Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Rashomon" Has Nothing to Do With Trying to Sack a Quarterback (An OT post)

A centuries-old saying is that "success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan." Except, apparently, when Monday-morning quarterbacking the demise of a much-loved Detroit radio station. So, in very Rashomon-like fashion, various players, current and former, have taken to dissecting the rise and fall of The Fan -- Detroit's first all-sports station, WDFN-AM -- in the midst of Obama's inaugural speech last Tuesday.

=> Former PD Gregg Henson, now out of the radio business but still aware of what the deal is, has long charted the station's up and downs here;

=> Nice guy former morning drive host Jamie Samuelsen weighs in here;

=> His former partner, Greg Brady, writes a great post -- definitely not in the "60 Second Blog" ethos -- here;

=> Now former-PD Rona Danzinger provides her witnessing of the carnage, and rebuts Brady, here;

Another axiom is that you should always follow the money. The loss of The Fan stemmed directly from Clear Channel's being sold, a deal that it was conceived during a bull market, and then ended up closing during the beginnings of the credit squeeze. You can chart the ever-increasing acrimony in what finally evolved into a shotgun wedding:

=> In November 2006, corporate owner Clear Channel agreed to sell to Mitt Romney's old place here and here; some of CC's past shenanigans, like gluttonous over-consolidation and the rusulting possible anti-trust violations, are mentioned in the second link:

=> Then, after all the governmental vetting, credit started to tighten about a year ago, causing one of the buyers to not have much to say in investors, resulting in apologists going into the "all is well" mode.

=> Finally, after an interminable 19-month due diligence process and lawsuits all around, the deal closed this past May, and a whole bunch of belt-tightening was on the horizon.

Now, everyone I ever met from The Fan ranged from at least cordial to downright awesome, a situation you rarely find at any broadcast outlet. Also, let us not forget that many other off-air people at Clear Channel, including friends, got the ziggy, too.

In the big picture, what Clear Channel has wrought has not been good for the industry beyond a handful of its higher-ups. Closer to home, the various takes range from entertaining to informative, and often both, and contain many of the avoidable mistakes and missed solutions which could've made the whole situation better. We forget, though, that while the soldiers on the front lines do the fighting and dying amidst the fog of war business, it stems from the directives from the generals above, playing their little game of Risk or Monopoly, but with real lives.

In the end, I think some essential truths are born out:

=> Terrestrial radio is an awesome business when you craft a product that reflects where it's broadcasting. Homoginizing stations across markets is ultimately a death wish.

=> It's apparent after the last few months, so it's no news flash, but the private sector will screw over everyone but themselves, if you let them.

=> The FCC should take begin to take a long, hard look at these licensees of the public airwaves, and if they aren't doing anything productive for a local market beyond providing syndicated national programming, those licenses should be in jeopardy, if not pulled.

As someone who adores radio and has had some ideas work in the industry, I have long held out hope that these corporate behemoths would ultimately have to divest the stations for any number of reasons, from anti-trust compliance to wanting the tax write-downs to, perhaps, ultimately suffocating from under their own weight. Then, after prices are re-set to a sane market level, local owners will once again be able to craft unique programming visions which are now being relegated to the wonderful, but limited, Internets.

Bottom line, this is yet another example of the path corporate America is now wrongly pursuing to see better days, what I call "downsizing to greatness."

Because, really, have you ever seen that happen?

And now, let us remember that Elvis Costello had this whole scenario sussed out more than 30 years ago:

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