The Local Radio Dilemma

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Whether it’s buying books, going to the movies or buying music, the Internet is being blamed for the death of every other media, including radio. It’s a very misguided presumption.

The Internet is not killing any other media form. It needed to be said. The Internet is fragmenting audiences simply because it adds additional choices and options for the consumer. But, it’s not just the Internet. When you can buy a 42-inch high definition plasma screen for under $800, you can rest assured that it is also playing a part in the pain the local movie theatre’s cash registers feel. It’s not just that people are suddenly downloading movies off of the torrents. More importantly, the change (or as some call it, "the death") of traditional media channels seems to be coming more from the owners of these channels than the consumers who are abandoning them or the technological advances in society.

They’re doing it to themselves.

Today, Steve Faguy (over at the Fagstein Blog) has an excellent Blog post about local radio in Montreal titled, What’s happening to Montreal radio? Like any other local market (it’s not just Montreal, it’s happening in your hometown as well), radio is going through some very tough times with some very big changes (I’ve Blogged about this before: Attention Radio DJs: There Is Still Hope). Faguy points out some of the problems he sees with local radio:

"I find most of their names and voices interchangeable. They seem to lack personality that sets them apart from the rest, because they’re not allowed to develop one on the air… Maybe listeners don’t want to connect with their DJs, maybe they just want the music. It’s a fair stance to take, and studies show that people want music – not talk – from their music stations. But then the music suffers from this same lack of personality. It’s all from the same tiny playlist. And while limiting variety concentrates hits and increases the likelihood that someone turning the dial will stop on your station to hear a familiar song, it also decreases the likelihood that someone will discover something new. And if they’re just listening to a bunch of songs they already know (some of which they like and some they don’t), what competition can that offer to iPods and other recorded media, which are programmed by the user?"

Spot on! Plus, it’s a Marketing problem that can, literally, solve itself (if radio station owners can muster up the courage).

Radio is dropping in ratings and advertising revenue (in fact, online advertising spend surpasses radio advertising in places like the United States, Australia, Canada and more). Part of it is because advertisers are clearly getting more value out of their ad dollars in other channels. Part of that might be because people’s perspective of radio has changed as well (their habits and whether or not they even care for it). In a world of so much media exposure, it is possible that radio is becoming less important to the masses. Along with that, there is satellite radio, iPods, Internet radio, Podcasting and many other audio choices.

And here comes the opportunity…

It’s in doing what radio always did best: serve the local community. Get more local. Not more national. Not more global. Nothing like that. Odds are if you asked a community how they would feel if their local radio stations all disappeared, it would make them sick to their stomachs. That audience is probably not tuning in right now, because the bulk of the content is either regurgitated news from CNN or the latest Lady Gaga hit – which they can get from anywhere and everywhere else. These big national and multi-national media companies who bought up all of the radio stations believe they will save their own financial hide by streamlining and automating the radio experience. That’s what’s doing them in. In order to stay afloat, they’re taking more of the "local" out of it (by making the voices and content so generic), and all that’s doing is getting the masses used to not having anything special/local.

In essence, they’re doing themselves in. Sad.

These local radio stations need to get used to making a lot of money, but it’s going to be a lot less money than they’re used to. The changes have come. The digitization is a reality. Technology is not going to stop. We all now have global perspectives and instant access to news in near-real time. What we’re all missing is what’s happening in our own backyard (but platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Blogging and Podcasting are starting to change that too). Sadly, just covering the local scene may not bring in the sexy and exciting national advertising campaigns that these radio station owners are looking for, but it is still good, strong and solid revenue.

The question becomes: are they going to change, take those local dollars and start rebuilding, or are they going to destroy the decades of comfort that real local radio has brought to the masses?


  1. Great post as always.
    Sadly, it’s the old story. Short term thinking for bigger quarterly profits. Cutting and consolidation to keep profit margins in tact.
    Thinking and focusing on the masses…The way to the masses is average…Unique and special diminish the opportunity for a larger audience.
    Local personalities mean labor cost and we can’t have that.
    So the spiral continues….

  2. I wonder if the path for local newspapers might be the same? What really is the difference between ‘local-ness’ on the radio airwaves or newspaper print? Granted, radio is more passive than a newspaper – you can listen in your car or at work while tending other tasks, where a paper requires you to be in the moment and READ. Newspapers (and magazines) are dying off while it seems radio is being absorbed into homogenized globs. Great food for thought!

  3. Mitch,
    The same thing is happening at local television stations as well, the ones that are thriving and winning are the ones that get the need for Hyper-Local content.
    Although for most that is only seen in their News Programming they need to add more local content to engage their viewers or they will continue to become even more irrelevant.

  4. No doubt they will have to change with the times like the newspapers. Content is still king and there is always an audience willing to listen if the topic is interesting enough. I think what they need to do more of is engage in public events then follow-up with their audience on the web/mobile.
    I remember someone saying to me 15 years ago how books will become irrelevant but yet they are still around! I agree that it’s a misguided presumption and is still a very useful medium to reach an audience.
    It seems that that last few topics you mentioned mitch all relate to one another and we are headed full circle. In other words, no matter what medium you use, they all need to connect to one another.

