The 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games are now officially in the rear-view mirror. And thanks to some incredible personal and team performances, political intrigue, and other unpredictable events, there was no shortage of big stories coming out of this year’s games. And the beauty, the pageantry, and the athleticism of the Olympics stood in direct contrast to all the breaking news going down around the world at the same time.
As is often the case, the Olympics proved to be a good escape. From the U.S. curling team to Shaun White, there was a lot for America to be excited about – besides the ongoing Korean global politicial drama. In Canada, the team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir stirred up much pride, amidst the doping controversies surrounding Russian athletes.
But perhaps one of the most memorable moments of this year’s game occurred during the opening ceremony. It has made every “highlight reel” and photo album that networks and ordinary people post. And when we look back on these 2018 games, we’ll likely still be talking about that lone athlete from Tonga, Pita Taufatofua.
While other nations sent scores of athletes to the games, Tonga was represented by just this one guy.
So, how to stand out, be memorable, and generate buzz when you’re just a single athlete from a Polynesian kingdom of 100,000 inhabitants?
It’s a similar dilemma that many small, underpowered, or poorly financed radio stations face all the time. How do you make yourself top-of-mind and relevant when you’re a restricted power AM station, you have a signal problem, or you simply don’t have the money for staff, research, and marketing.
As a programmer, I was one of the “haves.” Four decades ago, my company was ABC, and we had it all – talent, marketing, expertise, and management support. There was no excuse for losing because we had everything on our side.
But as a consultant, I’ve experienced it all – feasts, famines, great leaders, flimflam men – you name it. And while many associate us with creating and championing the Classic Rock format, our first clients were a lot like the Tonga guy – underdogs given no chance to win.
At the beginning, we could only entice AM stations to give Classic Rock a try – not the most desirable radio real estate even back then. A couple years later, when FMers WMMQ (Lansing) and KCFX (Kansas City) entrusted us with their stations, it was a turning point. But few remember both stations were signal challenged Class As, struggling to even show up in the Arbitron rating book.
WMMQ was licensed to Charlotte, MI (Char-LOT), while KCFX’s top of the hour ID was Harrisonville, Kansas – neither had a solid, full market signal.
But when you have a compelling, buzzworthy product that’s different from everyone else, you can still overcome the speed bumps and handicaps. In the case of both stations, we had a unique music mix, excitement, and creativity on our side. KCFX adopted the very first “Fox” mascot, while WMMQ used Detroit Tigers’ broadcasts to build its cume. When you don’t have all the weapons and ammo, you have to create your own buzz.
That’s precisely what Tonga’s sole Olympics representative did in these Winter Games. And every time I spotted his photo, saw him being covered on TV, ran across him on social media, or heard people talking about him, I thought of all those radio stations desperately trying to get noticed against all odds.
That was Tautofatua’s challenge. And in the world’s biggest athletic competition, he made a powerful statement.
Here’s how #TongaGuy did it (yes, he had his own hashtag), and how anyone in radio can do the same:
1. He was just one person – and that made him more powerful
While most major countries sent over scores of athletes (China’s team had 70+, while the U.S. was well above 200), Tonga just sent Taufatofua. And that made him stand out against those armies of athletes. Taufatofua was also Tonga’s only representative in the Summer Olympics in Rio where he competed in Taekwondo. And this time around, he qualified for cross-country skiing of all sports. As a lone wolf, he stood out – different from everyone else.
— Jessica (@jusjeschance) February 10, 2018
You don’t have to be a morning show ensemble with a huge cast of characters, interns, and producers. A single person can make an impression even up against well-financed and heavily supported competitors – if she’s different and interesting.
2. He was unique
While all the other athletes donned the uniform of their representative nations, Taufatofua could have done the same. Instead, he came out shirtless and oiled – a standout in any crowd, especially in chilly Korean temperatures.
In radio, you have to find that point of differentiation. When WMMQ called me to try Classic Rock, they were the fourth of four Adult Contemporary stations in the Lansing market. When the odds are against you, you have to try something different, perhaps an idea that no one’s done before.
3. He was passionate
Yes, all the Olympiads were amped up, but none more than Taufatofua, proving that energy and enthusiasm are always great qualities whether you’re competing in athletics or in radio.
He knew he wasn’t going to earn a medal in these games, especially in a sport he had just taken up. But his goal was to serve as an example for other Tongan kids – and he more than accomplished it.
That same passion is what can vault radio stations and personalities above the crowd. When it’s genuine, it becomes infectious.
4. He took a risk
Taufatofua’s appearance was fearless as he came out shirtless in 20 degree weather. As he explained, “I won’t freeze. I am from Tonga. We sailed across the Pacific. This is nothing.”
When you go a different route than the hundreds of other Olympic athletes, you’re taking a chance. But when you’re outgunned, outnumbered, and out-everythinged, that’s what captures the crowd’s imagination.
Many believe that risk-taking is a thing of the past in radio, due to consolidation, meters, and all the other “governors.” But as a wise man once said, “When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.” You have to take that big chance.
5. He had a great story
It was easy for the networks and other media to cover the lone athlete from Tonga. Tonga Guy had a great narrative, from the Summer to Winter Olympics. It turns out he had only spent 12 weeks of his life on snow, and managed to represent his island country in these games – only the second athlete from Tonga to do so.
Many radio stations actually have great stories, too, but most struggle to tell them. Like the plot of a movie or a TV show, radio stations and personality shows lend themselves to storytelling and great narratives. Too often, stations and shows would rather rely on gimmicks, contests, and benchmarks.
6. He went viral
It was easy for social media to blow up over this guy. As noted, he had a compelling story and he’s visual – just the right ingredients for social buzz and sharing. Everyone I spoke to who saw the opening ceremony asked, “And did you see that guy from Tonga?”
— Steve Maack (@SteveMaack) February 10, 2018
Social media is a powerful tool, but you have to give the ecosphere something to talk about. #TongaGuy fit the bill.
7. He’s become a brand
For the second set of Olympic games in a row, this guy has consistently displayed fascinating, outrageous, and buzzworthy behavior. There’s now an expectation for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. After all, he’s Tonga guy.
In what sport(s) will he compete, how will he make his grand entrance, and what out-of-the-box things will Taufatofua do next?
When you think about it, how many Olympic athletes can you name? Maybe 5 or 10 of them, of which this guy is likely on your list. And as for all those small countries that proudly represent themselves at this historic event, Taufatofua has put Tonga on the map, making it a brand.
— Kimberly Packard (@KimberlyPackard) February 10, 2018
And he accomplished this without strong financial backing, a state of the art practice facility, a nutritionist, an expert coach, or any of the other trappings we associate with Olympic athletics.
Like a standalone radio station in a major market surrounded by big groups and mega-brands, Taufatofua proved that anyone can compete and stand out on the big stage.
It’s a great lesson to all of us in radio. Yes, it helps to have all the tools. But with creativity, spunk, purpose, grit, and attitude, you can make a mark in any competition.
P.S. Both WMMQ and KCFX are still strong stations in their respective markets. They each moved to better frequencies, and they’re still playing Classic Rock.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,200 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.