Beauty Is In The Ears Of The Beholder

If you live in or near a major city, you listen to top-notch radio talent, programmed by some of the best minds corporate radio has to offer these days, and you’re accustomed to a certain way a radio station sounds. Most likely, however, there isn’t a major difference to the average person as they travel the country and get into smaller, rural areas where stations will give livestock prices, do on-air obituaries daily, and remain an intregal part of the community, heavily involved with schools and locally owned businesses. A dry cleaning store, for example, in San Francisco most likely will never advertise on radio, because the cost is too prohibitive. You know all of this already. But, does the average listener really, truly notice? Programming a radio station in small and medium markets takes a different mindset than if you’re in a large or major market. The skeleton of the essentials is probably much the same, but sometimes, a station can sound “too slick” for their market size, or their audience. I’m certainly not advocating “dummy down” radio here. Some stations that take 24/7 satellite formats from one of the many providers still provide music and people still listen to them. But local radio, especially in small and medium markets, can do things major market stations can’t, or won’t do, and it’s unfair to compare the on-air content in a judgmental type of way. And truthfully, it seems to be more important in small markets to cater to the wants and needs of the communities the station serves rather than just throw a bird on the air and call it good. A local station serving less than 75,000 people will very likely have elements on air that major market programmers and air talent would laugh at. Their imaging may be sub-par to the person that does radio for a living in another area. But it works for the market they serve and their listener base has nothing else to compare it to. Those in small, geographically isolated markets will travel and hear these big market stations, which may have superior quality, even HD radio, from top to bottom in the air chain. But 9 out of 10 people won’t notice it specifically. They’ll probably realize there’s something different about it, but not in a negative way. As programmers in small and medium markets, many try to build their stations to sound like major markets as much as possible because they’re thinking in radio terms, and not what the market and listener base dictates. I cite a lost dog alert as a good example. It would shock me to hear KOST in Los Angeles read a lost pet alert on air. Happens all of the time, however, in small town America. So, as you look to the future of radio, and in my professional opinion….the best way to battle satellite radio, I-pods, and technology that changes almost every year in what sometimes seems like a direct attack on local radio is to simply BE as local as you can. Think about your audience, their needs, and what they CAN’T get from other media sources as opposed to someone living in a big city, and vice versa. Sometimes, as radio programmers, we tend to forget. It isn’t how GREAT our station sounds, though that should always be near the top of the list. The TRUE testament of a winning radio station is simple. If the station is popular and is making money…..then as a programmer, you should follow your instincts, even if it means yodeling once a week for five minutes for the local farm supply store.