Perspectives, News & Opinions From The Researchers At Edison

How To Be Live & Local

Entry by Sean Ross | Thursday, September 26th, 2013 | Permalink

When the NAB/RAB Radio Show began last week, the panel on creating your own individual brand as a personality was asked what might have seemed like a softball question: “What is radio’s brand?” But on Wednesday, that question generated several seconds of silence and no immediate answer. ABC’s Ann Compton circled back a question later and finally offered “consistency,” citing the comforting, year-in, year-out presence of news at the top-of-the-hour.

That wasn’t a bad answer, but by Friday, we knew it wasn’t the answer. As Fred Jacobs points out, by Friday the mantra of the radio show had become “live and local.” Group heads took up the chant at the Thursday leadership breakfast. At the closing session, “What’s Working At Work,” Edison’s Larry Rosin declared that broadcast radio’s brand was indeed live and local — partially because heavy spotloads and a proliferation of competing choices had eroded the “more music/fewer interruptions” franchise.

And now there are two questions:

How can radio be “live and local”? Because it’s out of practice.

How can radio sell “live and local”? Because it has indeed tried before.

For the last decade, smaller operators have hurled “live and local” at their group-owned competition. Occasionally, a station like KBZT San Diego would have some success positioning itself as “not Clear Channel.” More often, broadcasters who decried syndication and voice-tracking came off only as the poor sports who only dreamed they could have somebody as big-time as Ryan Seacrest or Rush Limbaugh on their radio stations. Not since rivals responded to Jack-FM by declaring that they were “playing what you want” had a slogan seemed like such wishful thinking.

The good news is that Edison has seen lately that being “live and local” is a more valued and more easily explained commodity. Some of that, frankly, is probably because the people to whom it doesn’t appeal have now selected themselves out of the radio audience in favor of continuous, jockless music elsewhere. “Live and local” is not always a magic bullet unto itself, but it is not falling on deaf ears either.

Then, what constitutes “live and local” is complex. Edison’s “What’s Working At Work” study found that fans of broadcast radio’s needs included companionship and also staying in touch with whatever major news development took place during the day. But Howard Stern’s multi-market listeners of the pre-satellite era undoubtedly found him companionable. And major news developments don’t have to be in your backyard; I still remember hearing about Columbine on London’s Capital FM and realizing that I wouldn’t have heard it as quickly on a comparable U.S. station.

So here are a few ways to be live and local, instead of just saying live and local:

Bring back the services. I was glad Capital FM had news at the top of every hour that day. I don’t expect that from top 40 radio here. But I would like to know that if I drive through severe weather, I will be able to find a weather report, even if a radio station is running weekend syndication. Because I once drove from New York to Hartford through severe weather past some of the best-known full-service talk stations and could not find a weather report on Saturday afternoon. For years, radio has cheered itself with the dubious knowledge that even former listeners will come back in an emergency, but it’s not always ready.

Teach content and writing. Because companionship is a key component of live and local, it means personalities who have something meaningful to say without rambling, something people value in their own friends. Radio’s current go-to topic, Lindsay/Britney/Miley, is hardly an off-limits topic at the real-life water cooler, but it is clearly no longer enough, especially when heard on station after station. Communicators need content coaching. Many years ago, it was evident that the good ones knew how to write, even over an eight-second-intro, and it is time for radio to teach that again.

Restore a sense of place. If throwing in a bunch of place names was enough, no station would be more local than the voice-tracked stations that try too hard to sound local and end up mispronouncing some area landmark in the process. Stations need to again convey a sense of life in the market. That isn’t only the between-the-records content, it’s also the understanding that the right records for San Diego do not have 100% overlap with the right records for Los Angeles. It used to be said of great stations that they baffled visiting group heads and consultants — not being easily understood by outsiders was often a sign that you were doing the right thing for an individual market.

Stay in touch. The “fairs and festivals” strategy of being everywhere doesn’t just constitute promotion for a personality or an individual radio station anymore, it is now an advertisement for the medium itself. It is not a substitute for on-air content. It is not a substitute for other marketing, and neither is social media. But both will give listeners a sense of ownership that makes it harder to wander away altogether.

