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As the coronavirus lockdown began in March, soft-rock station KyXy – so pleasant that it’s heard daily in dentist offices and retail stores – decided to cheer its audience up by playing Christmas music each day at lunchtime. Meanwhile, disc jockeys at other stations worked to stay cheery as society closed its doors.
Then, within a matter of days, listeners started to drift away from the dial, and many haven’t come back yet. Others are turning to news stations instead of music and sports. As a result, the local radio industry is facing the most chaos in its history. Revenue is down, angst is up and job cuts are rising in a year that began with massive layoffs that snuffed many well-known local voices.
How bad is it? Total radio listenership in San Diego, the nation’s 16th largest radio market, is down 40 percent compared with earlier this year, according to the Nielsen ratings service. While some stations still had hundreds of thousands of listeners in April and May, smaller audiences are translating to even less revenue from commercials amid a pandemic advertising slowdown that’s devastating local media outlets.
The pandemic came just weeks after several national radio chains cut jobs nationally and in San Diego. The layoffs left many longtime local disc jockeys and morning hosts job-less, according to the Union-Tribune, including Chris Cantore, “Cha Cha” Harlow, Robin Roth, Coe Lewis, Nina “Ruth 66” Reeba, Jim McInnes, A.J. Machado and more. Several of those sacked had been on the air here for more than 20 years; McInnes’ on-air career dates back to rock station KGB in the 1970s.
“Radio has been having ongoing issues that have been exacerbated by crises” such as the Great Recession, said industry watcher Sean Ross, who writes the Ross on Radio newsletter. “Radio never fully participated in the early 2010s recovery because of the rise of Pandora, then Spotify. Now, even the companies in the business that are considered ‘good broadcasters’ and not cost-cutters have had cutbacks and consolidations.”
To make matters more challenging, independent local radio is rare. Most major local radio stations are parts of chains beholden to stockholders. The chains, meanwhile, are tempted by technology that makes it easier to program music stations without human disc jockeys. Earlier, in the 2000s, technological advances wreaked havoc on jobs by allowing the radio industry to move away from live disc jockeys toward pre-taped, non-local programs.
The first months of this year were bad enough thanks to the layoffs. Then the pandemic arrived and brought more headaches to radio stations, even those whose share of the listening audience suddenly skyrocketed.
Take news station KPBS-FM, for example. In April, it zoomed up the ratings charts to become the most popular radio station in the county. It pulled in an 8.5 share, which means an average of 8.5 percent of listeners measured by Nielsen were tuning in at any one time. That’s the highest share in the station’s history, and it stayed on top in the May ratings.
But the station actually suffered from an overall decline in listenership as fewer people spent time in their cars with the radio on.
Meanwhile, donations to the public broadcasting outlet are down, and the combined KPBS TV/radio operation has cut three positions and converted 15 of 134 employees to part-time status, said spokeswoman Heather Milne Barger.
Elsewhere on the dial, listener habits are changing. KOGO, a news/talk station full of right-wing talk show hosts, has also seen its ratings jump as listeners flocked to news and opinion. But the two sports stations in town, 97.3 FM “The Fan” and XTRA Sports, have shed listeners big-time.
Among music stations, KSON (country) is sitting pretty at second place, behind KPBS, in the May ratings. Rock stations that appeal to women like Star 94.1 (rock), Channel 933 (Top 40), Magic 92.5 (R&B) and KyXy (soft rock) have seen their ratings fall during the pandemic, while those with heavily male audiences like Rock 105.3 (hard rock) and KGB (classic rock) are grabbing a greater share of the listening audience.
It’s not clear why male-oriented stations are holding up better, but it may have something to do with who’s still listening in their cars and who isn’t. Other radio markets are seeing a similar split during the pandemic, with stations that appeal to men and minorities faring better, writes radio analyst Lance Venta.
What’s next? “Broadcasters have an opportunity to remake the landscape, and they’re going to have to with all the staffing changes that have taken place,” said Ross, the radio columnist. “ [The pandemic] reinforces the importance of local radio, and both radio and their detractors would do well to remember that going forward.”
So far, though, local radio stations haven’t changed their programming much. “I Will Survive” doesn’t seem to be landing on extra playlists, Rush Limbaugh still holds forth in the mornings on KOGO, and the morning “DSC” crew on KGB is as naughty as always (“Boyer & Sarah Share Panties,” a recent show recap declared).
Still, there’s plenty of talk about the pandemic and various shutdowns. KSON urges listeners to “Shout Out Your Salon,” and alt-rocker FM 94/9 features a Quarantine Request Hour. And most – but not all – disc jockeys are working from home.
At the local stations run by Local Media San Diego, including 91X and Z90.3, most hosts still come to work at an office near a cemetery in Sorrento Valley every day. They’re required to disinfect the studios when they’re done.
The group’s newest station, BIG-FM, doesn’t have any disc jockeys yet. Local Media San Diego bought it a few months ago from the owners of KFMB-FM, and it kept on playing rock music. (Locals will know the station better by its many previous incarnations, including B-100, Star 100.7, Jack FM, and, weirdest of all, KFM-BFM).
Program director Garett Michaels doesn’t know when the station will add show hosts. “It wouldn’t be prudent to staff up a radio station when you’re trying your hardest to make sure you aren’t going to lay anybody off,” he said.
All songs and commercials but no local voices? San Diego’s expanding supply of unemployed disc jockeys is hoping other stations don’t get the same idea.