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Fixing Radio: The Importance of Keeping it Local

Guest Blog Insight Column

This guest entry originally was posted on LinkedIN.

Tara Dublin Fixing Radio DJ Importance TaraDublinRocks 94.7 KNRK PortlandA year or so after I lost my job as the midday DJ on KNRK in Portland, Oregon, I wrote this article for the Huffington Post about how corporate radio could be improved with simple, inexpensive measures that seemed to make a lot of sense to everyone who read it. Except for people in corporate radio, apparently, if they paid any attention to it at all, because things have only gotten worse since that blog was first posted.

As I say in the Huffington Post piece, radio is our last free medium, and it needs to be valued. It will always exist in some form, so why do the big radio corporations seem hell-bent on killing it instead of bringing it roaring back to life? My suggestions on localizing radio aren’t crazy by any measure, and audiences would absolutely respond to a station like the one I describe. Instead, radio is quickly becoming homogenized like fast-food chains and big box retail stores. Radio should not sound the same in every city nationwide because every city nationwide is different. It’s not a bad thing to try to make local audiences happy, you know.

While the solutions seems simple to basically everyone I talk to about this topic, it’s been a frustrating time for myself and others who care about the state of radio in America. The main problem with radio now is who’s sitting at the top of its food chain, making all the wrong decisions. It seems as if they’re treating our radio airwaves like Format Roulette: let’s just spin the wheel, see where it ends up, and flip to it. What, it landed on yet another sports talk station in a market that has only one major league team? Super! Let’s go, audience preferences be damned! While we’re at it, let’s also play the DJ Shuffle, because hey, it doesn’t matter who’s doing the talking–if we even have a human to do the talking.

Except, it matters SO MUCH. It matters to your audience that the person talking to them on the radio is a human being who lives in their city and knows a lot of stuff about their city as well as whatever your format is. When the audience trusts the DJ, they keep listening to that station. When the station keeps moving people around, the audience loses interest. Automation and syndication may be cheaper in the long run, but look how much you lose: the human connection that radio was built for in the first place. The shift towards talk radio proves the audience still longs for that connection to the actual person behind the microphone.

Here in Portland, I’ve made more than one attempt with each of the local corporate stations to return to the airwaves. I’ve been fortunate to grow my post-radio audience thanks to social media; at 7100 and counting, I have more Twitter followers than any of the corporate stations in town. My connections both locally and nationally would be a goldmine to any of them. However, because I’ve been public and vocal with my opinions regarding radio, I’ve been cast as someone who’s looking to rock the boat and take over, a troublemaker, aggressive and pushy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s only due to my passion for radio, a drive that stems from my East Coast upbringing that occasionally doesn’t go over well in laid-back Portland. I’d only ever want to help keep a station strong and viable, which I know I can do; I did it for five years.

When you cut corners and don’t hire (or you fire) seasoned talent, the audience won’t stick around very long. Example: A new alternative station debuted here in September, then remained automated for the rest of 2013. When they finally put people on the air last month, they chose someone from their office who’d never been on the air before to anchor the midday, in the interest of saving money while testing the waters. I flipped it on once, heard her refer to the big alternative music festival created by Perry Farrell as “Lola-palooza”, and turned the radio off so fast, I thought I might break the dial. The message being sent there is, we’re not even going to try to make this into anything, so when it fails, we can put something else in its place that we wanted there all along. If they truly wanted it to succeed, they would put a known, proven talent in that slot and let her shine. While also making them a ridiculous amount of revenue in new advertising dollars and bringing in a whole bunch of new listeners, both locally and via their webstream and phone app. Their numbers would spike in a huge way, and the ratings would remain steady. So why am I not on the air, you ask?

My former station has been reduced to an on-air staff of three, none of them women. One DJ recently departed to drive a bus, because it was more financially viable for him and his growing family. The GM currently overseeing the cluster came in after I’d been laid off and seems to be intent on destroying what’s left of the amazing group of people I worked with not so long ago. While I’ve made attempts to connect with this man, he has been steadfast in his refusal to speak with me and would rather tell people I’m not talented and not good enough to work for him. His opinion–based on nothing, since we’ve never met nor even spoken on the phone–is indicative of the pervasively misogynistic attitude towards women in radio and is another issue that must be addressed. Several seasoned veterans have recently been fired there, sure to be replaced by attractive and inexperienced young women to serve as eye candy and not much else. I’ve seen emails from this GM to others about me–including a reporter from CNN–proof he’s telling people untruths. When I contacted the VP of HR for the company (a woman) regarding this slander, I was told his opinions are protected by the First Amendment and therefore the company saw no reason to take action. What’s great is that this means my opinions about him are protected as well. Unfortunately, mine are keeping me from working in the field where I belong, because they aren’t pretty opinions. My opinion is that this man should be investigated for unfair and most likely illegal behavior in the workplace, things I told HR (but won’t list here) that are open secrets in those hallways. And he will not be investigated, and he will get to keep working in radio, feeling untouchable, while truly talented people will continue to get the ax when he decides he doesn’t like them. This is not how any business should be run, but this behavior is so common in radio that people just roll their eyes when they hear about it now. And that is totally unacceptable.

