In recent months, I've talked about the pros and cons of the “R-word” for companies once known for their AM and FM portfolios. But these days, you rarely hear radio broadcasters actually refer to themselves as radio broadcasters. Every company is multi-media or multi-platform. Yes, we still offer radio, but so much more.
Why has this happened?
Part of the reason is that most of the medium and larger players have invested – in some cases, very heavily – in digital assets. Many have beefed up their portfolios with bona fide digital content and distribution. Podcasts, streams, video, and other content pieces are now additive to the traditional radio product. It's logical for them to want to emphasize that.
But if they joined you under the “cone of silence,” corner office execs might admit that radio has gotten a bad image. It's no longer cool to say you work in radio, much less still listen to a terrestrial station. Digital content and its distribution outlets are all considerably more popular places to hang out in or advertise on. And these days, it's increasingly harder to find teens interested in radio careers. Most would rather be influencers on TikTok or YouTube, have a channel on Twitch, or become a sideline reporter for ESPN.
But radio? No way, Ray.
I have written blog posts in just the past year where all sorts of companies, organizations, and groups are starting up their own radio stations. If “radio” has such a negative image, why are people going to great lengths to build their own?
Back in late 2020, it was Walmart Radio, a station for both the company's workers and their shoppers. Their “station” features live DJs whose full time jobs are to entertain the masses, or at least those shopping at Walmart. They have merch, they run contests, they air phones, and they take requests. In short, they're doing “radio.”
Beasley's Tampa market manager, Steve Triplett, first told me about Walmart Radio. Here's his comment:
“It says so much about the value of live audio content for creating and enhancing the shopping experience. This is exactly what great radio does for life in general.”
Then it was a “Junk Drawer” item I lovingly referred to as “Jailhouse Rock.” The story was about a Polk County, Texas state penitentiary known as the Allan B. Polunsky unit. I wrote about them early in 2022.
The incarcerated inhabitants of said prison petitioned their warden to get an FM station. And he complied. The Tank is at 106.5 FM, just strong enough to cover the various cell blocks.
For the residents of this prison, the radio station is a God-send. Those invisible airwaves crackle with hope for men whose lives are marked by bad luck and worse choices.
Warden Daniel Dickerson gave the green light to this radio station, and he talked about what it means to those he is charged to supervise:
“They may not all have TV, but everyone has a radio. And anybody who's been on a cell block knows some folks will turn the radio up loud enough where even if you didn't have one, you're probably going to hear it anyway.”
But if you want to talk about radio in an unusual place, it doesn't get more remote than Antarctica, the home of the aptly named Ice-FM or the American Forces Antarctic Network at McMurdo Station. I wrote about this unique radio outpost last January.
This station has been on the air since the 1950's, entertaining resident scientists conducting research in fields like astrophysics, biology, and glaciology.
Jobs at Ice-FM are hotly in demand. Overall, 75 volunteers pitch in to play a role at the station when the weather is relatively warm – like 20 below zero. Boasting 12,000 vinyl records, it's a little harder to find radio stars in the frigid winter, but 30 hardy souls keep Ice-FM on the air.
What makes this station tick? Staff veteran, Kristyn Carney (pictured), has it all figured out:
“It's…great for morale. It's exciting. Most people in the world won't get an opportunity to work the DJ equipment that we have or host a show.”
And lastly, a new entry in “Radioville,” this one from a seemingly unlikely workplace:
A B2B video hosting platform company located in the erudite town of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As reported in Morning Brew, the company is Wistia, and their employees are still mostly working from home.
CEO Chris Savage conducts internal research which uncovered a problem with his company's culture. Not surprisingly, the many months of WFH made many employees feel out of touch with their team.
The answer? Launch a radio station, of course.
WIST Radio was created from a Hackathon more than a year ago, and after overcoming technical difficulties, the station is now live streaming. According to Wistia, 158 of the companies 180 employees now listen – an amazing cume rating of 88%.
When a live jock takes over WIST Radio gets behind the mic, the chat heats up on a dedicated Slack channel. Alerts go out about 30 minutes before shows to make sure the company audience is tuned in.
