Moneyball: What’s More Important, Live or Local?

Cute and funny boy looking at notepaper with question mark on his forehead

In the TV era, radio’s distinction was that it’s live and local, right? Though, even in the heyday of the DJ era, most of the “local” programming consisted of pre-recorded music. But radio gave more time to its on-air talent (especially in the days before PPM) and that allowed some greater amount of “local” content. More importantly, listeners had fewer listening options – especially away from their homes.

PPM measurement taught that non-music content needed to be limited and carefully controlled to minimize tune-out. Even before the mobile Internet became as ubiquitous as it is today, consolidation meant that larger radio companies could deploy their best talent to do “local” shows across stations around the country. The best of those performers use resources available on the Internet to do show prep for distant markets and stay in touch with local management to have a finger on the pulse of a distant market. They’re doing yeoman service, but they’re not really local.

The pressure to maintain profitability in the face of a difficult revenue environment has led to cutbacks so that fewer performers are doing more shows in more markets – sometimes erasing the opportunity to do diligent local show prep and/or being recorded days in advance. The result is less localization and fewer opportunities to maintain the illusion of being “live.”

But radio remains free. But “free” may not be as important as it was. We’re becoming accustomed to small monthly payments for entertainment. So, the monthly charge for a DSP like Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, etc. becomes less noticeable (or less important). You may skip a lot of songs trying to find the ones you like on a DSP, but the algorithm is learning from every skip. While the song choices may be great on radio, the commercials are inevitable.

And, by the way, as we’re also becoming accustomed to being able to skip an ad on YouTube after five seconds, a 60-second radio commercial – especially one with bad creative – is an eternity. Of course, we need fewer commercials, but shorter commercials would be an improvement and BETTER commercials would be amazing. Stations like WEBN used to sneak genuinely funny fake commercials into spot breaks, teaching listeners to stay through commercial breaks because something entertaining might happen. Podcasts are quickly learning what radio learned decades ago: spots read by the hosts draw in listeners and generate results.

Listeners generally don’t care whether hosts are local or live (or in some cases whether they’re there at all). Many listeners are just hoping to hear some songs they like before commercials come up. If the host is entertaining or informative, that would be a plus. If their comments are recent enough to sound live, that ups the chance that their comments will be relevant to the listener. If their comments are about the local market that also makes them more likely to be relevant to the listener.

For 2024 it will be more important that what’s on the air is relevant than it is to sound perfect or professional. When everything is produced with beds and sound effects and stings, a lone human voice cuts through like a knife. When everyone is excited and talking fast, a pleasant conversational approach stands out. Most importantly, working to make what’s on the air relevant to a station listener, working to make it unique and interesting, working toward connection with the listener is critical.

Determine the local issues and interests of your audience and get involved on and off air. Find out what makes them proud of your market and reflect that on the air. Make contact with listeners. Reply to emails and texts. Respond to comments on social media. Answer the phone. If you can’t afford focus groups, set up a listener advisory panel and talk to them in-house. If you’re too busy to set up a listener advisory panel, talk to them at community events or at paid appearances for clients – keeping in mind that those folks will probably be kinder and more enthusiastic than the average listener.  Or talk to your server at a restaurant, the person who cuts your hair, your dry cleaner or your doorman or your Uber/Lyft driver.

You have to play the ratings game to build ratings, but you have to serve your local community to remain relevant in the long run.