End of an Era

Brace yourselves. It’s another “Decline of Civilization, Film at Eleven” post.

This story goes back about a month and a half. On March 31, San Francisco radio station KFOG fired five of their seven DJs*–the five with the longest tenures at the station.

* I’ve seen a number of comments making much of the fact that three of the five are women–and that the three were the only women on staff. I suppose it’s possible that gender played a part in the decision, but frankly, I doubt it. This is widely seen as a cost-cutting move, and I’d be willing to bet that in this case “longest service” also means “highest salary”. If anyone has data to prove otherwise, I’d be happy to see it.

KFOG, for those of you outside the Bay Area had an album-oriented rock focus. When I started listening, ten or fifteen years ago, the tracklist skewed toward classic rock. Over time, it’s shifted more and more toward contemporary artists–Lorde, Imagine Dragons, and (ptui!) Mumford and Sons spring to mind–but until recently they’ve held on to a good chunk of the 25-54 age bracket. Despite the shift, many of the station’s most popular features remained those that focused on the older tracks, most notably, the daily “10@10” show (ten songs from a specific year) and the annual “KFOG A to Z” (a multi-week alphabetical ramble through the station’s archives). But in recent years “10@10” has rarely gone back further than the eighties, and last year’s “A to Z” was shorter than it had been and included a heavy dose of tracks from the past two or three years.

So it probably shouldn’t have surprised anyone that ratings slipped badly. It certainly didn’t surprise the listeners who remained: any time a station’s advertising relies heavily on two or three advertisers*, it’s a bad sign. But apparently it was a surprise to Cumulus Media, the station owners, who went into a mad “fix-it-now” scramble mode.

* In KFOG’s case, every commercial interlude included a mattress seller, a questionable diet or medical product, or a food delivery service–and usually all three.

On April 1, the station went DJ-free, alternating music and bland ads promoting “The Evolution”.

The Evolution proved to be the hiring of one Matt Pinfield, a veteran of MTV and SiriusXM. The playlist hasn’t changed significantly*. Pinfield hosts the morning commute with one of the two surviving DJs filling the role of sidekick. The other hold-over has evening commute duties. And the rest of the time, the station remains mostly DJ-free.

* Yet. Frequent references to “The Pause” suggest that Cumulus is giving listeners a chance to grieve for the “old KFOG” before they make a formal format change.

So where’s the decline of civilization I warned you about in all this? It’s not the demise of the “old KFOG”. Stations change format or go out of business, and have since radio was invented.

What’s different here is that Cumulus has made it clear that they don’t believe there’s a demand for local radio. Their “new KFOG’s” long stretches of no-DJ programming and Matt Pinfield’s focus on Matt Pinfield* could be dropped seamlessly into an Internet streaming site or satellite radio channel.

* Seriously. I haven’t done an actual count, but I’m pretty sure that every sentence he speaks begins with the word “I” or “My”. “I remember…” “I met him…” “My good friend…”

Local associations are terrestrial radio’s only significant differentiator. Canned press releases, thinly disguised ads for local shows by nationally-touring performers, and outsourced traffic reports are no substitute for a local DJ who can talk knowledgeably about local artists and events.

There’s a parallel here. The position of local radio stations relative to Internet and satellite stations is pretty much the same as neighborhood restaurant have towards the McDonald’ses and TGIFs. Or, to take a slightly different angle, the local hardware store compared to Amazon and Walmart. They survive by offering personalized customer service and products you can’t get anywhere else.

Unless Cumulus pulls a rabbit out of its hat when “The Pause” ends, their “new KFOG” will be lost in the mass of generic Modern Rock stations. But even if they do have a good surprise waiting for listeners, their tone deaf (sorry) approach to the change has alienated so many of the remaining listeners, I seriously doubt they’ll stick around.