The station has also spawned a company podcast, where employees interview one another.
The most popular DJ is Frank Emanuele who has has a benchmark aptly called “Fridays With Frank.” By day, he is Wistia's social media manager, but he is seeing a level of engagement with WIST Radio that isn't present on other channels:
“(There's a) layer of water-cooler talk and a layer of connectedness that you wouldn't get from more structured kinds of fun.”
At a time when COVID has kept teams apart at Wistia, the radio station has brought them back together.
So, what do we make of this apparent paradox? People from all walks of life – tech workers, arctic scientists, department store workers, and convicted felons – have one thing in common:
They LOVE radio and they want to be part of it.
When it's relevant and accessible to them, they want to be on the air, they want to listen, and they want to engage with their communities.
And yet, when we think about commercial radio's travails, many traditional listeners have gravitated away, and not enough young people are giving the medium much of their time.
So, how do we square this?
First of all, they have a passion for radio. But they sure don't love what they hear on most radio stations. They aren't included, and most stations aren't exactly audience-focused. Formats just change, personalities disappear, and between squeaky tight playlists and bloated commercial loads, the listening experience is often substandard.
People involved in the four “stations” in this post feel their interests are being met by what they hear. They are made to feel a part of them.
On the other hand, most commercial radio stations operate like “gated communities.” Many people have never seen the inside of a radio station, much less an air studio when there's been a real live host on the air.
Often when people visit to pick up a prize, they're greeted by a busy receptionist who oversees the transaction, and then sends the winner on their merry way.
So, how do we make our radio stations more open and more accessible, especially during a time when security has become an issue?
Public radio stations have generally done a better job, holding “open houses” at key times during the year. Listeners can show up, meet the staff (behind the mic and behind the scenes), tour the station, take (and share) photos, pick up some swag, and have a great time. There's usually snacks – food trucks and/or free samples. Guests have the chance to ask questions, take photos, and take in just how electric a radio station can be.
I very much realize that not every radio station is a showplace. Believe me – I've been inside more radio stations than you have. I've seen them all, from the sublime to the ridiculous. In so many cases, there is something magic about a radio station, if we give the audience a chance to participate. “Guest DJ” features have enjoyed great popularity in the past. And with social media to highlight these appearances, it would not be difficult to generate enthusiasm and buzz.
The trend for homemade radio stations is going to continue. And unlike some of these unicorns – stations in prison or in Antarctica – big money is funding personal radio stations that anyone with a smartphone and a little initiative can launch.
In this blog, I've talked about Amazon's concept – AMP Radio. Last March, “Democratizing Radio” talked about Amazon's plan to give anyone a chance to run their own radio station.
Now, a new story in the Atlanta Business Chronicle reveals a next step in Amazon's plan to bring radio to the masses. In “‘Epicenter of modern music:' Amazon to hire 500 people in Atlanta as it launches new product,” reporter Erin Schilling tells us Amazon is on a hiring spree to support AMP.
She quotes Charlotte Barge, head of engineering for AMP who notes Atlanta is “the epicenter of the modern music scene and home to many of the world's greatest musicians.” The trend toward small, personalized radio stations for everyman and everywoman is gathering steam.
It is striking that people don't create mock dentist offices, accounting firms, or nail salons. But they do set up radio stations whose purpose is to boost morale, foster camaraderie, and passionately discuss their love for music.
All these radio sandboxes were inspired by the real thing – stations people grew up with that provided feelings of joy, excitement, and romance.
How can today's radio stations recapture some of the magic they once possessed?
Maybe we should ask some of these would-be program directors and DJs who embody the passion that was once part of everyday radio.
Thanks to Gary Kline and Bill Sherard. And to Michelle McKormick, a lollipop.
- What's The ONE Thing? - March 28, 2023
- The Art Of The Sale - March 24, 2023
- Playing The Classic(al) Music You Grew Up With - March 22, 2023
Ann Onymous says
A major radio company abandoned using Radio.com.
