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Radio Head-Rolling

[whitespace] KOME
Christopher Gardner

In the age of media consolidation, DJs and programs are disposable

By Eric Johnson

A GUY WITH an expensive-looking haircut and a very nice suit is standing just inside the door in KOME's suite of offices. I figure he's a suit, a corporate drone, come to shut down San Jose's own alterna-rock station. I look around for blood on the carpets, gruesome trails where heads have rolled.

As it turns out, he isn't the human embodiment of media-consolidating evil after all, but advertising rep Jason Wittmayer, a four-year veteran of the station. Wittmayer isn't lopping heads, just turning in payments and ad copy for the Monsters of Rock tour to office manager Cindi LaMar.

LaMar seems pleased, as media people always are when an ad contract is sold or a check comes in the door. "Some clients have decided to stay on the air with us for the rest of the week," she says cheerily, as if it mattered.

Wittmayer alone among the small group of remaining KOME employees appears unfazed by the fact that within 72 hours the station will be history. He is among the chosen; he will be moving up to San Francisco, to Live 105, where he is likely to sell ads to the same clients he always has, so they can reach the same market--the greater Bay Area alterna-rockers who, until now, have been split between the two similar-sounding stations.

The deal that will erase KOME from the FM dial is one of a flood worth billions of dollars to the world's biggest media conglomerates.

In less than two years, almost half of the 11,000 radio stations in the U.S. have already been bought up. Most of the stations that have sold since 1996 were bought by one of a dozen companies. CBS/Infinity, which owns KOME, is king of them all.

As stations consolidate, they cut costs by sharing equipment and staffs. The biggest savings come from layoffs.

THE SKELETON CREW at what's left of KOME has heard rumors that the station's broadcast frequency and equipment have been bought by Jacor Inc., which owns KSJO. But nobody in the maze of cubicles and small side offices knows whether the station's mysterious new owners will keep them on. Wandering the half-empty suite without much to do, they each face their fates with different attitudes: they are by turns sanguine or agitated, bubbly or testy, suspicious or just numb.

Sarah Berg's desk sits just outside the now-darkened office where operations manager Ron Nenni worked until he moved up to San Francisco last week. During the changeover, Berg has been named acting programming manager. It's a job she may lose in a few days, or may not. Either way, she is far from excited about the promotion.

"All the people I used to work for are gone," she says in a soft, British-accented voice. She shrugs her shoulders, but declines to elaborate beyond "Everything has changed completely."

Public service coordinator Marla Davies, who produces a Sunday morning public affairs show, says this week's program will be about "unemployment in the radio industry." It's a joke, but the laughter in the office is strained.

Davies is very careful not to sound critical of her employers' recent decision. "CBS has been a lot better than they might have been--at least they're trying to find jobs for people," she says, rather tensely.

Acting music coordinator Jeanette Grgurevic, who looks to be in her early 20s, seems a bit defensive, although she may just be giving rock & roll attitude. It's difficult to say, just as it's impossible to gauge what anyone here is feeling.

Everyone's trying to pretend it didn't happen, but a bomb just went off--a neutron bomb, the kind that kills people but leaves buildings and other stuff intact. The bomb that went off here had the word "consolidation" written on its fin.

THE GUY WHO calls himself Shark is stuck in a booth with nothing to do except plug in tape cartridges and punch up the songs that Grgurevic is picking. A sign above his console reads "All Board Op Shifts"; Shark explains that it's radioese for "Don't even crack the mic," which is Sharkese for "Shut up and play the tapes."

As far as he can tell, Shark is about to lose his radio gig. Two of his colleagues, late-morning host Ally Storm and evening jock No Name, have been invited to move to Live 105 and keep their old timeslots. But Shark has not gotten the tap on the shoulder. While his career has taken a disappointing turn, right now he seems more concerned about not being able to do his on-air shtick. "I've been silenced," he says mournfully, only half joking.

About the bigger picture, he doesn't joke at all. "I don't know what's going to happen to me," he says. "The new company could come in and cut me loose. Obviously, that would suck. I'm extremely bummed out."

Shark says he left a good job in Chicago a year and a half ago to come to work at KOME, and the promise of job security at a big company was a lure. But that's where his criticism of CBS's move stops.

"I'm disappointed, sure, but I know that in this business, this is how things work," he says.

WHILE THERE has always been high turnover and rough breaks in the radio game, things have gotten out of hand, according to media critic Robert McChesney. The author of Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy, McChesney says that by buying up and killing off local stations, media conglomerates are violating the public trust.

"We have given away public property, the radio spectrum, which you and I own, so huge companies can make a bigger profit," he says.

Pointing to the fact that three companies control 80 percent of the audience in half of the nation's biggest markets, he sees only ill effects from this monopolization.

"The losers in all of this are people who live in communities that are losing their own distinct voices," he says. "Now every city in America has the same eight station formats."

To the untrained ear, or to out-of-town corporate owners, there was little difference between KOME and Live 105: they both played popular alternative music. But the DJs and loyal listeners know that KOME hewed somewhat closer to its hard-rock roots, steering clear of the Brit-pop and techno that is a feature of Live 105's playlist.

In one of his last shifts at the KOME board, Shark is cueing up a number to follow a live version of Jane's Addiction's "Jane Says." As he locates the song on the half-inch tape, the first few bars of the intro play over and over. "What is that?" I ask. " 'What I Got,' " he says, "Sublime"--doing a little bit of DJ shtick, even with the mic turned off.

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From the June 4-10, 1998 issue of Metro.

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