Fix the damn spotload. Because even if listeners do want companionship, many of them still want it in the context of a reasonable amount of continuous music without too many gratuitous interruptions. That is why listeners felt so close to Valerie Smaldone and her equally low-key co-workers at WLTW (Lite FM) New York over the years. The renewed attention to being live and local is admirable, but one gets the sense that some owners are embracing it as a way of escaping their other challenges. If the music utility is handed to pureplays, one of them will eventually get the idea of adding more hosting. Be very greatful that iTunes Radio, with its resources, showmanship and immediate self-reported cume of 11-million, did not go after that franchise immediately.

Broadcasters came out of the Radio Show with a daunting to-do list. The most encouraging part was the willingness of many radio people to face the challenges clear-eyed, not bury them under a flurry of boosterism. Now, broadcasters will return to their markets. They will be caught up in their already busy lives. They will be daunted by the realization that the two most important things they can do — decreasing the spotload and restoring local boots on the ground — will cost money. Understanding what the brand is will be only the first step.

12 Responses to “How To Be Live & Local”

  1. Sam Kopper says:

    Remotes!!! A timeless radio tool, largely forgotten by the groups. Nothing is as tangible/visible as the radio PERSONALITIES and mobile studios out there, entertaining and DRAWING ON the people. Hit the streets for DJ and talk remotes, but ALSO, live-to-air concert broadcasts. Live concert broadcasts normally happen in the evening, even late evening, when their negative impact (some would argue) on the mass audience is countered by their imaging value. That’s the way we saw it at WBCN in the 70s and 80s (when we did up to three a week!) and it’s how WXRT sees it in Chicago! Check THEIR numbers.

  2. TOM TRADUP says:

    Wow is this spot-on. The old “live and local” really makes me laugh. Even talk stations like WORD crow like magpies “Live & Local,” “Live & Local.” You know, a weed by the side of the highway is “live & local. But that doesn’t mean you want to listen to it all day. LOL!

  3. Patrick says:

    First lets see a school for teaching even basic radio
    skills. You can’t put on air talent you can’t hire.
    Our station has had 3 6 hour blocks of live air time
    that needs in studio anchors and personalities, but no
    takers. Out west here we had a thing years ago, called
    the Ron Bailey School of Broadcasting. Thought was real
    live in studio local talent was a gone thing. Our
    station fights this, we do program live 24/7/365
    but its still difficult to fill these openings. I say
    LIVE LOCAL radio is a good concept, but where do you
    find the people to fill the chair?

  4. Funny how those at the top of the radio ladder took so long to answer a question those of us in smaller markets would just shrug and say, “Radio’s brand is being live and local. What’s your point?” Hmmm.

  5. Bill Conway says:

    Excellent article, Sean. But since it does cost money, I expect owners, GMs and Corporate PDs to avoid suggesting increasing costs. They are the ones who brought us voice tracking.
    It requires PDs who get it to become employed at individual stations to work daily and talk to the talent. The old rule was it took a year in a market to really get that local feel. Who invests that time and money? The commercial load is a problem PDs used to shout about. But many were fired for not being team players. Some researchers and consultants refuse to dwell on the commercial load because they get shut down or shut out.
    It takes a commitment to programming what listeners want and not the bare minimum you can get by on. Rely on the knowledge and talents of radio vets who know how to do it. Many are just itching for the chance because they love to do it Live and Local.
    It does cost money but not really that much. And the rewards are there for the taking.

  6. bill hagy says:

    Amen Sean!
    I find it most encouraging the industry is beginning to
    see “the Light”.
    The corporate approach of the past decade has been sad to watch as the industry seemed to lose sight of basic mission statement provided by the FCC to serve the public interest(locally).The journey has cost many careers but hopefully “the light” is returning.
    Bill Hagy
    Ops mgr.
    Bristol Broadcasting Company

  7. Jay Clark says:

    Ross: One of the best articles on the subject I’ve seen. Congrats. It’s the stuff that we who have been in the business a while, and had success, have done for years. Even at Sirius, we had/they have many channels that are Live. We also worked very hard on voice tracked segments with very strict rules about quickly coming back and rerecording when a (In Sirius case, national events) happened that would interest or involve the channels audience. From Pittsfield Ma. to Detroit, “Live and Local” works. Look at what Craig Schwalb is doing in Providence. Great stuff! Good ratings and big revenue. It’s all about the audience’s needs and the companionship and knowledge a host can bring to the party. By the way, WPRO is a Cumulus station and is one of the best talk stations in the country. Hmmm!
    Again Ross, Bravo.

