Baton Rouge might be economically healthy compared to the rest of the country, but it’s not immune to the national recession.
One case in point: When media giant Clear Channel Communications announced late last month it would be laying off more than 1,800 employees—some 9% of its total workforce—among those affected were some two dozen local employees in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans offices.
In a written statement, Clear Channel CEO Mark Mays said the recession had “hit some of our largest customers hard.” As a result, he wrote, the company was bringing “staffing in line with these challenging economic conditions.”
Clear Channel executives declined to comment on the situation or on how the cuts would be implemented in specific markets. But sources familiar with the situation say between 25 and 30 local employees were affected—including some top-level managers and veteran account executives.
That didn’t sit well with some advertisers who buy commercial airtime on Clear Channel’s five local stations. Among those laid off was the account executive with whom Saundra Lane worked for more than 15 years.
“I worked with this person on countless promotions—probably more than 100,” says Lane, who buys airtime for her family’s four automotive dealerships. “It’s very upsetting because I have a lot of friends that I’ve worked with there for a very long time and now they’re gone.”
Clear Channel has been the Baton Rouge area’s market leader, with three of the five highest-grossing stations, two of the five highest-rated stations and a 44% market share of revenues overall, according to industry estimates.
For more than a year, broadcasters have been sounding the alarm that the digital TV transition was coming. And even those TV viewers who couldn’t name the last three presidents or find Canada on a world map likely knew that if they didn’t subscribe to cable or satellite service, they were going to have to get a new TV set come this month—or buy a subsidized converter box from the government.
So you can imagine how undone broadcasters are by the Obama administration’s decision to delay the DTV transition for four months. It’s an arbitrary amount of time, and local broadcasters point out if viewers have put off preparing for the transition this long they likely will continue to procrastinate.
“If people aren’t ready for it now, they’re not going to be ready for it until they lose their signal,” says Lou Munson with the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters.
When the delay was announced, the Federal Communications Commission gave stations the option of going forward with the transition in February as planned, something Baton Rouge-area stations at first decided to do. At the last minute, however, they decided against it for a variety of reasons, most of which had to do with interference from nearby signals. Had WAFB-TV gone digital this month, for instance, its signal would have been too close to the signal of a Lafayette station that wasn’t yet switching over.
Besides being a big letdown and a bigger hassle, the DTV delay is a very real expense for local stations. Broadcasting both an analog and a digital signal costs between $10,000 and $15,000 a month. Stations have been broadcasting dual signals for months now in preparation for the switchover. But they were hoping not to have to continue doing so beyond February.
Another real concern is that the new deadline for the transition is mid-June, the start of hurricane season. Viewers who aren’t prepared for the transition by then—most likely low-income elderly—also are those who will most need access to information in the event of a weather emergency.
“We need to make the transition before then,” Munson says, “so there will be no doubt that we get everything in place.”