The Local Radio Crisis

There is disturbing new research out that confirms what we have all feared -- that as consolidators move away from purely local radio, listeners become more dissatisfied.

I say disturbing because the study I am about to mention was taken before the recent move by radio consolidators to further blur the line between local personalities, shows and news and national syndication ("Repeater Radio").

Michael Saffran, one of our radio brethren and an adjunct professor at Rochester Institute of Technology conducted the research with 830 in-tab respondents in Binghamton, Buffalo, Dallas-Fort Worth, Ithaca, Middlesex-Somerset-Union (NJ) and Rochester.

Keep in mind that over 50% of the sample was between 35-54 years old -- presumably a group of "available" radio listeners not easily lured away by an iPod or smart phone.

Almost 40 percent of those surveyed expressed their satisfaction with local radio programming as "not at all" or "very little". Some 14.8% expressed satisfaction "to a great extent". And remember, these are older "available" radio listeners.

So let's cut to the chase.

What's eating the audience about local radio especially because we know that consolidators are in the process of amping up their efforts to deliver "Repeater Radio" to their local markets as a cost-cutting initiative.

• Listeners want music from local bands and local artists.

A whopping 78.1% of respondents report perceptions about the amount of music by local artists and bands aired on local radio stations as "none" or "very little". That's over three-quarters of all respondents.

Radio CEOs think I'm nuts when I encourage them to tell the record labels to shove their licensed music where the sun don't shine. Stop being afraid of repealing radio's performance tax exemption. It will be like chicken soup -- good for you.

And this research shows that the older leaning survey base wants what radio companies in their infinite wisdom do not want to deliver to their audience -- local bands, local music.

I've heard arguments like, "nice idea, Jerry, but as a former PD you know that you can't get ratings without playing the hits". Maybe we need to rethink what is a hit. Steve Jobs now makes the hits when he picks an obscure artist to be featured on an Apple TV commercial.

The Big Four labels don't have a monopoly on new music. In fact, they aren't even in the new music discovery business. They sell CDs and publish music.

Yet, if the 35-54 year old audience overwhelmingly craves local music on their local stations, can you imagine what younger listeners want? After all, they walked out on radio's stubborn decision to play the same 30 "hits" over and over again. It may have worked for previous generations, but times have changed and the next generation has it's own Victrola -- the iPod.

I wish someone would shut me up and try this:

Have a music discovery weekend -- one weekend.

No Rihanna, no Kanye, no Lady GaGa. Give them a rest. Go find local artists and bands and play them from 5 am Saturday morning until midnight on Sunday. Cut the usual radio b.s. out at the same time and make it sound real. See how fast the word travels.

They want local music and local artists.

• Listeners want live, accessible radio personalities.

More than 75% of the respondents in the Rochester Institute of Technology study said they were occasionally unable to contact a radio dj via telephone and 50% were "never" or "rarely" successful.

This is radio's inbred shameful secret.

At local radio stations there is no one there -- in more ways than one.

Hell, I can't even get through to Big Jay Sorenson when he's doing a great job Sunday night on CBS-FM in New York because no one answers the phones (and believe me, I've tried).

Who do we think we're kidding?

We've become legends in our own minds -- sure of what the audience wants even though radio research studies for years have been saying the same things. And that was before consolidation.

I'm afraid this one is on us. All the financial failures are on Fagreed, Tricky Dickey and John Slogan Hogan and their pals.

Listeners always wanted to be able to talk to the jocks.

When I did the Drake format for Paul Drew in Philly, listeners were able to call in and get the jock on the phone. I even found a few listeners sitting in my car when I left to go home. Scary. Maybe? But the audience craved contact with the on-air jock. I learned to lock my car, but I also learned that listeners want to be connected to radio people.

Consolidators have sanitized that one, too.

