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Tuesday, January 3, 2012
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Radio Industry Losing Local Luster

It's not unusual to hear those who work in the radio industry say that "local programming is the key to success." There are a number of variations on this theme, but it all boils down to believing the one element radio brings to the table, which makes it stand apart from other media, is its ability to speak about local topics. In small to medium-small markets, this may still be the case; but in markets sized 1-75, 2012 will be the year people realize radio has lost its local luster.
"Is there anything heard on your station's air in the last hour that cannot be easily found online in ten seconds?" There's nothing like tuning into a radio station and hearing a host talk about something you recognize. A shopping mall that you frequent, a restaurant you've been to, the school your kids go to, or a stretch of freeway that you use daily are all items which trigger a connection between you and the radio station. Some stations still rely on the old trick of mentioning temperatures from a couple of suburbs in weather reports, in an attempt to localize their sound.

Only let's focus on how relevant "local programming" is in a world where the internet connects you to hundreds of "local" web sites listing thousands of "local" items - and each can be accessed when the consumer wants to have "local" served to them.

I live in what's called the "snowbelt" of Northeast Ohio. We were expecting about a foot of snow over these past couple of days. I once would have dialed up a radio station's weather forecast, or tuned to a television station's newscast (each aired on the broadcaster's schedule), but today I merely click a link on my browser and am shown a weather map. Click again, and I get a forecast.

Local online content is as pervasive as snowflakes. Meanwhile, tune to a radio broadcast and - again, if you're in markets 1-75 - how long does it take before you hear a local mention? I'll estimate that the first time will be in a commercial break, within an ad that's loudly obnoxious or incoherently wordy.

It's not that local radio programming doesn't exist. It's that although it does, it's on the station's delivery schedule and held to the station's content restrictions. Let's consider that weather forecast; while radio gives me a formatted report of conditions and tempurature, I can dig as deeply as my desire wants online.

Local programming on the radio was an industry staple more than a decade ago, and it truly was one of the only places to hear such talk. But, voice-tracking has removed nearly any resemblance of that from the thirty-or-so minutes spent listening while we ride in the car on a trip to the store, work, or school.

Emergency notifications - while broadly applauded by NAB, RAB, and many radio industry executives - have been found lacking on many fronts, many times.

The "local" edge has evaporated for radio, as several examples illustrate.

Is there really a need for your radio station to speak about school closings when nearly every school sends an email or text message directly to students AND parents if classes are cancelled? How about posting school closings on your radio station's web site? Does your station even go through that process? Is the effort worth the response? (Do you track response to see if it is?)

How much local news is reported by your stations each day? Do you have a local newscast, inside or out of drive-times? Traffic reports are another item that's fast being attached to media other than radio, such as smartphones and GPS units.

Local sports information is plentiful online - as are an increasing number of locally-originating internet radio stations discussing sports and local topics of interest.

As for local bands, nightclubs and restaurants which used to get mentioned, each has its own web site now. And many are purchasing local search advertising on Google.

Here's the real question needing an answer: Is there anything heard on your station's air in the last hour that cannot be easily found online in ten seconds?

If you bring up the fact that not everyone has an internet connection, it's a valid point. But it's only valid for a very small percentage of population today, making this moot.

The radio industry has long held its "local" flag high. Yet, with so many other local media flags also waving for attention, and the radio industry's declining coverage of local events and news, the luster of local is lost for radio.

May I suggest that instead of holding onto this weakened rallying cry, radio focus on helping local clients and audience use the internet more effectively as an adjunct to radio campaigns and programming. Hold classes for businesses wanting to advertise that aren't exactly sure how to. Air programs (or vignettes) discussing online items that your station's audience finds interesting, then post links to each on your station web site.

The best course of action for radio is to be an instructor for the masses. Helping all to make the transition to technology will be appreciated. It will also give the radio industry an image of being in front of the curve once again.

We cannot go back to the glory days of radio. However, we can restructure programming and commercials to accommodate audience and advertiser needs of the day.

To continue speaking of "local" content as if radio is its sole source is futile. The only persons being fooled are those in the radio industry, and that's something that needs to stop as we enter 2012. (Just wait until Pandora and other area web sites get their local legs moving better.)

We've been fooling ourselves for well over a decade. The time's now come when action is more important than words. Let's hope 2012 is full of action within the radio industry, because the luster of local is lost.

We simply cannot shake our heads anymore as if this new media movement is a mirage. Radio's new goal should be to aid audience and advertisers in understanding what they all are interested in mastering.

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