When veteran broadcaster Mark Larson came to San Diego as a midday host for KFMB-AM 760 in 1976, someone described San Diego as being a small town in a big body.
“We weren’t like Los Angeles or San Francisco,” said Larson, who now is serving an eighth term as the president of the San Diego Radio Broadcasters Association, an industry group of 24 member stations. “San Diego was a small town with a small-town mind-set.”
Despite its phenomenal growth, many newcomers still feel that way about San Diego today. In radio, however, the past decade spurred fundamental change, driven by the industry’s deregulation by the Federal Communications Commission in 1996.
Few people outside the industry had even heard of San Antonio-based broadcaster Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s No. 1 radio chain with some 1,200 stations, before it started buying stations across the country, following the deregulation.
As a believer in the free market economy, Larson favored deregulation.
The consolidation that swept the industry in the 1990s and early this decade left some radio personalities and executives yearning for the bygone days when stations tended to be more mom-and-pop operations.
“Some people say it’s not as much fun as it used to be,” Larson said. “People say before there were 10 other stations that may hire me, now there is one company that would hire me,” he said.
Still, Larson, a devout Christian and well-known political conservative, doesn’t believe that fewer station owners necessarily translates into fewer career choices.
“Clear Channel owns the lion’s share of radio stations, but there are plenty of other stations around,” he said.
Some people also say that in the old days there was more individuality with the stations.
Larson disagrees with that too, saying there is more diversity today.
“When I started (in radio), they threw anything at FM and AM stations,” he said. “As AM lost a lot of its share to FM (in the 1970s and 1980s) and it became more dominant, more AM station operators didn’t know what to do with (AM radio),” he said.
An AM Revival
Larson credits Rush Limbaugh, whose politically conservative syndicated talk show precedes Larson’s noon-3 p.m. weekday show on KOGO-AM 600, with “single-handedly resuscitating the AM band” in the 1990s.
What will revolutionize AM radio, however, radio insiders predict, is not so much the content, but newer technology , in particular, digital broadcasting.
Since the 1920s, broadcast radio has remained largely based on the analog AM and FM technologies.
The new technology is programmed in digital format, which provides for higher fidelity, less noise and better reception.
“With digital radio you can get AM and FM at the same high quality,” Larson said.
In San Diego, three stations , KOGO, KGB-FM 101.5 and KPBS-FM 89.5 , broadcast digital channels alongside analog ones.
At least 2,000 of the more than 12,000 stations in the country are committed to adding the digital format, according to a recent article by the New York Times Service.
Clear Channel said it plans to install 95 percent of its top 100 markets with digital broadcasting within three years.
Another advantage of digital radio is that it’s free to listeners, vs. other new broadcast technologies, such as satellite radio, which is subscriber-based.
Out In Space
Satellite radio has already attracted millions of listeners, but Larson doesn’t think the paid service poses a real threat to free radio.
“The raw numbers of people in San Diego who listen to XM (the leading satellite radio provider) is minuscule compared to the people who listen to free radio,” he said. “The way to stay close to dedicated listeners is to keep them involved with the station. This helps the local stations keep insulated. With XM, no one knows where it comes from.”
Some, however, say the arrival of newer technologies has made it tougher to compete for advertising dollars.
“The question is how much room do people have for all this and which technology will survive,” Larson said. “The great thing about radio is that it gets closest to people when people go out and the production costs are more reasonable (compared with television),” Larson said.
Asked about the future of San Diego’s radio industry, Larson predicted that listeners will get to hear more Spanish-speaking voices on both FM and AM dials.
“With the growing Hispanic population in San Diego, there will be a demographic shift,” he said.
Radio broadcast companies will want to tap into that growing market by introducing programming and music that speak to the Latino culture, he said.
“The good news of that is it will bring more diversity to the radio bandwidth of AM and FM stations,” Larson said.
FCC regulations limit a single company to owning or operating eight radio stations in a single market, with no more than five stations per band. This could mean more competition for Clear Channel in the San Diego market.
This month, Finest City Broadcasting LLC, a company led by Mike Glickenhaus, said it would manage hip-hop station Jammin’ Z90, oldies station Magic 92.5 and the alternative rock station 91X, which have been operated by Clear Channel under a lease agreement with Mexican-owned stations. But new FCC rules forced Clear Channel to loosen its grip in the local market.
Larson, 50, said he’s reinvented himself many times to stay ahead in this rapidly changing environment.
Besides being a radio voice on KOGO-AM 600, Larson owns and operates his own consulting company, Mark Larson Media Services, Inc.
He also manages authors, models and speakers and lends his voice for commercials, such as
“You can’t survive in radio being a specialist, you need to know a little of everything,” he said.