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In a Crisis, Radio Should Be Bigger Than Ever — So Why Isn’t It?

Terrestrial music stations have a major cultural opportunity right now, but employees say a muddied strategy is standing in the way

A woman listens to broadcast radio in 1923.


Radio personality Kevin Ryder was “baffled” by KROQ’s “cold, heartless attitude” when he and his morning-show team were fired at the end of March. The station has long been an alternative/rock staple in Los Angeles, the second-largest market in the country, and Ryder had been on the air for more than 30 years.

“The new people in charge now weren’t here for the building of the world-famous KROQ,” Ryder, one-half of the popular Kevin & Bean Show, said on air when the station let him go, live one final time. “I don’t think it means anything to them. It’s a numbers business, and there’s no family aspect to it anymore. It’s only numbers, but this place was built without numbers. It was musicians, artists, and the special relationship between music, the station, and our fans.”

AM/FM radio provides localized, round-the-clock information and entertainment via friendly neighborhood voices — so in theory, it’s the perfect platform in a global crisis that forces hundreds of millions of people to stay home. But Ryder is one of many in the radio community — including on-air hosts, music directors, program directors — who have been shocked by sudden job losses in recent weeks as COVID-19 has spread across the U.S., and news out of the industry has been one bad thing after another. Why is terrestrial radio missing the opportunity here — and how should it be fighting to get back on top?

The familiarity gap

In response to the pandemic’s shutdown of live events and many other industries across the U.S., leading radio conglomerates iHeartMedia and Entercom (which owns KROQ) announced widespread firings and furloughs.

Multiple sources who either currently work or recently worked in radio told Rolling Stone they believe the KROQ firings were a branding face-lift a long time coming. KROQ has long been looked at as a relative anomaly in the alternative-radio format: “It was almost its own format with a sound that leaned more rock and didn’t match the current pop/hip-hop-leaning landscape,” one radio industry employee says. “Now, it’s basically just flipping to match every other alternative station, which is what Entercom wanted and Kevin Weatherly [the former program director, who left Entercom in February for Spotify] seemed to be protecting it from.

Entercom’s CEO, David Field, tells Rolling Stone those firings were indeed unrelated to the coronavirus — and that local decisions are made by local management depending on how programs perform. “The ratings on the show post-Bean [Gene “Bean” Baxter left the show last year] were not where they needed to be, so the decision was made locally that it was time for change, and time to rebuild a new show that would hopefully garner higher ratings,” Field says.

But the timing of many of these company cuts — which Field admits was unfortunate in the case of KROQ — may be rattling audiences’ familiarity and contributing to radio’s shakiness. “I was really looking forward to your show during these uncertain times to help keep me grounded and to help ease my anxiety for a few hours each day,” one of Ryder’s fans wrote on Twitter. “What brilliant timing!” another tweeted. “Who wants to hear a familiar voice on the radio during a pandemic?!? Idiotic.”

Bay Area radio figure Aaron Axelsen was told to leave his position as music director and on-air personality at San Francisco’s Alt 105.3 after 23 years with the station. “My termination was based 100 percent on the COVID-19 budget cutbacks,” he says. “This just kind of comes with the territory, though. That’s the nature of the game, and we understand and accept that going into it.”

Axelsen says there comes a point when heritage personalities need to move aside, be grateful for their run, and make room for future talent and fresh perspectives. “Sometimes it’s necessary to reinvent,” he says. “Any time you’re going to get rid of a heritage personality, it’s always gonna be met with resistance. [But] there is the importance of radio personalities in a time of crisis — when your audience is looking for comfort. It takes a while to brand and develop new personalities. It can take years to build up the trust that people have with these long-running personalities in their markets, so I think the timing’s really unfortunate.”

While music fans faced with a sprawling field of streaming options may not need music radio, many in the radio community would argue that they do still need their DJs. “You can hear your songs everywhere, but these personalities that you listen to and grow up with can be the calming, soothing voice to help you feel better, escape, or give you information and news,” says Keith Dakin, the vice president of programming for a smaller radio company that owns about 14 stations on the East Coast. “I 100 percent believe that. It’s who you want to turn to in times of crisis. I grew up in the Eighties. When there was news, I wanted Tom Brokaw to tell me the news, because I grew up with Tom Brokaw. These people become your friends. We do perceptual studies and research studies, and people say, ‘Oh, they’re like my family. They’re like my co-workers.’ Making changes now is bad for your brand, because your listeners are used to these DJs and they’re looking for the DJs they love.”

