Today's #TBT post might seem dated to you. After all, Alec Baldwin playing Donald Trump on “SNL” feels like ancient history. This post originally appeared five years ago this month.
As you'll read, it was a clarion call to radio to not just play more currents, but to BE more current in everything station's program. Oddly enough, an industry friend sent me a new story in Billboard lauding a handful of radio stations scoring sizable ratings by doubling down on current music. KUTX (Austin), KEXP (Seattle), and KCMP/The Current (Minneapolis) are among the stations named in the story.
They have one other thing in common – they're all public radio music stations. So often, we think of public radio as NPR news stations. But the roster of public radio stations that specialize in music – Triple A, Jazz, Urban Alternative, and Classical – makes an impressive list.
So even though this post is now in the JacoBLOG archies, its core message rings even louder in today's radio environment where new music has become more of a rarity than a staple. – FJ
Play more currents?
Wait – isn't this the Sultan of Classic Rock talking? Plus, as we all know, playing too much new music might be harmful to your PPM performance.
But alas, we're not talking about current music. We're talking about the currency of our lives and our worlds. In a world where curation is the new black, radio has the opportunity to be more connected to people than any other digital medium. But it needs to seize the moments right in front of it and contextualize them on and off the air.
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For inspiration, I turn to one of my favorite quotes from a guy who has made “staying current” an art form, a mission statement, a mantra. Lorne Michaels is the creator and showrunner for the venerable “Saturday Night Live” – a weekly ritual that has entertained Boomers, Xers, Millennials, and yes, even Gen Z kids for more than four decades. Here's the way he sees the world:
“If you're not about what people are thinking about that week, then I don't think you have any relevance.”
For Michaels, his comedy ensemble spends all week prepping for the big Saturday broadcast. For your radio station, keeping current is a daily obligation – and an opportunity. Attending “the church of what's happening now” is something radio should be doing every day.
These days, news organizations are gasping at the pace of “breaking news” during the Trump Era. Talk to anyone you know working in a news operation, and they'll tell you the past 18 months have been a constant spew of off-the-charts surprises – a seemingly endless firehose of controversial and shocking material.
While many news outlets – cable news channels, NPR, and papers like The Washington Post – have seen their ratings, subscriptions, and donations rise during this unprecedented time, the challenge is keeping up with the public's need to stay on top of what's going on – without passing out from exhaustion.
For radio stations, the real-time, 24/7 nature of the medium was ready-made for these days. But the burden on content creators – personalities, programmers, and digital mavens – is omnipresent.
And that doesn't mean playing more new music, creating new benchmarks, or hiring a new voice guy (or gal). It does mean making sure your station – its production, its presentation, its marketing – keeps pace with the whirling dervish of this news cycle – whether it's politics, entertainment, sports, or a confluence of all those things.
It starts with mindset – your view of the world and your penchant for staying as relevant and topical as “SNL” or “Wait, Wait…Don't Tell Me!”
One of the best purveyors of melding radio with current events was a guy from Grand Rapids who was a bigwig at “the church of what's happening now.” Mark Heckman was an especially creative guy whose canvas was billboards. He used outdoor ads to stitch radio stations with current events in funny, ironic ways.
Back in the '90s when marketing budgets were more abundant (and existent), Heckman's creative was plastered on billboards all over the U.S. – making drivers think, laugh, and connect. He knew how to get attention, stir it up, and be in the moment.
The vintage of a station's playlist didn't matter to Heckman. It wasn't about the percentage of new music a station played – or whether it played currents at all.
Heckman was able to take Classic Rock stations and give them a contemporary spin by staying with his formula: parodying what people were talking about.
Sadly, one of the radio industry's bright, creative stars passed away at age 49 back in 2010. Referred to as a “billboard artist,” Heckman also cleverly used his skills to advocate for causes he cared about – the environment, water safety, and other issues drivers were forced to think about when they zipped past his outdoor art.
And so I had a Mark Heckman moment the other day when the work of a creative director at Parkour Studio, Fabien Dodard, lit up my screen. Like Heckman, Dodard obviously loves billboards and outdoor creative.
He dreamt up a campaign for a product that has a bigger marketing challenge than any radio station is up against:
Yes, Dodard is located in Haiti, the country recently made (in)famous by President Trump allegedly uttering the word “shithole” to describe his island home.
In fact, Dodard has created an entire “Sh**hole” themed campaign, using the controversial vulgarity as a lightning rod to promote his Haitian home.
As Adweek writer Tim Nudd reported, the Haitian government apparently isn't interested in his clever but controversial initiative to turn perceptions of the island around. Instead, he's launched a GoFundMe page to raise cash to pay for outdoor in metros like New York City and Washington, D.C. You can see the entire campaign and check out the page here.
To date, Dodard has raised nearly $7,000 – enough to post a couple of billboards. As he explained to Adweek, “The Haitian community got very active on social media when the news came out, sharing images and their experience of their country. The contrast between the word and the images being posted was quite powerful, and that was the seed of the idea. Now, in terms of making a campaign out of it, that was driven by our willingness to change the narrative around our country.”
Being current, in-the-moment, and redefining a word that in one day, became top-of-mind all over the planet.
Whether it's Haiti retaining its desirability and relevance, or a local radio station or personality, leveraging what people are talking about right now today is how brands stay buzzworthy.
Curation. Creativity. Currency. Controversy.
Personality. Programming. Promotion. Passion.
These are the tools everyone in radio has at their disposal to stay top-of-mind and relevant.
It's not about formats, clocks, playlists, and auditorium tests.
It's not about budgets, because every radio station has a cume audience.
It's about showing up every day at “the church of what's happening now.”
Can I get an “amen?”
To see more of Mark Heckman's work, click here.
Thanks to CPB's Kathy Merritt.