  8. Pete Falconi says:

    Great article, Sean. I am constantly telling the talent on our stations that “local trumps any other content!” I am reminding them to find a local tie to just about every break and, because they all live locally, to talk about their own local experiences…. and that goes beyond just their commute to the station! Even a portion of the recorded imaging every hour has a local reference. Our goal is to be woven into the fabric of our markets.

  9. A decent article — but it strikes me as around 10 years too late … on a decade-old topic.

    Some of us extolled “live and local” years ago:

    Study: Many Listeners Unhappy With Local Radio Programming:

    See also: Hilliard and Keith’s 2005 book, “The Quieted Voice: The Rise and Demise of Localism in American Radio”

    Truthfully, though, with so much harm from corporate mismanagement since 1996, we’re way beyond the point today of “live and local” being radio’s saving grace. (Plus, those of us preaching “live and local” in the early and mid 2000s have already been proven correct about what would happen: the vanishing audience. The damage is already done.)

    Radio’s problem today isn’t automation. Rather, after nearly 20 years of mismanagement, its problem is a lot of non-compelling content (including too many commercials, as Ross and other commenters highlighted) and a resulting lack of relevance in listeners’ lives (Tom Tradup’s “weed analogy” is a good one).

    After all, what’s so great about “live and local” if all we get from it is:

    “Long sweeps of music” (surrounded by long sweeps of commercials)?
    Song frontsells and backsells? (Listeners don’t need to hear, “Here are the Righteous Brothers with ‘Unchained Melody’ … on your at-work station.”)

    It’s all so non-compelling … and irrelevant.

  10. Sean Ross says:

    Thanks to all for the great comments. In the same way that it is (almost) never too late to quit smoking, I also believe that the Radio Show epiphany about radio’s product issues is still a welcome development. As far as live/local, the national products are still giving it room to maneuver–Sirius XM comes closest to a national shared experience that goes beyond the music; others aren’t really trying. Turning the tide on spotload is more daunting. But I like to share Bill Hagy’s sense that the light is returning, and I prefer that to the alternative.

  11. Bill Hennes says:

    I loved this article from you.
    I also agree with brother Bill Hagy and his thoughts.
    Radio needs to reinvent itself and its presentation.
    Let’s start with the music. Today, we have more music knowledge than ever. iTtunes retail sales is available on a daily basis, for almost all formats. Yet, it takes most stations, 2 to 3 weeks, to add songs, by name artists and others, that are selling top 15 daily in their format

    Songs like: Wrecking Ball. it debut at #1 and stayed there…2 weeks later Top 40 stations started to add it…Same is still true for Dark Horse bu Katy Perry, How about the “fun” song “The Fox.” Instead they stay on heavy rotation for songs that have faded and are over.

    Stations do not do time checks (most even in monring drive).

    Air talent does not write out what they are going to say over the ramp of a song, or fade/ending of song. They ust wing it.

    They miss tons of opportunity to “localize” their station. They do not talk about what is going on in their city and/or suburbs.

    They don’t tie in short lines about an artist, which is info the audience considers very relevant.

    There are many more things that need to be re-looked at and adjusted…..But, air talent must once again become Live, local. prepared and pre-planned. There is no reason for stations to wait on playing the “HITS” in their format.

    Great article Seanmeister!

  12. Scott Huskey says:

    Great article. There is a difference between saying “live and local” and being live and local. Listeners want demonstration not just slogans. I echo many of the others on this string in saying the teaching preparation and planning is key to being “live and local”. In many ways we are seeing that what was old is now new again.

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