I believe there’s still a romance with the concept of radio – the embodiment of one sound source heard at once by many people. “Radio” is still romanticized in popular culture. This company should embrace radio.com, rather than the current name they use that phonetically can be spelled a dozen ways.
Fred Jacobs says
Dear “Ann Onymous,”
While I appreciate the comment, there’s something ironic about you criticizing “a major radio company” of adopting the wrong name when you don’t have the cajones to use yours. Just sayin’.
K.M. Richards says
Mark Edwards says
One thing all of the radio stations you mentioned in your column all have in common seems to be people. Live people making programming for other live people. Maybe not the world’s greatest talent, but actual people actually communicating. And when you look at Big Time corporate radio, that’s the one thing that they are missing in many cases. I’ve seen it in big markets and tiny little markets, walking through a radio station where all the studios are empty and the automation is running the show. On all of these radio stations that you talk about, my guess is that if there’s music being played it’s being played by a person who may or may not be able to choose the music but certainly can talk about the music and other things that matter and relate to listeners between the records. Corporate radio has abandoned that part of the equation and even though somebody in Nashville might sound just fine in Walla Walla, the bottom line is they are not live and local. You’ve seen it in other studies and in the real world, people relate to people and that’s the difference between a playlist on iTunes and a real radio communication experience.
Fred Jacobs says
Mark, this is a strong comment. I remember more than a decade ago I was on a market visit, working for the rock station in a six station cluster. After dinner, we came back to get our bags, and the ops manager bragged that he had all these stations humming along without a soul in the building. I remember thinking there was something fundamentally wrong about this. Now, it’s pretty much everywhere you go.
At a certain point, efficiency gives way to a boring, lifeless, mundane sound. What these makeshift stations lack in professionalism and slickness, they more than make up for it with enthusiasm and passion.
David Manzi says
Great comments, Mark and Fred. While reading, I found myself thinking back to those wondrous days–or nights, actually–listening to far off stations as they “skipped” their way to my transistor radio in San Diego, hoping the signal might hold just long enough to catch some local spot or, better yet, a station ID, so I’d know just how far that station skipped to reach me. All the while I would dream about what it must be like to be “that guy” in “that station”–and what it must look like inside that studio. I couldn’t imagine anything more exciting. I don’t stay up late any longer to hear far off stations. I no longer wonder what it must be like inside that studio. I now know that there’s a computer who couldn’t care less about me sitting in a sterile room playing mindless music–or maybe just the same syndicated show I can hear locally. No magic. No “dreaming.” Maybe if radio could once again cause young people to dream about “what it must be like to work in radio,”–and sorry, techies, that’s only done with real people–there might be more young people signing up, causing other, still-younger dreamers, to dream the same dream.
Brian J. Walker says
It’s hard to create relatable content when the “station voice” gets more airtime than a jock – live or VT’d. Voice Tracking removes one of radio’s greatest strengths – immediacy. Add remote VT responsibilities for many jocks while they’re on the air along with “social media requirements” and you’ve got air talent who’s less engaged than when they were pulling records, carts, or CDs and didn’t have access to the internet. We won’t even talk about the people who sold corporate on the idea that “promoting jocks makes them more likely to ask for more money or go to a competitor who offers them more money.” At too many stations, jocks have become Lego pieces, not unique assets.
Fred Jacobs says
Your last line is a keeper, Brian. As Mark Edwards pointed, there’s more authenticity on the radio station in that Texas prison or the research lab in Antarctica. We know how to do this, but expediency, economics, and scale conspire to beat the life out of many radio stations. The problem isn’t with the name “radio,” it’s with the way it’s being executed.
Dave MasOn says
Right on, Brian. However, those who take pride in what they do can immediately be “local” and immediate when needed. The passing of an artist, a local emergency, an event that requires immediate intervention. Too many cases of personnel IN the station looking elsewhere when it’s possible to notify the “tracker” -and have them update their already created tracks. Is it ideal? Nah. Thankfully we’ve discovered a number of methods for broadcasting remotely, and some digital delivery systems allow for going “live”. Immediate. There are dozens of ways to compromise the issue of budget vs. performance. Smart broadcasters can do it, and yet there will always be those who are way too focused on their own budgets and bonuses to do it right.
