Plugged In

When your cat goes out but doesn’t come back in, or a stray dog comes begging at your back door, do you call your local radio station and ask them to announce it? Almost certainly not. But there was a time when people commonly did so, and radio stations were happy to read lost-pet announcements—and not just in small towns, either. Take a look at the survey from KFRC in San Francisco dated August 21, 1972. (The front and back covers are pictured here. Click to embiggen, because they’re beautiful. ) Stations frequently sold advertising on the back page of the weekly music survey, but without an ad, a station promo would do. And on this particular week, KFRC promoted its Petline: “Call day or night. If you have lost your pet or found someone else’s animal friend, we will try to help.”

We did this kind of announcement at KDTH years ago. You’d get a call—sometimes from a child—reporting that their dog was lost. It could be heartbreaking to take the description and the dog’s name, and to promise to read the announcement, all the while knowing that the odds of someone hearing the announcement and finding the animal as a result were slim. We also took pet-found announcements. The likelihood of reuniting pet with owner probably wasn’t any higher than with lost-pet announcements, but they were easier to take.

This sort of public service announcement was once just the tip of an iceberg. At KDTH, we kept a Rolodex full of other announcements for the jocks to read whenever there was time (like when you needed to fill a little time before the network news). Church chicken barbecues, ladies’ club bazaars, boy-scout fundraisers, community craft shows—if you sent us the details, we’d put the announcement into the rotation.

By the middle of the 1980s, the community-calendar/lost-animal PSA fell by the wayside. Maybe the demand for announcements started to exceed the supply of time, or the value of the time became just too great to give away. Maybe it’s that many of the events were of limited interest, and promoting them sounded cheesy and small-time. But it occurs to me now that for making a station sound plugged-in to its community, you could scarcely do better. Any individual announcement didn’t get on much, but in the aggregate, it sounded like the station knew everything that was happening everywhere. And when members of the sponsoring organization—or the owner of the missing cat—heard their announcement, even if they heard it only once, they felt as though the station really cared about them, and by extension, the community.

The first part of this post was rebooted from something that appeared here on August 21, 2009. What’s on the flip is new. 

A question we should be asking ourselves in radio right now is whether, or to what extent, we are still capable of forging relationships with listeners that feel personal. Whether we can still make them feel like the radio station is a friend that cares about them and their lives. A friend dedicated to enhancing and enriching their day-to-day routine. A friend capable of responding to specific needs when necessary.

(Counterpoint: “We do this on social media now.” Hot take: social media is not radio, it’s social media. Having active social media channels is fine, but don’t confuse them with what the transmitter is sending out.)

I suspect that we, as consumers, have internalized the idea that “personal” relationships with commercial entities don’t really exist anymore. Send an e-mail to customer service and you’re likely to get an automated reply, or to be referred to a website to describe your problem. We have learned to expect the bare minimum from most such interactions. We’ll take what we can get, be glad if it’s close to what we want, and if it isn’t, well, it’s not even a disappointment, really. It’s just the way things are now.

Ken Levine’s recent take on the “demise” of terrestrial radio, which suffers in the aggregate from the same impersonality, got some traction from people I follow on social media. But commercial load, programming, and staffing, which Ken discusses, all involve decisions made above my pay grade. My focus remains on doing what I’ve always done: playin’ the hits and crackin’ wise, and trying to forge that personal connection. It’s what I was taught to do decades ago, and I’m too old to learn anything different.

We’ll get into the music of 50 years ago on Friday.

4 thoughts on “Plugged In

  1. In my brief but exciting stint in New Zealand radio (1994-1995), we still did all of this stuff. Lost pets, birthday greetings, a sponsored “What’s for lunch?” feature where we gave you the specials of the day at participating restaurants, etc. People loved it. Stateside, though, you’re right – it seems to have gone by the wayside by the start of the 1990s. (Although I do remember reading school lunch menus in Macomb, Illinois in 1990. “Hot Dog On a Bun” was always my favorite to read; if I were a bit older I’d have occasionally read it without the included bun just to see if anyone panicked.)

    I completely agree that this sort of thing could make a connection with local radio again. If nothing else, it would make it easy to tell which shows are tracked out of town and which aren’t.

  2. mikehagerty

    First, I promise you KFRC did not once read a lost pet report on the air. “We will try to help” probably meant connecting you with resources like the number for the pound in your part of the Bay Area.

    They may have only gone that far because there was a moment in the early 70s where freeform KSAN-FM had a really big book and KSAN did listener classifieds (need a ride, need a place to crash, offering guitar lessons, etc.) that would also include lost and found pets.

    At KIBS in Bishop, California (population 3,000), where I first worked (1971-74), we had a two-minute regular feature that ran twice daily, “Kennel Corner”, where we lumped all the lost/found/looking for a good home pet announcements.

    But at KSLY in San Luis Obispo (population 30,000) in 1974, the PD looked at me like I was from Mars when I asked if we did anything like that there. To my knowledge, none of the stations in town did.

    I agree with you and Ken that radio could do more in terms of personal connection, but it needs to feel like an immediate benefit to everyone tuned in, not just to the person whose cat is missing.

  3. Jim Bahler

    I don’t know if radio is really that impersonal. I sell at flea markets, mostly in Wisconsin, and listened to the Black River Falls radio station when I was in that area. In between country records- the only music in small-own rural Wisconsin it seems- there was quite a community ‘billboard’ conducted live. “(“Ernie down at the Sunoco has two wheels he’s trying to locate to put on Fred’s Sunbird, so call him if you can help him out.”) And here in Janesville, even now that it’s part of the Adams group, there’s a three-man crew live in the morning (and they’re inclined to rhapsodize over a sponsors’ food and sound like they mean it). That show is followed by nearly two hours of local talk, including a weekly conversation with the City Manager. And later in the afternoon, there’s another 2 hour show with a self-proclaimed gearhead who also includes a live weekly political discussion with a former congressman. Yes, there’s syndicated programs, too, but there’s a lot of live, local programming. No, not selling chickens or looking for lost pets, but it’s pretty close in some ways.
    Frankly, Madison television includes a lot of chit-chat bookending news broadcasts- (“Subway is starting a promotion for purchasing footlongs at the six-inch price.” “Wow, that sounds good- turkey with mayo, lightly toasted. It’s making me hungry. It’s been a long time since I had a footlong Subway. I’ll have to get one when I’m off air.” “Yeah, they’re right across the street from us here.”)
    So personally, I think there’s still a fair amount of relating to listeners that’s occurring, although perhaps in different ways than you remember, or, in the case of radio stations, in smaller markets. But I grew up in the mid-sixties in a small town in upstate New York, and the local station in the small city of 25,000 played the required news, weather, and sports ‘on the hour and the half” and rock music and ads in between. They weren’t looking for lost dogs, even then.,

    1. Thanks for your perceptive comment, Jim. What it says to me is that I’m not the only one trying to forge a personal connection, and that there are still radio stations that prioritize the concept. It’s going to be the mom-and-pop operations and the small chains that do the best job of it, however. The iHearts and Audacys of the world are more invested in other things. /sarcasm font on/ But some of their stations have bangin’ Instagrams.

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