Elroy Smith has been in radio since 1981, and it's not what it used to be.

"Jocks are working double shifts," says Smith, Philadelphia operations manager for urban-oriented Radio One. "I'm doing three stations here, and one in Charlotte."

"We have to survive. . . . This is no joke."

Nobody's laughing. Stock prices have plummeted, and red ink is rising around Radio One and the entire industry, struggling with a mountain of debt and a disastrous drop in advertising revenue, although listenership has shown only a modest decline.

Stations are streamlining operations and trying to adapt to the digital age, but radio people, traditionally the most creative local media moneymakers, are way behind newspapers, magazines, and television in extracting cash from the Internet.

Revenue in the Philadelphia radio market, the nation's eighth-largest, fell from $326.9 million in 2004 to $265.1 million in 2008, a slide of 19 percent, reports BIA Advisory Services, a leading financial analyst for the industry.

BIA sees the trend continuing for at least two more years, and getting worse before it gets better. Last month, it increased its gloomy forecast for 2009, saying national radio revenue would decline not 11 percent ($1.7 billion) from 2008, as first expected, but 15 percent ($2.5 billion).

The deepening economic distress has frayed nerves. "Our lives are very stressful and unpredictable. There's more insecurity than ever before," says Smith, who manages WPHI (100.3), WPPZ (103.9), and WRNB (107.9) and began managing the Charlotte station in April.

Two words apply to radio in 2009, says BIA research vice president Kip Cassino, who has spent 30 years as a media consultant: "Nothing good."

Examples of radio's woes abound:

Clear Channel Communications Inc., which operates six stations in Philadelphia, including WRFF (104.5) and WDAS (105.3), saw Standard & Poor's chop its debt rating two notches last month to CCC, reflecting concern that the company may default. In 1999, the Wall Street Journal ranked Clear Channel the fifth-best-performing stock of the decade. Nationwide this year, Clear Channel has laid off more than 2,400 employees, more than 10 percent of its workforce.

CBS Corp., with five Philadelphia stations - WIP (610), KYW (1060), WPHT (1210), WYSP (94.1), and WOGL (98.1) - also took a hit last month when S&P knocked its debt down a peg to just above "junk" status.

Radio One reported a net loss of $59.4 million for the first quarter of 2009, compared with a loss of $18.9 million a year earlier. Things are not likely to improve in the second quarter, according to a statement by Alfred C. Liggins III, Radio One's president and chief executive officer.

Web hard to harness

There are breaks in the clouds roiling over radio, but whether they are opening or closing is uncertain.

At first glance, radio - flexible and entrepreneurial, with a relatively stable audience - seems better positioned than the other older media to ride out the recession and, perhaps, integrate itself into an Internet, iPhone, iPod world.

But it's still struggling, BIA's Cassino says.

"They should be making megabucks off the Internet, but they don't seem to really care much about it," he says. "You would think radio would have a leg up when it comes to the Web, just because WXYZ.com can start up providing exactly the same service as WXYZ-FM."

Not only can radio stream its regular programming and get ratings counted, but also users of computers and smart phones can view associated entertainment and advertising content while listening to the old medium.

"We've found that 27 percent of Americans have listened online to radio," says John Fullam, vice president and market manager for Greater Media Philadelphia, which operates WMMR (93.3), WBEN (95.7), WNUW (97.5), WMGK (102.9), and 950ESPN, an AM sports outlet. "We're trying to transform this into a model where digital and traditional methods are working together."

Elvis Duran's New York morning show, which is syndicated to 18 other markets, including Philadelphia, where it airs on WIOQ (102.1), demonstrates how well the old and new can work together creatively.

"We're not purely just a radio show anymore," says Duran. "The Internet is a sidekick to our show. People can look at pictures, read more about things on our Web site. We're very, very active."

But activity doesn't boost the bottom line.

"Streaming, Web sites, and so forth, people know that it's there. They know it has value," says Ellen Drury, president of local broadcast for GroupM Matrix, a major media buyer. "How do you get traditional shops, which have separate online departments, to put it in their buying plans? It certainly hasn't become the revenue stream they hoped it would be."

