The old adage of real estate is a familiar one:
Location, location, location.
We know this because a house, – literally on “the other side of the tracks” can have a very different value from its opposite abode. School systems, proximity to freeways (close by, but not in one's backyard) or to a body of water (the ocean but not the town's reservoir) can be the difference between tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For radio, geography might play a greater role in 2023 – and beyond – than when local licenses were first given out by the F.C.C's forerunner, the Federal Radio Commission in 1927. Since those days, wily broadcasters have broken down geography with “move-in's,” repeaters, translators, and eventually streaming. Now, we can listen to radio stations from New York, Nigeria, or Norfolk while we're sitting on a beach in Nantucket.
And the media that has sprouted up all around broadcast radio in the past two decades are all essentially fenceless. Satellite radio, digital streaming platforms, podcasts – they know no boundary lines. We can listen to them wherever we want, pretty much whenever we want, and from wherever we are. There are times when a personality or service on one of these sources even tells us where they're originating from. But it rarely matters, because their content has little geocentricity. There is no center or source location. It just is.
Many radio stations have bought in or at least leaned into a lack of place, eschewing localism in favor of “scale.” In this way, the same show can be heard in multiple markets simultaneously, or time shifted to run in morning drive anywhere and everywhere.
When radio broadcasters embraced syndication in the 1990's, it was the perfect solution to a chronic problem: if you couldn't grow a great morning show, you didn't have the money, or you didn't have the time or talent, simply import one via syndication.
Initially, the model was to utilize national shows like Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, and then build serviceable local personalities and other content around them. But over time, these dominant personalities became bigger than their stations.
For proof, look at the fate that befell so many of Stern's affiliates when he defected to Sirius. With few exceptions, most hemorrhaged, collapsed, or even folded, eventually changing formats. Howard's stations had little left – in terms of content or budget – once he packed up and left.
Today, so many radio stations have simply given up the ghost on the hometown strategy. So, rather than location times three, perhaps LOCAL, LOCAL, LOCAL would be make a better world view for radio in the new year. But as today's blog title suggests, it is more than just saying it. It's being it.
Act like a neighbor.
That's the mantra from Horizon Media whose Catalyst initiative lists their top trends of 2023 suggests we're moving from a landscape of universality to one of localism.
While it's true, we all see the same websites, get the same push messages, and watch that new series when it drops on Netflix.
The world feels out of control to us because of its enormous scale and unpredictability. In this context, technology and social media break down the barriers, but also leaves us confused. As the Horizon team reminds us, COVID and subsequent supply chain shortages threw our world out of kilter.
Here's why local matters:
“Understanding local nuances – at a neighborhood level, not just a DMA (Designated Market Area) level – will help brands earn “insider” status and signal a sense of trustworthiness. Brands that speak the local ‘language' and meaningfully contribute to local communities can earn lasting loyalty.”
Act like a neighbor.
When I read their report, I flashed on a trend we've been watching in Techsurvey for years – responses to the agree/disagree statement:
“One of radio's primary advantages is its local feel.”
It's innocuous, but telling especially when you watch it over time. We've watched it amp up when COVID hit, and in our newest, yet-to-be-released 2023 study – it spiked.
I'm going to give you a preview of that finding, the first “leak” from this year's massive study (400+ stations, 30,000+ respondents) because it coincides so closely with other studies we're seeing. And it suggests that perhaps when it comes to why radio stations succeed, local is a variable that is rarely discussed.
When we look at the winning formulas of radio stations – today and maybe always – we tend to focus on personalities, playing the right music, marketing, and contests.
But what if all along, that local flavor has quietly been a constant, elevated to even more importance because of these crazy times?
Maybe that's what we really learned during COVID. Of course, it was a global pandemic. But, in fact, it was truly a local crisis. You might have been concerned about what really was going on in Wuhan, the outbreak in Italy, or the dire emergency in New York City.
But what really mattered to you and your family was what was going on right there at home. Were you required to wear a mask at the local grocery store? Who in town had test kits available? What schools were closed and why? Which pharmacies were offering vaccines?
To this day, we've all dialed in closer to our local communities – because it really matters. Who's sitting on the school board? What businesses are closing….and which are opening? Who's your state representative and in which precinct do you vote? What local laws are changing, whether these regulations are about guns, abortions, or other life-changing topics? And of course, what's there to do this weekend in town?
As Horizon Media reminds us, “Each city has a distinct personality and is made up of connecting neighborhoods, all with their own unique identifies and idiosyncrasies that define the local culture. This insider-level, nuanced understanding of a market can help brands begin to establish preference in a hard-to-win market.”
