One of the takeaways from COVID-19 is just how important “local” truly is in our lives. The pandemic may have been global, but its shock waves were generally felt locally. For the past 14 or so months, the issues have been close to home.
Where can I buy toilet paper?
Does that restaurant offer curbside service?
When will our school system return to in-person teaching?
Are they requiring masks?
Where can I get tested?
Who is eligible for the vaccine?
Radio stations that embraced their “hometown-ness” stood the best chance of remaining relevant during COVID. But not every broadcaster was equipped with the human and financial resources to pull it off.
Local increasingly mattered to the core radio audience. A rising percentage of respondents in this year's Techsurvey strongly agreed that “local” is a key advantage for broadcast radio. And that sentiment was felt pretty much echoed across the demographic board:
In 2020, all roads led back to local. And more and more, citizens are also coming to realize that political might often rests with local, county, and state representatives, empowered to make the decisions that affect us close to home. Elections and state, county, and municipal offices that were once ignored are taking on a much larger meaning.
It's why even national brands like Geico go out of their way to remind us they have presence in our local communities. You would think they'd be content to fight their battles against other monster insurance brands like Progressive or Liberty Mutual. But Geico is also fighting the fight locally, right down to key zip codes. As you can gather from the billboard at the top of this post, Geico is playing to win in communities all over America. (Just search Google Images under “Geico we're here billboards” and check them all out.)
Whether this a smart or feasible marketing claim for Geico to make is neither here nor there. What matters is that Geico's team aspires to have local presence because “being from around here” has value in the hearts and minds of consumers.
It's hard to fake local. New Era, the sports logoware maker, just launched – and then pulled – a line of caps “localized” for all 30 Major League Baseball teams. Apparently, they planned this project without bothering to check with any of the local teams, or even people who hailed from these cities.
Each hat contains the area codes for each team's market – except a number of hats either featured area codes no one recognized or omitted ones that should have been displayed.
The Cubs hat contained eight area codes. The Braves outdid them with nine. And inexplicably, the Pirates' cap had none.
Then there were the geographic symbols for each team shown on the caps. Four out of the five California team hats displayed a taco. The Houston Astros hat featured a steak, while my Detroit Tigers chapeau showed cherries (which are indigenous to Traverse City!), what might be pistons, and only one area code.
I truly have no idea what this boat is pic.twitter.com/utYy5vTXQW
— Amy Plitt (@plitter) May 25, 2021
According to BroBible, the hats were ridiculed on social media, leading New Era to release this statement when the entire “Local Market” series was removed from e-commerce sites:
“…we removed the collection from our website so we could review the design accuracy of all the caps. We apologize for any unintentional design mistake with regard to this collection.”
But that's how it works when you fake local. Ask any DJ or host that has started an on-air gig in a new market. Screw up the names of city streets or towns and it screams you're an out of towner.
(Two of my favorite examples are the major Detroit streets, Livernois and Gratiot – pronounced Liver-NOY and Gra-SHIT respectively. You'd have to live in the Motor City to know that.)
Consumers can almost always tell the difference when a jock isn't authentic, often just from hearing a break or two. It frequently happens to me when I'm on the road – a barista or salesperson will ask, “You're not from around here, are you?” They know.
There's nothing wrong with being a national brand or a syndicated radio show when you own and embrace it. I was consulting WYSP in Philly when the decision was made to syndicate Howard Stern out of K-Rock in New York.
It would have been disingenuous, not to mention stupid, to hide or fake Stern's whereabouts. And while conventional wisdom insisted a NYC personality could never make it in the City of Brotherly Love, Howard proved them all wrong.
Bob & Tom are proudly from Indianapolis, John Boy & Billy broadcast from Charlotte, while Dave & Chuck the Freak are out of Detroit. Fans demand a certain level of authenticity. And great radio shows can work no matter where they originate from.
But to do it locally requires hard work to embrace a market, its ethos and zeitgeist. It takes time to get to know the people, the landmarks, the urban legends, and the nooks and crannies that make a city special.
