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.