In yesterday's post, we had a sweeping conversation about what it means to be a true local radio station. For today's installment, I've come up with great examples from Chicago, Detroit, and New Jersey – regions of the U.S. that know great radio when they hear it.
The cynics among you may be wondering how many hours it required to think of three U.S. commercial radio stations that exude the local vibe. Actually, it wasn't difficult of all. I'm a believer there are many more of them than people think. But truly not as many as there were two or three decades ago.
A tweet I received yesterday from my friend, Qzedia's Lubin Bisson, summed up this refocus on the local front for radio very nicely:
Place-casting. The future is where.
Well-put, and I used it as a litmus test to check my three choices for today's post. They all easily passed.
The Drive has become a legendary radio station in Chicago well before its time. It's only 17 years-old (a mere child by rock radio standards), but WDRV has pulled off some amazing radio since its inception. As radio watchers know, its arch-rival – The Loop – left the airwaves earlier this year when the station was sold to EMF and flipped to their national K-LOVE Christian music format.
Now, usually when these competitive format changes occur, the surviving station starts crudely calculating a ratings gain. And oftentimes, it never happens. The Hubbard team took nothing for granted, and instantly pulled the trigger on a massive TV campaign. Yes, in 2018, they ran serious television. The spot embodied their position, of course, but also their true sense of place: Chicago.
It's also voiced by the recently departed Nick Michaels, the voice of the station from Day One.
The ratings have gone straight up. I won't bore you with rankers and percentage increases. They're impressive and a tribute to Market Manager Jeff England, PD Rob Cressman, the staff, and Hubbard corporate – who greenlighted the plan.
When they asked me to send them examples of good Classic Rock TV commercials, I had that rare moment where I was at a total loss for words. I even called Film House (a name that those of you who worked in radio in the '80s and '90s will recognize) for ideas. In the last 20 years, it was hard to think of effective, creative, and compelling TV marketing – a sign of the times.
In the end, they made their own commercial. And while part of its positive impact is undoubtedly due to the fact no one else in Chicago radio was on TV, I think you have to attribute the station's audience expansion to a heavily local campaign that fit The Drive's brand essence.
But just so you know it's no accident, WDRV had another opportunity to make something out of…well, not all that much. But like many great marketing campaigns, capturing the local zeitgeist of the moment is what the station does well. After being located in the iconic Hancock Building for its entire radio life, the Drive joined its two sister stations, WTMX and WSHE, in the Prudential Center, one mile south.
And Cressman and the airstaff made the moment bigger than life – with a special bus ride broadcast down Michigan Avenue – “The Miracle Mile” – anchored by midday legend Bob Stroud who also commemorated the moment on the air. It was a great street promotion, done with very little budget. You can hear Stroud's send-off to the Hancock here:
Speaking of doing it on the ground, there's Detroit's Classic Rock station, WCSX, programmed by street maven Jerry (“J.T.”) Tarrants. In the past two years, led by morning guy Jim O'Brien – has proved they “get” how local municipalities make policy. As you no doubt know, Detroit has been a hotbed of music – especially rock ‘n roll – for decades, from Alice Cooper to Eminem to Motown to Jack White.
You may remember when Eagle Glenn Frey (a Royal Oak, MI native) suddenly passed away in early 2016, Big Jim went to work and in just weeks got the green light from the city to rename the street in front of the high school “Glenn Frey Drive.” We wrote about it here.
O'Brien and his partner Erin V. are at it again, pushing the city of Ann Arbor to similarly commemorate a street for its favorite son, Bob Seger. The station has collected thousands of signatures, and even spent the entire day a couple Saturdays ago playing nothing but wall-to-wall Seger.
The station has called on local sports celebs to sign a giant card they take to events. Yard signs are on the way so fans can display their support.
Getting a street re-named is not an easy process, and you can read about how CSX is doing it here.
J.T. tells the story:
“The idea for Bob Seger Boulevard came when we saw the back of Bob’s last album ‘I Knew You When' – it was a picture of the Glenn Frey Drive sign.
So why do we wait until they’re gone to show these artists how much they mean to us?
Why not show Bob how much he’s meant to Detroit? And to find a stretch of road that actually connects to Main Street. Perfect.”
In a PPM market, this is known as throwing a long bomb, something that most stations in major markets have stopped doing. And the all-day Seger stunt pulled the highest meter and streaming numbers in the station's history on a Saturday.
WCSX doesn't just play a “safe list” of Classic Rock music in Detroit. It is the voice of that music in a city with a proud history of hit makers, pioneers, and musical geniuses.
And it's not just owning streets – it's naming them.
WDHA/New Jersey (Beasley)
And then there's The Rock of New Jersey, WDHA, led by PD and long-time station stalwart, Terrie Carr. How do you interface with an audience spread throughout so many cities and small towns throughout their broadcast area? You go to the listeners.
Seizing on an idea we wrote about earlier this year – “Why Not Pop-Up Radio?” – the Morning Jolt used the launch of a new station van to convert the vehicle into a remote machine, adding simple equipment like a Verizon Hotspot and the station's Comrex.
Adding a board op and a station “social media” intern, the station typically starts the day in the studio. But by 7am, it's on the road – connecting with DHA listeners all over the New Jersey environs.
As Terrie notes, “Our first outings were North Jersey Lake Beaches – “An Island Hopping” broadcast, featuring a Pop-Up in Staten Island where we drove around greeting fans who don't normally get to see us.
“We then headed out the Friday before Memorial Day Weekend with a caravan of listeners following us down the heavily traveled Garden State Parkway where we landed and set up shop at one of New Jersey's busiest rest stops, and then headed to the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where we broadcast featuring veterans on the air with us.”
And even though there are no traditional sales packages being pitched, Terrie notes DHA has already nailed a major sponsorship with one of the area's big auto groups. Others are already in the works.
But you can't get eye contact with an audience in a local market if you're not willing to take the station to listeners in cities and towns all over the metro area.
So, three stations – and street level, big ideas that are working. Yes, WDRV's fortunes have been turbo-charged with a TV buy, but you don't win over the long haul if you're not hitting the streets and connecting with fans. We talk a lot about the importance of social media acknowledgment, but it's even more impactful to have eye contact with the audience.
It's something that only local radio can do. And there was a time in broadcast radio history when just about every station made street marketing a priority.
These days, it comes down to just a handful of local broadcasters – stations like WDRV, WCSX, and WDHA – rarities in their markets.
And that's another reason why these tactics work so well.
The future may, in fact, be where.
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Fred was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2018.