Almost without notice earlier this month, decades of collective on-air experience ended as a half dozen radio professionals in Spokane lost their jobs as part of industry layoffs that continue to erode local connections.
iHeartMedia Inc., the largest owner of radio stations in the country, again reduced its workforce as part of a nationwide downsizing. iHeart owns six stations in the Spokane market, among more than 800 iHeart stations.
According to national news reports, the company mostly focused its cuts in smaller markets, like Spokane, without giving specific numbers. Calls to the local iHeart office in Spokane seeking comment were not returned Monday or Tuesday.
“Our people are our company’s most important asset,” the company announced in a statement issued Jan. 14 that was published by several media outlets. “There will be some employee dislocation – some by geography and some by function – which is the unfortunate price we pay to modernize the company.”
In Spokane, the cuts ended the 30-plus-year broadcast careers of Dave Spencer and Teresa Lukens, who both worked for AM station News Radio 590 KQNT. iHeart also owns FM classic rock station 98.9 KKZX; 103.1 KCDA; KISS 98.1; Alt 96.1 and hit country station KIX 99.3.
Both Spencer and Lukens said they received severance packages that prevented them from disparaging the company.
“I want to say up front that the people at iHeart in Spokane … are good people,” Spencer said. “They didn’t have anything to do with these layoffs. I had a great experience there up until two weeks ago.”
Lukens said she had just finished her morning news program when she got called into an office and her boss began reading from a prepared statement.
“We were all told we were being dislocated. What, are you going to pull my arm out of my socket? Can you just tell us you are laying us off?” Lukens said.
Lukens, 58, said nobody goes to work at 2:30 a.m. each day unless they love what they are doing.
“I think it’s incredibly sad,” she said. “First of all, there is no competition now. KXLY 920 now is the only morning news for drive time. It takes away that level of competition that raises the bar, I think, for everybody.”
Spencer, 52, said he grew up listening to Dave Niehaus broadcast Seattle Mariners games. He also listened to the nationally syndicated Larry King. Both prompted him to explore a career in radio.
“I liked music, but I was also drawn to personalities,” he said. “People want to feel connected to the station they are listening to.”
Spencer, who also serves as the public-address announcer for all Eastern Washington football, basketball and volleyball games, said listeners expect to bump into radio personalities in restaurants, at the the store or at local soccer games.
“It could be as simple as talking about the Gonzaga game last night, or ‘Did you see that traffic jam on Interstate 90?’ The people who have succeeded in Spokane for so long, they don’t just talk about pop culture,” he said. “They talk about things happening here.”
Douglas Hindman, an associate professor at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, said the recent iHeart layoffs are part of a continuing trend of cuts that have eliminated thousands of print and broadcast jobs.
“It’s a powerful medium,” Hindman said. “There used to be nothing more local or immediate than a radio station. It was on in your house, you knew who was talking and what they looked like. You knew to trust that service to know when disaster strikes or when weather threatens.”
Now, computer programmers patch music together with local advertising, which continues to pump local dollars to some faraway corporate office, he said.
“I don’t think younger people know what they are missing, and older people don’t know that they are missing a local presence,” Hindman said. “Sadly … it drives listeners away and stations are sort of the agents of their own demise.”
Spencer said the best and worst thing to ever happen to radio was the computer. Producing a commercial once required someone to make a reel-to-reel audio recording using tape. The technician would then add layers of music and sound effects before physically delivering the tape to the radio station.
“You used to have someone in the studio 24/7. Now you don’t have to have anyone in the studio,” he said. “So, that led to a lot of jobs disappearing.”
The Federal Communications Commission also eased restrictions over time. In 1996, the FCC ended a rule that limited a company from owning more than one TV station in market. Then in 2017, the FCC eliminated the “main studio rule” that required owners to operate a main station “in or near its community of license,” which opened the door to having local radio programming done from afar.
“The sad thing is that Wall Street sort of rewards that kind of thing,” said Hindman, the WSU professor. “iHeartRadio can drive up their prices even though they are doing less. They are commanding more of the market and decreasing the value of other stations.”
Facebook also cannibalized advertisers who once spent their money in local newspapers, he said.
“It’s sad that corporations don’t value the human side of owning a business … that is employing people and supporting families,” Hindman said. “Instead, they serve shareholders and boards of directors.”
iHeart stock was trading at $17.10 on the day it announced its layoffs. Its stock price closed Tuesday at $18.15 a share.
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