The decision last week by the FCC to end the Main Studio Rule comes at a curious crossroads for broadcast radio. The rule, implemented nearly 80 years ago, was designed to ensure local radio stations and the communities they serve would be connected.
Over the weekend, a post from fellow blogger, Dick Taylor, detailed the history of the rule. As he noted, it was clarified in 1988 to require broadcast stations to maintain a main studio in their communities. That ended last week when a straight party-line 3-2 vote (what else is new in Washington?) decided to end the regulation. The logic behind its elimination, of course, is about cost-saving, given technological advances that facilitate digital and satellite delivered broadcasts.
Proponents of this decision have argued the savings from not having to build, maintain, and operate in-market facilities will be applied back to programming and content creation. But anyone who’s worked in radio for more than a few years realizes that’s tantamount to a “fat chance.”
Instead, the demise of the Main Studio Rule allows radio broadcasters to function more like the digital radio operators they are now competing against using tech to deliver content from afar, thus leveling the playing field.
But does it? Will broadcast radio end up giving away one of the steel swords it still has?
Every year in our Techsurveys, we ask about the value of “local” to the broadcast radio experience. The chart below underscores the perceived importance of radio’s community connection, as nearly eight in ten respondents who took our survey agree: local matters. And a look at the demographic information provides one of those rare moments revealing a common perception among most groups, including those who live in major markets like New York City, and dwellers in small markets like Nome.
The two Democratic FCC Commissioners who dissented – Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn – each was vocal about their disagreement with this rule change. Mentioning that oft-cited train derailment in Minot, North Dakota back in 2002, Rosenworcel argued that empty studios and robotic voicetracking conspire to distance local radio stations from their communities – especially during times of stress, such as weather emergencies or civil disruption.
President Trump has embraced the term “optics” of late. And that’s precisely what makes you wonder why the broadcast industry was so eager to get this rule quashed. At a time when broadcasters are pointing to hurricanes and other natural disasters as an impetus to mandate turning on FM chips in cell phones, the elimination of local studios would seem to be a counter-intuitive move.
Rosenworcel also referred to the absence of local radio information in Beaumont, Texas when Hurricane Harvey roared through that community just a couple months back. In places like Key West, San Juan, Las Vegas, and other communities thrust into emergency situations, having a hometown radio brick and mortar presence would seem to be an advantage for broadcast radio, rather than a liability.
One thing is for certain – there will sadly be more local tragedies, weather emergencies, and other unforeseen calamities in local towns all over the U.S. in the future. How will radio broadcasters respond when there is only the requirement for a local or toll-free phone number during normal business hours so listeners can call in? Will broadcast radio become as reliable as Pandora and “Howard 100” during these turbulent times when a nervous or shaken community is in need of reliable information and calming reassurance?
Ironically enough, one of the best examples of a strong, local studio presence is WGN‘s famous “showcase studio” in the Tribune Tower in downtown Chicago. For years, passers-by have been able to peer through the glass and see radio being made right before their very eyes – and ears.
But next year, Tribune Broadcasting will move WGN to a new nearby location. However, that iconic “showcase studio” on Michigan Avenue will be no more, removing Chicagoans that much more from this legendary station – and local radio.
Physical visibility in markets from Syracuse to San Francisco may, in fact, be more symbolic than substantive. In an age where it’s a rare local radio station doing any outside marketing on TV or billboards, radio will slowly but surely disappear from the hometown landscape.
And as digital media grows, matures, and innovates, won’t radio’s “secret sauce” end up being its “original recipe?”
The local piece.
While many brick and mortar businesses are struggling to compete with Amazon and the ecommerce explosion, it’s never been more important to establish unique and meaningful levels of face-to-face customer service. For radio, this means eye contact with listeners, while fostering and strengthening that engaging local connection. Yes, oddly enough, that means more “showcase studios” rather than fewer.
What is it that truly connects audiences to stations? And stations to their communities?
Woody Allen once famously said, “80% of life is showing up.”
So now that this next level of deregulation is being implemented, will radio continue to show up?
In the end, it may indeed come down to brick and mortar radio.
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 1,000 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.