No one radio consolidator gets more dimes dropped on them than Lew Dickey’s Cumulus Media.

The company was voted the worst in a poll of thousands of media executives conducted in Inside Music Media a year ago. And I sense things have not gotten any better as Dickey has become Dr. Death to so many promising radio careers.

Don’t get me wrong. For the past four years I’ve been getting tons of email from current and former employees of almost all radio companies giving a revealing look at how they’re operated behind the scenes.

Almost always, what these consolidators say and what they do are in sharp contrast.

What’s always amazed me is from the first day I called Lew Dickey “Tricky”, Farid Suleman “Fagreed” and John Hogan “Slogan” these companies had Inside Music Media blocked from their corporate mail.

That’s fair. Why let your employees read someone who isn’t ever going to put you on a cover or invite you to keynote a convention? They have a right to control what their employees read about them and their companies – at work.

There are others who went down that road as well – usually the ones criticized the most for helping to tank the radio industry.

In spite of it all, these control freaks forgot that almost everyone has a personal email address and wouldn’t you know they simply signed up there to continue reading what I am saying here away from work.

But now, in the spirit of WikiLeaks I got some disturbing news from inside Cumulus that will never be read in the happy talk press. You know, the place where everything is beautiful in radio as long as you don’t talk about what is going on behind the scenes.

Seems like Dr. Dickey has come up with a public option of his own that deleteriously affects the health care plans of his long-suffering employees.

So I am going to out him right here and even do a little document dump – the first of many I am sure -- as Dickey’s employees fight back by shedding light on a company that is far from employee-friendly and for that matter not all that friendly to shareholders.

But where shall I begin? 


Taylor Swift vs. Black Ops

You’ve got to hand it to the record labels.

On the rare occasion that they sell a million albums these days, they break into a rendition of “Celebration”.

Except the times aren’t good for the labels.

And there is very little to celebrate.

Take the tale of Taylor Swift and compare that to the video game “Call of Duty: Black Ops” for a little perspective.

Taylor Swift sold a million albums in the first week “Speak Now” was released.

“Call of Duty: Black Ops” video game broke sales records when it sold over 10 million copies at $60 for a total net of $650 million in its first five days on the market – and may sell a record 20 million units by the end of the year.

This is not about whether Taylor Swift’s album is good or bad – not a critique. Taylor Swift has a passionate young audience and she is a legitimate star. It’s about a shrinking record business that could learn a thing or two from the video game business.

What record label execs are proud to point out is that Taylor Swift sold 769,000 old school CDs in the process and are saying the CD isn’t dead.

In their dreams.

Taylor Swift transcends radio formats. She’s as popular right now as any recorded music star. Popular with teens. Men think she’s beautiful. Women want to be her.

So is it fair to compare Taylor Swift, the best the record industry has to offer right now, with a vids?

The real issue at hand is not whether CDs are dead or video games are better than recorded music.

The real issue is what does it take to fuel a growth business.

Black Ops is the seventh in a series of big hit video games. It’s an addiction. The latest offering is set in Vietnam and Cuba and trades on Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy images in its fictitious plot line.

For Taylor Swift, she was knocked out of the top spot on the Billboard 200 by Susan Boyle almost as fast as she got there – not uncommon for music these days. A big hit is a short-lived hit even if radio stations didn’t get that memo because they keep playing big hits after they quickly peak.

Taylor Swift has sold 13 million albums worldwide during her brief career.

While music doesn’t have to sell as many units as, say, video games, there is something quite telling going on right now.

Here’s how the Black Ops playbook could actually help sell music. 


Ryan Seacrest — Clear Channel’s Face of Firing

If the overpayment of Ryan Seacrest to continue as the face and voice of Clear Channel is representative of the second coming of Bob Pittman to the radio industry, then we’re all in trouble.

Pittman’s first official act was to announce the rehiring of Ryan Seacrest for double the pay he was previously getting -- $60 million for three years.

And if that doesn’t rankle you, then you’re obviously not one of the thousands of Clear Channel professionals who made a lot less and did a lot more before you were fired from live and local radio.

So, Pittman throws lots of Lee and Bain money around in his current role as chairman of Clear Channel’s media and entertainment division.

It seems so easy.

The cutbacks that occurred for years – once over a thousand in one day -- are erased by a venture capital poster boy who clearly doesn’t get it.

Or does he?

Does Pittman know how to run the largest radio group ever put together on the face of the earth or do you?

And does it even matter when Clear Channel is head over heels in debt that can only lead to bankruptcy?

