“Bloodbath” is how some radio business insiders are describing the big round of layoffs for employees and on-air personalities affecting America’s largest owner of radio stations, iHeartMedia. The percentage of employees laid off by the company formerly known as ClearChannel on Tuesday (1-14) wasn’t especially high considering the company’s estimated 12,500-strong labor force, but it was who received pink slips that has left so many radio professionals and their local listeners in shock.
Disproportionately affecting country music and sports stations, scores of DJs with double digit tenures, including ones behind the microphones of popular and profitable shows were let go by iHeartMedia with no notice, some minutes after finishing their shows in a major restructuring of the company.
WSIX Nashville’s afternoon hosts and syndicated evening personalities Tige & Daniel were let go. On air personality and assistant program director Bree Wagner of KAJA & KRPT in San Antonio and KASE & KVET in Austin was let go, Mike Preston at WPOC in Baltimore and Chad Heritage at KSSN in Little Rock were let go, and Bill Reed of KKXY and KTST in Oklahoma who had been with the company for 26 years was let go, along with many others.
The layoffs started with a strangely-worded missive from iHeartMedia about the company’s future plans, saying the the moves would create “Centers of Excellence” that will use artificial intelligence and other technology to “provide a better experience for listeners and business partners and a more efficient process for all of its employees.”
“iHeart is the rare example of a major traditional media company that has made the successful transformation into a 21st century media company — one with unparalleled scale, reaching 91% of Americans each month with our broadcast assets alone, more than any other media company,” said Chairman/CEO Bob Pittman. “We are now using our considerable investments in technology to modernize our operations and infrastructure, further setting us apart from traditional media companies; improving our services to our consumers and advertising partners; and enhancing the work environment for our employees.”
In other words, they’re replacing employees for algorhythms, eliminating local and regional talent for more national programming, and generally eliminating the last element that makes radio interesting and important, and able to compete with streaming services and podcasts in the digital age: a local personality to connect to and to serve you music, sports, and news with a local perspective.
Though these moves will most certainly offload salary for the company and streamline operations, it’s at the expense of one of the last things that makes radio relevant. Undoubtedly for a major media company to survive, they must modernize, especially when it comes to a dying medium such as radio. But the future of radio remains local, and removing the local element is what has made the medium less viable over time.
As major corporations like iHeartMedia continue to try and cost cut their way to profitability, locally-owned and privately-owned radio stations that set their own playlists, allow local and regional stars their first entry point to an audience, and can engage with communities through local appearances and events will be the ones who survive.
The loss of local-oriented radio is what has allowed the musical monogenre to emerge, making it harder for local and regional talent to break out nationally, and has lent to music sounding the same throughout the country no matter where you are, bleeding out the regional flavor and dialect of entertainment culture.
iHeartMedia filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March of 2018 listing $12.3 billion in assets and $20.3 billion in debt. After paying debtors pennies on the dollar, they were able to emerge from bankruptcy protection in May of 2019. The iHeartMedia app has been on of the company’s few recent successes, but it’s because it allows people to access local radio personalities no matter where they are.
The cuts may keep iHeartMedia in the black for the short term. But it’s at the expense of the last reason why anyone would turn their radio on in the first place, or pull up a local station through an app: to hear someone you can personally connect with, and serve you the audio content that is most relevant to you. Instead of doubling down on what makes radio cool, they’ve assured that further cuts in on-air personalities that communities connect with will be needed in the future in the further automation of American radio.