If you’ve shopped at an area mall recently, you may have noticed some changes. Slowly but surely, those anchor stores – Macy’s, Nordstrom, Sears, and others – are disappearing. And they’re being replaced by food courts, Apple Stores, and other attractions designed around creating an atmosphere of entertainment and a sense of community.
Recent articles in both Forbes and Retail DIVE confirm there’s a major paradigm shift taking place in the mall industry. Part of it is driven by the increasing influence of Amazon and other online shopping portals. But that means the onus on the mall has shifted.
Forbes writer Steve Schaefer nails it, “Shopping is no longer only about the transaction. Instead, it is about creating an atmosphere and experience.”
That’s why you’re seeing malls going well beyond “Santa’s Court,” with an increased emphasis on family-friendly extravaganzas and events that help make these shopping meccas entertainment destinations. Food makes a difference as well. CBL & Associates Properties CEO Stephen Lebovitz told the Wall Street Journal, “Cheesecake Factory does as much business as Sears used to do.”
For decades, those big department stores were key players in a mall infrastructure that drove store traffic and created stability. So what’s the formula now?
Retail DIVE writer Daphne Howland observes that “malls are now trying to lure customers with the same amount of wonderment, or at least experiences and dining – things that can’t be found online.”
So what does this have to do with radio?
Everything, because at its best, watching radio being made right in front of your very eyes has always captivated people. I am reminded of that every time I visit Chicago and walk by the iconic Tribune Tower. There are always tourists and locals looking through the glass at WGN’s famous studio. Hey, I always sneak a peek as well.
There’s nothing more fascinating than looking inside a radio studio, one of the reasons why daily on-demand video by major market teams like WMMR’s Preston & Steve as well as WRIF’s Dave & Chuck the Freak end up being so viral. They offer that behind-the-scenes look at personality radio, something that people of all ages find riveting.
But while online video can drive lots of eyeballs, there’s no substitute for seeing radio up close and personal. And the changing nature of shopping malls might provide broadcast radio an opportunity to do exactly what Howland writes about: provide experiences that aren’t available online from the Pandora's or Spotify's.
It’s one thing when you’re in Los Angeles or New York City where mega shopping centers are in abundance over the wide metro geography. In medium and smaller markets, a single mall can be in the center of the action, a destination where people shop, schmooze, and socialize.
And it doesn’t even need to be a mall. Powell Broadcasting’s Classic Rock 99.5 in Sioux City, Iowa, is a case in point. They provide that eye-to-eye entertainment experience for their fans at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino with an embedded studio. DOS Dave Grosenheider notes his cluster broadcasts a minimum of 40 hours a week from the cluster's studio, matching his stations with targeted casino promotions.
Dave points out that this “partnership helps us reach an expanded audience in all demographics. From interaction on the casino floor to interviewing and introducing top name musical talent and comedians, our presence seeds great opportunities both on-air and in-person. Our stations operate under the ‘Live & Local’ philosophy, and our studio at the Hard Rock brings that front and center.”
For hotel guests and casino patrons, the Powell studio also creates experiences that can make for a memorable visit. And that’s exactly what mall owners and managers have in mind as they re-think their mix of retail outlets and other offerings.
Over the past couple of decades, radio stations have gradually moved further away from the public, cloistering themselves in office buildings, cutting back on station vehicles and remote equipment, and limiting the interaction with their audiences. And no, car dealer remotes don’t count as community outreach. Connecting with listeners, and allowing them to observe a true broadcast (not an intern sitting under a tent) are what creating experiences are all about.
A couple years back at the Radiodays conference in Dublin, I couldn’t help but notice the number of sophisticated and colorful remote vehicles that a number stations and shows trotted out to the convention center. Pictured here is FM104’s RoadHog, a can’t miss rolling studio that takes the radio station right to the communities it serves.
Here’s how they describe the RoadHog sales package on the station’s website:
The RoadHog brings Dublin's number one radio station to the people of Dublin City and County at high footfall and traffic locations such as shopping centres, sports venues and main pedestrian routes. It connects with our listeners, enabling them to meet and greet our presenters and feel part of the radio station. It also gives you, the client, an opportunity to bring your product directly to your target market.
At a time when some stations are hard-pressed to have a station vehicle of any kind, imagine how something like these supercharged remote studios could create a unique presence – not just up against the other stations in town, but in a growing digital landscape filled with brands like Pandora, Spotify, and SiriusXM, none of which is going to visit your area mall anytime soon.
And last I checked, creating an entertaining physical presence in the key geographic areas that are most in-play with either diaries or meters makes smart tactical sense, too. Sure, social media ads or direct mail can laser target homes in specific zip codes right down to the block. But a physical and electric presence by a station right where you live (or work) is memorable and buzzworthy, keeping a station top-of-mind in an area that can move the ratings.
Who has the budget for this? Well, marketing isn’t just billboards, Facebook ads, and contest mailers. While all those tools can effectively promote a giveaway, personality, or event, the larger question revolves around how radio can re-establish a local presence in the communities it serves in unique ways, while building brands and making connections with listeners that don't just fade away when the contest ends.
An investment in a remote vehicle like RoadHog is expensive to be sure, but the sponsorship potential speaks for itself. The quest to create experiences that other stations in the market cannot pull off should be enough to motivate some broadcasters to take the leap. In many ways, these types of initiatives could serve to reintroduce radio to new generations of listeners who otherwise have no clue what the medium is all about. Not to mention the ability to steer these remote broadcasts to those popular Hot Zips where diaries or meters are most plentiful.
Everything else these days is pop-up in nature, so “Pop-Up Radio” could be a novel way for local stations to get back to their roots, get out of the office, and reconnect with the communities they serve.
And back to the mall where this post started, how difficult would it be for stations (and clusters) in any market in the country to offer a studio experience to these shopping center owners looking for ways to keep customers engaged and entertained? After all, every mall has Santa. How many have your station's bigger-than-life morning show? And I'd bet that more than a few local advertisers and marketers would stroll by the mall and check out a fun slice of live radio, and be reminded of just how much presence your station has in the community.
It would be smart for radio stations to run into crowds, rather than isolating themselves in their own hometowns.
The idea of “Pop-Up Radio” is as old school as it gets. Another reason why it would probably work.
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.