From College To Media
Sac State vs. The Suck State of Mainstream Media
Chapter 10: My Career in Media

Introduction: A Journey Through Mass Media Education
Chapter 1: Why I Majored in Communication
Chapter 2: The Art of Radio
Chapter 3: Writing TV News
Chapter 4: Studying To Be a Rock Star
Chapter 5: Exploring the Age of Incoherence
Chapter 6: The Science of Media Persuasion
Chapter 7: How Stats Influence Perceptions
Chapter 8: Strategies for Winning a Debate
Chapter 9: Programming Music Instead of Computers
Chapter 10: My Career in Media

by Alex Cosper, December 9, 2015

It all seemed to just be a matter of paper work to get the internship at KWOD through Sac State. I started out in January 1984 helping the Music Director, Mr. Ed Lambert. By the summer I was on the air doing overnight shows. I learned the building blocks of radio programming. My big break in radio came in 1991 when I was promoted to Program Director as the station was shifting from top 40 to an alternative presentation.

KWOD became a very special station in Sacramento because it elevated local artists. Under my direction we began giving local talent more opportunities to build their followings. I helped Cake gain notoriety by playing many of their album cuts. I also made sure local artists were sprinkled in every hour around the clock. During that era KWOD became the center of the alternative scene in Sacramento and the top rated rock station in town.

By 1993, two years after I became KWOD's programmer, we had become the most successful station in the city's history to attempt an alternative format. Working for an independent owner gave me a more mom and pop perspective of the radio industry in its hey day. KWOD definitely was different than the mainstream. We were able to break radio programming rules at a time when other prominent alternative radio stations were afraid to break the rules.

One of the reasons that KWOD is one of my favorite memories is because it was one of the last independent stations in the country to be a market leader, before the Telecom Act, which shifted emphasis of radio ownership from local to national. During the time radio went through a wave of consolidation in the late nineties, I moved to Milwaukee for a half year to program the alternative station WLUM. The station was owned by Green Bay Packer legend Willie Davis.

By the end of the nineties radio had become so corporate I started pursuing other careers. Since there were now corporate jobs everywhere I turned, I began cultivating my own online freelance writing career. I did wind up in radio a few more times in the new century while I was exploring online publishing. I did various airshifts on San Francisco station KNGY, which was one of the Bay's last indie stations, playing all electronic music, known as Energy 92.7. In 2006 I went on to program KRCK in Palm Springs.

Once it was clear that radio was a declining industry, I shifted my main focus to my website Playlist Research, which I began building in 2007. It became an enormous archive that documented the best music of all time. The site is composed of information aimed at music professionals as well as fans. It's a site full of history articles and interviews with radio and music industry leaders. I could swear that by 2015 more people had read my work than heard me on the radio in Northern California.

Coping in the Corporate Era

The idea that anyone can contribute to media through social media, a video or their own website, marks a radical change in how media is delivered and consumed. At one time only a tight list of media owners controlled almost all of public perceptions about news and brands. Now Facebook and YouTube can bring any random person stardom if they get enough views or get mentioned in mainstream media. Otherwise, most of national news and talent is tightly packaged among limited choices.

For awhile the "content is king" mantra seemed to rule the internet, at least in spirit. By 2015 it's clear that the money makers of the internet are the platform builders, more than the content writers. Most of the news we come across on social media is reposting content from a national news site, or commentary about an issue that's been raised by popular media sources. So the internet is a combination of popular media sources and lesser known websites with niche followings.

Dominating music industry headlines in the new century hasn't so much been rock stars as it has been music platforms. You will find plenty of PR disguised as music news that promotes music streaming platforms such as Spotify, Pandora and Apple Music. While these music streaming platforms have not been profitable in their early years, music industry leaders have been large stakeholders in these companies and have become billionaires while they collect pennies for artists.

The nineties was a period when the independent scene seemed to be taking over ... until corporations took over the radio industry in 1996. I was proud that I worked for an independently-owned radio station and we didn't do things the normal standardized way. As Program Director, part of my job was to encourage air personalities to do great shows. I wanted each jock to have their own authentic and unique personality instead of faking the sound of an industry DJ. So I was proud that KWOD sounded more human than machine-driven.

In the corporate era, which began around 1996, radio just hasn't been the same. I don't spend much time listening to it anymore now that I make all my money online, doing research and writing articles for various websites. To make a long story short, corporate consolidation of radio turned out to be a big fiasco. The big companies borrowed so many billions of dollars to take over the industry, they were now billions in debt to bankers. Once radio became super corporate, it got very boring, automated and nationalized.

