What’s Radio For?

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Recently I was on the road, having lunch in a place playing one of the local radio stations. “Local” in the sense that its tower and mailing address were in the same town I was in. Its programming was not local at all. It was running a national voice-tracked format on which the only thing local were the ads—and those local ads often came at the end of interminable seven-minute breaks, the first three minutes of which were national ads and promos for the parent company’s national shows, its app, and its podcasts.  

Several years ago, when the drift toward this sort of canned programming had just begun, a prominent radio executive was quoted as saying that local stations were entitled to have the strongest personalities available, and that his canned national jocks would be better than anybody local. Back then, I wrote a little about it, and after coming across that piece in the archives recently, I think it’s worth rebooting, with some minor edits.

[Whether the executive’s comment makes any sense] depends on what you think local radio is for. If it’s only to provide music and/or talk for the people within range of the signal, his philosophy has a great deal to recommend it. But if you think local radio has a service responsibility to the community in which it is located, that philosophy is harder to swallow.

The major chains put great stock in running public service announcements, which is one way stations have served their communities since Christ was a corporal (especially when paid ads aren’t selling well). You put ’em on the quarterly issues report you are required to place in your files for public inspection, and you get credit for ’em at license renewal time. But public service announcements, while important and useful, are not equivalent to broad, deep community engagement, even if you run one an hour seven days a week.

Community engagement happens in lots of ways. When important news or weather breaks, how do the people on the air talk about it? Is it happening to them, or are they watching it in a newsroom miles away? How about the mundane stuff of daily life? Are the jocks talking about their experience at the big local game or the community festival just up the road? Does the mayor ever call in, or the fire chief, or one of the local TV news anchors? When people go to the grocery store, will they ever run into the morning guy? Are they going to see the woman who does middays hosting the local public TV auction? When they go to the county fair, are the jocks staffing the station booth?

There’s a compelling argument that in our atomized, customized, short-attention-span world, local sourcing matters far less than it used to. We like to eat fresh produce in the winter and we don’t care that it comes from South America or Australia. Why should we care that the guy on the radio is in a studio 1500 miles away, and the joke he just made about the Oscars was recorded last week?

But here’s the thing: serving local communities is bred in radio’s bones. It’s what the people who invented the damn thing intended it to do. The Radio Act of 1927 required stations to operate in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity,” and generations of broadcasters did so. It’s only since the de-regulatory fever of the 1980s and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that we’ve seen the wholesale turning-away from those reasons-to-be.

Executives who talk about the superiority of national programming talk exactly like people whose job is to monetize a private asset. If that’s what you think radio is, and what it’s for—an asset that belongs to you and you alone, and has value only if turned to money, as if it were a crop of winter wheat or a carload of steel ingots—then you’ll streamline and standardize. But if you believe that radio is a public asset that you hold in trust, you’ll ask yourself not, “What should we do so we can profit from this?” but “What must we do so the public can profit from this?”

The current economic realities of radio, and the needs and desires of even small and local companies to keep up with the changes wrought by the giant chains, make it hard to put the public interest, convenience, and necessity first. Some companies still have the old way in their DNA, however, and if there’s one of them in your town, they deserve your earholes, and your marketing dollars. 

6 responses

  1. JB: You and I are both fortunate to be able to crack a mic live on the air and get paid for it. We love the medium.

    That said, though, without knowing what town you were having lunch in, I don’t know if a live, local jock would have been any better. Or if what you were hearing was any worse than going into a diner 40 years ago that had the local Drake-Chenault “Great American Country” automated client playing.

    I spent a good chunk of the past year digitizing, cleaning up and organizing my aircheck collection. What surprised me in listening to some of these airchecks for the first time in years was how little truly local content there was, even back in the “good old days”. On a typical day, most of it was time, temp, artist, title, universal pop culture reference and clever lines that rarely had a local hook.

    On the truly big stations, most of the local content wound up in the news—but half of the news was national and international, so we’re talking five minutes, max, of truly local. On the monster stations at their peak, even the commercials were largely national accounts.

    Again, thank God live and local exists. I’m thrilled to still be doing it—especially for a station that has a 98-year history in my market. But I’m not sure voice-tracked stations are serving the public that much less than they would if or did when they were live.

  2. Totally agree. Radio is best with local people on the air, behind the scenes, and in management. Radio is best when it’s part of the community. Radio is best when it is engaged and relevant. Radio is best when it “sounds” like it’s coverage area. “Interest, convenience and necessity” isn’t all that hard to do. Make an attempt to reflect what is important to your constituency. Make an attempt to inform, entertain, engage the listeners. You don’t have to be live in real time – except in times of emergency and crisis. But you do have to TRY to do it.

  3. It sounds like the initial selling point with all of this satellite stuff was to make any station sound like a big city station. I can see the appeal in that if you’re not thinking outside the box and are only worried about sounding like something you’re really not.

    If you ever take a road trip and listen to the radio the whole time, you won’t find much difference. Most stations don’t have djs anymore. The ones that do mostly use satellite jocks, so you can literally hear the same songs and the same jock on a hours long drive.

    I used to like listening to radio stations outside of my local area because there was actual variety. The jocks may not have all sounded like Charlie Tuna, but it was a lot more interesting.

    Having said that, I can’t blame radio stations for refusing to branch out and take risks, both in music selection and using actual local jocks. I know some still do, but out of the six stations that I have programmed in my car radio, only one uses a live local jock a majority of the time.

  4. I spent nearly 26 years on the radio, first 3 as a 15-18-year-old volunteer at a closed-circuit station for blind listeners, 20 years in commercial radio and 3 years from 2012-2015 back in it for (kinda) fun voice-tracking afternoons for an old radio boss at a station he had become part-owner of. Sadly, I received little direction during my early years and worked at a lot of time and temperature stations. I wish I had a PD that would have been willing to help me explore my inner personality and humor to propel me to a larger or major market. Never happened and I called it quits.

    I’ve been more blessed during my full-time wedding and event DJ career than all those years in radio. It’s certainly stressful and I’m constantly having to update and rework my brand to stay competitive. I’m in more debt than I care to think about but the rewards are well worth it.

  5. I will say there was one bright spot in my radio career. In 1992, as the PD of a local Music Of Your Life affiliate, the station was a Top 5 finalist for a Marconi that year in the category of big Band/Nostalgia Station Of The Year. We didn’t win, WPEN in Philadelphia did, but it certainly was an experience I will treasure for a lifetime.

  6. […] appreciate your thoughtful comments on the purpose of local radio. And I agree with commenter Mike that even 40 years ago, radio stations were subject to sameness […]

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