Mike Berlak says
Yes, Brian… I once had a VP of programming tell me there was no need for a live jock to impart any info that the produced “voice” could do. I thought just the opposite. He’s still working, I believe. I’m not 🙂
Also, a shoutout to Lyman James who was the most-engaged voicetracker I ever had the pleasure to use in a corporately-mandated VT slot here in Charlotte. One afternoon, I hear Lyman talking about the smoke you may see over toward the east side of town. There was a church on fire that none of us in the building knew anything about. But Lyman (in Wichita) knew and had just recut one of his breaks!
Mark Chernoff says
I grew up listening to top 40 radio in the 60’s when along came WOR-FM and shortly thereafter WNEW-FM (I’m a Jersey guy in the suburbs of NYC). The jocks on these stations knew the music and more importantly loved the music. The jocks could talk about the tunes they were playing or just tell stories about their lives or the artists and groups they played on the station. When I started at AOR radio at WDHA in Northern NJ I gave myself and the jocks a lot of leeway on what they could play. We made a name for ourselves. And we were local. Every year we held an Open House on a Saturday in the spring where listeners were invited to hang out with us, request songs, hear live music (Southside Johnny and Suzanne Vega were just two of the many artists that played on our front lawn). We weren’t afraid of new music and our music library included thousands of tunes. I encouraged “theme sets”—-and “sound sets” (meaning great segues based on the sound of the songs). We were out at the local clubs, we gave out bumper stickers at tons of locations. We broadcast live from car dealers, record stores and concerts. I did a remote in the early 80’s at a Harmony Hut store in Wayne, NJ with “Wham” even though they weren’t considered an AOR act. When I went to WNEW-FM in the 80’s I gave the jocks some leeway to be creative and it showed in the ratings. If stations are worried about “testing” tunes, then “test” but don’t cut the list after 200 songs. There are so many songs that are familiar that you can play many more and not worry that if you don’t play “Layla” two or three times a day people won’t listen to your station Give the listeners a chance to enjoy your station. Hire jocks who know and LOVE the music…and yes, LOVE the community they work in. If stations continue to voice track and have limited play lists, music radio won’t survive. I know that this post mainly refers to Classic Rock but it also applies to Classic Hits and for those stations that go further back “Oldies”. So many great songs are out there that are not being played but you hear them on TV and radio commercials..in movies and TV shows…at weddings, communions and bar and bat mitzvahs and it’s not just the adults who know the songs…the kids know them as well. Let’s give our “free to listen to” stations a chance to succeed and not send listeners to a paying service.
Fred Jacobs says
It is great to hear from one of the masters. Mark, in every format you worked and every station you programmed, you created a balance that gave the airstaff enough leeway to be and express themselves, their tastes, and their knowledge. While music is the universal language, people become attached to radio personalities. How you manage them is a key variable in how the audience forms relationships with them and their stations. I appreciate you taking the time to paint this picture.
Bob Bellin says
When I read this column, I couldn’t help but think, “Gooooooooood Morning Viet Naaaaaaaaaam! I once heard a speaker say that radio had to either be hyper local or world class. These are cases where hyper local is working and flying under the radar of radio’s less than world class product.
Fred Jacobs says
Bob, I’ll take ’em both. 🙂
Dave Mason says
Hyper local? You bet, Bob. Just last Saturday I was on the air live (but remotely), and we were in the middle of a series of thunderstorms rolling through the area. Through several websites I could follow those storms an almost do a play-by-play. In the midst of it all I got a text message from a colleague about a different issue-a mass shooting in the city I was broadcasting to. Buffalo. Immediately we started focusing in on the situation, airing reports from our associate TV station and more. By the time Monday rolled around, an informal search of “important” station websites in town showed some reflecting the Saturday tragedy, but many (including a large company’s stations) ignoring it all together. Embarrassing to say the least. Our station is promising live and local -more than anyone else. Not by saying that, but by proving it every chance we get
John Covell says
Dave’s anecdote underscores one thing above all: If radio dies, it will have been killed by internal stooges, not external threats. That’s a heartbreaker.
