Radio’s Misplaced Obsession on “Local”


Not a week goes by that some broadcaster doesn’t bemoan radio’s unfortunate “nationalization” and the urgent need for radio brands to get back to what they are presumed to do best: Be local.

This is a mistake. But where does this obsession with “local” come from?

It’s not from the FCC license, which requires that broadcasters operate in “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Responsiveness to local communities and local content is one of the issues wrapped up in that theme, but it’s only one, and its interpretation has been notoriously loose over the years. What if the public is interested in content that is decidedly non-local?

I think this obsession with “local” comes from a simple fact: The vast majority of the decision-makers in the radio industry are baby boomers. And the collective radio memory of baby boomers begins in the 1960′s, an era when radio discovered Rock and Roll, influential local DJ’s, and an underserved generation of consumers who had nowhere else to turn to for this content: Teenagers.

In other words, radio’s leaders are seeing their own radio history and imagining that it is the history of all radio always and the best prescription for the future of the industry.

But is this how all radio always was?*

When LA’s KHJ – the first radio station west of the Rockies – went on the air in 1922 its first day included three arias by members of the Chicago Grand Opera Company and ten minutes of comedy from a vaudeville headliner. Announced the station at the time: “Thousands will sit in their homes, in public places, where magnavox are installed and hear the voices of some of the world’s premier artists. Current world events gathered by the Times wire and cable news services will be transformed into ethereal waves, a departure in modern journalism.”

Does that sound like “local” to you?

KDKA exploded onto the scene in 1920 not because it was populated by local Pittsburgh DJ’s, but because of its extensive coverage of Presidential election returns.


Meanwhile, WGN rented phone lines from Dayton to Chicago so they could broadcast the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, including gavel-to-gavel coverage of speeches by William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow.


This was an era when every household did not own a radio, and what sold radios was content. Especially live sports like football, the World Series, and boxing, religious programming, election coverage, and other spectacular news events.

Content. Not “local.”

In 1928, Amos ‘n’ Andy debuted over WMAQ. The shows aired live but each episode was recorded for distribution to thirty other radio stations – an early example of the “evils” of “nationalization” and voice-tracking.


And all of this was years before radio’s “golden age,” when the airwaves were crowded with “national” shows from Bing Crosby, Walter Winchell, Jack Benny, Fred Allen and George Burns, among many others.


No, just “golden.”

Indeed, only after television burst into living rooms across the nation did most of this content “graduate” from radio to TV in the 1950′s.

And that left radio stations in a pickle. What to fill the time with?

That question was answered in spectacular fashion on February 9, 1964 when 73 million people tuned in a former radio show, now transplanted to TV, called the Ed Sullivan Show for the debut appearance of a band of teenagers from Liverpool called The Beatles.

Radio had a new formula, punctuated with local DJ’s. And it had a new audience of teenagers. Many of whom would grow up to own and operate the stations we all listen to today.

You see, “local” isn’t as old as radio. It’s only as old as you.

Today’s digital natives came of age in a very different world.

Don’t imagine that the formulas of your youth will suit them.

*much of this history comes from one of my favorite books about radio, Hello, Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio by Anthony Rudel.

* = required field
  • johnford

    Some good points here Mark. But, just because it’s the “formula of their youth” it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s incorrect.

    I would argue that it’s exactly what’s needed. Take the “dogs” on the dial and turn them over to the millennials and let them come up with something “new.” That’s essentially the formula used with FM in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

    There are lots of other factors to consider when looking at the “golden age of radio. (1920-50)” In 1922 there were officialy 28 radio station operating in the US. It was really expensive. This exploded in the next couple of years to around 1400. They were still really expensive to operate. Couple this with the depression, and national programming wasn’t only fiscally responsible for broadcasters (and obvious for show biz), it was a necessity. I think comparing Amos and Andy to voice tracking is a bit of a stretch. Kind of like comparing a personality such as Howard Stern to pre-packaged music radio programming like The Satellite Music Network. Scripted radio programming moving from radio to a medium with video was inevitable with the advent of the cathode ray tube.

    So I say. Don’t shoot the messenger. Just because these “old guys” have ideas and experience, don’t discount them because the fashionable “wisdom” is that their ideas are obsolete. After all, they’re all on Facebook too…except for me ; )

  • Gregg Murray

    Intriguing post, Mark. But, if local broadcasters (especially outside the top 20 markets) don’t increase their local content and talent, how do they create their own niche for listeners? If they’re not increasingly local, won’t listenership continue to move toward channels like Pandora, Spotify, etc…?

  • Mark Ramsey

    I’m not diminishing the “old dogs,” John, I’m just shining a light on the incomplete nature of their (our) perspective.

  • Mark Ramsey

    Absolutely not, Gregg.

    Listeners move to where the value is. Value is not inherently local. “Local” is only one tiny piece in a larger puzzle. Pick your pieces, pick your puzzle.

