But laid-off employees like D’Edwin “Big Kosh” Walton, who made $12 an hour as an on-air personality for the Columbus, Ohio, hip-hop station 106.7 the Beat, don’t buy it. Walton doesn’t blame the cuts on a computer; he blames them on the company’s top executives, whose “coldblooded, calculated move” cost people their jobs.
It “ripped my [expletive] heart out,” Walton said. “The people at the top don’t know who we are at the bottom. They don’t understand the relationships and the connections we had with the communities. And that’s the worst part: They don’t care.”
The dominant player in U.S. radio, which owns the online music service iHeartRadio and more than 850 local stations across the United States, has called AI the muscle it needs to fend off rivals, recapture listeners and emerge from bankruptcy. The company, which now uses software to schedule music, analyze research and mix songs, plans to consolidate offices around what executives call “AI-enabled Centers of Excellence.”
The company’s shift seems in line with a corporate America that is increasingly embracing automation, using technological advances to take over tasks once done by people, boosting profits and cutting costs. The workplace transformation is typically reduced to a symbol: a robot stealing a human’s job.
But the cuts at iHeartMedia and other companies also highlight a little-noticed element of these mass layoffs: the human decision-makers who lead them.
Modern AI systems are not yet capable enough to replace people outright. They excel at some tasks but still depend heavily on people for training, refinement and repair. Some critics say executives end up using the systems as scapegoats, hoping to distract from old-school failures, portray themselves as futuristic and avoid public outrage.
Industry analysts and observers said iHeartMedia had begun highlighting its AI bets in hopes of persuading investors it had the technological wherewithal to survive a new musical age in which digital streaming services compete against over-the-air radio for advertising dollars and listeners’ time.
Bank of America analyst Jessica Reif Ehrlich said iHeartMedia’s leadership — including Pittman, who she said could “sell ice to an Eskimo” — had successfully built the company’s stature in the face of heavy debts. While the job cuts may sound “inhumane,” she added, they made sense from a Wall Street perspective, given the company’s need to trim costs and improve its profit margins.
“There’s definitely room for efficiency,” she said. “There’s no reason AI couldn’t help.”
But shrinking the workforce, said Jerry Del Colliano, a music-business professor at New York University who publishes the industry newsletter Inside Music Media, looked less like a necessary shift to ultramodern tech and more a response to iHeartMedia’s past struggles and future risks: what Goldman Sachs analysts in October called the “rising competitive intensity” and “cannibalization” of audio rivals on the Web.
“This is a typical example of a dying industry that is blaming technology for something that is just absolutely a reduction in force,” Del Colliano said. “It’s a bum rap for AI. It’s an excuse. We’ve got to get out of the habit of looking at AI or any other technology as simply a way to fire people.”
iHeartRadio spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg declined to make executives available for comment or provide a total layoff count, saying only that the job cuts were “relatively small” compared with the company’s overall workforce of 12,500 employees.
But half a dozen DJs who spoke with The Washington Post said the cuts were tantamount to a “bloodbath.” Informal lists compiled by industry news sites such as RadioInsight provide the names of hundreds of talk show hosts, news anchors, producers, program directors, reporters and drive-time DJs let go from local stations across the country. Del Colliano estimated that more than 1,000 people would lose their jobs nationwide.
The cuts, Goldberg said, showed how iHeartMedia was shifting “jobs to the future from the past,” adding data scientists, podcast producers and other digital teams to help transform the radio broadcaster into a “multiplatform” creator and “America’s #1 audio company.”
“We do not intend to be one of those companies that stayed in the past, and the world passed it by,” Goldberg said in a statement. “Change is painful and change is hard — but consciously choosing not to change is not an option for a company that is going to continue to grow and compete.”
Broadcast radio has been bulldozed by online upstarts such as Pandora, Spotify and YouTube, but the long-running medium remains a huge business. In November, iHeartMedia reported it took in more than $1.6 billion in broadcast-radio revenue during the first nine months of 2019, and company filings claim that a quarter of a billion listeners still tune in every month to discover new music, catch up on the news or hear from their local DJs.
Executives at the Texas-based company have long touted human DJs as their biggest competitive strength, saying in federal securities filings last year that the company was in the “companionship” business because listeners build a “trusted bond and strong relationship” with the on-air personalities they hear every day.
“Consumers listen to the radio because the voice on the other side sounds like a friend,” the filing said.
But the company has also tried to combat its online rivals, many of which recommend songs based on a user’s listening history, by hyping up its newfound technological power. In 2018, some stations on the online iHeartRadio service began testing a music-mixing AI system built by the start-up Super Hi-Fi, which says it can “understand music nuances with the same depth as a human DJ.”
The system can transition in real time between songs by layering in music, sound effects, voice-over snippets and ads, delivering the style of smooth, seamless playback that has long been the human DJ’s trade. The Los Angeles-based Super Hi-Fi, whose clients also include the streaming fitness service Peloton, says its “computational music presentation” AI can help erase the seconds-long gaps between songs that can lead to “a loss of energy, lack of continuity and disquieting sterility.”
Super Hi-Fi patents filed last year reduce the art of mixing music to a diagram of algorithmic tasks: The “MagicStitch” system, as Super Hi-Fi calls it, assesses songs’ “rhythmic profile, chordal, melodic content, harmonic and amplitude over time”; calculates ways to blend them “in concordance with the salient temporal moments”; then interjects other elements to create a “more engaging overall consumption experience.”
The system is trained to process different stylistic touches — “a ‘wild and crazy’ classical piece will differ greatly from a ‘wild and crazy’ punk rock anthem,” one patent states — as well as their energy level and mood, from “bouncing off the walls” to “dirge.” Sentiment is also catalogued, the company said, “so as not to put a super-positive announcer over a super-negative piece of content,” like a grim piece of breaking news.
