Three years ago, Cumulus Media stock was at $60/share. This week, it was at 33 cents per share. You could own a piece of one of this country’s biggest radio companies — 570 stations in 150 markets — with the change under the cushions of your couch. Despite that, CEO Mary Berner was given a bonus by the company of over a million dollars, probably at the same time employees were laid off left and right so she could increase the bottom line.
Meanwhile, its biggest competitor IHeartMedia is not a public company. It is owned by two private equity firms, and it is drowning in red ink. Owner of 850 radio stations (down from 1,100 when it was known as Clear Channel), IHeartMedia is on the verge of bankruptcy because it took on too much debt — more than $20 billion — it can’t pay off. According to Variety:
The company is fighting its debtholders on several fronts in court. In December, it skipped a payment to one of its subsidiaries, and ratings agencies warned that its balance sheet had become unsustainable. In 2019, $8.3 billion in debt comes due, and the company appears to have no realistic way to pay it off.
You can thank the 1996 deregulation of the industry, which removed caps on the number of stations a company can own. After that, smaller companies got swallowed up by bigger companies, and pretty soon, things were out of control. Those conglomerates took on tons of debt to buy up the stations, then consolidated them and killed competition. Where you might have had two rock stations that went head to head before, now you had a company that switched the format of one of them so the other could dominate the market. But listeners lost options, and employees lost jobs and career paths were killed.
New studios were built to bring the stations — which used to be in different parts of town — under one roof. Since they were all in the same place, why bother having distinct management teams when you can over-work one general manager and one engineer for all your outlets in the market?
When I did the syndicated America Weekend show, while I did my end from my home studio, we rented control room space at the Clear Channel complex in Milwaukee, where there were six stations. The GM there wasn’t just tasked with overseeing those — he also was in charge of five more Clear Channel stations in Madison, an hour and a half drive away. How much attention do you think he could pay to each of those eleven stations? What about the program directors in each market who have responsibility for two, three, four stations, often in completely different formats?
The industry keeps fooling itself that everything is fine, citing an old statistic that says 93% of Americans still listen to radio. What they don’t admit is that an increasing number of those people aren’t listening to broadcast outlets — they refer to Pandora and Spotify as radio, too. Same goes for podcasts. To them, any audio source equals radio.
When you have music stations that offer no real personality, but rather a cookie-cutter format that could be anywhere because it has no local relatability, radio loses. When the weekday deejays are also heard on Saturdays and Sundays doing generic liners because they record their voices during the week and a computer inserts them between the songs on the weekend, radio loses. When conglomerates are on the verge of bankruptcy but insist on paying management big bonuses instead of retaining talented staff members — thus leaving remaining staffers to do more work for less money, radio loses.
There will come a time very soon when those losses from the bases the business is built on — listeners, ratings, and advertising revenue — grow large enough to cause the big radio conglomerates to come tumbling down. Unfortunately, by then, there won’t be anyone left to rebuild the dying industry.