We have talked, debated, and even argued about the value of “local” in radio. Those who dismiss its value frequently point to the success of syndicated shows that are often in leading position in their affiliate markets. Or they aver that being local is overrated, left over from radio' glory days in the 60's or 70's.
I maintain thee position that serving local communities (aside from being mandated in radio licenses) has only become more important in recent years, driven both by COVID and local politics.
While the pandemic was global, affecting everyone on the planet, its effects were (and still are) being felt regionally, and often locally. Issues that included testing locations, mask mandates, and vaccine availability were all local in nature. Similarly, the political landscape is now rife with local issues, impacting cities, counties, townships, and municipalities. What your school board is up to and who sits 0n your courts, county seats, or state capitols is of paramount importance to your quality of life. Biden and Congress may be passing legislation, but the rubber hits the road locally.
Jacobs Media has done an immense amount of research these past couple years in local public radio markets, enough to realize that while there's no shortage of national and international news, local reporting is often wanting, spotty, or non-existent. The term “news desert” has become popular because it applies to more and more bergs, towns, and regions.
Even though the pandemic has been the death knell for many hometown newspapers, the arrows were pointing down long before we started wearing masks and social distancing. Many areas don't even a daily paper – print or online – and broadcast TV news coverage is often a joke.
Then there's commercial radio, where news as a content category has been missing in action for years or has been exiled to the AM band. And then there's public radio, which has benefitted as a result (check the ratings), picking up much of the slack. Great programs like NPR's “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” along with APM”s “BBC News Hour” (and “BBC News Service” in the later hours) have become “must listen” for millions of consumers here in the U.S.
But when you look under the public radio hood, few stations devote substantial hours during weekdays or weekends to local news coverage. Original news programming is expensive, both in human and financial resources. It requires, time, patience, and most often, Herculean efforts to keep pace with news shows that are network originated. It is often easier and more expedient for local public radio stations to purchase network and syndicated shows, rather than committing to expensive DIY local programming.
But what's the real cost of both commercial and public radio companies and organization looking the other way despite an obvious need for stepped-up local news coverage?
That someone else will come in and challenge radio – and other media outlets – for the local mantle.
Eleven months ago, I wrote a post that kicked off the new year:
Axios CEO Jim Vandehei had just published a “manifesto” about what the organization hoped to accomplish in 2022. He made the case that local news matters.
Last January, Axios had a solid presence in 14 U.S. markets, with another 25 on the way by midyear. Vandehei talked about a goal of 100 markets “soon thereafter.”
He went on to state how could pull this off with a reliance on his newsletters in each Axios city “covered by locals, for locals.” And he urged local journalists to join his team by signing up for “our crusade.”
Finally, with language eerily familiar to everyone in public radio, he made this request for funding:
“Become a Axios Local Member – all donations flow straight to local journalism.”
Pretty bold for a commercial enterprise, wouldn't you say?
The one thing Vandehei didn't mention (probably because he didn't know it would happen) was that Axios would be acquired this year by Cox Enterprises – the same Cox that owned all those newspapers, TV and radio stations. (Today, the company called Cox Media Group is owned by Apollo Global Management, a private equity company.
That's right. The original “Cox” sold off almost all their legacy media properties and purchased Axios for a cool $525 million last August. The Cox family, led by fourth generation family member, Alex Taylor, is making his future bets about where local news is headed very transparent.
Last week, I received an email update from Vandehei (along with millions of other Axios subscribers). While he failed to mention the Cox acquisition, he continued his theme that supporting Axios represented a higher mission:
In this new missive, Vandehei reports Axios is now in 24 markets (not bad for a tough economic year). This growth includes Boston, Chicago, Austin, Denver, San Francisco, Raleigh, and Salt Lake City. Next up; San Antonio and Cleveland.
He also talks about live events with “local officials and business leaders” in Minneapolis/St. Paul and northwest Arkansas (where Walmart and others are located).
Their coverage is smart. I subscribe to their newsletter in my hometown of Detroit. And their email messaging is strategic and interesting. Last week, I received an email from Axios Detroit with a subject line that would only resonate with locals:
“Axel Foley's boss”
It was a feature story on the late Gil Hill (pictured) , the local Detroit official who ended up with a cameo role in the 1980's hit “Beverly Hills Cop” starring Eddie Murphy. It's how you capture the attention of proud Detroiters.
Broadcast radio has had a trying, challenging 2022 with pressure continuing in the new year, exacerbated by virtually no political dollars. Meantime, Axios continues to build an impressive empire.
And how difficult would it be for them to expand into audio in the not-too-distant future? The New York Times did it brilliantly with “The Daily” back in 2017. And the Cox family knows a little something about audio (and video) news reporting.
Outside of the top 20 or so markets, commercial radio doesn't appear to be especially interested in news. It's expensive and people-intensive with an arduous ROI. Public radio is a different story. Many have a foothold in local coverage.
And as noted earlier, a content analysis of most public radio stations would reveal a low percentage of locally-originated programming. Most of the shows consumers know, love, and help pay for come from a network such as NPR or APM. Aside from local reporting in the popular national news magazines, “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” some stations air one issue-oriented/talk show in the middle of the day.
Is that going to be enough content to maintain ownership of the “local hill?”
Notably, there's a glaring lack of “local” positioning on most public radio stations, as if the audience will simply “Zen it.” Not likely in this overcommunicated news environment.
I've spoken with many public radio programmers and news directors since Axios' shot across the radio bow. Most aren't especially concerned about this newcomer. When I mention the goals in Vandehei's “manifesto,” I often hear responses like “We've been doing that for years” or “We tried that – it didn't work.”
As former NPR chieftain tried to communicate to the legions of public radio professionals across the country, messaging and marketing plays an essential role the medium's mission. It is not enough to produce and broadcast great content – it is essential to communicate it to listeners and members. Historically, this has not been one of public radio's strong suits.
I'll end today's post the same way I concluded our Axios post in early January – with some “Game of Thrones” strategy:
“There’s no moat deep or wide enough to keep the invaders from attacking. For radio news operations – commercial or public – it’s time to don that suit of armor, grab a sharp lance, and get on your steed. Oh, and perhaps focus on creating even better local news content that matters to the townspeople, and making the time and effort to effectively market it.
“Your local kingdom is being invaded, and the solution is to be so good that a mace, battle axe, or dagger won’t throw you off your horse.
“Pick up the gauntlet, and fight the good fight.”