Radio can claim a more faithful audience than other traditional media, although a new ratings-measurement device has created confusion in the industry.

Weekday newspaper circulation nationwide declined more than 11 percent in the year that ended March 31. Prime-time network TV ratings are down 6 percent since 2006-07, and dropped 16 percent last season in the 18-to-49 age demographic that is the major currency in TV advertising.

In contrast, the radio audience in the Philadelphia area decreased only 3.4 percent over the last two years by a commonly used measurement, the "cume," that calculates the number of individuals who listen to at least 15 minutes of radio per week.

In April 2007, according to Arbitron Inc., the primary provider of radio ratings, 4.45 million different people 6 or older listened weekdays between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m., radio's prime time. In April 2009, 4.3 million tuned in.

The number of people listening in an average quarter-hour decreased from 582,800 to 572,000.

New measuring techniques found a larger cume than anyone suspected, but also revealed that listeners spend less time than previously thought with their favorite stations.

Still, that should not affect ad rates, says Drury, of GroupM Matrix.

"The strong stations are still the strong stations," she says. "Losing a share point here or there, that's not going to kill you."

Flexibility is one of radio's advantages. With more than 100 formats and sub-formats, radio is much more finely tuned demographically than TV or newspapers.

"An advertiser trying to reach the African American community would probably go to Radio One," with stations broadcasting hip-hop, gospel music, and contemporary rhythm and blues, says Mike Gillespie Sr., president and founder of the Gillespie Group, a Philadelphia advertising and marketing company. "If you have a car repair on lower Germantown Avenue, you don't need Cherry Hill."

But such flexibility is no match for an economic crisis of historic proportion, as Radio One's troubles show.

"These are unprecedented times," says Fullam, of Greater Media Philadelphia.

It's tough for anyone who sells advertising. Radio has to navigate the same turbulent economic waters that other media do, explains Jeff Haley, president of the Radio Bureau of Advertising, and the depth of those waters, as measured in advertising revenue, diminished 12 percent in the first quarter of 2009, according to the Nielsen Co.

Not only are fewer people buying advertising, but they also generally are paying less per unit because of the decreased demand. Rates may stay the same, but stations will throw in some free spots to sweeten a deal.

Market perception 'abysmal'

Radio has a much bigger problem than declining revenue; Haley calls it the "financial structure overhang."

Much of radio is leveraged up to the little red lights on the tippy-tops of its tall antennas.

The "market perception of radio is abysmal," says Mark Fratrik, financial vice president of BIA. "The people who own the debt don't want to acquire these stations because there's nobody out there to buy it."

In some cases, you can't even give a radio station away.

An investment firm donated a station playing inspirational music to a Georgia religious organization. A few weeks ago, the Augusta Radio Fellowship Institute, citing "the economy and other factors," gave it back.

The "market for broadcast stations has been almost nonexistent for more than a year," says the Radio Business Report, a trade journal whose RBR Radio Index, a measurement of stock values in the industry, lost about 80 percent of its value between March 31, 2007, and March 31, 2009.

"We used to not list penny stocks," says Jack Messmer, who maintains the radio index, "but we've had to leave them in because otherwise there wouldn't be enough companies in the index."

Changes in the way people listen to music have had only a small effect on traditional radio.

Sirius XM satellite radio, which has leveled off at about 20 million subscribers and narrowly avoided bankruptcy this year after accumulating more than $6 billion in losses; Web-based radio, such as Pandora; and digitally recorded music all siphon some listeners from traditional radio. But many of the new services and devices attract additional, rather than alternative, listening.

"Different ultimate delivery systems have increased the total number of listeners," Drury says.

Jonathan Steuer, media consultant and founder of Anonymous Media Research, says: "Lots of people are listening to radio, but the media they use to get it differ with age."

Steuer cites a study by OTX Research indicating that while 67 percent of all age groups listen to most of their radio in the car, only 54 percent of young teenagers (ages 13 to 17) do. A larger percentage of that group (21 percent vs. 9 percent of the general population) listens to music on digitally recorded formats such MP3. People between 13 and the mid-30s also use streaming audio and other computer sources much more than older people do.

