Rush Limbaugh said he noticed it about two months ago. Listeners to his daily radio show were sending in e-mail messages by the thousands, asking why there were more commercials on his three-hour talk-radio program.
"At first I didn't know what they were talking about," Mr. Limbaugh said. "I was talking for the same amount of time every day."
He may have been speaking for the same amount of time, but his words were, without his knowledge, being sucked into a temporal never-never land. A new kind of digital technology was literally snipping out the silent pockets between words, shortening the pauses and generally speeding up the pace of Mr. Limbaugh's speech.
In New York City, listeners to WABC heard the accelerated version of Mr. Limbaugh's program, causing Mr. Limbaugh to complain about it during a broadcast.
With no fanfare, the digital program -- called Cash in the direct manner of software nomenclature, because that's what it makes -- has established a foothold in the radio industry in the last six months. General managers at about 50 radio stations across the country are using it, to quicken talk programs so that they can wedge in more commercials. Radio stations are adding as many as four minutes of commercial time an hour -- or eight 30-second commercials. At one point, some stations added as many as six minutes of commercials, the maximum allowed by the technology, but eventually pulled back.
While the radio industry has previously used devices to speed up programming, this is the first time that time compression has been applied on live programming to expressly make room for more advertising. And the new device has angered radio denizens like Mr. Limbaugh, who says he uses pauses for emphasis much like an actor raises an eyebrow on stage. He spared no hyperbole when he spoke in an interview of its potential impact on radio: "I think it is potential doom for the radio industry," he said.
Mr. Limbaugh may be accustomed to predicting doom, but in an economy where advertising dollars are plentiful and radio stations can, as a result of deregulation, run as many commercials as listeners will tolerate, some say the radio industry is like a hungry child staring at an open cookie jar.
While radio executives say the impact of the Cash technology is often imperceptible to consumers, advertising executives complain that there is already too much clutter on the dial, making each commercial less effective. Other critics point to a larger issue: that the growth in commercials in recent years, combined with listeners drifting toward other media, may be helping to eat away at the radio audience.
Shrinking radio's content reflects the growing impulse to cram in advertising wherever and whenever possible. Once punctuating the cultural landscape, commercials now dominate it, from the flashing computer screens at the local deli cash register to the piped-in advertisements on corporate telephone lines to airport baggage carousels and supermarket floors.
Critics say that jamming too many ads on radio is one of the first places commercial overload becomes swiftly apparent. James Duncan, president of Duncan's American Radio, a Cincinnati-based broadcasting industry consulting group, said that as deregulation has loosened the industry's limits on commercials, their number has jumped to 20 commercials an hour, from about a dozen. That typically represents a rise of about 10 minutes an hour to, in some programs, as much as 30 minutes.
Since 1990, the total time Americans have spent listening to radio programming has shrunk by 12 percent, Mr. Duncan said. According to figures from Arbitron, the independent research agency that tracks radio ratings, time spent listening has indeed fallen in the last decade, to 21 hours 15 minutes a week, from 23 hours 45 minutes a week -- a decline of 10.5 percent.
"We are throwing way too many commercials at our listeners," Mr. Duncan said. "I think stations will slowly realize that there is a maximum that listeners can stand, and if they don't they will seriously downgrade their listenership."
But expanding commercial time has proved too tempting for the radio industry, which is experiencing boom times thanks to the healthy economy but also partly because the industry is now owned by a small cluster of giants like Clear Channel Communications, which has a pending deal to buy AMFM; the Infinity Broadcasting division of CBS; and Walt Disney's Capital Cities/ABC Broadcast Group. As the industry has consolidated, the economics of radio management have become more efficient, streamlining ad sales and centralizing programming.
The Radio Advertising Bureau estimates that radio sales will have reached $15.5 billion for 1999. Advertising revenue was up 14 percent on the local level and 27 percent on the national level through October 1999, compared with the same period the previous year, the bureau said.
When Cash became available last spring, it seemed a natural outgrowth of the advertising boom. Prime Image, a Silicon Valley technology company, introduced it after its device for television stations -- the Time Machine, which compresses audio and visual signals to make more time for commercials on live programming -- caught the eye of a radio station owner in Philadelphia.
The notion of time compression began to take hold in television about a decade ago, and has been used to moderately shrink syndicated programming like talk and game shows. But the time-compression equipment was not aggressively marketed as devices to create extra time for commercials until about three years ago.