Where is the flexibility?

Radio reaches more than 90 percent of the U.S. population, according to Nielsen, but the definition of “reach” is murky: The metric doesn’t account for passive background exposure, and it isn’t broken up to illustrate the amount of active engagement. According to Edison Research, AM/FM radio listenership was down 5 percent from 2017 to 2019, when it came to audio sources used most often in the car — while usage of SiriusXM, online platforms like streaming, and podcasts had all increased.

Revenue for terrestrial radio advertising has decreased every year since 2015, per research out of PwC, suggesting that the medium as a whole has become less significant to the general public. (Radio companies have also been on shaky financial ground for a while: the 850-station iHeartMedia, for example, filed for bankruptcy in 2018 as part of an attempt to restructure and reduce its billions in debt, then announced mass layoffs in more “reorganization” last year.)

But what if radio could pivot away from background listening and toward a more situation-based format, engaging listeners on whatever’s relevant at that particular moment? Terrestrial radio has the unique ability to freewheel — so insiders say DJs should be allowed to change course at a moment’s notice to best serve their communities. Radio personalities are able to get updates while they’re live on the air, which is not possible with prerecorded satellite radio shows or podcasts. These personalities have the advantage of being able to adjust with agility and express real emotion as it bubbles up.

“People are gravitating towards things that feel familiar because there is so much comfort in that. But that’s not enough — it depends on what they’re saying!” says Alex Gervasi, a popular radio personality who had spent 10 years at iHeartMedia, and six of those at KIIS in L.A., before being let go as part of the massive iHeart layoffs in December. “We’re witnessing another culture shift away from things and people that are superficial and towards those who are authentic and self-aware. It’s not enough to be just positive and upbeat anymore. Are you being vulnerable? Are you listening to the pulse of your community and the people in your community that might have struggles that look different than yours? You’ll have a hard time connecting if you aren’t listening first.”

“Now’s the time to experiment,” Dakin adds. “All of our stations are playing way less commercials because there’s not as much advertising right now. I’m playing all ‘songs that you can sing along to’ at five o’clock on my D.C. station. One of our stations on Long Island is [providing] fake ‘live’ concerts, since there aren’t concerts anymore — so it’s tracks from the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers’ live albums. We’re doing zanier stuff. And I’m gonna have my afternoon guy on Star talk about news, when he usually talks about Lady Gaga’s new song. On all of our stations we put news updates at the top of every hour.”

In the specific time of COVID-19, new updates from government leaders and health officials barrel in by the hour — so radio becomes an even more vital medium for communicating all that. “The average person has no idea if they legally have to wear a mask or not,” says KROQ’s former morning-show producer Jay “Lightning” Tilles, who left radio altogether in 2018 after 27 years at the station. “This would be a time that I would want my DJ to say, ‘Hey, just FYI, here’s what the mayor said,’ and then have a debate about it. I’m not saying that’s not a conversation that’s happening, but it [previously] would have been happening through every morning host. They would have all been talking about it.” Dakin, too, recalls DJs pivoting to 24/7 news channels during previous moments of a national crisis, like Sandy Hook and Hurricane Sandy.

The importance of the local

Radio started shifting from local to national years ago: In smaller markets, you might still have a local DJ who covers the opening of a neighborhood restaurant or a hospital in need of supplies, but the larger markets like L.A., New York, and Chicago have become hubs of syndication. “They wanted to be everything to everyone,” says Tilles.

“The one major advantage [terrestrial] radio has is that it can be hyper-local,” he points out. “They can talk about the opening of a shoebox on the corner of La Crescenta, and they have the agility to do that. They can broadcast from out of their car, as many of the DJs used to do when cell phones were invented. That’s not happening anymore, and you’ve noticed it as a listener.”

Moreover, when a station personality is told to represent multiple markets, that can make it harder for the station to solidify its own identity. And, on a broader scale, it makes it harder for the medium to stand out from satellite radio — a platform that was made so that anyone anywhere could access the same stations — or the Spotifys and Pandoras of the world. Homogenization can occur through the content that’s presented and the music that’s played.

“I always made a point, when I was on the air, to talk about growing up in the East Bay or going to this [nearby] club or taco shop,” Axelsen says. “I tried to promote things that were relevant to them — things that help the music community. I tried to provide information about local venues, promoters, DJs, and artists that were struggling: ‘Here’s how you can help.’ ”

Dakin says one of his stations just raised $10,000 to buy restaurant gift cards that they’re planning on giving to hospitals. “All that money came from the listeners,” he says. “People want to help and radio is good for that.”

