One of our competitors has gotten on a soapbox to preach against the evils of non-local radio.  He cites Clear Channel and Cumulus “rapidly nationalizing” their programming.  Sure, “nationalization” would literally mean the government was taking the radio business into public ownership, but we understood what was intended.  He acknowledges that networking worked for talent like Limbaugh and Stern, but laments that “hundreds of local air personalities will be shoved aside.”

Limbaugh and Stern…and Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey and Elvis Duran and others work because they create entertaining, compelling content.  In most markets Today and/or Good Morning America beat the local TV morning show aired on the Fox affiliate.  Why?  Because better programming wins.  It’s about quality.  It’s not – necessarily – about local.

Localism can be exploited by broadcasters and there’s no doubt that it will continue to be exploited by great broadcasters when it’s a strategy that will help them win.  Let’s be honest, before technology allowed broadcasters to utilize voice-tracking and shared programming, and before consolidation and budget cuts made it standard operating procedure at many stations, there were many live and local stations that never really used those resources to any significant benefit.  Sometimes the only things localizing the station would be the commercials or, perhaps, the station slogan mentioning the name of the market.  And many times, those stations achieved strong ratings and revenues – because localism wasn’t critical to attracting and retaining listeners.  But, in order to compete with Pandora and other streaming radio, we must strive to create programming that surpasses a jukebox with commercials.

What’s wrong with many of the attempts to revert to a national programming model is that they don’t go far enough.  Today and GMA don’t pretend they’re broadcasting from anywhere other than NYC.  And viewers love those shows because they provide entertaining, compelling content.  Both shows trumpet the fact that they’re in New York and use the city and its locations vividly.  And both have the resources to send reporters and hosts to distant locations when that’s the best way to connect viewers to a story or an event.

You can imagine radio broadcasters being able to exploit the excitement of New York and LA and Washington and Vegas and other locations in network programming; where a 12-second DJ break becomes an encounter with a hit music artist or major celebrity; where a national contest is amazing instead of an apology.  The local affiliate station becomes an extension of the brand, covering local events and supporting local promotional efforts.  It’s a different model than the one we’ve grown up with, but it’s not inherently inferior to all local programming.  There was a time – before most of us were born – when most programming on most stations came from a network.

The St. Patrick’s Day earthquake in LA allowed well-prepared local broadcasters to do great radio.  And it allowed unprepared broadcasters to remain on auto-pilot…and lose audience.  Poorly programmed voice-tracked stations will continue to be iPods with small playlists and too many commercials.  Great local stations will continue to evolve their programming to bring in consumers because it’s more compelling, more interesting, more entertaining than any other option.

Great local broadcasters give consideration to points like these:

  • What’s compelling, added-value content for a great local station on a day when there isn’t an earthquake or a big concert or festival in the vicinity?
  • Do the between-the-music elements help retain or attract listeners?  We’ve accepted for years that we need a voiceover guy and sonic production values like they have on TV or in movie trailers without ever asking what listeners think about it.
  • Does an on-air lineup full of finely-honed non-regional accents support our local position?
  • Is the listener advisory program really working?  Some stations have thriving listener-advisory programs to connect with listeners, but more stations have a liner that runs occasionally about a listener-advisory panel that points to a webpage with little follow-through.
  • What places, events, people, causes, beliefs, attitudes connect the community that is your local audience?  Do you maximize that opportunity to its fullest every day?

Networked radio isn’t the death of our business, nor is local radio its salvation.  Bad programming, whether it’s locally-produced, voice-tracked, syndicated or networked will be the death of our business.  Great programming – however it’s created – will be the salvation of our business.