Fred Jacobs says
Self-inflicted wound, John. Or as they say in sports, an unforced error. I firmly believe the tech disruption was inevitable, but broadcasters could have played it much differently. (They still can.)
K.M. Richards says
You reminded me that at one station I was PD for, I tried as often as possible to come out from the back office and greet contest winners. It was a small gesture but I remember a lot of listeners appreciating being able to meet someone from what they considered to be the staff. (No, they don’t think the receptionist, general manager, or an account rep to be “staff”.)
Of course, it probably helped that I also had a daily airshift, so they were aware of who “K.M. Richards” was, but you’re right on the mark about engaging our audience wherever and whenever possible.
Even if it’s just a “thanks for listening” to someone in the lobby who picked up a gift certificate traded out with a local advertiser.
Dave Mason says
Good thinking, KM. As PD of one station, I asked that all of the on-air staff fill out thank you notes to be included with prizes picked up at the station. I was adamant about it, and pretty frustrated when I found that some of our staff wasn’t doing this. Management change put a new OM in the programming office, and he wasn’t so sure that the “notes” were a good idea. It boggles the mind as to what people are thinking and why even a handwritten note to the listener can be a bad thing.
Fred Jacobs says
KM, the fact you were on the air was a bonus. But a promotions assistant, the receptionist – ANYBODY – who takes the time to give “winners” the 10-minute tour might create an indelible moment. Most people have not seen the inside of a radio station, much less the air studio. I feel a little twitch of that ASMR thing every time I walk into an air studio, a magical place. Thanks for the kind comment.
Eric Jon Magnuson says
While I remember a lot of those items from earlier, seeing them together in this post got me thinking again of a largely British institution that’s still going strong: hospital radio. Not only does it have a member organization that (among other things) presents awards, but several individual outlets have recently celebrated 50 (or more) years of service.
Fred Jacobs says
Thanks for sharing this one, Eric. I wasn’t familiar with them. There are likely hundreds of these, all modeled after radio most of the participants grew up with.
Dave Mason says
“The problem isn’t with the name “radio,” it’s with the way it’s being executed.”
That says it all, Fred. Several of the commenters here reflect on situations I’ve been involved in as well-but bottom line here is that “radio” can be fixed quickly. The solutions are many and really simple. They’re brought out here on a daily basis.
Pete Seeger once said “When will you ever learn?”
Whether it be war-or the battle for human ears, ya gotta ask that question
Fred Jacobs says
I appreciate the comment, Dave. I don’t want to oversimplify because “fixing it” would require discipline, sacrifice, attention to detail, and stellar execution. In many companies, those qualities have been in short supply. And let’s here it for old Pete, right as rain.
Tai Irwin says
You are absolutely the best fire-starter I know….
Fred Jacobs says
I looked that up in Roget’s & found “shit stirrer.” I’m not sure that where I want to be Tai. Seriously, thanks for the note.
Dick Taylor says
In my university classes, my students used the term radio extensively. What might drive OTA broadcasters crazy was they weren’t often talking about AM/FM radio, but podcasts and streaming.
Radio is a powerful word that connotes to another person the transmission and reception of electromagnetic waves of radio frequency, especially those carrying sound messages. Those electromagnetic waves are how sound gets into our smartphones.
Apple couldn’t find a better word to use for their streaming service than “radio.” Evidently, neither could Walmart. And we all know how dropping radio from their name turned out for “The Shack,” formerly known and loved as Radio Shack.
Fred Jacobs says
Exactly, Dick. “Radio” is a fine term. It has many wonderful connotations. As broadcasters, we need to make sure our product lives up to the reputation we once created. Thanks for this.
Jim Pastrick says
You may remember years ago Fred, when you were consulting 97 Rock, I was working at both WHTT (across the hall) and 97 Rock, and attended your 97 staff seminars which I always felt were thought-provoking and motivating.
