Is iHeart Radio’s slash and burn an opportunity for indies?

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Image/Indie Art South

If you haven’t read the sad tale of iHeart Media’s latest strategy and the impact on its stations and listeners, listen up. The nation’s largest owner of radio stations has resorted to a slash and burn policy affecting markets across the country, including in my home city. More than 850 stations are in the conglomerate, and a number of  top hosts have been laid off.

Did the hosts see this coming? Maybe. 

IHeart has had problems for quite some time. As early as 2017, reports were coming in about potential bankruptcy, and one of the private equity companies involved in all this might ring a bell because the PE company, Bain Capital, was founded by Mitt Romney who now serves as a GOP senator after losing the 2012 presidential election  by more than 100 Electoral College votes to incumbent president Barack Obama. Romney’s involvement with Bain was a big issue in that election.

This article isn’t about Romney’s disastrous presidential campaign, though. Or even about Bain Capital. It’s about the impact iHeart Radio’s layoffs will bring to local markets.

I’d say we can expect more cookie cutter, algorithm-driven programming. This won’t really have too much negative impact on indie artists in the US—you’d have a hard time getting any off-big-label music on a single one of those stations, probably.

I think this actually creates an opportunity, though.

Think about radio. We listen to it in our cars and on our mobile devices. Occasionally we might even listen on a traditional radio—I do this sometimes when I’m cooking, and I hop around stations hoping to hear a favorite song or program. I also use my tablet a lot, especially when I’m outside, because you don’t get any static with that device.

Radio delivers music, news, and commentary. But there’s not a single reason we have to rely on a traditional station or device for that. This is one reason Internet stations like Bandwagon Network Radio are so vital to independent artists. Such stations offer an open door to unknown artists, with one criterion—the quality of your music.

Other than Internet radio, there are options like podcasts and streaming. Thus far, an individual won’t have to pony up ridiculous fees stations like BWNR have to hand over, just for the right to broadcast on the Web. Government regulations and handouts have created a media market that is dominated by a few players whose revenue and borrowing power grows larger by the day.

If you have a message you want to distribute, or an arts product, it’s up to you to find the means to get the message across to your targeted audience. This is no more difficult than it used to be, despite complaints about the market.

Consumers who hear all manner of activist statements about companies and who then make decisions on whom to patronize would be doing themselves a favor by bearing in mind who funds and benefits from the content you listen to. A great example of the inanity in our activist culture has to do with boycotts and even buycotts. The same people who protest Israel, for instance, gladly use phones and other products made in one-party-controlled China. I’d think if we were really talking about integrity and reason, we’d at least be uniform in what we condemn or praise.

I hope iHeart manages to keep some semblance of regional identity in the stations affected by the layoffs, but that’s probably a false hope. Algorithms are no friend to art in any genre, and they never will be. The difference is that future generations will have no idea what they’re missing unless we, the consumer holding buying power, learn to make educated decisions about what we listen to and what we patronize when it comes to entertainment.

(Kay B. Day/January 16, 2016)

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