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Extended Interview: Al Peterson

January 12, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

NEWSHOUR: The prevailing assumption is that mergers in the radio industry are certainly good for business, but are they good for listeners?

AL PETERSON: It depends on who you ask that question to. Certainly there are many who decry that deregulation has turned radio into a bland product, same in every city. And to some extent I think that criticism is probably valid.

And a lot of that has to do with the rise of network radio or syndicated radio shows, which are not only ratings getters for most radio stations; they’re also profitable for most radio stations because they can run talent that they would never be able to afford on their own on a syndicated basis. So, yes, you do hear a number of the same hosts on talk radio stations, news talk radio stations from coast to coast.

But I think that deregulation gave many operators, through a clustering of stations in the markets, the ability to be somewhat experimental. I think FM talk is a great example of that; the new breed of FM talk radio stations has evolved primarily because operators can afford to take a chance with a format, rather than sticking with the tried and true. I think that it has allowed a number of operators to become a little more experimental.

NEWSHOUR: So you’re saying if companies have more than one station in the market, they can experiment more than if they only had one station?

AL PETERSON: Sure. Let’s say, for instance, you own a group of stations, among them three AM stations in the market, and on one you own the news talk station; on one you own the sports talk station; and maybe you have an FM station where you’re doing a younger targeted talk station.

They’re all pieces of the same pie. In days gone by, your competitor’s primary job was to put you out of business and put you out of the format. Now the primary job is to develop synergy between your products within your cluster in the market, your cluster of stations in the market, so that the talk cluster can belong to that operator, whether it be the sports talk cluster or the news talk cluster or the entertainment talk cluster for all news.

NEWSHOUR: So basically you might actually be serving a larger piece of the total audience because you’re going for segments of it, rather than everybody going for the middle?

AL PETERSON: Well, I think really what it means is that as an operator you can control a larger segment of the audience than you could if there were two or three operators all vying for the news or talk radio audience in your market.

NEWSHOUR: Is it a good idea then having one company or two companies control most of what you listen to?

AL PETERSON: Well, you know, for most of the last quarter century or better, as TV evolves, certainly three networks controlled virtually all of what you saw on television. I don’t know that that was always good – but I don’t think it was always bad either. I think that a lot of people have gotten a bad rap with regard to deregulation and the concentration of power within a smaller group of players and what have you. I think, by and large, radio broadcasters are pretty smart operators.

They’ve learned how to survive over the years against many different odds that have been thrown – and new media that’s been thrown up against them. I don’t think any of them have any desire to not do the best job they can with the product they have, whether they own ten stations in the market or two stations in the market. I think that, generally speaking, deregulation has, overall, made radio better.


AL PETERSON: I think that it’s made it financially sound, and, look, there has been a human cost over the years of deregulation because some people have lost jobs. Consolidation, whether it be in the banking business or the airline business or any other business that has deregulated over the last decade or two, there has always been a human cost, because if you had five radio stations in five buildings with five receptionists that are now owned by one, well, they may have one or two receptionists.

There may be fewer management personnel. But, by and large, on the air it hasn’t changed that much. You still have 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 168 hours a week to fill time, and to do that you have to have hosts on the air. And I don’t think that, by and large, most radio stations have lessened the quality of their product, whether they’re competing with their sister station or whether they’re competing with another owner. I don’t think that the inner drive of most of the people in radio has changed from where it was.

NEWSHOUR: Do you think that makes a difference in terms of the amount of local programming you get in a larger market versus a smaller market?

AL PETERSON: I think that if you live in a smaller market, you probably get less local programming than you did in days gone by. I don’t think it’s had that much impact on major markets. I think the major market stations and the major players can still afford to pay the kind of talent they need to compete. Perhaps in smaller markets, yes, you may get less local programming and less local news than you used to.

NEWSHOUR: There are some who say that what radio did on a local level was it gave a sense of community that you can’t get anywhere else, and that you can’t get that kind of coherence without local programming. Do you agree with that?

AL PETERSON: No. I would disagree with that. I don’t think that’s the case. There are always going to be isolated instances of perhaps operators that have saved money more than they should have in certain areas.

But the great strength of radio, especially news and talk radio, has always been localist, and even if you’re running several nationally syndicated shows on your radio stations, in almost every case there’s still a local news department of some sort. In many cases, in major markets those are relatively large, and there are always, even on stations with two or three syndicated – nationally syndicated shows – there are still going to be two, three, four and a weekend full usually of local talk hosts talking about local issues and local events.

I would be very surprised if you could tune into any radio station in any city in America, and within a relatively short period of time still find out what the local flavor of what’s going on in that city is. If you go to – and listen to a WGN or a WLS in Chicago or an ABC or OR in New York, or an MAL in Washington, or a KNBC or a KNX or whoever in Los Angeles, you’re going to find out what’s going on in that town. You’re not getting a national overview.

I mean, you have to serve your constituency, for radio your constituency is within your signal area. Your signal area rarely goes a whole lot beyond your primary city.