I was speaking with Paul Drew this week about the state of radio.  It’s easy for those of us who were successful in radio to critique others…particularly when we aren’t dependent on a radio station for our livelihood.  Along with our criticism, however, comes the knowledge of exactly how difficult it is for programmers to succeed in today’s climate.  We understand the nuances of programming, because we were there.

With control of stations narrowing to five or six companies, it’s a matter of time before one or more asserts power in ways that will drastically effect the industry.

To understand the future, one must consider the past.  I’m not looking back to champion the glory days, but to give examples of what is sure to occur shortly.

In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the RKO chain of stations dominated the radio and record industries like none before or since.  So strong was the positioning of these stations, that it was impossible for a record to break the Top 10 without the chain.  The power of an RKO chain add was enormous.  By putting records directly on the most important stations in the country, the path to success became a superhighway.  The opposite, of course, was also true.  If you didn’t get the chain, you were screwed.

RKO used this power to its advantage.  RKO featured recording acts for concerts and client parties long before the practice became widespread.  The possibility of airplay was so big that RKO seldom had to make specific commitments.  Instead of promising to play a superstar’s record for an appearance, it was a case of making the appearance to avoid potentially angering RKO  and jeopardizing a future release.

There were other radio chains during this period of time, but none was as successful as RKO at combining power for the betterment of the company.  The others chose to run each station individually rather than as a group.  It was a strategic mistake.  By combining each station into one corporate entity, RKO was able to wield power as no other before or since.  And RKO was able to exert this power with only 12 stations, six of which were Mainstream.  That pales in comparison with today’s giants.

When will it happen again?

Soon.  The two companies best positioned to make this move are Chancellor and Jacor.  These two giants control enough important, Mainstream stations to make it happen.  But before it can work, programming within the companies would have to be restructured.  One VP Programming must have the authority to make the moves with impunity.  If records are only occasionally added to the chain or done piecemeal, it won’t work.  The power comes from one decisive move.

RKO made one to three chain adds each week.  As a PD, you were required to add these records, but you were also free to add others working in your market.  Depending on the success, these individual adds might later make it on the rest of the chain.

Some PDs and record executives resist a move of this kind because of the consolidation of power.  Their fears are misguided.  Although the power of the VP Programming is absolute, individual PDs don’t lose anything.  They actually gain in this configuration.

At RKO, the different PDs were polled each week.  Their opinions weighed heavily in making chain adds.  Individual PDs used this power to their advantage.  If a record promoter was working the Boston PD on a song and it was added to the chain, the Boston PD took credit for getting it on the chain and thereby increased his stature.  The record promoter took the same credit by claiming his work through the Boston PD resulted in the chain add.  If the record didn’t make the chain, the Boston PD could show independence by adding it locally and the promoter took a bow.  If the record didn’t get added anywhere, the Boston PD and the promoter blamed the VP Programming and everyone was off the hook!

The fears of the record companies about the absolute power of one radio group dictating chain adds are unfounded.  The VP Programming can make concert and promotion decisions for the entire chain.  This would result in a better deal for both the individual stations and the record companies involved.  It’s one-stop shopping.  Record executives complain about the high cost of promotion.  Having a record added to a chain will allow companies to find out quickly whether or not a record is a hit.  If it doesn’t make it on the chain after a few weeks, promotional dollars wouldn’t be wasted on the eternal effort to find out.

It’s only a matter of time before chain adds again become a reality.  PDs and record execs shouldn’t fear this process, but welcome it.  You don’t really have a choice.

Besides, there is a more sinister possibility out there.  Such as, when will one of the monster radio conglomerates form its own record company?  The Platform is already in place.  Instant access is available.  That’s the real 2,000 pound gorilla.

The only thing that would strike more fear into the hearts of record executives would be if one of the radio companies decided to consolidate power, begin chain adds and name me VP Programming.

That, my friends, would be Godzilla!

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