I admire radio pros who make it their mission to learn and understand what it means to be a Detroiter, a Duluthian, or a Denverite. I've watched Beasley's Scott Jameson, a Clevelander by birth and a recent émigré from the Twin Cities, who now heads up programming for the Detroit cluster.
In spite of joining the cluster early last summer when the pandemic was in full swing, Scott has focused on figuring out what it means to be a Detroit rocker – and bringing that to the airwaves on all the stations he oversees.
Week after week, he reminds his audience about how wonderful it is to be from the Motor City, highlighting Michigan artists while shining a light on all the great things about Detroit.
Talk to anyone associated with a great local brand, no matter the market, and they'll tell you the power and incalculable value of exuding the hometown vibe. It's not an easy thing. In fact, it is usually expensive to invest in talented local people, infrastructure, street tools, and the other assets necessary to have a great ground game and own the metro.
In fact, it's so valuable that even some of the biggest global media brands are enamored with local. Like Spotify's Gimlet division.
They're now apparently building an afternoon drive “radio” show in Los Angeles. I recently ran across a heavily detailed want-ad seeking out a Senior Producer. Here' the job description:
Spotify is launching a new daily show based in Los Angeles, publishing on weekday afternoons. This show will mix music and talk segments, in a modern take on afternoon drivetime radio. We are assembling a new production team to develop and launch a show that focuses on music, news of the day, and pop culture.
You can read the lengthy, highly-detailed job description here, as well as a pitch from Spotify about “the perks of being in the band.”
Yup, sounds like a radio show to me.
And while it's not entirely clear whether Spotify/Gimlet is launching a radio show for LA or based in LA, it sure walks, talks, smells, and sounds like radio. But if you're driving home on the 405 or the 101, wouldn't you rather be listening to a live and local radio show – like Kevin & Sluggo, a thoroughly hometown show on KLOS?
Spotify and Gimlet's new “baby” is more proof positive that digital media brands perceive great value in broadcasting's natural assets – specifically “radio” and “local.”
Ironically, Twitter's heading down the “local” path, too. But their avenue is local weather. The company has created a new app called “Tomorrow.” In partnership with meteorologist and climate journalist, Eric Holthaus, Twitter is now jumping into the local content arena – yes, right in radio's backyard.
According to Axios reporter Sara Fischer, “Tomorrow” will use all the Twitter new creator products – newsletter and live audio rooms. The new service launched in 16 North American metros featuring local meteorologists (the underline is mine).
Here's the interesting wrinkle – it's a subscription service ($10/month). Holthaus believes they'll be “revenue positive” not in the first year but in the first week.
Other “Tomorrow” features include interactivity – users can share news and information, as well as ask questions of the weather experts.
Holthaus points out that a timely weather service totally complements Twitter's “breaking news” model, and will be especially useful and popular during weather emergencies when users can send Direct Messages to meteorologists looking for timely and accurately information about emergency services, evacuation routes, etc.
The goal? “Tomorrow” could be in 50 major North American media markets by the end of 2021.
Of course, there's an antidote:
If radio broadcasters do their jobs and live up to their potential and their capabilities, Apple, Amazon, Google, Spotify, Twitter, and SiriusXM can try to pull off “local radio” – but it will pale in comparison to the real thing.
That may come off as naive to the jaded who believe radio has already lost the war. But wouldn't Los Angelinos rather listen to an afternoon drive show on a favorite radio station? And why would consumers in Cincinnati or Portland elect to pay Twitter $120 a year to get local weather reports?
But that assumes the radio product in these markets is top shelf, well-prepped, and expertly delivered by entertaining personalities who know the turf and have time in grade in their local markets. And these days, that's a big assumption.
If those services and those personalities were cut loose, deep-sixed, or slashed from the budget during the last round of downsizing, furloughs, and reductions in force, well, it could be a challenge.
One thing's for sure:
They're after your domain. Don't let 'em have it.
Thanks to Steve Goldstein.