You knew it would happen. A full-power Atlanta FM station would be voice-tracked for almost its entire broadcast day. And you guessed it would be a Clear Channel property. Well, that day has come for "Atlanta's new country leader," 94-9 The Bull.
Lance Houston, The Bull's APD/MD and afternoon personality, departed to accept the Program Director position at Clear Channel sister WPOC-FM in Baltimore. But, Lance is still on the air in afternoon drive here in Atlanta via the wonder of voice tracking.
The concept is not exactly new, of course. Back in 2005, The Bull's predecessor on 94.9, Lite FM, had a live morning show with Randy & Spiff, followed by Steve Goss from 9 to noon. Then came the voice-tracking with Heather Lorenzo (Randy West) from North Carolina and JT (Jeff Tyson) out of Birmingham. They were followed by the syndicated Delilah and automation overnight.
Even worse are the "Jack" stations, or whatever male name they are christened. They run automated with a business model based on mediocre ratings coupled with low operational costs. Who knew? The combination of debt and technology created this.
At 94-9 The Bull, Jason Pullman and Kristen Gates start the day with Caffeinated Radio, live from the Peachtree Street studios. At 10 o'clock, the control room lights go out, and Madison Reeves, Lance Houston and Angie Ward voice track the hours until midnight, when the syndicated "After MidNite" with Blair Garner cranks up until dawn. Just a year ago, The Bull was live and local from 6AM until 7PM.
So will things ever get back to the way they were? Some radio aficionados hope big debt will eventually force the main offenders, Clear Channel and Cumulus, to sell off legions of stations. But would even that change things?
There are a number of inherent problems. For one thing, listeners
likely do not notice. Lance Houston can still host the "Top 6 at 6." Voice-tracked shows can still air calls from "listeners." And voice-tracked jocks can still list their favorite Atlanta restaurants on The Bull's website. As long as the ratings of voice-tracked stations
are comparable to their live competitors, rationalizing that voice
tracking is bad radio will be difficult.
Is this an opportunity for direct competitor Kicks 101-5 to steal listeners from The Bull? Could Kicks, which itself is hamstrung by its carriage of CMT Live with Cody Alan in evenings, promote that it's live and local? Could the station make middays with Jenn Hobby and afternoons with Mike Macho more interactive to emphasize its difference from The Bull?
What if Kicks was successful in instilling the fact it's live and local while The Bull's jocks are recorded and out-of-town? Would listeners really care? My guess is they would not. And Kicks could be taking a chance of damaging its sound with too much extraneous content.
Clear Channel gobbled up lots of small and medium markets in its initial buying spree following deregulation. Cumulus built its original business in small and medium markets. At this point, both companies probably would be happy to dispose of many outlets outside the majors. Would that get a lot of stations back to their community roots and live broadcasts? Probably not. Technology has made the allure of bigger profits too tempting.
Another manifestation of voice tracking is it's keeping talented young people away from radio. The decline in jobs could make developing future stars difficult.
All told, the only thing that would bring live and local back to radio would be listeners tuning out en masse. That would force radio companies to change things. But technology is powerful. In the music-driven world of PPM, stations can sound good and get ratings without the live and local elements that made radio so magical when I was growing up.
I find this all very sad. But it seems to be a fact of life.
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Rodney Ho's AJC Radio & TV blog: http://blogs.ajc.com/radio-tv-talk/.
Atlanta Radio Insider: http://atlradioinsider.blogspot.com/.