Radio will continue along this downward spiral unless people who truly love the medium are allowed to work for its salvation. The ones who grew up listening to the radio, hanging on the DJ’s every word, loving the experience so much they can’t even truly articulate the why of it. Those of us who have radio in our DNA, who feel compelled to save it because we need to save it. While community radio stations have been popping up all over my town, those are volunteer gigs and therefore can’t sustain a single mom and two kids. I’ve struggled financially and thankfully have finally started working regularly again, as a restaurant hostess. I’m lucky to be employed at all and bring the same enthusiasm and positivity to my new job as I did to my dream radio job. I’ll never give up on the hope of being able to return to radio someday, to work from within to help restore it to its former glory. I have to believe there are others out there who feel the same, and we’ll see a change in the radio landscape sooner rather than later.

——

Tara Dublin is a former radio personality in Portland, Oregon, now scraping together a living as a restaurant hostess, actor, and voiceover performer. A single mom, she hopes to return to radio before it’s wiped from the Earth forever. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIN and her blog at http://taradublinrocks.tumblr.com/

15 Comments

  1. Profile photo of MattParker


    Tara, I am sorry for your situation and I hope you find another outlet for your obvious talents and abilities. Bemoaning the state of radio is a futile pastime. Broadcast radio has had a century long run but it’s almost over. New technologies and new audio media have eclipsed it.
    Your comments suggest you don’t appreciate the business aspects of radio and yes, radio is a business. Always was. Maybe the people in charge don’t understand the creative side but the people on the creative side don’t get the business aspect.
    The same public that listens to radio (or doesn’t) responded to homogenized chain restaurants and big box stores. That’s why they are successful. There is something to be said for consistent quality control. Notice all the posts on this board (and the other one) from radio “enthusiasts” complaining that some national show is not cleared in their markets (and criticizing the local show in its place). Out in the world, people don’t care whether restaurants, retail stores or radio stations are homogeneous or not.
    And radio people are quick to blame corporate managers for their problems. And unwilling to look at their own role in the decline and fall of terrestrial radio. The suits couldn’t have done it without people working in positions like you had, who went along and even approved – until they found themselves on the outside looking back.

    • Profile photo of eleejsu


      Sorry, Matt…from a listener’s standpoint (I’m not in the radio business but saw this and had to speak up as a member of the public), you’re wrong. Tara is correct about the “local” connection. I live in the Birmingham radio market and Clear Channel dominates. The sound quality of the stations are not as good as they once were and it’s the same boring playlists OVER and OVER and OVER. Recently, a former manager of a group of the stations purchased a few of the former Cox owned stations in the city (now Summit group). One of the stations changed to a light rock format (60’s-today) that targets adults 40+ which their research showed was not being addressed by any other Birmingham radio station. Guess what? The station, Easy 97.3 (WEZZ), has become very popular since it came on the air a few months ago—and they hired a former local D.J. (Ericka Woode) to be the primary talent for morning drive. They focus on LOCAL interests, things happening in the metro, and really important around here—severe weather coverage when it is in progress.

      I live in the outlying area (about 30 miles from downtown) and our local AM station has recently put on a 250 watt FM translator that has great coverage (due to transmitter being at nearly 2000 feet). The station is very popular and is number one most listened to station in our county (which is in the B’ham metro)…know why? The talent is all local…and they focus on, guess what? LOCAL happenings. They still take requests and actually PLAY them. I have heard songs on this station that have not been played on “big boy radio” (term they use) for years…and we all like it. When it comes to severe weather coverage, the corporate stations in B’ham could care less but not the smaller, local stations…and who do you think we are going to resonate with/be loyal in listening to? Yep, local and live.

