Gloom and doom: Clear Channel’s dark future begins today

When the largest radio company in America assembles its major market general managers in Chicago today, it won’t be to tell them what a swell job they’re doing.

Instead, if knowledgeable industry reports are correct, Clear Channel Radio will set in motion massive cutbacks that could lead to what one analyst called “a new form of local radio.” By the time the plans are implemented, the company could be operating with far fewer employees and virtually no local involvement in what goes out over the air and online.

“Our Chicago meetings are for our largest markets and will focus on our revenue opportunities and strategies for 2012,” John Hogan, president and chief executive officer of Clear Channel Radio, told me Tuesday. “We have an incredible array of offerings for advertisers starting with iHeartRadio [digital service] and Clear Channel’s unique ability to provide national reach and local activation for advertisers. We’ll be working with our market managers and DOS (sales managers) as well as ops managers (programmers) to share with them our latest and greatest advertiser opportunities.”

Hogan declined to address reports by Inside Music Media and that Clear Channel plans to overhaul the structure of local programming and substitute its Premium Choice national content in place of local talent throughout its 850 radio stations in 150 cities.

At its most drastic, according to Inside Music Media’s Jerry Del Colliano, Clear Channel could see the elimination of all program directors and become a company “operated by robotics with nothing local, little live and everything cheap.” It’s all designed to shed expenses as the company faces $18 billion in debt that it cannot repay.

“The plan is to make local radio not much different from an app,” Del Colliano wrote. “Cheap programming — but instead of streaming it online, it is broadcast on-air. Then mix it in with customizable radio — not exactly a hit in and of itself — and you’ve got what seems to investors to be the future of radio. What it really is is the end of local radio. Today, one of the largest purges of local radio talent commences and nobody is home to stop it.”

In Chicago, Clear Channel owns five of the 15 top-rated stations in the market, including urban adult-contemporary WVAZ-FM (102.7), adult contemporary WLIT-FM (93.9), contemporary hit WKSC-FM (103.5), urban contemporary WGCI-FM (107.5), and Spanish pop WNUA-FM (95.5). It also owns gospel WGRB-AM (1390).

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)