At one particular meeting, we had extensive discussion about making the studio (97 particularly) ~look~ more like a radio radio studio. This was in the early days of digitization. Making the studio more ~radio like~ was especially effective for Guest DJ weekends when ~civilians~ came to the radio station and did a few hours on the air. Although all stations in the cluster were digital, we put the CDs ~back~ in the 97 Rock studio and put more of a ~radio face~ on it.
Not only was it cool for visitors, it served to invigorate the staff.
As a result of that meeting, I applied some of the thoughts to my work on WHTT. I made a personal point of writing brief (far more brief than the screeds I often write here and on Facebook) “Thank You” notes to WHTT contest winners, and attached the notes to the winner sheets that went to the front desk.
I also told our wonderful, efficient, and often overworked receptionist, (“Citadel Radio, good morning, this is Erika, Director of First Impressions, how may I help you” … every time she answered the phone) to ring me in the studio (if she wasn’t harried) when contest winners came in to pick up their prizes, so I could run out to the lobby and personally thank them for listening … and if time allowed, walk them to the studio for a few minutes to let them see how “the sausage is made.”
On the occasions when I’d bring listeners to the studio, I’d let them stand (all on-air studios were stand-up … which I personally enjoyed) behind the board, ask for their phone/camera (very early iPhones and flip phones) and take their picture behind the mic and board … with plenty of banner roll in the background, of course.
These folks ~never~ forgot the experience. They showed those pics to their families and friends … and they often talked about the guy who took the picture.
I’ve been ~off the radio~ for years, but a few months ago I bumped into a listener (who still listens to 97 and WHTT) who I brought into the studio and let stand behind the board when he came in to pick up a contest prize. He said it was one of the best days of his life (only a slight exaggeration) and gushed about the experience.
Truth be told, I felt better than he did because he connected me to a station I haven’t been on in more than ten years and made me feel like I was part of the ongoing ebb and flow of radio. Oh, and he also knew that I’d done some time most recently at Jack-FM … so in all likelihood, he was a P1 … or I turned him into a P1.
I don’t have all the answers, especially to the hard questions, on radio-media these days. That’s one of the reasons I read your Jacoblog posts and the responses to them by the many experienced radio pros.
But I ~do~ know that radio, to me and many former and present pros in the trenches, has always been a visceral, personal and heartfelt experience. If I/we can make the listener feel that it’s still personal experience (to contra-quote Michael Corleone, “It’s not business, it’s personal”), it’s a win-win for all parties … and a lasting experience.
But to do this effective, it takes human bodies, minds, emotion and enthusiasm. It take believers and even zealots to spread to spread the radio-faith … whether it’s RF-OTA or on-line.
Radio is a bit like politics (I’ve worked in the trenches for a few campaigns, everything from stuffing envelopes to knocking on doors … and having a few of them slammed in my face) … we can send out all the fliers and buy tons of spots on radio, TV, Twitter and Facebook, but talking to people, in-person, face-to-face often makes the best … and the most lasting impression.
Fred Jacobs says
Shockingly, Jim, I actually remember this. Those nickel tours left indelible impressions. People remember the first time they saw something amazing – fireworks, the Grand Canyon, an air studio at a local radio station.
Imagine if all your “tourists” were on social media. How many more impressions and buzz would’ve been generated by doing something that didn’t cost a thing, except a little time.
And yes, I absolutely remember that poor receptionist answering the phone with her DOFI greeting. Thanks for a truly wonderful comment, Jim.
Your article referred to Walmart Radio. I’ve been listening to Walmart Radio while shopping but considered it mostly background noise. That is until last weekend. Walmart was broadcasting live on Walmart Radio in living color from a store opening in Texas. At least they sounded live through the magic of Walmart Radio. The drive from Florida to Texas for a free tee-shirt didn’t seem that motivating.
But wait there is more! And you can take the hits with you anyplace because they stream online. And take requests too.
Matt Townsend says
I’m working on it! Still hoping to live the dream!