In a demonstration for a Post reporter, Super Hi-Fi co-founder Zack Zalon showed the system transitioning from Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” to Kanye West’s “Stronger”: One song wove cleanly into the other through an automated mix of booming sound effects, background music, interview sound bites and station-branding shout-outs (“Super Hi-Fi: Recommended by God”). The smooth transition might have taken a DJ a few minutes to prepare; the computer completed it in a matter of seconds. (“3,526 Calculations Performed,” the system declared afterward.)
Much of the initial training for these delicate transitions comes from humans, who prerecord voice-overs, select songs, edit audio clips, and classify music by genre, style and mood. Zalon said the machine-learning system has been further refined by iHeartMedia’s human DJs, who have helped identify clumsy transitions and room for future improvements.
“To have radio DJs across the country that really care about song transitions and are listening to find everything wrong, that was awesome,” Zalon said. “It gave us hundreds of the world’s best ears. … They almost unwittingly became kind of like our QA [quality assurance] team.” (It was unclear whether any of those DJs were among the recent layoffs.)
The system won’t trigger massive job cuts and could lead to new opportunities, Zalon argues, because humans will still need to create and ready the audio snippets from which the AI can select. But he expects that, in a few years, computer-generated voices could automatically read off the news, tee up interviews and introduce songs, potentially supplanting humans even more. The software performed 315 million musical transitions for listeners in January alone.
The system now is used only for iHeartMedia’s digital stations, but some industry observers expect in the future that software like it could reshape local over-the-air broadcasts, too. The company’s chief product officer, Chris Williams, said last year in an interview with the industry news site RadioWorld that “virtual DJs” that could seamlessly interweave chatter, music and ads were “absolutely” coming, and “something we are always thinking about.”
Goldberg, the iHeartMedia communications chief, said the company has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to develop high-tech systems to “substantially improve the scientific part of how we program,” processing thousands of data points related to optimized music selection and scheduling “far in excess of the capabilities of any human being to digest and use.”
That has allowed the company, she said, to free up programming people for more creative pursuits, “embedding our radio stations into the communities and lives of our listeners better and deeper than they have been before.”
There’s no clear indication that AI schedulers or computerized DJs would solve a long-running financial challenge of the company’s own making. In 2008, to gain control of the radio and billboard titan then known as Clear Channel, the private-equity firms Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners staged a leveraged buyout, weighing the company down with a mountain of borrowed cash they needed to seal the deal.
The audacious move left the radio giant saddled with more than $20 billion in debt, just as the Great Recession kicked off and radio’s strengths began to rust. The debt would kneecap the company for the next decade, forcing it to pay more toward interest payments some years than it earned in revenue.
In 2018, iHeartMedia filed for bankruptcy, saying in a statement then that it would “uphold its commitments” to its thousands of employees. “We’re here to right-size the balance sheet,” a company lawyer told a bankruptcy judge that year in Texas, where the giant had grown from a single San Antonio country music station in 1972.
In the year the company filed for bankruptcy, Pittman, the company’s chief and a former head of MTV and AOL, was paid roughly $13 million in salary and bonus pay, nearly three times what he made in 2016, company financial records show. In late 2018, the company also asked a bankruptcy judge for approval to boost its bonus packages for top executives even further, to more than $33 million, above the $22 million they had previously planned.
The company defended the request in a court filing by saying, “Maintaining a highly motivated workforce is as important as ever.” The full bankruptcy plan was approved last year. (Executive pay packages, Goldberg said, were benchmarked against industry peers and set by the company’s board, adding, “This was not a management decision.”)
The company’s push to shrink and subsume local stations was also made possible by deregulation. In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission ditched a rule requiring radio stations to maintain a studio near where they were broadcasting. Local DJs have since been further replaced by prerecorded substitutes, sometimes from hundreds of miles away.
Several DJs laid off this month said they knew the business was in dismal shape. But they were stunned by how the company went about the mass “dislocation,” saying they were abruptly called in for a short meeting before being escorted off their local station’s premises, with no opportunity to say goodbye.
Ashley “Z” Elzinga, a former on-air personality for 95.6 KISS FM in Cleveland, said she was upbeat about the future but frustrated that the company had said the layoffs touched only a “relatively small” slice of its workforce. “I gave my life to this,” she said. “I moved my life, moved my family.”
Many of the DJs said they saw local radio as a great equalizer: free, ubiquitous and open to anyone, no matter where you live or how much money you make. Since the layoffs, they’ve been inundated with messages from listeners who said they couldn’t imagine their daily lives without them. They said they don’t expect a computer-generated system will satisfy listeners or fill that void.
Monisha “Mo” Mann, a former nighttime DJ for the Fresno, Calif., hip-hop station B95, announced the cut on Instagram alongside a live stream, in which her 3-year-old son could be heard in the background.
“They’ve decided to replace a lot of workers, a lot of live shows, with AI … and another DJ in another state, another city, not in Fresno, don’t know nothing about Fresno,” she said, tearing up. “I just sat in my car, like, damn. This is it for me. … I just got laid off from something I loved so much.”
Walton, the Columbus radio personality known as Big Kosh, said he loved the job because it let him talk about the news and hear from local listeners. For the five years of Saturdays and Sundays he worked there, between his shifts as a server at an Outback Steakhouse, he would often bring his daughter to the studio, teaching her about the business he first fell in love with as a kid recording music on cassettes.
“It was something I was really looking forward to making a future out of. And in the blink of an eye, all of that stopped for me,” he said. “That’s the painful part. They just killed what I thought was the future for me.”