Fixing Radio: The Importance of Keeping it Local
This guest entry originally was posted on LinkedIN.
A 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/