  • Jeff Brown

    Enjoyed your interview too with Geek News Central ( covering some of these topics. Well said yet again.

  • Mark Ramsey

    Yes, I percolate on this things before I write them :-)

    Thanks Jeff!

  • Gregg Murray

    Not quite sure I got that. But, I’m a simple guy. The question still sits for anyone who has a pragmatic answer; If radio does not increase their local content, why would I listen to local vs a polished national brand?

  • Mark Ramsey

    Because the content on your brand is compelling and uniquely yours.

    Or else it isn’t.

  • Jeff Brown

    And we are the better for it.

  • Mark Ramsey

    That makes two of us… :-) Thanks!

  • Gregg Murray

    Still don’t get it. What would be an example of a local radio broadcaster or group that has unique, compelling content that can compete with a national brand that is not focused on local? Sorry to belabor the initial question, I’m just looking for an example or an answer that radio’s local obsession is misplaced. Thanks, Mark.

  • Mark Ramsey

    The station with the market’s most popular morning show. The one with Jim Rome. The one with Elvis Duran. The one with Dave Ramsey. The one with Rush Limbaugh. The one with NPR. Etc.

  • Gregg Murray

    Those are all national brand names. And I can only assume they all started broadcasting local content. That’s why local broadcasters are obsessed with local content. Thanks for the examples.

  • Tom Asacker

    Great analysis Mark. Thanks. I agree with what you’ve described, but I believe you may have left out a key component of the radio ecosystem: advertisers. The thinking goes like this: Local advertisers with relatively small marketing budgets wanted to reach and appeal to local prospects as cost-effectively as possible. They couldn’t target local prospects through a global/national medium (other than TV) prior to the Internet. So they used local, less costly alternatives like newspapers, radio, billboards, et al. This symbiotic relationship conditioned radio to focus on attracting, and appealing to, a local audience with localized content.

    Fast forward and today anyone can build a global/national audience via the Internet and localize the advertising based on location data. So yes, the game has changed and the mindset is a product of the past. But the desires of advertisers contributed to the mindset as strongly as, if not more so than, the desires of the audience.

  • Mark Ramsey

    David Letterman began by doing the weather in Indianapolis. That’s not why anyone would hire him today :-)

  • Mark Ramsey

    But the advertisers don’t dictate the content – the broadcasters do that. Local advertisers want large audiences to achieve their goals – how a station gets that is up to them!
    Thank you Tom for shining the light as always!

  • Steve Stockman

    Glad to see this post go by on Facebook, Mark. Your historical analysis is dead on. But for those still clinging to the idea of “local”, try this:

    What entertainment choice do YOU make because it’s “local”? TV? Film? Twitter? Huff Post? Drudge? Grand Theft Auto? Call of Duty? Theater is local sometimes, but since the product is national touring shows, that’s only in the sense that you can drive to it (rather than fly to NY or London or Las Vegas).

 Where do most Americans get the local weather? Check the home page of your smart phone.

    Now gut-check this: Is your local morning-show card reader better than Ryan Seacrest? Are your local mortgage company ads inherently more interesting to anyone than national beer spots?

    “Local” has no meaning as a consumer driver. (Things you never hear: “I’d love to watch Kimmel, but he’s not local enough.”) Entertain me” is the experience listeners seek. It’s what drives choices.

    And national entertainment is the best of the best, the very pinnacle of entertainment value. The culmination of a competition for market share involving millions of people, millions of dollars, and geniuses like Beyonce or Blue Man Group or Bobby Bones or Will Ferrell. “National” beats local not because of it’s “nationalness” but because of its vetted entertainment experience.

    “Local” is a hangover from radio sales—why does a car dealer in LA care about hitting audience in New Orleans? Radio is a great local advertising medium, but don’t mistake the sales customer for the audience. (And with web and apps like “I Heart Radio”, it’s arguable we should stop thinking about “local” for sales too)


Radio was once a local medium. Then a national one. Then local again. And now, if it embraces change, a national one once more. This is a time of great opportunity for radio to step back up to the national stage– cross promote more with TV, really embrace social media. It’s a good thing. Loyal national audience always means

    Entertainment is everything. “Local” is just a buzzword radio execs use to help them sleep at night.

  • Mark Ramsey

    “Entertainment is everything.”

    Three words make a mouthful, Steve. Thanks for chiming in!

  • Gregg Murray

    Yes. He was “local” talent. That’s what made his station a hot commodity. I’m still waiting for someone to suggest a way broadcasters outside the top markets are to survive against national radio brands if they are not obsessed with local. My Mom has had a morning talk show in market 175 for 30 years. The rest of the day is 80% national. Without her show and a few other hours of local programming, they would be just another talk channel on SiriusXM…and that would be the end of another local radio station. And it’s even more difficult for music stations. Anyhow, intriguing post and great title. It got my attention.Cheers.