This happens to be all the time when I’m on the road. When I visit a city with real character – a distinctly unique place – and I walk into a restaurant or coffee shop, it’s not usual for the waitperson to ask, “You’re not from here, are you?”
They can tell if you’re a local – by how you’re dressed, how you talk, or if you ask what a beef on weck or a po’boy is. Here in Detroit, it’s a coney island. (For the uninitiated, the latter is a hot dog drenched in a special chili, onions, and mustard – or “a coney with everything”) as pictured above. You come to visit me, and over the course of a couple days, we’ll go to the Motown Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, Greenfield Village, and Lafayette Coney Island.
But not American Coney Island.
You see, these two competing joints that offer the ultimate Motor City delicacy are right night door to each other. Their short order cooks are in the front window, making up orders that usually take less than 60 seconds to hit your table after you order them. If you stand outside and watch this process, they’ll wave you in. It’s competitive between these two places – neither will put up with losing a customer to the other.
But here’s the thing you may not know. Lafayette and American were both started by members of the Keros family nearly a century ago. And the “rivalry” Lafayette and American is more in the heads of Detroiters, who have always chosen sides. You’re loyal to one or the other – like the White Sox or the Cubs, Michigan State or Michigan.
Me? Lafayette all the way. I’ve never set foot in American. You meet someone from Detroit, you’ll quickly learn their coney island allegiance.
Yes, it’s another post about the power of local, a topic that seems in radio circles much like the mask mandate debates here in the U.S. – a fundamental part of who we are, what we do, and what we believe.
Part of my ongoing case for a focus on local has been misunderstood, and perhaps some of that comes down on me for not being as clear as I should be about the definition of the term for radio stations, whether they’re in Milwaukee, Missoula, or Mendocino.
So, let’s be clear.
You can be an intensely local radio station, even if you have a syndicated morning show and/or voicetracked talent during your program schedule. The distinction lies in both the quantity and quality of how much remote talent you have, and what you’re doing the rest of the day. You can have Bob & Tom on in the morning, for example, and a “tracked” night host, but have strong local talent in the middle of the day who fly the hometown flag.
If you work at it, you can ensure Tom Griswold and his cast of characters know what’s going on in your town. You can write and produce drops and breaks that aren’t designed to fool anyone the show doesn’t originate in Indianapolis – but to sound like the show knows what’s going on today in Lansing, Watertown, or Bakersfield. And of course you can do the same with your night jock, beaming her voice in from hundreds of miles away.
Yes, being local is about relevance. But it’s also about being connected to your station’s community. The competitive forces coming from the car dashboard, mobile phones, podcasts and smart speakers compel your station to think local as the antidote to national and global shows and platforms. Yes, there’s an audio renaissance afoot, but if you noticed, broadcast radio is barely participating.
The medium’s “backstage pass” to this party?
Local talent representatives (note I pluralized it) are integral to a station’s sound, along with its ability to show up in the community, as well as to fulfill sales obligations that require presence. Interns and a van will only get you so far.
I attended the Great Lakes Radio Conference here in Michigan back in the late 70’s when consultant Lee Abrams (pictured) launched the heavy metal syndicated channel, Z-Rock. Keynoting at lunch, Lee fielded a question from the crowd, “How can your new network really work when it’s not local.”
And to that, Lee responded, “I listened to your radio stations last night, and I went hours without hearing anything local. And reading the weather doesn’t count.”
Decades later, that is still often the case. Even though this conference took place years ago, I think about the implications of Lee’s statement. If you’re a local radio station and that’s part of your strategy, you’d better lean into it, not just check off the “local box” a couple times an hour.
If you hire our company to advise you on your programming, chances are good you’ll hear this theme – again and again. In fact, I have a device I use when monitoring client stations:
“The 20 Minute Test”
That means that throughout the day, I should be able to answer the following questions this way:
Do I know where I am? YES
That is, is it obvious when I’m listening that I hear a clear indicator of the community a station serves? And no, traffic and weather reports don’t count, unless your station is covering a unique meteorological or mobility issues or emergencies. I should know the city I’m in (or streaming in) after just a quarter-hour or so.
Do I know what you’re talking about? NO
Is there a promo, reference, or break where the station is talking about something that makes no sense to me? Am I hearing references to local people, places, issues, jokes, and other content that sound foreign or even a bit confusing? Hopefully so, because a key to enjoying your show is that I have to be from there (or at least that would help).
Most cities and towns are America have become homogenized. They feature the same stores, the same strip centers, and the same malls. That’s why when independent stores spring up – restaurants, bars, coffee houses, record stores – many of us rush to support them. It’s the same with local landmarks, arts centers, and holidays. Celebrations of hometown businesses have become commonplace in recent years – and why not?
And as far as radio’s concerned, these businesses are and will continue to be the lifeblood of radio’s financial future. The health of the retail community may very well dictate the medium’s ability to stay viable and sustainable.
