Some thoughts about the demise of KUFO Portland

I read a post today written by local radio personality, Bobby Fatboy Roberts, about the demise of local station KUFO. I fully understand the sentiment that's described here because when disruptive change occurs humans have a tendency to try and hang on at all costs to the way it used to be. Unfortunately, terrestrial radio station owners, like many other media companies, have failed to notice how disruptive the Internet has been to their business plans. Their failure to act results in dissatisfaction throughout the enterprise which in turn results in ex-employees writing posts like this one. Meanwhile, the KUFO station owners, Alpha Broadcasting, who's website about page has the now ironic tagline "Putting the live and local back in radio" (what isn't Live and Local in local radio?) decided to shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic by offering Charlie Sheen a job on air.

Here's the post. The comment I left on the blog in response is after it.

I used to work at a radio station called KUFO. It was a “heritage” station, which is radio-speak for “It’s been around for a real long time.” It enjoyed a sustained period of success in Portland, and then it faltered, and then it declined. I rode on the back of this confused colossus for 5 years. I had a fair amount of fun doing it. It shed me and my friends a couple years ago. We fell and we landed and we got up and went in different directions. We ended up in better places. We were replaced by fleas and parasites. They bit at the hide of the colossus until the skin broke. Tired, it fell to all fours, crawled under a porch, and this morning, it died.

I’m not happy to see her go. She could be pretty fun in her heyday. I guess the same goes for radio in general. Her death was inevitable, really. It’s probably not too long before the FM band gets sold off like the UHF band was, and AM signals are relegated to emergency broadcasts and traffic-only information stations. Sooner rather than later, the landscape will go dark and gather moss, and the whole thing will be fondly remembered in the amber hues of warm nostalgia.

There’s a bunch of ruddy-faced angry white men standing above her corpse now, yelling about God visiting earthquakes upon the East, shouting about Wisconsin sending messages to an outsider-President. For a city that was once known as “Little Beirut,” that is home to the one of the nation’s few openly gay mayors, that treats visits to its own 5 story tall bookstore in the same way 6 year olds treat visits to Disneyland – this seems an odd choice.

But what the old girl had become in her last year was none too inviting either. The station always had an element of the juvenile to it. A youthful recklessness in its best moments, an ugly crassness at its worst; but when it was good, it accurately reflected the face and the voice of her listeners. At some point in the late 90′s, Portland, a city that had always suffered a slight lack of identity, started fumbling towards one. Unfortunately, KUFO had lost her footing, and couldn’t keep pace as she had before.

The ability to adapt got harder and harder. She became seen as trashy. Nobody could tell who she was talking to anymore. She was affecting accents, posing, getting sloppy drunk in public and acting for all the world like if she opened a window and poked her head out, it wouldn’t be Portland outside. She was doing kegstands at a party made up of generic people, at the orders of generic people, for an image of youth that had long since been abandoned by the young.

The old girl didn’t have to go out like this. There was still some life left in her, sparks and guttering flames of inspiration. I saw it when I was there, briefly. For all the drama and trauma, it was a genuinely fun place to work for a time, before wiser heads started falling into packed boxes full of desk clutter and office accoutrements. There were people in that building who tried to steer her back towards something resembling relevance in the community. But “relevance” and “radio” are not words that are so easily married anymore. The rewards were deemed not worth the effort.

While I was there, I mostly enjoyed myself, and enjoyed the opportunity to reach out to a listenership and connect with them. It was a fun party. I got kicked out unceremoniously, but in retrospect, it was a good time to go. At least I wasn’t there when it ended. I feel bad for those, like Brent and Noah, who were still putting in the work, still showing up for their shifts and doing 3 to 4x the work listed in their job descriptions, to make up for ever-shrinking budgets. They were still clinging strongly to her side when she snuck away from her party and began stumbling for that porch.

I’m not happy to see her go, but I am happy to have been part of her existence, if only for a short time. I was part of an on-air tradition that includes people like Bill Prescott, Tawn Mastery, Al Scott, Tom Turner, Tim Savage, Dan Bozyk, Lisa Wood, Rick Emerson and of course, my Captain, Cort Webber, who stood on the shoulders of this poor, dead colossus for longer than any of us did.

Maybe in a couple years I’ll see some scraggly teenager rocking a washed out T-shirt with some permutation of the logo plastered on it. Sure, they’ll probably be wearing it ironically, but I’ll still smile. I’ve got some good memories attached to that logo.

She had a good run.

Here's my response to this post that I left in the comments section:

This is a well written post but I note the lack of acceptance that much has changed in the world of modern music delivery, distribution and how listeners gain access to music. Blaming “angry white men” for the decline of radio listenership is entirely beside the point. There was nothing they could do unless they provided an experience that was deemed worthy of listening to by a large and diverse audience, not just a niche listenership.

Terrestrial radio can’t compete with Pandora, the exception being NPR. And the “5 story tall bookstore” you mention can’t compete with Amazon.

The reasons for this lack of competition within institutions and companies is known as “the curse of knowledge.” Large radio companies and large record companies are cursed with it. That’s why the record companies couldn’t create iTunes, Kodak couldn’t create Flickr, network TV companies couldn’t create YouTube or Netflix and why an Entercom or Clear Channel couldn’t create Pandora.

Simply put, you have to give your customers what they want. They are out there showing us what they want. Unfortunately many media companies want to retain the status quo and therefore can’t see the new markets.

They’d rather spend their money in the present trying to save the problems of the past.

Dave Allen, North