Another strange byproduct of COVID is how certain businesses were devastated, while others thrived. There is no better example of that than the fate of the local bookstore.
Last week, the New York Times ran a story heralding the comeback of brick and mortar bookstores. “Some Surprising Good News: Bookstores Are Booming and Becoming More Diverse” by Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris catalogs the more than 300 new independent stores that have popped up in the U.S. since the onset of the pandemic.
In fact, the American Booksellers Association, the trade group for indie bookstores, reports a 20% jump in the number of member stores. Early in the pandemic, the organization was down to just 1,689 stores. Today, their membership stands at 2,023 member operations in more than 2,500 locations.
A recent survey showed eight of every ten of these stores saw higher sales in 2021 over the previous year – always a good sign.
Given all the headwinds – supply chain shortages, labor issues, higher costs for real estate and rental space, and the possibility of a recession – bookstores are showing signs of relevance and profitability.
Clearly, many of these new retail book sellers are specialty stores catering to select types of publications and diverse ethnic groups. But something else is afoot, too.
Many stores modernized – that is, embraced digital. That meant adding an online sales component to their operations, allowing them to better compete with Amazon and other conglomerates.
But then there's the human factor. Down the road in Lansing, Michigan, new bookstore owner, Nyshell Lawrence, says it's about having knowledgeable people who offer a curated experience:
“People are really looking for a community where they get real recommendations from real people. We're not just basing things off of algorithms.”
Let that sink in as we make a smooth segue to radio and our curators – air talent. In many ways, the best of these in local markets can serve as the on-air guides for listeners in metros all over the country.
As the smoke clears from our COVID nightmare, all broadcasters are taking stock of their respective situations.
Ownership is reassessing the business climate. And many are already showing signs of concern over the possibility of a recession in the coming months. As you have no doubt seen in the trades, those nasty RIFs – reductions in force – are already erupting at select clusters.
And rank-and-file radio employees from all parts of the building are evaluating their situations. What are the prospects for advancement in this environment? How will industry shifts impact the ways in which talent are hired – and fired?
What are the most important skills moving forward, and how can personalities adjust accordingly? What are the trainings and disciplines that will most contribute to talent gaining some level of job security, not to mention the opportunity for advancement an better compensation?
Good questions all.
I am convinced the long-term health of radio broadcasting in this country (as well as around the world) will hinge on the strength, depth, and talent of our personalities – our guides, our curators, our sherpas – the people who know the city, know the music, can talk the issues, and are people you want to hang out with.
And for proof, look at who sits at the top of the ratings in just about every market in the U.S. – from the top 10 to the smallest two-book markets. Chances are, they feature at least one top-notch personality, if not two, three, or more. It doesn't mean they cannot have a syndicated morning show. But somewhere in the lineup, most stations need that go-to jock, host, or show who provide the human, local connection. As an industry, we need to better understand what's working – and whats not from the personality point of view.
And that's why today we're back in the field with Jacobs Media's AQ4 research study. Last year, more than 600 commercial radio personalities from all different-sized markets and radio stations. But that's down from previous years when our samples topped the 1,000 mark. Radio is a different industry today. And in order to better understand the plight of our most precious resource – personalities – we're hoping to surpass last year's totals.
We'll need your help to do it. If you're on the air on a commercial station right now, or you were working in radio in 2021, we need your opinion. The survey takes about 15 minutes of your time, and the result will be a better look at the world of American commercial radio talent.
Here's the ask. If you're on the air (or you produce a show) here in the U.S. on a commercial music or talk station, take the survey soon. It will only be “live” for a couple weeks.
And here's the important part: forward this survey link to every air talent at your station and/or five of your on-air friends in the industry. We want to be sure as many personalities are represented as possible as the radio broadcasting industry regains its footing post-COVID. AQ4, by the way, is ABSOLUTELY CONFIDENTIAL.
And this year is especially important. Here's why:
We've been doing our Techsurveys every year since 2005, and we've never seen a time when personality has mattered more to radio. As music continues to be commoditized and available on scores of platforms, the power of hosts and shows has never been greater. This chart tell you all you need to know about how music and personalities have traded places during the past few years. The gap is likely to grow:
The questionnaire is quite robust. It will trace your time back to your humble career beginnings. But most of it will chart your current attitudes and opinions about your current job, your station, management, your aspirations, and how you expect to achieve them.
Once again, AQ4 is in partnership with Don Anthony's Morning Show Boot Camp. After the field work ends later this month, I'll present the top-line findings to attendees at Boot Camp in Chicago in August. As has been the case in the past, my session leads off the conference on the very first morning of Boot Camp. The idea is that this study will help Boot Campers put their industry in perspective. We hope it will serve as a conversation starter.
Much of AQ4 is about gathering straight-ahead opinions from talent about their stations, their companies, and their careers: compensation, opportunities for advancement, women on the air, and even the most popular “bathroom song.” (If you know, you know.)
One rather alarming chart from last year at a millinery theme – that is, hats. We asked our respondents how many “hats” they're currently wearing at their stations, clusters, and companies. This covers on-air roles as well as other duties: programming, music, digital, engineering.
Here's what we learned last year:
We also learned that stress levels among talent are on the rise, another measure we'll be trending once again in AQ4.
As I learned way back in college, businesses and industries that are well-researched have the best chance of survival over the long haul. Radio broadcasters need to know precisely how the talent wing of the building is holding up, and how existing conditions might be improved. I sincerely believe companies that are intentional about the discovery, development, nurturing, and coaching of talent will be better off when all is said and done.
(Yes, that goes for public and Christian radio as well.)
Please take AQ4 at your earliest convenience and pass along the link to others making their living behind a mic.
And maybe take a drive to a hometown bookstore, and pick up something interesting to read. Just ask that knowledgeable person behind the counter for recommendations.