Radio, Don’t Blow Your Chance to Matter Again (Guest Column)

Car Radio
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Radio, I’ve just about had enough of you and your abandonment of your defining purpose as broadcasters. With the coronavirus pandemic now ravaging everyday life and suspending every reliable comfort from work routines to sports and entertainment or actual human contact, we’re looking for steadiness somewhere — an echo of the familiar, a kindred connection.  Anything to tether us to something recognizable. A service the radio dial used to provide — and public radio still does.

Corporate radio is missing its biggest opportunity in a generation right at this moment.

Based on the events of the last few days in Los Angeles, market No. 2 with a 60-plus year history of rich and vibrant local broadcasting excellence, it appears there is little wisdom or vision left. Case in point: the vast audience disconnect in Entercom’s abrupt and confusing decision at KROQ-FM to fire morning show personality Kevin Ryder on Wednesday, someone who is a heritage voice in L.A. with a long local history as half of the “Kevin & Bean Show,” a well-loved talent who had just launched the freshly-formed team “Kevin in the Morning With Allie & Jensen” this past January (in the wake of longtime partner Gene “Bean” Baxter’s retirement last year).  But instead of capitalizing on that position of strength, using this particular anchor as a steady ship for the approaching tidal wave of pandemic upheavals, KROQ chooses to obliterate a main source of humor and comfort from its airwaves right at a moment when the attending audience needs stability more than ever.

A baffling move in timing and method, this decision by Entercom demonstrates a stunning lack of understanding about how people actually use radio: as a companion. How could you forget your primary function? KROQ didn’t just blow up a show. The station’s owner annihilated any trust with the remaining audience tuning in.

Yes, we get it Radio, you’ve all had to deal with the disruption of a digital revolution (just as the rest of the music industry has). We even looked the other way while you justified with straight faces, your slow arrival to every important new artist on the horizon in the last eighteen months, simply because they came from streaming — a dynamic that only exists, by the way, because Radio willingly gave up that position and drove away all the active, tastemaker listeners, due to an over-reliance on call-out and other passive research for far too many years.

And because we understand the foundational business aspects of broadcasting, where advertising continues as the main source of revenue, we could even grasp the big-picture rationalization behind pivoting away from the core 12-24 demos (the predominant music consumers based on every study) to focus on whose actually listening now — people above 35, audiences who grew up in a time when FM was exceedingly relevant.

But you have completely forgotten why the audience used to care.

Let me quiz every “Radio PD” — whose oversight likely extends to 30-plus stations: what was radio’s defining strength throughout history? Being free, you say? That’s not it, or Sirius/XM wouldn’t exist and certainly not be a profitable business.

Try again. Being in every car? Nope, that’s not correct either, not in the long run with connected cars quickly cycling into the marketplace at ever-increasing speeds. Clock that answer with an egg timer.

If you didn’t say BEING LOCAL, SERVING YOUR LOCAL COMMUNITY, this is why you are doomed to fail, yet again.

Right now, led by familiar voices and locally sourced information, attending audiences — even if they are mainly 35 and older at this point — could be turning to radio to provide that ease, that familiarity, that common purpose.  Where are my local testing places? What are the senior hours at our local grocery stores? What is the local infection rate at?  And can you please make me laugh right now? This was traditionally always radio’s role.

In today’s turbulent New Reality, with literally no other distractions present, Radio has the ability to actually capitalize on being a source for something relevant, return to the focus of being exceedingly local, and even demonstrate compassion through the intimacy that only audio broadcast can provide, while filling a void. This culture-quaking moment is actually giving Radio the opportunity to rise to the occasion market to market, station by station, to SERVE YOUR LOCAL COMMUNITY. Make the audience remember in this plagued American era (one that, by all accounts, is also going to expand past a full ratings period, 90-plus days) exactly why we need radio in our lives. Remind us how radio enriches a daily routine through local connections and shared experiences. Return to the origins of what made radio special and unique for the last century— local personalities as familiar, trusted companions.

Throw out the rulebook. This is a new normal. You have absolutely no reason not to figure out how to fill the void in a way that may actually create a new lane for you.  INNOVATE. Instead, what is Radio doing right now? Completely ignoring their main and probably very last strength. Smh.

I’ve had enough of you Radio. Maybe you will finally pay the price for your basic lack of understanding for how people have always used this medium.  And maybe you deserve it.

Michelle Santosuosso is professor of practice at the Bandier Program, Newhouse School at Syracuse University. A former PD of KKBT-LA and KMEL-SF and correspondent for Hits Magazine, she came up through the radio industry. Follow her on Twitter at @MichelleSFresh.