And that's precisely why a truly local radio station, staffed by people on the air who are in the know, have a distinct advantage over mechanical, corporate companies that have all but given up on the local ethos in favor of achieving scale and ramming it down a market's throat.
But that's just me theorizing. Let's look at the numbers:
That trend line (upper right) is telling. And if you're wondering why 2020 looks so normal, it's because our survey is fields in January/February each year. And in 2020, that was pre-COVID.
As a result, this year's huge increase doesn't look so anomalous in context. There may be a bit of a sample wobble there. So, if it makes you feel better, lop 5% off the 2023 total. And you still have a bona fide trend that coincides with all the signs we're seeing just about everywhere. (In case you're wondering, there are no other similar statistical blips in the data.)
Look what happens now when there's a tragedy in town. It started a decade ago with the tragic Boston Marathon shooting. Those “Boston Strong” t-shirts sent a message about the community's resilience, character, and attitude.
Now, every time a city or town is hit with any type of setback, those “strong”-themed messages help define the area vibe.
Similarly, the “Detroit vs. Everybody” line of merch that has been cloned just about everywhere. These shirts and hats are the new bumperstickers.
They tell the world where we're from and how we're feeling. It's more than just everyday hometown pride. When we see others from our town wearing them, we feel an instant connection and commonality.
It's about attitude and vibe. You speak the language or you don't. If you know, you know.
That's true with people. And it's true with radio stations.
Act like a neighbor.
Horizon tells us that more than seven in ten (72%) adults “appreciate brands that try to get to know their local culture and community.”
That's a huge majority. And get this. Nearly nine in ten (87%) of 18-34 year-olds agree. And nearly eight in ten (79%) BIPOCS (Blacks, indigenous, and people of color) are also on board. In other words, the emerging audiences that broadcast radio will need to (eventually) court if it has any chance of relevance by 2030.
It also suggests that time in grade is factor – staying with the format, sticking with the team, staying in the market.
Patrick Mahomes' value and import to his team and the league will grow exponentially if/when the Chiefs one day announce their charismatic superstar has signed a lifetime contract keeping him in Kansas City for the remainder of his storied career.
As opposed to a world of Kyrie Irvings and other chronic free agents in every pro sports who simply go where it's greener.
Radio stations exhibit similar characteristics. It's why a local station or personality celebrating a milestone feels like they're one of us.
In recent years, I've watched several of our Rock and Classic Rock station clients achieve 50th year anniversaries – among them WMMR, WRIF, and KLOS.
In San Diego, Alternative staple 91X just marked its 40th. Longevity – combined with local cred – matters. Ask the locals. They'll tell you this station hasn't just played Depeche Mode, Sublime, the Chili Peppers, and the Arctic Monkeys for four decades. They have lived and breathed the San Diego vibe. You know where you are when you listen to 91X.
And that's the case with so many radio stations that occupy the upper rungs of the ratings in their markets.
And let's not forget the sales side of the radio spectrum. Sellers have had to withstand great financial turmoil that has rocked the cubicles the past several years.
“National” business – once a revenue staple, especially if you consistently finished in the top 5 in the local ratings is now difficult to count on because its so inconsistent.
Similarly, outside factors – elections, sports betting, cannabis – are also precarious. Stations can have good quarters, but without these special circumstances, they can suffer through disastrous periods as well.
That's why Main Street is essential to the long-term health of local radio stations. It's not just about who's marketing this quarter or who's running a St. Patrick's Day Sale. It's about establishing local relationships and partnerships with home town businesses and creating a place where they want to associate and invest their dollars in.
Act like a neighbor.
I'm not suggesting this is an easy road to success. If requires people, funds, and know-how. But as importantly, it's a commitment – from the top down – to not miss an opportunity to embrace that local spirit. All of a sudden, that top-of-the-hour ID isn't a throwaway – it's a chest-thumping statement of pride about who you are and where you're from.
But you can't just toss off local cities and towns in sweeper or expect ChatGPT, the next AI tool of the month, or voicetrackers will provide all the local seasoning you need. Those things are veneers. And the audience sees and smells them coming. This is about authenticity. Being there when it counts, not just when it's convenient.
Ask Foursquare. It requires more than a lame geolocation app or dropping a pin telling people where you are.
It IS all about grokking and exuding the local aura.
When someone in radio tries to tell you local doesn't matter, push on. In the final analysis, the stations that survive, thrive, and come out the other side of this will be all about their hometown cultures and communities.
In a world of global brands, websites, and intelligence that is artificial, a genuine, home-cooked radio station will endure.
Act like a neighbor.
To access Horizon Media's Catalyst report, click here.
I'll be moderating a panel on this topic – “Where Is Local Radio Going – The Path Forward” – at the first-ever RadioDays North America conference in Toronto, June 8-9. Details, registration here.