I often hear broadcasters lamenting their disruptive pure-play radio competitors, from Pandora, Spotify, and everyone in between. It’s not uncommon to hear grousing about their apparent unfair advantage – no (or limited) commercials, no ratings to worry about (or pay for), and sympathetic Wall Street analysts who often seem just fine with the reality that many of these brands hemorrhage money, but are cut slack because they are positioned as cool start-ups.
But like any business model, there are assets and deficits. Pandora, in particular, has been plagued by onerous royalty fees, making their audience and usage growth a nasty contradiction. The bigger they get, the more people listen, and the longer they listen, the higher the cost of doing business.
But there’s no question that broadcast radio is challenged to compete against pure-play competitors, including on-demand stations that seemingly provide the entire library of every song ever recorded, available wherever/whenever on that small gadget you carry around in your pocket or purse with little or no commercials. In a connected world, the challenges posed by these Internet radio stations is not to be discounted.
So woe is radio, except it seems we rarely talk about radio’s obvious advantages. Yes, radio is the simplest one-button solution, everyone understands how to use it, and economically, there’s nothing more elegant than its scalable transmitter/tower model that lets broadcasters amass the biggest possible audience while the cost of customer acquisition remains flat.
But there’s one other key plus that is out there for any station to take advantage of – and yet, so few truly do. That’s the ability to reflect the hometown zeitgeist – something that no digital channel can do.
“Zeitgeist” is the German word that sums up what every media outlet is trying to do. It essentially means the defining spirit or mood of a period of history or a point in time as shown by its ideas and beliefs. As heavy a concept as this is, we can all think of times when radio has truly tapped into that local zeitgeist, reflecting the heart and soul of hometown communities.
We’re not talking about sponsoring a local 10K run or the Jello Jump to raise money f0r the cause of the week. These are noble endeavors, but they rarely stand out because they’re so common. The same is true whenever disasters happen. Radio is always there providing a friendly voice and fundraising support.
The true essence of the local zeitgeist equates to the ability of a local station to make a bona fide, tangible difference in its market, impacting the community for years to come. It’s about holding up the mirror to the audience, and reflecting what they’re thinking and feeling. Stations with personalities that are encouraged to search out these moments in time, and then make these things happen are the ones most likely to truly reflect that hometown spirit.
While it is always fun to draw huge crowds for an event or watch a video go viral, there is no substitute for leaving an indelible mark on a community. And by extension, the station and the personality who made it come together – serving as the ringleader or originator – can earn an aura that may last for generations.
Two years ago, it was Jan Harrison (now retired), half the morning team at (then) Journal’s Fox in Wichita. Jan’s mission was to rename the “Mid-Continent Airport” after the city’s famous 1950’s U.S. President, Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower. And it wasn’t easy.
Jan’s effort required considerable research, a petition drive, interviews with other airport managers, and meetings with the Wichita City Council. Eventually, all this work paid off, and the name change – “The Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport” – coincided with a new terminal for Wichita, all spearheaded by a local radio DJ.
That brings me to the Motor City, where it happened again last week – and in record time. The Eagles’ Glenn Frey’s passing last month moved WCSX (Greater Media) morning guy, Jim O’Brien, to seize the moment to honor one of Royal Oak, Michigan’s biggest celebrities.
Exactly one month after Frey’s death, O’Brien presided over the unveiling of a new street outside Frey’s Dondero High School – Glenn Frey Drive. Jim told me how it all came together:
JM: Who came up with the idea, and how were you able to pull it off in just 30 days?
JO’B: It was my idea. I started thinking about the “standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” line from “Take It Easy” and wondered if there was a street to honor Glenn in his hometown of Royal Oak.
I called my friend Jim Ellison, who happens to be the mayor of Royal Oak, and within a day, he’d identified a section of road by Glenn’s old high school that could be renamed by the school board. We met with a member of the board, they loved the idea, and three weeks later it was up for a vote.
The other key component was complete buy-in from management at WCSX. From General Manager Steve Chessare, Program Director Jerry Tarrants and Marketing Director Ben Perez, it was a go from the first day. They did whatever was necessary to make it happen. You need that kind of support to move forward.
