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STATIC: Psst! Wanna buy 'Jeff & Jer'?

September 2, 2009

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Got a radio station and some money to spare? A top-rated local morning team would like to hear from you.

As you may recall from reading this column last week, the "Jeff & Jer Showgram" is off the air for the moment. Radio station Star 94.1 declined to renew its contract with the hosts, who say the sticking point was their refusal to break up their entire team.

Jeff Detrow and Jerry Cesak have said they want to stay in San Diego, where they've been on the air for more than 20 years and have a devoted following. But can anyone afford them?

It's a good question, especially in a bad economy. Radio stations across the country are questioning whether expensive morning shows ---- "Jeff & Jer Showgram" costs millions of dollars ---- are worth it when profits are dipping.

In the past, the expense of an extremely popular show such as "Jeff & Jer Showgram" wasn't necessarily a big issue.

"Jeff and Jer are worth a lot of money because they are effective agents for advertisers and attractive to a whole lot of listeners in the San Diego market," said Rancho Bernardo radio consultant Mark Ramsey.

But for big radio companies like Clear Channel, which owns Star 94.1, the problem isn't just slipping revenue. It's the debt they incurred by buying stations at premium prices when the economy was perky. Now they have to pay the interest.

"They're still very profitable with large margins, but the owners have such big debt, they're burning the furniture," said Nashville radio consultant Robert Unmacht.

He said he's reminded of a Washington, D.C., station in the 1980s that was so cash-poor that its employees couldn't even buy pencils. Clear Channel in particular has broken up several morning teams around the country, meaning Jeff and Jer are far from alone, Unmacht said.

Stations are opting for cheaper syndicated programming. That wasn't the case here. Jeff and Jer were replaced on Star 94.1 by "A.J.'s Playhouse" (rechristened "AJ in the Morning") from sister station Channel 933, which hasn't filled its empty permanent morning slot.

Expensive morning shows are also vulnerable because the new radio ratings system suggests they aren't as crucial, ratings-wise, as they used to be. The new system uses electronic meters to gauge what people listen to instead of requiring them to fill out diaries.

Back in the olden days ---- before a few months ago ---- some of the listeners who took part in the ratings would tune to a morning show and then write down that they listened to the station all day, Unmacht said.

"Historically, morning shows have been thought to be the be-all and end-all," he said. "Stations thought they could get by with just promoting the morning show and then having nothing on all day." (He means having nothing on the air in terms of quality programming.)

But the new system revealed that people switch around stations much more than was previously known, making the value of the whole day's programming more important, Unmacht said.

In the big picture, what happens to Jeff and Jer will say a lot about local radio. Are stations willing to spend money on local content, even though it can be expensive? Or will they cut, cut and cut, continuing to give short shrift to local programming, as so many stations have done?

"Radio's greatest strength, what can save it from iPods and everything else, is local (content)," Unmacht said.

Ramsey, the Rancho Bernardo consultant, predicts more morning shows will be cut to save costs. "But in the long run, fewer unique things on your radio station will mean fewer reasons to listen to it ---- period."


 

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