"For use of new media," Steuer says, "ages 31 to 35 is probably the cutoff."

Continued cuts, consolidation

Just like TV and newspapers, radio is cutting staff and consolidating operations to try to keep going in a horrible advertising market.

A month ago, for instance, Clear Channel announced that John Rohm, who had been running the company's Pittsburgh stations for 10 years, would replace local vice president and market manager Manuel Rodriguez. Now Rohm will run things in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

KYW, one of the most-listened-to stations in the area, has done "nothing dramatic" in newsroom staffing during the last two years, says Marc Rayfield, the market manager for CBS. The station's newsroom employs 66 people, 35 of them full time, he says.

Stephen Leshinski, executive director of the Philadelphia office of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, says he has noticed that the hours of some KYW part-timers have been cut. "Our perception of things is that around the edges, there's been some trimming of coverage," he said.

But unlike TV and newspapers, radio has been consolidating for more than a decade, after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 made it possible for one company to own multiple stations in each market. And it has been dumping staff since the '70s, when so-called voice-check technology made it possible for disc jockeys to record shows days or even weeks in advance.

Can a listener detect the sound of hard times in radio's content? Probably. As WMGK disc jockey John DeBella explains, radio reflects the mood of the nation.

"Eighties radio was more upbeat. It changed with the times," he says. "Into the '90s, it became more in-your-face, crasser, as society did. And now, when you listen today, a lot of radio, especially talk radio, is angry. But so is the country. I don't know why. But a lot of radio is the same way."

The local touch

Critics complain that syndication, automation, and company consolidation have stripped the local life from the medium. But while many stations in Philadelphia have limited homegrown content, the city has a louder local voice than most - and that's important to survival.

"There are regional differences," says Fratrik, "and if a radio corporation is smart, they recognize them and cater to them. Something might work in Philly that won't work in Boston or Wausau, Wis."

What works for soft-rock WBEB (101.1) is audience research. Owned and run by Jerry Lee, who helped launch the station in 1963, WBEB is perennially top-ranked and considered by many the most successful locally owned single station in America. In 1968, the station became the first FM outlet in the country to bill $1 million a year in advertising.

Stories about Lee's marketing genius are legion. Born in New Castle, Pa., he "started to think up ways of making money before he left the baby carriage," according to a 1968 profile in the Philadelphia Daily News. He came to Philadelphia three years out of college, after getting some experience at stations in Ohio and Maryland.

Lee knows what his listeners want because he asks, paying special attention to the female audience. Energetic and confident, he has built his success on painstaking research and won nearly every honor his industry can bestow.

His mind spins off new ideas so quickly that he keeps a second computer on his desk just to catch them, he said in a 2006 Inquirer interview.

What comes out regularly stuns his industry colleagues. He once moved to boost his ratings by having radios made in Hong Kong that were permanently tuned to 101.1, then spreading them out, for free, in workplaces all over town.

Connecting with the audience, as Lee does better than most, is considered key to radio survival. Unlike the Internet, it also provides a money stream outside on-air spots and printed ads that other traditional media don't match.

Country station WXTU (92.5) recently marked its 25th birthday with a big party featuring a bevy of stars at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden. The party might have been free for the 34,000 listeners who showed up, but the station got plenty of money from advertisers. "We had over 30 vendors," says WXTU marketing and promotions director Mark Vizza.

Ever heard of Wing Bowl? WIP has established the annual eating fest as a monument to outside promotion and advertising.

"Today, radio gets people involved," says Gillespie, a former president of the Philadelphia Ad Club. "Events, concerts, all kinds of marketing things: They offer to advertisers, and then they customize. That's where their strength is."

The future of radio may turn not on financiers but on the creative energy of the industry's workforce, say media buyers, ad executives, and analysts.

Gillespie thinks so: "Radio generally has better salespeople than the other media. They understand what they can and cannot accomplish. Radio people are more creative."

"They are crazy people, entrepreneurs, opportunists," says BIA's Fratrik. "They're still battling every day."

Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/jonathanstorm
Inquirer staff writers Michael Klein and John Timpane contributed to this article.