The interview with Richard Greener above was prompted by his commentary on the death of KGO, an AM station in San Francisco that featured local news and talk until it was bought by Citadel in 2007 and turned into a typical soulless syndicated programming automaton as former KGO on-air host Claudia Lamb put it in a Soundwaves article I sent to Richard a month or so ago.
Citadel, along with Cumulus, Entercom and Clear Channel (a.k.a. iHeart Radio) destroyed radio as we knew it. If you can’t stand to listen to radio anymore you can thank these companies. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed them to consolidate thousands of Mom-and-Pop radio stations into just a handful of owners. What was once a thriving marketplace of ideas and new music became a moribund feedback loop of homogeneity and satellite programs.
Richard summed up what was going on:
I was one of 6 partners in US Radio, Inc., which was completely controlled by a limited partnership in which I was also a partner. All of this was more than 50% owned by a single investor, Ragan Henry. Ragan was a black attorney in Philadelphia. In 1985, when I was VP/General Manager of Radio Station WAOK in Atlanta, the flagship station for our group, Ragan called me and asked this question: “What is the price at which you cannot say ‘No’ to an offer to buy WAOK?” We sold WAOK, my radio station, for $4 million. This was the largest amount ever spent on what was called a Class 4 AM station. At the closing in Philadelphia I was heartbroken. I was losing my radio station. Yes, I was fabulously compensated. But my heart was broken. Money doesn’t count. At the closing table, Ragan leaned over to me and whispered: “I never fell in love with anything I’ve owned.” Well, of course not. That’s the difference between an investor and a broadcaster.
I spent 33 years in radio, including the last 7 years where I owned part of the company but was retired from active, daily management after my 4th heart attack. As much as I wanted to work, I couldn’t. Still, Ragan insisted I get paid. As a Director of the company I tried to stop my own salary and he ruled me “out of order.”
From 1981 to 1996 we bought, operated and sold more than 30 radio stations from coast-to-coast, almost all Black Programmed. In the end, in 1996, we sold our last 18 stations, all of them to Clear Channel Communications. We made $219 million. Yes, I was a partner. Nevertheless, I was a broadcaster first. I know how Claudia Lamb feels.
That’s why the memoir I’m writing is titled, “The Last of the Radio Negroes.”
I have been thinking about the decline of radio lately largely because of my dissatisfaction with classical music programming on both FM stations and “the cloud” that are now accessible to me through a Sonos Playbar, a device that I bought to improve the sound of my flat screen TV as well as its ability to access Internet-based programming. With literally thousands of radio stations at my fingertips, I find myself as dissatisfied as I am with cable TV—the proverbial 500 channels and nothing to watch.
As I pointed out to Richard in the beginning of the interview, radio has been an important part of my life for more than sixty years as these vignettes would indicate:
- 1952: My parents had still not bought a TV. In the evenings we sat in the living room listening to shows like “Mercedes McCambridge for the Defense” that was in the Perry Mason genre. My parents would sit on the sofa listening to the show as they read one of the ten or so magazines they subscribed to, including Colliers that featured short stories by Ring Lardner, Sinclair Lewis, J. D. Salinger, and Kurt Vonnegut. Once the TV entered our lives, the magazine subscriptions all lapsed.
- 1960: I begin listening to WBAI over a high-power FM antenna that our TV repairman had installed on a tall pole in our backyard 90 miles from New York. I listen mostly to music, including Gunther Schuller’s amazing survey of 20th century music. Any resemblance to that station and today’s is purely coincidental.
- 1966: I am living in Hoboken and studying philosophy at the New School, just across the river, mostly to maintain a student deferment from the draft. I usually go to sleep at 4am, having read Hegel or Kant all through the night as I listen to WNCN. “Listening with Watson” starts at midnight and ends at 6am. William Watson would typically start with the complete “Well-Tempered Clavier” by Bach performed on a piano by João Carlos Martins without any interruptions. Once the last record had been played, Watson would say something like “Wasn’t that wonderful? Let’s play it again” and he did.
I search desperately for something on the Sonos or the Boston Acoustics radio that sits on my night-table, a very fine receiver. All the classical music follows the same predictable pattern, drawn from the late romantic repertory. If I hear Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite one more time, I will be tempted to look into assisted suicide. Radio Survivor is a website that was started by Matthew Lasar, the author of “Pacifica Radio: The Rise of an Alternative Network”, and two other people who describe themselves: “We are obsessed with the future of radio and are charmed by radio historians, radio dramatists, radio bloggers, and anyone else who cares about radio as deeply as we do.” Lasar wrote about classical music programming today most eloquently:
I believe that contemporary classical music should be integrated into the larger classical music picture. Instead, most classical radio stations restrict themselves to a very limited and conservative version of the “common practice period” of classical music. You hear lots of Baroque (Bach), Classical (Mozart), and Romantic (Chopin) content on these stations, but not much else. Pre-Baroque content is filtered out because it is mostly vocal and most classical operations avoid music that foregrounds the human voice. Post-Romantic content is filtered for anything that smacks of twelve-tonalism, non-western scales, pop music hybridity, prepared instrumentation, and, of course, the human voice again.
The result is that your typical classical music radio station functions as a sort of a portable easy listening museum for the work cubicle. This is unfortunate and sad. Real classical music is the music of God, of history, of nations, of utopia, dystopia, empire, and revolution. It is a wonderful conversation about the past, present, and future of the human race full of tone poems, operas, sonatas, symphonies, song cycles, and solo performances. But for a long time San Francisco’s principal classical music station adopted the very odd motto “Everyone Remain Calm.” This has nothing to do with real classical music. Ludwig von Beethoven did not want everyone to remain calm. “Music should strike fire from the heart of man, and bring tears from the eyes of woman,” Beethoven famously declared.