel also committed to new minimum standards for public service announcements. It said it will provide greater exposure for public affairs programs and make "programming commitments to local musicians."
In addition, Clear Channel announced it will establish local advisory boards in every community in which it broadcasts. Clear Channel Madison market manager Jeff Tyler confirms he has "put together an initial contact list" for potential advisory board members. "Contacts will begin the week of May 4," says Tyler. "I am not going to release my 'ask' list at this time, but hope to announce our initial board makeup by the end of May."
Mandatory community advisory boards were proposed by the Federal Communications Commission in January 2008 as part of a wider "broadcast localism" proposal. If it had been adopted, the proposal would have become legally binding federal regulation. But the proposal was opposed by the National Association of Broadcasters and, after several months of public comment, was dropped.
The proposal sought comment on a wide range of possible FCC regulations for local television and radio stations. These included keeping stations from operating when they are not staffed, limiting recorded DJ announcements and requiring the disclosure of how playlists are chosen.
The initiatives come even as Clear Channel lays off 590 employees nationwide. Tyler declined to comment, but the trade website All Access reports that the cuts include WIBA-AM news staffers Jason Fischer and Jennifer Miller.
The new emphasis on public affairs comes even as Clear Channel's Madison music stations add more syndicated and "voice-tracked" programming. Since last summer, Clear Channel's Z104 (104.1 FM) has carried "On Air with Ryan Seacrest" weekday afternoons from 1 to 4. In January, Clear Channel laid off Star Country (96.3 FM) program director Tyler Reese and replaced his midday shift with a voice-tracked host based in Baltimore.
The initiatives announced by Clear Channel on April 15 suggest that the move toward non-local programming won't end anytime soon.
A major component of Clear Channel's new strategy is called Premium Choice. It is meant to make "programming and on-air talent that's proven to be most popular with audiences available more broadly to local program directors in all markets," according to a press release. This means Premium Choice is taking non-local programming "in-house." That's as opposed to shows like "Ryan Seacrest," which are distributed by syndication companies.
Under Premium Choice, cross-market work by Clear Channel hosts will be expanded. This initiative follows the model of Z104 morning hosts Connie and Fish, who moved their broadcast from Madison to Milwaukee last fall. The show is now broadcast locally in Milwaukee and across market into Madison. Likewise, Madison talk host Vicki McKenna broadcasts weekday afternoons on WIBA (1310 AM) but also does a separate live show for WISN-AM in Milwaukee weekday mornings.
No other cross-market programs are currently planned for Clear Channel Madison, but more could follow. "The local program directors don't have to take any of the Premium Choice programming if they're meeting their goals without it," says Tyler.
Meanwhile, Tyler says Clear Channel Madison is currently working to develop an "on-air component as part of our commitment locally to new music and new artists."
While plans for new and local music shows have not yet been finalized, 2009 is already taking shape as the year Madison music radio became primarily non-live and non-local. In March, Tom Kent's "Ultimate Party Show" began nightly rotation on WOLX (94.9 FM, owned by Entercom Communications). That same month, Charlie FM (105.1, also owned by Entercom) began featuring Kidd Kraddick from 5 to 10 a.m. Kraddick is broadcast from Dallas and distributed by Citadel Media.
As for Clear Channel's music stations, Tyler says there's only one possible on-air talent lineup change at this time: another hour of Ryan Seacrest.