      It might make “business” sense to automate everything and play the same songs over and over and hire less talent but it makes for a generic sound and I, along with many others, tune out. There’s STILL something special about live, local radio. The big guys (Clear Channel, Cumulus, etc.) have broken that connection with us and they are seeing the results.

      • Profile photo of eleejsu


        Oh, and one more thing. That station that is targeting the 40+ crowd and is doing very well, may be on to something. Most corporate radio types want the younger demographic but guess who still listens to radio and has more disposable income…especially in this economy? Yep, us. Should tell the corporate folks to listen to our demographic just a little more. Easy 97.3/Summit group gets it. Clear Channel…not so much.

        • Profile photo of taradublin


          Thank you thank you thank you thank you for this. Because I’ve been writing about radio and getting attacked for it from people within radio, but no listeners have really stepped up to validate what I’ve been saying. I wish more programmers would listen to what their audience has to say, radio would sound VERY different if they did.

          • Profile photo of eleejsu


            You are welcome, Tara. It needs to be said. In their attempts to woo the masses the big guys have created a wasteland on the radio. Yes, many folks do listen to portable devices/Internet/satellite now, but they still, in large part, listen to the radio at some point during the day. I, for example, have a 55 minute commute to work. I primarily listen to radio (even though I have SiriusXM) and primarily my local station rather than B’ham stations. This is due to the fact the local station is talking about items of interest to me and my community and playing songs that we request using Facebook, text messages, and phone calls. If you want to see small town radio at it’s finest go to their Facebook page:
            https://www.facebook.com/pages/949-FM-The-River-WFHK-1430-am/464735723633763

            It’s full of listener interaction with the station—and they read some of this on the air…you’ll also notice lots of local weather information as we’ve had some nasty weather lately…again, the big guys ignore this type of thing. You’ll also see on one side where folks have requested a song to be played…and, what a concept, they do! If I called a B’ham station to request a song I would NEVER get to a live person, or if I did, it would be office staff. As I referenced in an earlier post, our local station will play things that haven’t been heard on B’ham stations in years…just heard “Rock Me Amadeus” by Falco–a request by someone. When was the last time you heard that song played as part of the normal day? Yes, folks still want to listen to the radio…they just want a little variety, localism, and real people on the other end.

  2. Profile photo of taradublin


    Well, Matt, my only “role” in this was doing an excellent job, which then translated into me getting a substantial raise after my 3 year contract was up for renewal, when my PD called me “an essential and vital part” of the station. My ‘role’ also saw me consistently post excellent ratings, land the most endorsements, host nearly all the listener sessions with visiting artists, and announce 99% of our live shows. My ‘role’ was being a model employee and being the best DJ I knew how to be, and the audience response was fantastic. My ‘role” was also being an ambassador for the station around Portland, representing our brand even when not on the clock. For the last two years I was on the air, I was the lone female voice on the station, truly connecting with that ‘soccer mom’ demo everyone covets. The night before I was laid off, I was out at two different restaurants in Portland, making connections for future events for the station. There was not a time I wasn’t doing everything I could to bring in revenue and raise awareness of the station. There is nothing about its current decline that can be blamed on me, as my absence is neither my idea nor my fault. I didn’t swear on an open mic, I didn’t sell secrets to another radio company, I didn’t violate any clauses in my contract. I played the songs on my playlist and made sure my breaks were strong. I answered every email and every phone call I received from listeners because I knew that connection was vital to the station’s success. I stood in front of Car Toys and Guitar Center and on hot pavements in countless parking lots to promote this station. My ‘role’ in this? Following management’s orders and then being punished for it because I was not doing the AM or PM moneymaker shifts.

    So when you’re saying it’s the people beneath management who are at fault, you’re pinning the blame on employees who have zero say in anything. Your point makes no sense. We are at the mercy of management in radio and you know it if you’ve worked even one day for a corporate station. They do not care about the actual people doing the work. They also apparently don’t care what the listeners really want. They only care about the numbers on a spreadsheet. If they don’t like the numbers, they think they’ll get better if they make random changes that have never really been shown to improve ratings. Even though they make the same mistakes again and again, the result is the same: the ratings will never rise higher than maybe a 4.3 and you can still be successful. But they want to make radio into the internet: Bigger Better Bolder, and radio can’t be the internet. It can use it, but it can’t be what the internet is. Hence the reason to turn a bit more locally, to capture the real essence of what a city sounds like. But management doesn’t care about any of that, just like it doesn’t matter to them if the Little DJ Girl in Portland has two kids to feed, or is super popular with the audience, or has tons of famous friends who would gladly do on-air interviews, or all of the other things I brought to my job. They had to make cuts, so they made them where they figured it wouldn’t matter. Did the audience have a say in this? No. Did I have a say in this? No. Did even my own PD have a say? No. It came from Up On High, and therefore, it was done. You can’t say I was compliant in my own firing when I loved that job like nothing else I’d ever done in my life.