Pittman is likely to be the heir apparent to Mark Mays as Clear Channel CEO when Mays steps down next year so he had better know.

But paying Seacrest more than Glenn Beck and less than Rush Limbaugh shows you how easy it is to play monopoly when the venture capitalists are the bank.


Because $60 million is chump change to them even if $60,000 is called a living to their thousands fired employees.

This is not a slap at Seacrest who is a good and talented guy, but a criticism of how stupid radio consolidators are when they come up with crazy cutback plans, overpay their CEOs (are you listening Tricky Dickey and Fagreed Suleman?) and are quick to pull the plug on the one thing Apple, Pandora – the entire Internet cannot compete with – live and local radio.

I get that Seacrest will be a busy guy – helping Clear Channel not rehire local talent in markets as he continues to replace them with his syndicated work so to them his salary is a bargain.

I get that Seacrest will do some developmental work with Clear Channel – whatever that is. And in the scheme of things – doesn’t really matter.

But there is another side to this story that may well show you what 2011 is going to be like at many other consolidated radio groups.

Three things.

So, sit down and remove any sharp objects from sight while I lay it all out. 


Fagreed Suleman – The Energizer Bunny

I’m about to be sick.

Farid “Fagreed” Suleman is going to sell a half billion in bonds to unwitting financial institutions so he can lower Citadel’s debt to a pittance of only $262.5 million.

Stop for a second and think about this.

Radio is one of the few industry’s that remains standing where its biggest leaders are doubling down on debt while innovating nothing and virtually ignoring consumer preferences for mobile media.

Fagreed always manages to take good care of number one – that would be his bad self. Meanwhile he seems satisfied to have seven-year-old news cruisers at KGO in San Francisco. Happy to go without managers, program directors and live talent at many of his stations.

The Wizard of Odds bet that he could learn on the job to run Citadel and he lost.

I mean he won.

While Fagreed never learned how to run radio stations, he did learn how to play stupid Wall Street tricks such as filing for bankruptcy and raising debt for a sketchy company.

So this hopelessly inept radio group leaves its shareholders with nothing, other investors with next to nothing and its big lenders get the company back in lieu of getting their loan payments back.

Then bankruptcy – pre-fixed, or should I use a nice term like pre-arranged – that sounds so much better. And presto out of bankruptcy comes the company The Wizard of Odds bet the ranch on, lost and eventually lived to see another glorious day.

Meanwhile in the real world …

Google is getting ready to spend up to $6 billion dollars for the coupon site Groupon within the next few days.

You know what Apple does – makes consumer products and defies the economy.

News Corp will likely sell MySpace to get out of the way it mismanaged that half billion plus acquisition.

But in radio, it’s not about trying and failing. It’s about failing without even trying.

Let’s take a look specifically at the big three – Clear Channel, Cumulus and Suleman’s latest trick at Citadel. They are all in debt trouble.

But something wondrous is going to come out of their pain – lots of radio stations are about to go back on the market at bargain basement prices.

Let me give you the details and timeline for each. I’m going to give it to you straight – you won’t get so candid a prediction anywhere else.

Let’s start with Citadel.


The FM Red Herring

(Editor’s note: today is the last day to get the $300 discount on my January 27th Media Solutions Lab – learn more here). 

For years now radio executives have been screaming for FM chips in cell phones.

Their twisted little minds figured that just about everyone eight years of age or older keep cell phones in their hands and wouldn’t it be nice to put a radio there, too.

Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan has been leading the FM chip charge but to no avail.

Smulyan argues that radios on mobile devices in Europe increase a station’s total listening. That may be so in Europe, but even there the increase is statistically insignificant.

Mark Ramsey came out with an excellent study this week in which he polled actual consumers who already bought a cell phone and asked them if they specifically looked for a phone that had FM radio.

88% said no.

4% said yes.

So, as we say in Philadelphia, “who don’t know that?”

Why all the fuss about putting FM on cell phones?

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to tell you that young consumers barely even use their telephones as telephones let alone radios. And as Ramsey points out maybe Apple only has one mobile device that is FM ready (Nano) but there really are a lot of cell phones for sale with FM capability.

FM on cell phones is a red herring -- the definition of which is something intended to be misleading or distracting.

Why is the radio industry being played for fools by virtually every group CEO (that is a good question in and of itself) and by the very group that is supposed to represent their best interests – the National Association of Broadcasters?

And one more thing – are we as dumb as they think we are because I can show you how to look at consumers and read exactly what they want which begs the question what do potential listeners want and what does the radio industry want.

They are not the same thing. 

The back story is almost unbelievable.