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.