The promotional literature for the Time Machine, for example, reads in part: "Use the Time Machine to add commercials to your program schedule and profits to your bottom line." Bill Hendershot, the president of Prime Image, said that more than 250 television stations -- affiliates from NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox; several owned and operated stations, and a handful of cable networks -- own the Time Machine. The Inspirational Network in Charlotte, N.C., has used it to speed up sermons and religious programming.
Use of time-compression devices on television generally create less time for extra advertising, so the impact on the bottom line is proportionally less than for radio. Because television viewers and executives are much more sensitive to commercial clutter, the quantity of commercials on television has not reached the numbers of those on radio.
To squeeze in those vast numbers of commercials, Cash works on live radio by digitally recording the entire broadcast. It begins by recording the first couple of minutes of live radio -- depending on how many commercials the manager wants to insert -- then replays it, condensing the silent parts throughout the rest of the broadcast. It is used primarily by local radio stations that apply it to syndicated programs.
For example, one day last month, WWDB-FM in Philadelphia, which broadcasts Mr. Limbaugh's national program every day at noon, sought to gain almost three extra commercial minutes in one hour. The engineer inserted a one-minute commercial block at noon, and Cash silently recorded Mr. Limbaugh during that minute. At 12:01 p.m., the program began to play Mr. Limbaugh's now not-exactly-live broadcast; during the next 21 minutes, the digital program eliminated pockets of silence between Mr. Limbaugh's words and also removed what is known as "redundant" data from within words -- for example, shortening a long syllable. The station gradually earned back the one minute lost at the top of the broadcast.
The impact of Cash is minimized by Phil Boyce, the program director of New York's WABC-AM who experimented with Cash on Mr. Limbaugh's show in November -- until Mr. Limbaugh complained about it during a broadcast, a contretemps reported in The New York Post.
Mr. Boyce said that he had not yet decided if he would continue to use Cash. "Yes, you can shoehorn more commercials in," Mr. Boyce said. "But it really wouldn't be noticeable with the naked ear unless some station was using it to its maximum capacity by removing five or six minutes an hour."
But that is already happening. Dennis Begley, the general manager of WWDB-FM, has squeezed as many as six extra commercial minutes from an hour of Mr. Limbaugh's program, prompting complaints from listeners. But, he said, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. "When I first heard about this thing, I knew we had to get it," he said, "because I knew the money-making potential was ridiculous."
But because listeners complained, he said, these days he aims to squeeze no more than four minutes an hour.
Mr. Boyce of WABC, the only New York station to experiment with Cash, said that the station used Cash because there was an unprecedented demand for commercial inventory.
"When you're in a sold-out situation, you look for any way possible to manage more advertising," Mr. Boyce said. Because of sensitivity to listeners and Mr. Limbaugh, WABC has suspended its use of Cash for the time being.
And that feast for radio stations has turned out to be a famine of sorts for advertisers, who are becoming sensitive to the quantity of commercials on radio. Jackie Davenport, a vice president and broadcast supervisor at Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide, an advertising agency in New York, said that the problem of clutter was much more apparent in radio than in television. Unlike television, where they closely watch how many minutes they will devote to commercial time, "radio will just add more minutes when the demand increases," she said. "The clutter has gotten out of control."
Ms. Davenport said advertisers had become wary of getting lost in a long commercial block, so that not only price but placement had become part of the negotiating process.
The compression technology has certainly given radio purists pause -- or maybe a lack thereof. Michael Harrison, the editor in chief of Talkers, a weekly magazine that chronicles the talk-radio industry, said that compression reflects trends in both radio and in the commercial-polluted American culture at large.
"It's a syndrome of our times," Mr. Harrison said. "We have no patience for anything that might seem superfluous. We're at a time when we're so caught up in speed and greed that we have no qualms about bastardizing artistic integrity."
Kraig T. Kitchin, the president and chief operating officer of Premiere Radio Networks, the subsidiary of Clear Channel that distributes "The Rush Limbaugh Show," said he had studied Cash to see if its speed had any adverse affects on Mr. Limbaugh's ratings and found that it did not. He called Cash's innovation inevitable.
"In life, everything moves faster now," Mr. Kitchin said. "You get more e-mails and voice mails than you can keep up with. But you still have the same number of hours in the day."
Even Mr. Limbaugh's complaints are not all tied to purist motives. Mr. Limbaugh, who receives a percentage of the advertising revenue raised during his program, said he was concerned about advertisers' perception of Cash.
"Nobody is going to listen to a radio program where 30 of every 60 minutes is advertising," Mr. Limbaugh said. "And no advertiser wants to be sandwiched in between six other commercials. But of course, to the technology nerds, this is a fascinating device."