What National Radio Could Be

Most of today’s broadcasters grew up under the sway of something more than their own local radio. It might have been the powerhouse AM rockers of the ’60s and ’70s – WLS Chicago, CKLW Detroit, WABC New York. A decade later, it might have been “American Top 40,” “Open House Party,” or even MTV – an extension of radio programming offering the same shared experience that the 50,000 watt AMs once did. Then it was Howard Stern, Tom Joyner, or Rush Limbaugh; (in the early ’90s, I knew a medium-market Midwestern PD who headed out to the car at lunchtime to catch Rush on WLS, not unlike night jocks across the country listening to John Landecker on WLS 15 years earlier).
National programming is, of course, as prevalent as it has been at any time in the last 50 years, but what we’ve gotten so far isn’t CKLW or MTV. Despite the rumors that last week’s Clear Channel layoffs would be accompanied by more national programming, the spread is still happening in bits and pieces – a Ryan Seacrest affiliate here, a new John Tesh station there, a new ESPN FM affiliate every few weeks. The potential national networks are mostly on national broadcasters’ Web players, for now.
Some syndicated shows for music radio are better and more compelling than others. A few networks, like Scott Shannon’s True Oldies Channel, have a well-developed stationality. (So do some Sirius XM channels, although few ever took full advantage of being national, and that stationality is now challenged by their own austerity issues.) But much of our national programming – seemingly built from the template of the early ’80s satellite programming suppliers – is generic, unable to pass unnoticed for local programming, but not offering the full bigness of being national. The demand to plug in something is growing faster than any aesthetic for what that programming could or should be.
To say that national radio could be better isn’t to be against great local radio, or in favor of the elimination of local jobs. Rather, it is to demand a better tradeoff for the local programming that’s being lost. Whether it was voice tracking a decade ago or syndicated shows now, the rationale we’ve been offered has always been that non-local radio could provide something different and better. So it’s time for broadcasters to ante up. With so many in the business having grown up with national music programming in some form, we have the collective brainpower to make national music radio something more than a placeholder.
National FM music radio could be great if:
* It was as good as BBC Radio 1, Britain’s national Top 40 station which regularly drawn complaints from rival broadcasters who feel they can’t compete with it (and who are now creating their own national brands), or any of Europe’s other great national commercial stations;
* Like Radio 1, national radio took better advantage of its own bigness. The prizes nobody else could offer. The format’s seven greatest personalities in the country in one place.
* It had the stationality that compensated for not offering a sense-of-place. (Again, think ’80s MTV.) Again, that’s a little hard to do when we’re creating programs, not stations. Or failing that…
* It offered any sense-of-place, even if that place was somewhere else. Radio from Chicago, New York, and even Detroit, Buffalo, and Little Rock, once represented “bright lights, big city” for somebody. Part of the excitement of KROQ or Ryan Seacrest in real time on KIIS is that those stations are in Los Angeles. That’s not something that a successful national station would necessarily have to hide.
* It were creating a shared experience – something radio has been in danger of losing for the last decade.
* It were creating community on a national basis. The big national shows, whether they’re Steve Harvey or Rush Limbaugh do it. Even weekly syndicated shows like “AT40″ created community, as became apparent when all the music junkies who grew up with it finally met each other in the business. So will there Facebook postings from fans of (the thus far hypothetical) “Coast to Coast Hits”? Will “Coast to Coast Hits” spur its own social network?
* It was making formats that couldn’t otherwise sustain themselves in a single market available nationally on AM/FM radio, or keeping them there.
* It was targeted to audiences who weren’t consistently served by local radio, starting with the teens who, unless they happen to like the same Top 40 music as their moms, remain disenfranchised.
* It were creating more jobs on a national level, not merely shaving them on a local level. The veteran programmers and air talent who find themselves most vulnerable now are the ones who should be in demand — the veterans of the 50,000 watt powerhouses who remember exactly what national radio can be.
* If great local radio remained viable. Nobody would begrudge a market four nationally programmed music choices if there were 10 strong locally programmed stations. Or five. Or two.
* If it was the best radio available. Not merely the most expedient.

10 replies
  1. Bill Stephney
    Bill Stephney says:

    Has research ever indicated a LISTENER preference for syndicated programming over local programming? I am fully aware of the CORPORATE financial preference for packaged content, but I’ve never seen data confirming listener desire for national programming on a 24-hour/ 7-day basis.