    Of course we understand radio is a business; it’s just clearly a very poorly run one. If the people running it cared about the people working beneath them, maybe they’d listen to the ideas that will keep radio viable. And if they put managers in place who understood BOTH the entertainment AND the business side, maybe we’d get somewhere. Until then, there will be GMs getting away with sexism, racism, ageism, and who knows what other isms, while talented people get fired. Any other business that was run this way would be beyond bankrupt by now. Radio needs a makeover from the inside, but it won’t happen until these attitudes change and the talent is restored.

  3. Profile photo of maytableinc


    I applaud your outspokenness for the radio industry, Tara. You truly care a lot about the radio world and the ones who work in it. I’ve also read your past articles linked in this one and in one of them, you commented on one of them that you would not play a song from Sublime on your show because it promoted the devaluing of women through sexualizing them. That is not often the case with many other hosts and DJ’s who just obey and follow orders given to them.

    However, I will say that it is very unfortunate that in radio and businesses in general, they tend to punish the ones who truly care about their job. The “suck-ups” are ones that are able to maintain their positions and that is very unfortunate since those suck-up’s do not care much about the quality of work, as in the overall radio experience for listeners (adding more local hosts, music, etc…). They just care about making the dough and numbers.

    Many other DJ’s who I’ve read about being fired are very quiet or secretive about their layoff and that’s mainly because of the fear of future employers seeing criticisms such as this one popping up in the internet. And if future employers do see that, their chances of getting that future position is pretty much gone. Like many others say, don’t put stupid stuff on Facebook that you would want only certain people to see (which is why I gave up on Facebook).

    Jack

    • Profile photo of taradublin


      Well, I’ve given up being worried about who’ll see what I write, mainly because I’m writing about how we can make radio better. Hopefully people can make that distinction. If we don’t discuss something that’s failing, we can never see it improved.

  4. Profile photo of Bongwater


    Tara, you said everything I have been saying for the last 16 years. You just articulated it in a way most people, including myself, fall short on.

    Thanks for your insightful and well written piece. It’s good to hear a voice of sanity once in a while in the echo chamber.

    Cheers!

  5. Profile photo of Steve Varholy


    I can understand your frustration. There are a lot of people that love the medium and the magic it can create.

    However, you do have to think about the immutable rule of business: the owners call the shots. Football players play the game the coach and the owners tell them to play, and so must employees of a broadcast enterprise including the talent no matter how special they believe they are. It’s the owner’s money at risk, you are just an employee.

    You are free to disagree with where the commercial side of the industry is going. I certainly don’t believe it’s particularly good for the long-term success of the medium. But if you really want to change the direction, buy your own station and do it your way. Or gather a bunch of people together and buy a station and do it your way. That way with skin in the game you can call the shots whether they are good, bad or indifferent.

    From the viewpoint of an owner principal, I don’t want anyone working for me that will jeopardize the value of the asset or cause disruption or dissension and put my investment of time and effort. A development person that is directly generating a lot of revenue, I might tolerate for a bit as long as the drawbacks don’t outweigh the revenue they are bringing into the organization. But a air talent that is a staff cost and does not directly bring in money and is a position where the supply always exceeds demand? Don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you…

    Best of luck in your job search. There are still lots of good owners out there that believe in serving the community.