We've got lots of ways to direct our listeners to someone other than the person playing the music. And don't get me started on texting. Radio stations by and large don't understand how to use texting in a way consistent with how their audience uses it. It is not a blatant promotional tool even if you think it is. To them, it is social connection.

Someone needs to be home.

That brings us back to the ludicrous move by consolidators to empty the radio station of local talent, play only what Ryan Seacrest plays and call it the hits. Well, I've got a lot of research in my files (and you may have in yours) from years gone by that warn us to make radio personal, accessible and local.

Hell, I still do everything like a radio program director.

You can reach me -- and hundreds do every day. I'll answer as soon as possible. No stock phrases. Direct response. I respond to email, Facebook, Twitter, skywriting -- you name it just as I tried to stay in touch when I worked for Paul Drew.

Most successful radio people did the same thing and they'd be happy to testify about it.

One-third of all the topics I write about come directly from that input. And I learn from my readers (as I learned from my listeners what they wanted to hear and why).

None of this has ever changed in spite of the fact that radio consolidators have created a giant disconnect between the local audience and the stations they overpayed for.

A few days ago one of my readers asked me to make more suggestions on how radio (and the record industry) could improve based on some of the criticisms I have pointed out.

So let me do that now.

What's the take home pay?

The most powerful radio stations not only appeal to the audience, they reflect the audience. In fact, they are the audience.

There are many such stations in radio's past. You've probably got your own favorite example but one case study I think you'll be interested in was how WMMR-FM in Philadelphia took an audience and grew with it musically and socially.

Now if John Slogan Hogan is still reading this right now -- stop! I'm not mentioning your name any more today. This is about the rest of us and how we relate our stations to the audience and how they pay us back with loyalty.

WMMR-FM was owned by a media conglomerate -- Metromedia, John Kluge's little radio and TV empire. And when I say little I mean he had to abide by the 7-7-7- ownership rules.

WMMR was a middle of the road adult music station by day and then at night (back in the Sixties), management let a guy named Dave Herman go on the air and break format, play what was then called progressive rock and what to their surprise did they find -- an audience.

Eventually, the station went all-progression rock.

It toked when anti-war listeners smoked. It passionately protested the war in Vietnam even if their chairman and CEO may have been for it. They got involved in the civil rights movement. Grew local artists and bands who in many cases then found a national platform but they were started in Philly.

There was no hype.

No contests.

Tickets and music stuff but nothing that would be offensive to the emerging hippies. Meanwhile, at sister station WNEW in New York future hippie Mel Karmazin was working as a salesman.

The entire station reeked of incense -- for good reason.

The receptionist (they had them then) looked like a hippie who was living in a commune.

They didn't repeat music like their top 40 competitors WFIL and WIBG did.

Their jocks were non-personalities but when I say that I don't mean to imply that they were not personalities.

The station had a long generational life span and it is living off some of the residue of those early days even today when I'm sure no one in the station understands what made it so special.

You know that I am not telling you to run out and switch to progressive rock.

Or to not repeat any music during the day.

No. No. No.

I am saying radio needs to be local. Stations need to find and reflect their audience, their causes and their technology. There will have to be a digital blueprint today -- transmitters and towers are not the only way to reach an audience.

Gen Y, for example, wants to know everything about the artists of their time. They want them to have causes. Green is a favorite color for obvious reasons. They are connected through a social network and a station the nature of which I am describing must have their own special social network not just use Twitter to show they're cool.

Radio listeners have been asking us for decades to listen to them.

We got out of that habit.

And today, consolidators listen to bean counters and investment banks. Local radio stations are "assets" not "franchises". They can plug anyone in and they think it is radio. When in reality, they are only creating stations from hell.

The ones that drive listeners from the radio.

We cannot control them, but we can control what we do.

So, if you have the ability to still make decisions without getting fired, give it some thought. I'm available for brainstorming or consult a mentor that you know who can help you unlock the ideas I know you have -- the things that made radio addictive.

It is still possible.

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