Too late for radio to come back from the dead?


For the second time in a little more than two weeks, the sudden passing of a pop music icon tested radio’s relevance and responsiveness. The big difference this time was that it happened on a weekday afternoon.

The death Wednesday of singer Davy Jones evoked a wave of nostalgia for the '60s teen heartthrob (“I'm A Bereaver,” tweeted Steve Dahl), and sent programmers scurrying to add songs by the Monkees to their afternoon and evening playlists.

Radio Hall of Famer Dick Biondi, recently relegated to the overnight shift at oldies WLS-FM (94.7), redeemed the Cumulus Media station by breaking into Scott Shannon’s voice-tracked midday show shortly after noon with word that Jones had died of a heart attack at 66. Biondi’s impromptu tribute was followed by Daydream Believer.

Chicago’s other oldies station, CBS Radio’s WJMK-FM (104.3), reversed the order. Daydream Believer played first. Then another local radio legend, Tommy Edwards (just three days into his new midday show), delivered the news to K-Hits listeners.

Radio’s reaction wasn’t quite as swift February 11 in the hours immediately after the death of Whitney Houston. Because that story broke on a Saturday night, many stations here and across the country were in the clutches of soulless automation.

In a scathing indictment of the industry, radio consultant and former Chicago programmer Mark Edwards called it “the night that radio, as a medium, proved itself irrelevant.” After monitoring online streams from New York City to Minot, North Dakota, he wrote: “Thousands of radio stations were already running unmanned from empty buildings, airing voice tracked local-sounding shows if they were lucky, but most likely broadcasting pre-recorded oldies shows, reruns of talk shows that aired already, dance mix shows assembled days or weeks before, or some other kind of ‘it’s Saturday night and nobody is listening’ content.”

Although he singled out WGN-AM (720) among the local exceptions, Edwards noted: “I listened to music stations in Chicago Saturday and heard nothing about Whitney on most of them.”

None of which is surprising, really, to anyone who’s been paying attention.

“Radio is so downsized that it has become insensitive to what is happening in the real world — even the real world of music that they should care about,” Inside Music Media blogger Jerry Del Colliano wrote after Houston’s death. He made almost identical observations after the death of Michael Jackson in 2009.

“As a result, most people I know — young and old — went to TMZ or Facebook or Twitter or each other to share the news and mourn the loss. You don’t need a Wall Street investment bank analyst to tell you radio is not a growth business any more. Just look how disconnected it has become from its audience . . . Social media is the future. Radio is dying. The death of Whitney Houston is your latest example.”

Programming note: In tribute to Jones, Antenna TV, the Tribune Co.-owned digital network for classic television, will air a complete 58-episode marathon of The Monkees starting at 4pm Saturday. Head, The Monkees’ 1968 theatrical release movie, will air at noon Saturday and again at 9pm Sunday.

In the Chicago area, Antenna TV airs on WGN Digital 9.2, Comcast 353, RCN 29, WOW 197, Mediacom 108 and Charter 967.


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)

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