More About What Radio’s For

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This started out as my own comment on the post I put up here Friday, but it turned into a whole post.

I 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 and homogenity. Even in what we perceive as a classic era, jocks could easily fall into the trap of doing nothing but time, temperature, title and artist, and generic pop-culture bits, and do it for years on end without ever realizing (or being told) that there are other ways.

But maybe what frosts me more broadly than a lack of localism is the lack of a sense of place. I wrote about this last October. The major chains often run the same formats, based on the same music research and with the same positioning and imaging, in market after market. Although it strikes me as less than 100 percent desirable, I get it. It makes financial sense, and there’s not going to be a great deal of variation among (for example) classic-rock stations no matter who’s doing the research or what audience is being surveyed: you’re gonna hear “More Than a Feeling” and “Sweet Home Alabama” everywhere you go. But I grew up on stations that ran automated national formats, and I listened to big network O-and-O’s like WLS in Chicago, and between the records you always got a sense of where they were from, whether it was from jock talk, news content, or even just commercials. And that sense is largely missing from similar stations today.

(Digression: I recently tweeted an aircheck of Chicago jock Clark Weber, doing a morning show on WLS in 1966. As I listened, I was amazed that I could still recall the tag from one of the commercials, for a clothing store called William A. Lewis. For years, their ads ended with a list of locations: “2301 West 95th, Hillside, Harlem/Irving, Randhurst, and Scottsdale Shopping Center.” At the end of the ad, I recited the list of locations just as if I were reading the tag in the studio myself. That commercial was just one of the things on WLS that gave young me a sense of the place called Chicago.)

Two Octobers ago, I wrote about a small-town classic-hits station on which the music format was almost completely predictable, and where voice-tracked local jocks never did anything but title, artist, and national feature bits ripped straight from the AP wire. But even that station gave a listener a sense of coming from somewhere specific. It was in the untrained Midwestern accent of the young woman doing the midday show; it was in the promos for the Friday-night high-school football broadcast; it was in the commercials for local car dealers and restaurants; it was in the newscasts talking about house fires and city council meetings. But when every voice on the station is smooth, every spot is for a national advertiser, and there’s never a newscast or even a weather forecast, you don’t know where you are—or who they are.

As commenter Rick points out, radio is best when it sounds like its coverage area. Automated, satellite-delivered, or voicetracked radio doesn’t have to be completely generic; it doesn’t have to be live and local 24/7 either, but at the very least, you should try. Take whatever opportunity you have to do whatever you can. The giant chain station that inspired Friday’s post wasn’t bothering to do that, at least not when I was listening. Maybe they had a local morning show or afternoon drive-time show I didn’t hear, and maybe that show is strongly focused on the home market. It’s possible. But it’s just as likely that the station is running Bob and Tom in the morning and/or Slacker and Steve in the afternoon.

There’s a philosophical foundation for generic formats (“local radio deserves the strongest personalities available, and our national jocks are the strongest”), and it’s cheap. There’s an argument, I suppose, that a sense of place isn’t important if all you want to hear is “More Than a Feeling” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” And in the end, maybe those of us who think radio should aspire to do something for its local community beyond being a conduit for generic programming are old fossils whom the world has passed by. But as long as I’m still able to drag my ass into a studio, I’m gonna do it my way, and argue that it’s the right way, and encourage other people to do it that way too.

2 responses

  1. JB: Yes. Sense of place is a big thing—at least for me. And it’s why three hours of doing an afternoon newscast in Sacramento is my dream gig come true.

    But again, even back in the day, chains tended to latch onto what worked in one market and spread it. The CBS-FMs running “Hit Radio” or “Hot Hits”, the Buzz Bennett “Q” stations…even, and maybe especially RKO and the stations Bill Drake consulted on the side (KAKC, KGB, KYNO).

    The reason I will tell anyone who asks that, after 1973, KFRC was better than KHJ and the other RKO stations (which is saying something), was that KFRC under Michael Spears (and later Les Garland and Gerry Cagle), was the first to go out of its way to talk about anything other than title and artist walking up a record—to make the content as local and relevant as possible—without ever sounding like they were just dropping names and places gratuitously.

    They connected.

    Ultimately, they also lost. People chose way less local, less compelling FM stations and KFRC withered and died.

    That was 33 years ago. I wonder if you could do the same thing now, with contemporary music and formatics and have people appreciate it. Or would they just tell us to shut up and play the hits?

  2. The bad part about the same in multiple markets is that the listeners most likely won’t have a connection to the DJ because everyone sounds the same and does the same.

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