  5. What seems to be occurring according to my perception is an explosion of creativity in that everyone is no longer invincible. We are headed for an exciting time ! ! !

  6. Mitch,
    I too moved my radio programming online after six years in my local and syndicated markets. I’ve found podcasts and archived programs combined with my live shows draw the same if not more loyal listener-ship over time.
    In a market where the all mighty advertising dollar has reign, time is proving that most companies will bend even further towards sensationalism to draw in their listening/viewing audience.
    Where will that have us in another five to ten years, a bunch of audio bobble-heads nodding in whatever direction they need to gain “points” and listeners? I’d love your thoughts.
    Thanks for the post

  7. I think you are spot on with your ideas about radio stations need to get back to local content. I also think that local radio stations have done business in the traditional sense of ‘broadcasting to’ instead of ‘engaging with’ their audience. As you have stated several times marketing now is a conversation. I think radio stations need to change their business models to have direct engagement with their listeners.
    Who knows where mainstream radio is going. Maybe some day it will end up being broken up into one hour chunks on independently syndicated podcasts, each bringing their own sponsorship funding. It seems anyone, like yourself, who lives in the new on line media streams understands the importance of customer engagement.

  8. Great post. . Radio changed the offering as these other sources have come into play. When a music station has a narrow play list do they really expect to survive when I can control my play list on pandora? Movie theaters are the same. Their offering is the same as 20 years ago, maybe worse. Nobody in these industries seems to be forward thinking at all..As a professional musician, I have had to change my approach to earning a living even though the music industry is still behind the eight ball as you mentioned in your book.

  9. I believe AM talk radio will never die. Regardless of what happens to FM (music) radio – there will always be a need for local news and debate. NewsTalk 1010 in Toronto and CJAD in Montreal. It doesn’t get better in my opinion. It’s the same value you can get on a good blog if you care about what’s happening in your city. A solid story, good reporting and a shared forum of opinion from callers.
    Thanks for the great post Mitch.
    From a radio fan,

  10. Mitch –
    Good post, bud. It sounds like your advocating that local radio go the route of The Long Tail. I can’t disagree with you. “The Spirit of Radio” (Rush reference intentional) may never die but it has to adapt.
    Fewer people are willing to listen to generic stations when alternatives such as Pandora allow for customizable stations. Long gone are the days in which people like me will listen to the same five stations, hopping around for a song they like.
    It’s all about customization.

  11. So true! I’m a former media monitor and research analyst for a large communications company who is suffering mightily from the media changes. Their radio and TV station revenue has taken a severe dive. I reported 3 years ago that radio had better become not only more local, but more niche-like. Very few people under 25 listen to radio but they would if it spoke to them. They want new music, local information and they don’t want to be treated like dolts.

  12. Hey Mitch,
    As a 22 year radio vet who has also worked in television and newspaper, overseen marketing campaigns that included direct mail, outdoor and online, this all makes me feel a bit sad.
    No one wants to talked about two central issues with radio: ratings and product. Radio was measured with pencils on paper through the mail on a recall/honor system for many decades. Now in markets such as Montreal, Toronto and hundreds in the U.S., PPM’s (personal people meters) have been adopted.
    Ratings measurment and product development remain unresolved issues.
    Shut up and play the hits is not a long term sustainable solution, it hasn’t worked so far.
    If you anyone can suggest one radio station on the planet that has embraced and integrated social media, digital media, mobile media and cross media opportunities, feel free to send me an email with the details.
    knealemann at gmail dot com
    I won’t hold my breath.
    Great piece, Mitch!

  13. Well said; the radio market here in Texas is suffering the same ills; the format may different, but everything else is the same. I’m not entirely sure that radio is done though; commuters who don’t want to shell out subscription fees will still listen to radio, even in its present state.

  14. What is going on down your street has always been more fascinating to people than what is going on down someone else’s street. Great insight in this blog. Radio is lost and the only way to have it find it’s way is to stop listening. We send a message with our ears.

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  16. It is with a sad heart that I have to say you are so completely correct. As someone who grew up with a great love of local radio I have watched with great dispair the death of local radio. It was Los Angeles local radio and it’s various personalities in the 80’s that got me hooked on audio and likely lead me to become a podcaster.
    Syndication is horrible. The only local radio left is the sports talk if there are local professional teams to talk about. You should, however, check out where there is a renaissance of a sort going on with local radio, only this time it’s online. Many of the shows on have a distinctly local bent and the hosts are all local as well.
    Because the Internet, by it’s very nature, is so global, we have lost sight of the local angle. But with new services like Forquare and Gowalla and more local features getting built into Google, I hope the tide will turn and local can also be an important player in social media and Internet marketing.

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