iHeart’s Mass Radio Firing Kills Something In All Our Communities

The latest evisceration of local radio by megaowner iHeartMedia might feel less disheartening if iHeart weren’t being so dishonest about it.

iHeart started the new year by firing hundreds of on-air hosts and programmers at its 850 radio stations.

iHeart didn’t put it quite that way, of course. Its internal memo referred to the firings as “employee dislocation,” which I suppose is technically accurate. Yesterday they were in the building and today they’re on the street.

I’ve often wondered whether corporate euphemisms for firing — “restructuring,” “downsizing,” “reduction in force,” etc. — were designed to make the company look better to outsiders or to make the people who do the firing feel better.

I know for sure it doesn’t matter. Hundreds of radio station employees — maybe more than a thousand, according to the newsletter Inside Radio — are now jobless, and dozens of communities are a little less connected.

Miserable as being fired is for those involved, the community part is the long-term tragedy for those of us whose main connection to radio is listening.

Radio is magic because someone inside that mysterious device is talking to you, and the connection feels stronger when you know those folks live in the same place and walk the same streets. The music, or the conversation, is coming from right around here, not some amorphous place that could be anywhere.

Like local newspapers, local radio can be hokey and pedantic. The commercials may sound small-town compared to slick national spots. The traffic or weather reports may seem endless and repetitive.

And so what? That’s part of the appeal. Part of the charm. It’s life, right? A lot of small things put together.

A generic radio voice that could be a thousand miles away, however professional, isn’t the same.

Ironically, iHeart’s internal memo seems to agree: “Our company is built on the strength of broadcast radio — the markets in which we operate and the connection of our stations to the communities they serve.”

Unfortunately, the memo continues with a flat-out lie: “We will continue to serve every local community in which we operate just as we always have.”

Tell that to Syracuse, or Oklahoma City, or Asheville, or Myrtle Beach, or San Diego or Akron or dozens of other cities where local hosts have been replaced by the Voice From Anywhere.

Just be thankful iHeart isn’t in the restaurant business. They’d be scraping the salad, rice and vegetables into the garbage and telling you your meal is the same without them.

It’s particularly easy to pick on iHeart here because the company memo also speaks expansively of plans to create things like “Excellence Centers” and an “Integrated Revenue Strategies Group.”

Corporations are almost as skilled at coming up with impressive names for new management entities as they are at avoiding the word “fired.”

But this also must be acknowledged: iHeart isn’t some corporate outlier in an industry that is otherwise generous and thriving.

Broadcast radio, like virtually all other “traditional media” from newspapers to broadcast television, has been whipsawed this century by the cosmic changes that the Internet has wrought.

While iHeart has its own challenges, including a badly timed expansion that saddled it with massive corporate debt, it is not alone among radio companies in having to rethink its financial game plan.

Nor is radio the only field in which that means trimming one of the biggest budget lines: jobs and people.

True, iHeart pays its CEO $14 million a year and probably will spend enough on its “Integrated Revenue Strategies Group” that it could have retained a few afternoon DJs. But without getting all Bernie Sanders about it, that’s how corporations work these days. Quarterly earnings reports are the Holy Grail and The Top is taken care of.

Long-term, iHeart will focus more on streaming, apps and podcasts, to compete with the likes of Pandora, Apple Music and Spotify. That’s not a silly idea, since those services give millions of paying customers what they want. Their own jukebox.

But it’s hard to believe many listeners don’t also sometimes want the voice, that person talking to you or playing the music for you. “The connection of our stations to the communities they serve,” as iHeart’s memo put it.

We’re not going back to the way local newspapers and radio served their communities 50 years ago. It doesn’t matter that the Civil Rights movement or a hundred thousand small and large citizen campaigns turned those local media into the engines that powered the reshaping of their communities. Media has changed, and while the need remains as great as ever, we’re now sorting out what combination of platforms will replace the older, simpler model.

That said, the loss of all those radio hosts, programmers and producers collectively leaves all of us a little more isolated, a little more on our own — and iHeart insults us by pretending it doesn’t.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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