"So get off the wall, become involved All your radio problems have now been solved My treacherous beats make ya ears respond And my radio's loud like a fire alarm ..." -- LL Cool J, "I Can't Live Without My Radio"
Does anyone dream of owning a radio station anymore?
When I was in my teens and early 20s, my friends and I would fantasize about winning the lottery and buying a crappy AM signal. (An FM signal would be fine, too, but we figured it would be too expensive.)
Our model was a cross between the AM greats and the free-form FM stations, in which the DJs would be energetic, fun and a little off-color, and the music would be a mix of ... well, whatever tickled our fancy. It would be exciting, it would be rhythmic and fluid and honest, and we'd always tell listeners the names of the songs and artists they'd just heard.
If I were in college today, would I even dream of working at a radio station -- much less owning one?
"I don't think there is a living to be had in (radio)," says Ana Zimitravich, a student at Georgia State University and general manager of its new-music oriented WRAS-FM. "It is a slowly dissolving business."
Her colleague, WRAS music director Fray DeVore, says that's true for much of the staff, including himself. The Georgia State students they cater to in Atlanta are partial to the Web.
"Now we have a culture of blogging. That's how a lot of (musical) exposure is going on now, through the Internet," DeVore says. "There are so many other resources available than getting in your car and turning on the radio."
The high school and college kids who once craved radio employment -- and trained on their college or local stations -- are finding it harder to get jobs, thanks to the elimination of air shifts. The farm system has been devastated.
"In the old days, if you were a (communications) major or just anybody who was interested in getting into radio, you could find a small- or medium-market radio station and you learned your craft," Syracuse's Wright says. "Now you go into a radio station and there is nobody there. Nobody. There's a computer running the place."
Wright blames the industry leaders.
"The guys who really own this industry are trying to run it as cheap as they can, and that means not hiring any people," Wright says. "And in the meantime they're not laying any seeds for the future of the industry."
Clear Channel's Pittman admits his primary focus now is technology.
One of Clear Channel's major new ventures is IHeartRadio.com, a Web service that features "1,500+ live stations or create your own," its website says, including a Pandora-like channel and several programmed playlists. It's available on the Web or through a variety of device platforms, including apps for iPods, Androids and Kindles.
The idea is to get more stations into more places, whether it's through the Internet or portable device apps. Public transit commuters, for example, can plug into IHeartRadio.com through their smartphones, or people in one market can listen to stations in others.
"What we want is to find more listening occasions," Pittman says.
Digital listening is currently less than 10 percent of the radio audience, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey, but Pittman expects it to be a major part of the future.
"In terms of the digital revolution, we're way behind, but we think it's a terrific opportunity for us," he says.
But others call out the clash between Clear Channel's digital plans and its local cutbacks.
"What he says sounds really good. What he does, not so good," says Galaxy Communications' Levine. "He talks about content over here and when you're not looking, lays off 700 people over here. And nobody calls him on it."