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Radio Downplays Corporate Image

Stations, some owned by big companies, tout their independence to appeal to listeners who care about ownership.

May 27, 2003|Jeff Leeds | Times Staff Writer

With a sinister laugh, an on-air promotion for Viacom Inc.'s WZNE-FM rock station has been tipping listeners in Rochester, N.Y., to the parent corporation's dark purpose.

"Our company has a master plan for world media domination," an announcer says.

He quickly adds: "We're not part of it."

In the age of media consolidation, corporate radio is beginning to wrestle with a brand-new worry -- an audience that might actually care who owns the station.

A smattering of broadcasters around the country is toying with promotions meant to tap into rock listeners' anti-corporate bent by downplaying station ownership or by touting independence in the face of big-chain competitors.

Such matters are being closely watched as the Federal Communications Commission reviews a proposal to loosen ownership restrictions on TV broadcasters and others. Regulators also are considering a new method for defining the boundaries of local radio markets, a move that could complicate future acquisitions. The FCC is scheduled to vote Monday.

Radio underwent massive consolidation after passage of a landmark 1996 deregulatory law. Clear Channel Communications Inc., the industry's San Antonio-based leader, expanded its holdings to about 1,200 stations from 36, and other companies followed suit. Now, questions about chain dominance are influencing promotional decisions, particularly among rock broadcasters, many of which rely on an outsider image to hold young listeners.

Larry Rosin, president of Edison Media Research, said he's beginning to see signs that listener habits are affected by a station's affiliation. Although ownership issues haven't reached a "tipping point," Rosin said, "there are pockets where people do care."

So, Viacom's Rochester outlet, part of its 180-station Infinity Broadcasting unit, pokes fun at an expansion-minded parent. Meanwhile, San Diego's KBZT-FM, one of 17 Jefferson-Pilot Corp.-owned stations, bills itself as "anti-corporate, local and musically diverse" -- while looking for extra points by taking shots at the radio industry's 800-pound gorilla.

"Not one of those cookie-cutter Clear Channel stations," runs a KBZT tagline.

Executives at Clear Channel, often criticized for homogenizing radio with prerecorded shows and corporate-influenced playlists, are skeptical of the notion that fans care any more who owns the local station than they do what label puts out a favorite album. "I doubt any consumer ever decided against purchasing Eminem's CD because it was owned by Interscope rather than Island Def Jam," said Tom Owens, Clear Channel's senior vice president of programming.

Still, Clear Channel doesn't push its name the way it used to. In the past, the company encouraged its stations to identify their corporate affiliation as part of a campaign to establish a "national footprint" for advertisers and listeners. These days, Owens said, decisions on imaging are left to local market managers, who may highlight their parent or not, depending on judgments about the value of its name.

Others have delighted in targeting the big players with a David-and-Goliath theme, exploiting what they say is a surprisingly sophisticated base of audience knowledge about ownership.

"Listeners are starting to become aware of corporate consolidation," said Dave Beasing, a radio consultant who advised KBZT and several other stations on designing campaigns built around anti-corporate themes.

In Phoenix, KEDJ-FM, advised by Beasing, is beginning to air promotions with average-Joe sound bites, in which listeners offer their definitions of "independent" radio. In one sequence a male listener says, "You're not under the corporate authority." Another, which the station has not aired, has a female voice saying: "Independent means not owned by Clear Channel."

Scott Fey, the station's general manager, said focus groups had shown owner New Planet Radio, whose only station is KEDJ, that listeners knew with pinpoint precision which local stations were owned by Clear Channel, and what each station was doing. Those surveyed also were aware that the entertainment giant owned the local concert venues.

"The public at large was picking up on the business aspects of radio," Fey said.

Whether playing the "corporate" card actually builds numbers for self-styled "alternative" competitors -- many of which have corporate parents of their own -- remains to be seen, however.

In San Diego, KBZT has seen ratings rise to 5.1 from 2.6 among its target 18-to-34 demographic after six months of independence-themed promotions, putting it just behind Clear Channel's two local rock stations. But it's difficult to know how much of the boost came from a switch from an '80s music format.

Program director Garett Michaels chooses to believe that the promotional gambit is working because it was based on listener sentiment.

"We didn't say, 'Hey, let's pick on Clear Channel.' It was already there," Michaels said. "We just decided to pick up the ball and run with it."

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