Radio Stations face special challenges in down economy

By Don Day

Continued economic weakness is hurting all forms of media across the country and in Idaho.With the downturn pinching revenue, radio companies are looking for ways to slash expenses and stay afloat.

In the Boise market alone, three of the four major radio groups have turned to layoffs, pay cuts and other measures.

Citadel Communications laid off a high-profile host at KZMG/Magic 93.1 and made a number of other staff changes.The group also cut pay for non-sales employees by 5 percent in February.

Peak Broadcasting laid off popular talk hosts Jon Duane and Chris Kelly, cancelled plans for a live afternoon talk show and left a number of on-air positions unfilled.Managers also required non-sales employees to take a 10 percent pay cut.

“It’s hard because… everyone is working really hard,” Peak Broadcasting CEO Todd Lawley told the Fresno Bee. “But, when faced with everybody taking a nominal pay cut versus us letting go several people, I think it’s a pretty easy decision that we can do that. I’m tired of seeing people become unemployed…”

Like newspapers and television, radio faces intense pressure from alternative methods of delivery.In addition to Internet streaming, radio listeners can access audio from satellite providers, iTunes and other digital delivery methods.The one key difference for local stations has long been localism – a guy or gal sitting in front of a microphone down the street spinning tunes or talking about local issues.

But as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Bill Virgin pointed out late last year, the punishing economic downturn has the potential to set up a vicious cycle.
“In times of tight budgets the temptation is to unload expensive locally based announcers and hosts and substitute automated or syndicated programming,” Virgin wrote. “But the more stations do that … the greater the risk of a disconnect between stations and their audience. The one point of differentiation local radio has is local talent and personality.”

Part of it is necessity, and part is trying to hit lofty revenue goals. The margin on a typical Boise station is much higher today than it was 15 years ago.

Before radio de-regulation and consolidation in the mid-1990s, most Idaho stations were independent or just an AM/FM combo or duopoly. That isn’t to say they were all locally owned, but they all had a support staff, full sales staff – and still managed to find dollars to staff evenings and overnights. Today, stations are virtual jukeboxes for much or all of the day.
One group is trying to buck the trend, by expanding while others are contracting.

Impact Radio Group, which has stations serving the Boise market, Mountain Home, Twin Falls and Ontario continues to expand.The company is owned and operated in the Gem State – different from any other radio operation currently serving Boise.

In the Boise market, the company has created a group of four stations through a mix of creative ideas to “move in” stations from surrounding areas.KSRV-FM was once a small country outlet centered in the Fruitland/Ontario area – but Impact was able to gain Federal Communications approval to move the station’s transmitter to Deer Point and gain signal coverage to the metro area.A similar deal allowed KMCL-FM to move from McCall to the Boise valley. Combined with measures to boost the signals of two other stations, Impact now owns four full-coverage stations in Boise.  The group has launched a set of formats – including 96.1 Bob FM, a so-called variety hits station; 99.1 Idaho’s True Oldies Channel, featuring longtime local personality “Big” Jack Armstrong; Wild 101, an urban contemporary hits station; and KPDA 100.7 La Poderosa, a Spanish-language format.

After years of work to build up the cluster, Impact is now adding staff while others are cutting. Nine staffers have been added in the first quarter of the year – and Impact hopes to take the currently low-rated stations up the harts by adding resources at a time when others are pulling back.

The bottom line for most stations right now is survival.That may mean further cutbacks, pay freezes and wage reductions for any.The question is will the stations be able to survive when the economy finally improves.
Don Day is editor of and is a member of the Idaho Press Club board.