I spent a lot of time listening to radio (thanks, jacapps, for making it easy) yesterday – the day after the President's much-ballyhooed State of the Union Address.
Of course, it was “the topic” on talk stations and public radio outlets. After all, that's what they do.
On music stations, the SOTU speech didn't happen. Morning shows on music stations found any number of secondary topics to talk about, along with standard benchmarks like “War of the Roses” or “Moron of the Day.”
It's been this way for a LOOONG time now. As the commercial broadcast industry became a bigger and bigger business, most music stations have steered clear of controversy for fear of antagonizing advertisers and facing blowback from a divided audience.
But it's all around us now – on NFL football fields, on cable news day in and day out, and at dinner tables all over America. These days, seemingly everyone has an opinion. Except music radio stations.
When we think about the seminal era of protest movements, most of us flash back to the most activist period of the past 50 years – anti-war rallies, civil rights protests and sit-ins that dotted the Sixties. Baby Boomers were in the vanguard of these moments, making their feelings known on the streets, in Washington, D.C., as well as at events like the Democratic Convention in 1968.
But what does that look like today? Do Boomers still have the monopoly on that protest gene, or has the torch been passed to Millennials and their younger brothers and sisters – Gen Z? How are younger generations of Americans redefining what it means to speak out and be heard?
And what – if anything – does this have to do with brands? Politics has become a taboo topic at most family gatherings, business meetings, bowling leagues, and kids' soccer games. For all those reasons, most stations and their most popular personalities avoid the conversation rather than instigating it.
Yet, causes and societal issues are very much in the center ring of media and entertainment, whether it's cable news, late night TV shows, and of course, social media and the Internet. Everything is political. More and more, brands are taking stands and making statements about the state of the country.
I was reminded of this by a couple of commentators to our Super Bowl ads post earlier this week. Some believe that political correctness has sanitized agency copywriters, causing marketers to go blander and safer.
Perhaps, but whether Howard Schultz ends up being a viable presidential candidate or not is overshadowed by the fact that Starbucks' activism has been the engine that has vaulted him into the public eye.
Nike's Colin Kaepernick campaign, followed by Gillette's recent foray into gender politics, suggests that some marketers see value in taking stands – even if they are at the pinnacle of controversy. Perhaps that's because Millennials – in particular – seem to favor companies that do more than just sell stuff.
And to that point, by a wide margin, Millennials applaud Nike's gamble to feature Kaepernick – and they ended up becoming even greater consumers of Nike products. As for older generations, Nike's marketing plan was met with indifference or derision.
Opinionated brands that speak out are appreciated by Millennials. That's backed up by a survey from RetailMeNot, showing that two-thirds of 18+ Internet users agree brands should take public stands on key social values.
The eMarketer chart below and the analysis of Lucy Koch suggest majorities of young people would be more likely to recommend these brands to friends and purchase more of their goods.
So, Millennials put their money where their hearts are. But what about boycotting products?
Another study – this one from CompareCards.com – says one-third of Millennials (and Gen Xers) stopped during business with a company they had once spent money with. A story in Retail Dive by Corinne Ruff notes that companies like REI and Patagonia have benefited from their positions on the environment – aligned with the sensibilities of their customers.
The generational chart from this study clearly shows a greater propensity – especially among today's younger Millennials – to boycott goods or services the disagree with. Note that Boomers – once the activist protesters – look rather tepid in their vitriol today:
But for radio, this kind of activity – a radio brand advocating for a cause – just isn't done. Many broadcast executives would tell you there's simply too much at stake.
In the early days of FM radio when stations had a lot less value than they do today, taking a stand for causes like the Vietnam War were considerably more common. Protests were part of the fabric of many popular rock songs – “Ohio,” “For What It's Worth,” and even Edwin Starr's “War” all were sung out of the same hymnal.
In the early years, even Bob Seger sang about social issues in songs like “Persecution Smith” and “2+2=?.” Creedence Clearwater's Revival's “Fortunate Son” was a song about privilege and class. And Motown got the message from Marvin Gaye's “What's Goin' On” and the Temptations' “Ball of Confusion.”
And the DJs of the day often reflected much of those same values and social concerns.
Believe it or not, one of the most famous examples of a radio station and a popular personality taking a stand didn't occur back in 1968. It was two decades later in 1988.
Charles Laquidara was the host of WBCN's “Big Mattress” morning show, and an outspoken, out-sized personality on Boston radio. Charles organized a campaign against apartheid on his morning show that railed against Shell Oil and its business dealings in South Africa. Creating a campaign called Shellshock, he took to the airwaves to encourage BCN listeners to cut their Shell credit cards in half and mail them in with the goal of encouraging the oil company to stop doing business there.
This became a cause de célèbre for Laquidara and BCN, garnering a lot of mass media coverage, including a New York Times feature – “A Disc Jockey Challenges An Oil Company.”
In the story, Charles explains that BCN's owner – Infinity Broadcasting – tolerated his protest campaign, but did not endorse it. Run by the iconic Mel Karmazin, the company had a reputation for supporting controversial talent like Laquidara and Howard Stern.
The archived story news story below that ran on WGBH-TV is a true trip back in time. And if you're wondering whether the campaign caught fire, watch the video and take note that Red Sox superstar Roger Clemons signed on to Charles' campaign, as did Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. It is impossible to imagine something like it happening on broadcast radio today.
Back in Laquidara's era, a campaign like Shellshock cemented loyalty with his audience. In subsequent focus groups I've conducted in the market over the ensuing years, I've heard listeners reminisce about this radio protest, and the days when radio DJs took a stand.
And that's why these stories in eMarketer and Retail Dive about Millennials respecting companies that advocate for a cause resonated with me. It is very much a throwback to a different time in America when young people appreciated and gravitated toward those who expressed their opinions.
Amazingly, the CompareCards study asked more than 1,000 Americans last month whether they'd be up for a credit card boycot – similar to what Laquidara pulled off 30 years ago:
The fact that a majority agrees (or agrees strongly) they'd cease use of a favorite credit card if that company supported a cause that ran against their political/moral grain. Looks like Charles might have been onto something.
Do not interpret this post as encouragement for morning radio DJs to “Be like Charles” and adopt a cause. That's not its point.
Local radio has the ability like no other medium to connect with its audience, reflecting their feelings and values, while making it entertaining. Could these kinds of campaigns ever happen again, igniting interest among today's Millennials? That's up for debate, of course.
But CompareCards' chief industry analyst, Matt Schultz, boiled it down this way:
“Americans simply want to be heard.”
And when it comes to today's Millennials – a generation that hasn't had it so easy and has often been derided and misunderstood – maybe that's what
this is about. They feel alienated and ignored – not dissimilar to how Boomers were feeling back in 1968.
Ironically, the racial injustice Charles Laquidara was railing against in Boston 30 years ago is as big an issue in our politics and in our discourse today. Charles' controversial stance and ensuing campaign may seem like it came from a morning guy from another dimension would do – the idea of this happening today is unthinkable – despite the fact there's a generation – or two – waitiing to hear it.
It makes you wonder whether a timely, heartfelt, authentic message in 2019 that emanates from a radio station or a popular personality – whether in a car, from a smartphone, or on Alexa – could motivate young people to once again ask the question:
“Children, what's that sound?”
And in the process, make morning radio relevant again.
For more on Charles, click here.
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.
Fred was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2018.