JM: Why is it so important for a Classic Rock station – or any local station, for that matter – to root into its community?
JO’B: In Detroit, we have Coney Island restaurants all over the place – hot dogs with chili, mustard, and onions – as local as it gets. You go in, grab two dogs, fries and a Coke. You sit at the counter talking about the Red Wings, the water in Flint, and concerts coming to Pine Knob. The local paper is spread out next to you. And by the register is always a jar or note to raise money for a local cause.
WCSX is that coney dog. Our music is their comfort food. They trust us enough that when we ask for help, they know it’s legit. Be that place for your audience.
JM: How did you weave your listeners into this initiative, and what was their reaction?
JO’B: The most important part was #GlennFreyDrive – it enabled listeners on social media to share pictures, memories and support. The reach was worldwide – including retweets and support from Joe Walsh and Bob Seger.
JM: There will sadly be more Classic Rock deaths to come. How should stations handle these situations?
JO’B: As a morning show host, I feel it’s got to be real. I love this music as much as our listeners, and it hurt when we lost David Bowie and Glenn Frey. When Glenn died, we played an hour straight of Eagles music that next morning. It felt right. It’s alright to deviate from the script and talk from your heart.
Suffice it to say, this radio-inspired event generated considerable publicity from the hometown newspapers, including The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, as well as the local TV stations. More importantly, Detroit Classic Rockers will remember this moment for years.
So how do these things happen, and how can more stations and personalities move into carpe diem mode, and seize the moment when it’s sitting right there in front of them?
- Recognition and awareness – It starts here, confidently knowing how the community feels when something important happens.
- Management support – As O’Brien notes, he needed everyone on board to pull off “Glenn Frey Drive.”
- Community contacts – The more people in town you know, meet, and network with, the better position you’re in to bring everyone together at key moments. Jim’s connection with Royal Oak’s mayor expedited the mission.
- Social media – This is why you nurture and create a social media presence. This is the result of being in the moment socially and acknowledging friends and followers on a consistent basis.
- Being real – Sometimes you have to break format (and a little china) in order to make an impact and accomplish your goal.
- Just do it – There are many people in radio running around with legal pads filled with great ideas – that never see the light of day. Someone has to pick up the slack, take the initiative, and act like a leader.
- Hard work – It goes without saying, so I’ll say it. These projects require patience, tenacity, and great effort to reach their goals.
As radio finds itself ensconced in difficult competitive situations both from a ratings and revenue point of view, it will be these moments, events, and initiatives that will remind everyone – from the audience to media buyers to community leaders – that local radio matters.
In the meantime, let’s not forget the passing of one of rock’s true greats, and why O’Brien and WCSX put together this tribute in the first place. The life and times of Glenn Frey are summed up well in a song he wrote and recorded on the Eagles’ last studio album, The Long Road Out Of Eden. I didn’t really notice “It’s Your World Now” at the time of its release, but I stumbled upon it while writing this post. It has even greater resonance when you think about what a Detroit radio station was able to pull off last week:
A perfect day, the sun is sinkin’ low
As evening falls, the gentle breezes blow
The time we shared went by so fast
Just like a dream, we knew it couldn’t last
But I’d do it all again
If I could, somehow
But I must be leavin’ soon
It’s your world now
It’s your world now
My race is run
I’m moving on
Like the setting sun
No sad goodbyes
No tears allowed
You’ll be alright
It’s your world now
Prior to launching the company, Fred spent the majority of his time designing and managing research projects as the Director of Research for the Radio and Publishing divisions for Frank N. Magid Associates, a leading research and consulting firm. Later, Fred became Director of Radio Research for the ABC-FM Owned and Operated Radio Stations. From there, Fred gravitated to the station side, becoming program director for legendary WRIF-FM in Detroit, before forming Jacobs Media.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults Jacobs Media’s major market Classic, Mainstream, and Active Rock clients, while having input in every client relationship.
Fred has a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, and a Master’s degree in Telecommunications from Michigan State University.
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