Five years ago, the Philadelphia-based company owned just one radio station in Seattle. That all changed when Congress passed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a bill that eased restrictions on radio ownership, boosting the number of stations companies could own in one city. (Legislators used to believe businesses with multiple stations would have too much power and influence over people's buying habits and political decisions.) Within the year following the bill's passage, Entercom gobbled up seven more stations in Seattle, making it the biggest radio company in town.
Inside the Olive Way headquarters (Entercom also has an Eastlake office), programming for The End, KISW Rock, and The Mountain is constructed. Each station has a broadcast room, a production room where commercials are created, and an army of sales staff entrenched in rows of tiny cubicles. In one production room, a man working on a new commercial demonstrates his craft: "Clients often want a hard sell, in a voice like this," he says, speaking in the low, urgent style one often hears in Car Toys commercials. The walls of Entercom are plastered with gold and silver records, awards, and pictures of bands like Porno for Pyros, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Kid Rock. One sales office is so narrow it looks like a movie set mockup.
In the main control room of 99.9 KISW, the new Howard Stern show is broadcasting, but there's no DJ. "Everything is automated," says Entercom spokesperson and tour guide Cindy Zalke. "It's great! The DJ just sits back, pushes a button, and the show or playlist is played automatically," she says, pointing to one of the many computer screens. "What happens if someone requests a song that's not on the playlist?" I ask. "Well, we either don't play it or we edit the tape of the caller's voice," says an engineer from across the room. "So instead of asking for a particular song, like Aerosmith's 'Back in the Saddle,' we edit the tape of the caller's voice, so it sounds like they just asked for Aerosmith," he says. "Then we can play whatever song we want." (Unlike KISW, The End does devote time to listener requests.)
Many of the Entercom stations run on the same philosophy that Starbucks learned from McDonald's: give consumers a replicated experience so they know exactly what to expect. Driving across America, you'll hear seven Entercom stations called "The Buzz," three called "Star," and two called "The End." The music, format, and DJ personalities are all remarkably similar. Steve Oshin, Entercom's Seattle vice president of marketing, disagrees: "One of the great things about Entercom is that there's no corporate culture," he says.
But at The End franchise, for example, everything related to the radio station is branded. A typical promotion on the website might read, "Be sure to sign up for 'EndMail' and get exciting new 'EndListings' of your favorite new 'End music/End artist' like Depeche Mode!" (By the way, on that "new" music page you will find U2, Limp Bizkit, and MxPx, to name a few artists.)
Like it or not, fast-food radio sells. Entercom is expecting 2001 revenues to be $363 million. Seattle's The End is the number-one music station locally, with over 200,000 listeners a week. Proponents of radio conglomerates, like the current members of Congress and media companies, always say the same thing: Consolidation isn't just good for the company, it's good for the consumer. But what they really mean is that consolidation is good for advertisers. The demographic profile of the average Entercom listener nationwide is fairly uniform. So, instead of having to create and pay for multiple ads that target different demographics, advertisers create one ad and run it on multiple Entercom stations across the country. "We cover all of the demographics in the marketplace, and clearly that's our strategy from a sales and marketing standpoint," says Oshin.
Expect to hear more from Entercom. The FCC is currently looking at easing the station ownership restrictions even further.