Radio is for the ruthless. At least that's how it seems when rewatching Empire of the Air, a documentary by Ken Burns (who else?), currently being reprised on PBS stations on the eve of its 20th anniversary.
The film recounts the bitter patent battle between radio pioneers Edwin Armstrong, inventor of frequency modulation (better known as FM) and David Sarnoff, who envisioned a "radio music box scheme" and would later helm RCA and its network spawn NBC and ABC.
A merciless crusader for AM, Sarnoff effectively shut Armstrong's rival invention out of the market for decades, eventually driving him to suicide. Now, it seems Armstrong's ghost continues to exact its revenge on AM—in this case, the 73-year-old landmark on the local dial, KSRO 1350-AM.
The most conspicuous casualty is 37-year radio veteran Steve Jaxon, who until last week hosted the afternoon show The Drive for the Santa Rosa&–based station. Just shy of his second year as the station's resident raconteur, Jaxon leveraged extensive relationships in the arts and politics to create a regional drive-time show that rivaled, at least in scope, that of his nationally broadcast colleagues. Jaxon's show was also the habitué of many local media professionals, including several Bohemian contributors, including this one.
"Radio has lost its cachet in a lot of different ways lately. It's the old story that there are 'so many options,' from internet radio to whatever," said a circumspect Jaxon shortly after his dismissal by KSRO station manager Kent Bjugstad, who reportedly broke the news to Jaxon and two other staffers on May 24.
It's likely the decision to cut Jaxon, however, was not made by local management but by their masters on the eastern seaboard, Maverick Media Holdings, a Westport, Conn.-based venture that owns KSRO and dozens of sister stations throughout the nation. Maverick Media could not be reached for comment, nor is it even possible to access its website, maverick-media.ws, which remains perpetually "under construction."
It's ironic that a company 3,000 miles away and a couple blocks down Main Street from the Westport Williams-Sonoma could silence a voice that defined Sonoma County. Such is the nature of the modern media landscape, where "local" media is seldom locally owned. That said, a trend is emerging that is both counterintuitive and testament to the changing sound of radio, as independent voices are frequently pulled into the fray by large organizations that once shunned them.
Broadcast behemoth Clear Channel Communications, for example, has been frequently assailed for the iron grip it keeps on its stations' play lists. Critics claim the micromanagement of the local airwaves has led to a homogeny in broadcast music. Others even describe this as corporate censorship.
However, Clear Channel is also the operator of iHeartRadio.com, an online radio premise with over 750 niche stations that, according to Ad Age, reaches 22 million unique listeners a month, had an estimated $175 million in "digital revenue" in 2009, and regularly platforms new acts (albeit, sometimes in cahoots with record labels—is it true they can't hear you scream "Payola!" in cyberspace?). Likewise, artist-empowering businesses like CD Baby help musicians and would-be chat hosts and pundits mainline their product directly into the iTunes store, which boasts some 6 billion served.
Though KSRO produced podcasts of The Drive and leveraged social media and other forms of online connectivity, Maverick Media as a whole doesn't seem to motivate a culture of innovation in the distribution and monetization of its product. Instead, it's held to a traditional broadcast model and has had to resort to old-school tactics to stay afloat—like cutting its staff.
"For AM in a market this size, it's amazing that they stayed on the air for 73 years in some ways. The radio business is screwed right now," says Jaxon, who is currently fielding offers from other stations. "It's just consultants and owners that have to be cheaper everyday."
Cheaper, of course, has its price. Consider Sarnoff's Law, named for the aforementioned corporate radio raider, who observed that the value of a broadcast entity is only proportional to the number of people tuning in. If your listeners number zero, your station is worthless. On KSRO, at least, they were listening to Steve Jaxon.
Daedalus Howell blogs at DHowell.com.