I’ll give you an example. Late last week, there was a major announcement here in town that captivated on social media. You talk about “watercooler” talk? This was it. And it involved two words:
Now, if you’re from here or lived here for any length of time before 2000, you’re smiling. For the rest of you, here’s the story.
Pine Knob was the first “shed” we had here in Metro Detroit. Located in Clarkston (about 20 miles north of downtown), Pine Knob was a ski resort in the winter, and a wonderful concert venue in the summers since it opened in 1972. Detroiters can tell you the stories of the greatest concerts they’ve ever seen. For me, Bob Seger, J. Geils, Journey, Steely Dan, Paul Simon, and the Doobie Brothers are just a few of the standouts, not to mention a slew of station events and festivals, like the WRIF Motor City Jam that took place at this iconic shed.
In 2001, its name was changed as the corporate sponsorship trend took hold, stripping stadiums, arenas, and concert venues of their time-honored handles. Pine Knob became the DTE Energy Center, branded for the region’s energy utility company). For music fans, it was a case of identify theft. And for the last two decades, locals have defiantly referred to the venue by its original handle.
So, when it was announced last week, that Pine Knob’s parent, 313 Presents, was taking back its maiden name, there was rejoicing all over the city. And, of course, on social media.
The memes came quickly over the weekend, all in that code only Detroiters understand. But that’s part of the appeal of local – knowing something fun, special, surprising, or controversial that others just can’t understand:
It’s a secret handshake that is a reminder that cities, communities, and regional differences matter. And if you’re a music lover who began attending concerts in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, the resurrection of Pine Knob is a sort of cultural reward, especially given the COVID protocols during the past two summers. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the venue, an apt occasion for it to return to its roots.
Among Detroit area natives and those who have moved here, the social media activity has been steady and positive. Memories came flooding back online, especially supported by radio stations attuned to the local zeitgeist.
The patron saint of Pine Knob was the late Eddie Money. The “Money Man” was Pine Knob’s season opener for many, many years. Other fans recalled their greatest night(s) at Pine Knob.
No, a local lighting rod issue like the return of a beloved music gathering place doesn’t happen every week.
But in so many metros, there are driving issues, events, and news stories cropping up regularly that are relevant, top of mind, or nostalgic, offering local radio stations and their personalities an opportunity to tug on those hometown heartstrings.
— (Screamin’) SCOTT RANDALL WRIF (@screamin1) January 16, 2022
In the last couple of weeks, we have interviewed local television general managers in large and medium markets. When the conversation rolls around to their aspirations for the new year, their strategic thrust turns to embracing the local vibe. They recognize how the past two pandemic years have shifted the focus to what’s happening in town. And they also concede that many streaming platforms, from Netflix to Hulu to Disney+, provide a level of entertainment they cannot possibly compete against. Therefore, their best opportunity is to own local.
Similarly, our trip earlier this month to Las Vegas to CES was an opportunity to interview auto execs, including those whose specialty is marketing. As our questions revolved around infotainment systems in the dashboards, we asked about broadcast radio’s future in their cars, as well as what the medium will need to do to stay relevant.
And their responses are always the same – make sure your content is relevant and local.
No, TV managers and auto execs aren’t radio programmers. But they are bright, logical, and pragmatic people who understand the fundamentals of competitive battlegrounds. Each industry is as dog-eat-dog as radio.
This notion of holding up the mirror to the local environs is not new. It’s a 100 year-old strategy that dates back to Marconi. Radio managers and owners through the ages have battled the onslaught of television, and later 8-tracks and cassettes, and now the Internet tsunami – audio streaming, podcasts, and SiriusXM to name just a few. And soon, video content in cars will be a thing, as screens multiply, widen, and offer a great experience (at least to passengers).
And this is not just a commercial radio conversation. In the public radio sector, the debate will no doubt heat up this year, especially as stations continue to question where the next hit show will come from. As NPR struggles to define its programming focus (shows, news, podcasts), local public radio stations are faced with answering the question, “Just how local are we?”
On the Christian music radio front, the sector is dominated by networks K-LOVE and Air1, owned by EMF. For the unaffiliated, as it were, success will be hinged not on the Christian music playlist, but on station personalities, and reflecting the local spirituality of the community and its ethos. These are great networks, so independent stations are challenged to provide their own unique values. Logically, they will be locally-driven.
I have no doubt that both public and Christian music stations will be grappling with these questions over the next several years, with a renewed focus on strengthening their hometown ties, locally produced programming and content, and community efforts and initiatives.
In every S.W.O.T. analysis we conduct, and strategic plan we collaborate on, the question comes down to “What can we own that has value, durability, and will stand the test of time.
You don’t have to be from “around here” to answer that question for broadcast radio.
Thanks to Sandy Kovach, Scott Randall, & Brian Pastoria.
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