Radio AM to FM: August 3, 2001
Much has been written -- both here and elsewhere -- about the Evil Empire's (also known as Clear Channel Communications) use of the Prophet System at its various radio stations.
Much of the press -- especially here -- has been negative, due primarily to the fact that the use of Prophet tends to mock what radio was meant to be: live, local, and with programming designed to benefit the listeners in the city of license.
However, not much has been written about what Prophet really is. What it does. And why its use, or the use of similar systems, will most certainly continue to grow both within the Evil Empire and among its competitors.
Simply put, Prophet is a digital automation system, a modern version of the old reel-to-reel and cart systems that have been used with varying success at some radio stations for years. KOLA (99.9 FM) in San Bernardino is perhaps the best-known local station to use automation in the past, partly because the system sounded so bad and had so many problems. I remember being home sick from school and hearing KOLA play "The Night Chicago Died" by Paper Lace sixteen times in a row.
(KOLA, by the way, now uses live DJs and has since it started playing oldies.)
The company was started by two broadcasters who wanted a more reliable automation system for their station. Originally called AudioProphet, the system and company later became known as Prophet Systems Innovations and is now a division of Clear Channel.
Not just automation, Prophet is an entire system that can be linked to stations around the country and around the world. The CD/Extractor will transfer music from compact disks into the Prophet computer, automatically setting volume levels for WANcasting (more on that later). Using VoiceTRAC, personalities "can do a four hour show in less than 30 minutes!" according to the Prophet Systems web site. "Best of all, all shifts sound live and local" it promises.
After that comes the magic of automation, wherein all the elements get put together with such precision that the station can play everything through a computer, have no one even in the studio building, and still sound live and local, at least in these days of lowest common denominator broadcasting. Don't believe me? Listen to Star 98.7 after midnight. Prophet is going full tilt from midnight to 5 am. The system actually does a reasonably good job.
Want more? WANcasting allows the extracted CDs and tracked voices to be sent through the group owner's Wide Area Network. Shows can either be produced remotely for a particular station, or the system can be used as an inexpensive network link to broadcast the same program over numerous stations. Clear Channel plans to use it in place of weekend personalities currently heard on KBIG (104.3 FM) and KOST (103.5 FM).
Just as in the old days of automation, the primary impetus of systems like Prophet is cost: It is far cheaper to pay for a computer than it is to pay for a personality. If you can use the system over your 1400+ group of stations, you can cut costs substantially.
Yet that's the rub. As always, you get what you pay for. Automation is still automation. There is no magic in modern mega-radio, hardly a reason to listen. But it sure is cheap. Never mind that listeners -- especially younger listeners, the lifeblood of radio -- are flocking to other entertainment sources. Never mind that systems such as this all but guarantee that there will never again be another Rick Dees, Robert W. Morgan or Real Don Steele, simply because there won't be any personalities left to work up from the small markets. Cheapness rules in modern radio.
Yet in a warped way, the success of systems like Prophet may end up being a good thing. As more and more stations use it (Clear Channel is hardly the only group owner to use this system or one like it), radio becomes more and more bland and predictable. Then, like freeform FM radio in the 1960s and early 1970s, the independents will stand out once more as the place for real entertainment. All it will take is time.
It wasn't meant to be satire of Prophet, but it is. Go to www.reelradio.com and search for 99. Listen, then tell me what you think.
Copyright © 2001 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.
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