The dissipation of localism wasn’t something that happened overnight. “As Weatherly used to say, it’s ‘death by a thousand cuts,’ ” Tilles points out. “It was something that happened every time the station was sold and traded hands, and the people who took it over cared a little less about the culture and what made it special. It also had to do with them wanting to use its identity to help sell other stations’ commercial inventory.”

“They want to be able to both program all of their stations and sell all of their stations universally — meaning that one person would oversee all of [one company’s] alternative stations,” says Tilles. “You’re also seeing a homogenization — or a scaling — of sales. If I’m calling Budweiser and I want to sell Budweiser 117 radio stations, and the only one they actually care about is KROQ, but I can’t sell them KROQ? Well, that’s a problem. So, over time those barriers are removed, but those barriers may have been the brand-protection agents that worked within the company, that held on to the culture that made that station an anomaly.”

In a 2019 Statista survey of the reasons for the decline in radio listening in North America, 41 percent cited other audio options as the main factor for leaving radio behind. The very last reason to listen to radio less was a lack of local information (five percent) — which implies that people don’t have issues with receiving local information, and they may even like it.

Radio companies have publicly spoken about decisions to pursue a balance of local and national — with some believing that a 24/7 cycle of live and local news updates should be saved primarily for news/talk stations, which are largely found on AM airwaves. Field, Entercom’s CEO, suggests terrestrial radio can be home to many things — local content, but also podcasts, on-demand, and syndicated programming, as well as the development of a one-stop-shop platform like radio.com. He says he’s looking at a “broader audio business” that can be delivered both digitally and terrestrially.

Could branching out in so many ways confuse the consumer, though? Field doesn’t think so, and says the double-digit growth in radio.com’s total listener hours and monthly average users would support the success of the multipronged strategy.

Feet on the streets

Large street teams are a thing of the past. But one of the most unique and impactful things a radio station can do is stake a physical presence, radio veterans say. Radio’s dwindling physical connection in the pre-COVID era may have set it up for failure, especially because it’s not possible to make up for that physical contact now. “The physical element of the radio stations — where you would go out, meet a DJ, and drop off canned food or masks or whatever you have — those things have all kind of dried up,” says Tilles. “They try to do everything digitally, and you can’t help people digitally these days in a time of crisis like this. Terrestrial radio is not doing the one thing that sets it apart.”

“We go to charity events. I really think that’s the only way radio can live,” Dakin says. “You gotta go to a million events. You gotta host every charity event that they ask you to. It’s a political campaign. The best jocks and the best radio stations are out all the time meeting people.”

In trying to compete with streaming services, satellite radio, and podcasts, terrestrial radio seems to have lost something of its original mission: Familiarity, flexibility, localization, and interactivity. When considering the future of the medium — whether during the ongoing crisis or afterward — veterans warn of not losing track of those original distinguishing features. “These personalities are so key to helping terrestrial radio,” says Axelsen. “They differentiate it from myriad other algorithm-driven music platforms. A good radio personality is a good narrator, someone you emotionally connect with or disagree with. That’s a tour guide.”

Radio conglomerates do show signs of wanting to adapt and pivot. Recently, for example, companies have announced pay cuts in their executive tiers to help alleviate the economic fallout of the pandemic on their operations. “We want our shareholders to know that we have taken immediate and proactive steps to weather this crisis,” iHeart’s CEO, Bob Pittman, last week said in a statement accompanying news that the company would cut $250 million in costs, due in part to senior managers taking voluntary decreases in compensation.

“Like virtually every business in America right now, we are dealing with an unprecedented, massive challenge that is hammering the amount of advertising dollars, because so many of our clients are closed right now,” says Entercom’s Field, who approved a 30 percent reduction of his own salary. “That creates an imperative for us to significantly reduce expenses. We’ve reduced salaries across the company for anybody making more than $50,000. We have suspended our 401(k). We’ve done a whole bunch of things to cut back on expenses to try to minimize the amount of layoffs. But due to the magnitude of the challenge, we had to make significant cuts.”

The radio business hasn’t specified how those savings will translate into strategy, though. In time, we’ll see whether companies take strategic action to re-endear themselves to listeners — and whether these changes are enough to help the industry ride out the crisis.