Workers Independent News: 2001-2017

It was a crisp but comfortable fall day in 2000 when I was invited to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Memorial Union Terrace for a beer-summit about an interesting project-proposal. I was preparing to leave my career in commercial radio journalism out of disgust with the industry’s post-Telecom Act trajectory and had applied to the UW to start a master’s program in hopes of learning more about what had gone wrong with my chosen vocation, so the timing of this meeting was fortuitous.

It was the brainchild of then-UW School for Workers professor Frank Emspak: drawing on decades of experience in the labor movement and as an activist more broadly, Frank was worried that the voices of working people were being squeezed out of our media conversations, especially as business news increasingly focused on corporate executives and stock-prices, and our media outlets themselves were increasingly subject to the whims of finance capital. What if there were a news outlet run by workers, for workers, that put what passed for “business news” in the proper economic context?

A couple pitchers later, the four of us around that Terrace table had sketched out the framework for what would become Workers Independent News: the first national, labor-centric radio news program to be launched in the United States in several decades. We produced daily newscasts, feature stories, and other content from a DIY newsroom/studio in Madison and utilized our website for distribution — in effect launching a podcast long before podcasts became cool. Dry-runs of the production process began in late 2000, and WIN was officially launched in early 2001. Read More

Stations Without Studios

The Federal Communications Commission has voted along party lines to repeal the main studio rule, which required all broadcast and television stations to have a physical presence in the communities to which they are licensed. This will only serve to heighten trends of consolidation, automation, and syndication that have afflicted the broadcast industry since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Even in current practice, the main studio rule was not that robust. Pre-’96, when meaningful caps on broadcast ownership existed, most stations save those who were clustered (that would be four at max for radio) had their own studios, offices, and transmission facilities. In a very important sense, this meant that there was more physical redundancy to the broadcast infrastructure in any given community.

Since 1996, most station-clusters don’t even have separate studios for every station; some stations are literally nothing more than computers tucked away, maintained and updated remotely, that feed their programming to a tower that nobody in the building knows quite where it’s located. Were you to visit a radio station today, you’d most likely find a receptionist, a manager or program director, some sales staff (though these positions are often combined), and perhaps a handful of talent with duties spread across multiple radio outlets. Read More

Big-Fish Radio Capital Shaky in 2017

The second fiscal quarter’s come and gone, so it’s worth reviewing how the first half of the year’s played out for radio’s big-fish investment-games:

Clear Channel iHeartMedia: The #1 radio conglomerate in the country just extended its long-term debt refinancing offer to reluctant bondholders for the twelfth time. While going through those motions a key coalition of creditors — who hold more than 10% of iHeart’s $20+ billion debt – have been mulling over the implications of tipping the company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Apparently, they’ve devised a plan by which if they’re given 49% of the company’s equity and more favorable debt-repayment terms, they’ll keep the debt-refinance shuffle going. After missing a full payment in 2016 the company ponied up on schedule this summer toward debt due in 2021. More than $8 billion comes due in 2019. Read More

iHeartMedia At Debt Wall

Looks like the time is nigh for Clear Channel iHeartMedia to pay the piper.

Those who hold a significant portion of iHeart’s $20+ billion in debt are balking at the company’s attempt to kick the can down the road. This spring, iHeart floated proposals to creditors to extend the time the company gets to pay back on its debt while pegging a higher interest rate and some equity to the revised payback-plan. The offers were roundly rejected – fewer than 1% of existing note-holders accepted the terms, and now the company’s repeatedly extending the deadline to creditors hoping they will accept it. Read More

Radio Finance Capital: Dominos Aligning

It’s not a long line of dominos – just three in particular – but if they begin to fall you can bet there’ll be collateral damage throughout the radio industry.

The most wobbly of the three is Cumulus Media. The #2 radio station conglomerate in the country by stations owned, the company just can’t get a break with its turnaround endeavors. After an 8-to-1 reverse stock split last year which temporarily raised its share-price above the critical $1 floor for listing on NASDAQ, the company’s gone underwater again. Thursday’s trading-close saw CMLS shares at just under 27 cents, making for a total market capitalization just above $8 million. That’s about half of what it was just a month ago. Earlier this month, NASDAQ started the delisting-clock again, which means Cumulus has six months to implement a revival-plan and stick to it.

Of course, the aggregate value of Cumulus’ hundreds of radio station licenses is multiples higher than the market value of its stock, but most definitely not enough to cover the $2+ billion in debt it carries. A refinancing proposal using stock imploded last month, prompting Bill Cunningham in Media Life (just before it shut down) to observe that “Unless some white knight comes along, Cumulus has no choice but to file for bankruptcy protection. It could come in a matter of weeks.” Read More