In a sense the internet smashed three industries: newspapers, radio and movies. I don't have a problem with thinking the internet is more relevant than any of the industries it disrupted. Part of the problem with radio and music is they became controlled by a short list of big companies that chose old playbooks over innovation and paid the price. Instead of evolving organically, the industries accelerated into standardization to the point of shattering their mystique over pop culture.

The alternative radio format diminished in popularity from sounding too cookie-cutter, moving toward a chunky metal over-produced sound too many times. There will always be music industry experts pointing out that YouTube and other free music services are what diminished music sales. But the fact that Beatles continued to outsell almost everyone in the new century and the fact that Adele could still set sales records with authentic music indicates that there's still a big market for fans of real artistry.

Toward a Smarter Society

One thing the internet has done that has improved society, is that it allows the potential for individuals to learn a lot of information in a short time. My site Playlist Research, for example, is a place to get an idea about various musical genres and eras. The combination of Google, Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia make it possible to learn more in an hour than what people used to learn in a whole day at the library.

The problem with corporate media in the corporate era, is there isn't much emphasis on investigative journalism. Busting corporations on ways they have deceived their customers isn't really a mainstream topic. Studies that show sugar is bad for you are buried in the news so that sponsors aren't offended. Most mainstream media material promotes the materialistic consumer lifestyle. That's why I appreciate thought leaders of alternative media that give us reminders about going green and living a more efficient lifestyle.

Prior to the rise of the internet it took time for self-education to pay off. Hanging out at Tower Books for hours picking up pieces of data was my main information gathering process back in the early nineties. My reason for collecting data was to share information over the air. Back then it was difficult to learn about the background of a recording artist. But by 1995 a listener sent me a fax that made it clear they can get artist information from the internet faster than being a loyal radio listener.

As soon as broadband internet became omnipresent in 2004, it was a whole new world. Most media could be shared easily as YouTube became the solution for hosting video. Watching videos has proven to be a fast way to learn almost anything, making YouTube one of the main indicators of radical change in pop culture in the new century. People can no longer rely on TV commercials for product information or TV news for the most important information. There have been plenty of breakthroughs in nutrition research that don't get mentioned by mainstream media, probably to protect the interests of their sponsors.

These days anyone can tell their story any way they want through social media or their own websites. Instead of meeting friends at places like roller rinks, night clubs and concert halls, people now spend plenty of party time with friends on Facebook. I believe that sharing music and information through social media is similar to what I did with radio in the eighties and nineties. Except now every individual has the opportunity to shape pop culture as much as consume it.

The Greatest Media Ever

One can only trust that media will get better online. That all depends on what the platform makers come up with. It's possible to run your own internet radio station online, but in order to get listeners you would have to offer super compelling content and do plenty of email marketing. Building a network is no longer the hardest part of creating your own pop culture. Social media comes with tentacles that can pull all kinds of new visitors to your presentation.

As much as I enjoyed working in media, I have to remind myself it was during a golden age at the tail end of the mom and pop era. I was able to play and say many things in radio that other jocks weren't allowed to do. I do not like the idea of script readers taking over the industry, competing for the lowest pay. As radio turned more corporate it became more automated, with an increasing creepy disappearance of local culture.

I like the idea of the mainstream being the conglommeration of several small sectors that contribute to the big picture. The music of the sixties still seems diverse compared with other decades because hundreds of small companies competed for the national spotlight, whereas the 2010s are dominated by the big three labels, which represent dozens of subsidiaries. I find smaller companies usually offer a better variety and richer quality of music.

It's important to remember that we are in an era of demassification and customization. During the build-up of massification, people learned to accept one-size-fits-all solutions through mass media. Since the rise of the internet, two big stories have characterized mainstream media: the big music companies have struggled by becoming more corporate while thousands of small companies are developing while searching for an identity. As far as radio, about a dozen companies took over the industry, creating predictable programming from city to city.

Thanks to Sac State I learned that the original purpose of commercial radio was to serve the community, which was my top concern. I knew that getting good ratings to sell to advertisers was important, but I did it by focusing on the audience I wanted to reach, which was the more adventurous music fans who liked to hear unique stuff outside the mainstream. I was able to fit the role of a programmer of alternative entertainment. These days the term alternative can mean anything. I still place value in art that is unique and avoid cookie-cutter music.

Through demassification, we have the chance to express ourselves in the most creative ways possible. I enjoy the opportunity of expressing myself through more than just audio. The internet lets me express myself through video and writing as well without time limits or commercial interruption. For that, I am glad that Sac State prepared me for a career in radio, which prepared me for having fun on social media.

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