  6. Profile photo of BC


    Interesting take Varholy, i always enjoy what you bring to the table. Though I see it completely from both of your sides, but I do find myself now fresh out of college, with a community radio show that will build affiliates in the coming year with an eventual goal to move from college community stations to publicly funded stations. I however choose to create the asset, and it is me, I do stuff for my station, but I work for Breaking Boundaries, which is my own entrepreneurial initiative. Steve I think you would appreciate this one, the goal is to maintain an adult leaning alt format with occasional AOR and integrate college students into local community opportunities. Their successes mutually build their resume and mine, and for the community radio naysayers who say it makes no money, now that doesn’t bother me. In this situation, I could still track, make it sound authentic, work at mcdonalds and see all the same benefits to commercial radio. Also, radio is a business, but don’t lump us non com folk in with the corrupt, at least our business is honest to the communities we serve. I agonized that I wouldn’t be able to work for my favorite heritage stations, now I don’t care and i have a unique appreciation for all unique radio brands and found one locally that i connect with that ironically has no djs, that’s ok I have no problem taking the title of Pgh’s AOR dj. So how do i plan as a young college student to make my radio show profit, well indirectly of course. No offense to the writer, it’s a lot harder when you’ve already been in com radio, but I’ve finally decided to get off the obviously dead high horse I was on about the simplification of restructuring. So they now do their thing, I do mine, and for every person in any community organization I interview, its another step in an ultimate direction of my career to gain social and physical wealth. At the same time, anyone who’s a loyal fan gets to share with the opportunity especially if they directly work for one of my affiliates. I sympathize tithe the situation of having children, and realize this is harder to do, but as a graduating sociologist, this should really be a wake up call to the rock n roll radio stars of the past that thought they could be successful on image alone. By no means am I suggesting that the writer fits this depiction, but instead of complaining its time for all of us to wake up and do something about it. The internet exists, and in the end, those who are doing it for the right reasons will offer their opinions and content to their fans for free at least until they nail that right affiliate. Locally it happened for Scott Paulsen, and in Ohio Patt deluca made a lot of headlines and now has a new local commercial gig. Neither of these things came without great sacrifice, and as much as I completely agree with everything stated, after several years of doing it myself, complaining solves nothing at the end of the day it only calls attention to your reflection and judgement of your opinions. So this is my clever FU to those who ruined commercial radio for my generation.

  7. Profile photo of taradublin


    I have a huge amount of respect for community radio and actually volunteered with a new comm station here not long after my layoff. However, that’s the problem–I was a volunteer, not an employee. It never could have been a paying opportunity for me. It makes sense to want to be paid for working hard at something you’re good at and enjoy. I don’t mind volunteering some of my time–I volunteer regularly with several charities in Portland–but at some point a girl’s gotta earn a living, and you’re not going to earn one in community radio.

    I would love nothing more than to give all my time to Portland’s newest community radio station, XRAY-FM. But since it’s a non-paying situation, I need to make sure I’m able to cover my bills before I can think about donating any free time I might have to a community station. I hope to reach a point where I have enough actual steady, reliable income to cover my life, and then get cracking on a weekly radio show on XRAY. But I’ll still hope for change in commercial radio, if only because we as a society shouldn’t accept mediocrity in our media. We should all expect the best from our media, and that includes radio. I’ll remain skeptically hopeful.

  8. Profile photo of Alfred Somerville


    I have no problem with a business making money, but like so many businesses today the radio business has put profits above people and abandoned simple common sense. I would venture to say that most listeners are a little like me-they listen for the music, but also because they feel “connected” to local DJ’s and other on-air “personalities” who at least seem to care about what’s going on locally, and is of interest to their listeners. I “cut my musical teeth” on 1960’s rock radio in my college years with the likes of Dan Ingram, “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, and the ever-popular “Dr. Demento”. That was when radio had real personality-the kind of off-the-wall vibe entirely missing in today’s corporate cookie-cutter radio. I realize that playing entire album sides on the air is no longer “practical”, because there must be ample room for endless commercials(always played at double the normal volume). Again, I know all that crap “pays the bills”, and I’m not opposed to stations making money. 60’s radio had plenty of ridiculous commercials taking up the lion’s share of airtime, but it was the people who made the difference then. Those bygone DJ’s made up for the aggravation caused by massive amounts of commercial messages with their offbeat sense of humor and willingness to play what the listeners wanted to hear(which is supposed to be what the medium is all about). What made radio “rock” in the 60’s was the idea, however erroneous at times, that somebody on the other side of that mike CARED about the listeners and was willing to listen to them and play the right “mix” of the music they loved. Today’s homogeonized, one-size-fits-all playlists, dictated by disembodied corporate flunkies with no appreciation for actual music are what have turned radio into the “wasteland” described by others who commented here. Hoiw can some suit in Texas or Florida appreciate what people in the Northeast, for example, want to hear? The whole idea of “demographics” dictating radio formats is a cop-out designed by those aforementioned flunkies to hide their considerable failings when it comes to music. I could go on a lot longer, but I think I’ve made my point and don’t need to belabor it further.

  9. Profile photo of homerjay


    No, the idea of demographics come from the people who pay the bills. As the ultimate customers, it is incumbent on the radio stations to deliver what they want.

    It’s always been about making money. There isn’t anything new about that,

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