  2. Lou P.
    Lou P. says:

    I first became exposed to BBC Radio 1 during my semester of college in England in the fall of 1998. It was great then and I still enjoy listening to it on Sirius 11 now.
    In many ways radio is going full-circle looking back to the old NBC Red, NBC Blue (later ABC), Mutual Broadcasting, etc. days. There is a great opportunity there for the major owners and syndicators out there.
    Interestingly, sports radio has managed to do this rather well, with ESPN Radio (and, to a degree, Fox Sports Radio) managing to brand itself nationally quite effectively. Elements of that approach could be quite strong with a variety of different formats, particularly in the development of personalities to fit with a given format.

  3. Larry LeKool Hollowell
    Larry LeKool Hollowell says:

    Great, thought provoking article on national radio. I loved the comments about good radio versus expedient radio, and the mention of a “shared radio experience,” something that we once had, really struck a nostagic chord with me. Please present more of these fine stories.

  4. Bo Reynolds
    Bo Reynolds says:

    The whole reason I even do National radio or, even better, the reason there’s such a need for guys like me is that Program Directors stopped teaching air talent how to be quality broadcasters. When they stopped teaching, then I became the last of a dying breed of broadcasters that could not only do the basics, but also entertain people while getting in and out of breaks quickly, getting in more music. In this day of drive-through food, iPods, and MTV, it’s my opinion that listeners care more about a quality product than whether or not that product is local.
    Thanks for hearing me out.

  5. Tom Calococci
    Tom Calococci says:

    I love this article – you have really hit the nail on the head and of course, a lot of others have basically been saying the same thing – it’s the content stupid! Local radio could be great – if it’s actually great, but NOT JUST BECAUSE it’s local. And of course, the same thing can be said of any national type of program or station. Unfortunately, it takes people to create these ideas and the vibe of a radio station and as we’ve all seen, that’s the one asset that we’re shedding (like my freakin’ dog!) on a daily – almost hourly basis. Great, we’ll save money, but when there’s “no Coke left in the can” where are we. We have a great looking can but there’s nothing in it. Radio right now is like a slow leaking tire – we can still drive the car – but for how long?

  6. Guy Zapoleon
    Guy Zapoleon says:

    Outstanding observations Sean. Those of us who were lucky enough to grow up with the legendary radio stations of the past, all remember the great unduplicated listening experience, that they created for us. The best personalities, larger than life contests, and of course the best music all woven together thru the magic of great production, and Bill Drakes Forward Momentum strategy. You just couldn’t turn away for a minute, because you knew you were missing something amazing…Yes that is what National Radio could be! Thanks for writing this!

  7. Jeff McHugh
    Jeff McHugh says:

    Brilliantly put, Sean! My opinion; the heads and VPs of today’s major radio corporations might read your article and think, “Great! National BBC-style radio is yet another way to save money! Whoo-hoo!”
    But when smart folks like you would suggest hiring the truly greatest, and probably the most expensive, radio personalities, and investing in research to make the product authentically compelling, they’d stare back at you as if you had two heads. That’s been my experience anyway.
    I dream that one day, our great industry will once again be led by people (probably different people than who run it now) whose competencies go beyond just cost-cutting. In the meantime, NPR is doing just what you suggest, investing in content, distributing it nationally via radio, the web and the IPhone, and kicking commercial radio’s ass.

  8. Ray Quinn
    Ray Quinn says:

    When I was a kid I moved my bedroom to the attic so I could hang an antenna out the window and listen to all those great out of town stations at nigh (apologies to Ferdinand J on WBBF in my hometown of Rochester, New York). Cousin Brucie on WABC and Joey Reynolds and Jack Armstrong on WKBW among them. It was amazing listening to the battles between WFIL ( a station I would later get to program)and WIBG or WLS and WCFL. Lord I remember when LS and CFL must have been running the 45

  9. Al Ford
    Al Ford says:

    One of the reasons BBC Radio 1works so well is, great announcers across the board, but also the entire country is on the same time zone. 7am in London is 7am all across the UK and the ability to have all your listeners participating / listening in real time makes it that much more relevant.


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