Radio has only Two Paths – and “Local” isn’t One

Today Seth Godin talks “Local.”

Says Seth:

Local media was an essential business for a century, largely for three reasons: 1. Broadcast signals and newspaper trucks could only travel so far, so ‘local’ was the natural category. 2. Commerce (and thus advertising) was local. 3. Interests tended to align locally as well.

Today, of course, the signal travels around the world, so newspapers, radio stations and TV have no incentive to limit themselves.

And finally, we’re discovering that when given the chance, people are a lot more interested in what they’re interested in, as opposed to what their physical neighbors are doing.

Going forward, then, the real kings of media will be local in a totally different sense. They will be the narrators and arbiters of interest for groups that actually have aligned interests. The daily newspaper for families wrestling with juvenile diabetes, or bi-weekly email op ed for the pop music industry. If one of those categories happens to be, “lives in zip code 10706,” that’s just fine, but it’s an exception, not the default.

I have previously argued that there’s “no such thing as local per se,” with the important exception of local sports.

There’s what matters to you personally, to your family, to your neighborhood (i.e., the context for “not in my backyard” revolts and every discussion of schools), to your country, and to your world – pretty much in declining order of interest and concern.

The value of being in a local market is that you have a more richly developed sense of what the folks in that local market need, one person and one email at a time. And isn’t that what’s really lacking for broadcasters?

We have a ratings methodology that argues not only does each individual not count, NO individual counts – only the meters that are drifting from one radio exposure to the next count.  Even if they might be tied to a ceiling fan.  This is as off-trend as one can imagine.

Compare that to the personalized metrics of digital media – online radio, even – old media deficiencies are ever clearer.

You can’t narrate and be an arbiter of interest for groups you don’t know by name.

You can’t be interesting to people whose interests you don’t bother to determine.

Unless, of course, you are built to bring interests together.  Unless you are so entertaining that folks of different minds gravitate to you because you are so entertaining.  Unless you are so informative that folks of different minds can find no better way to be informed.  Unless you talk sports the way guys I know like to talk sports.

Radio and all the media it inspires have two paths:  The granular one that knows me better and the “unique to the world” entertainment or information one that brings us all together better than anything else can.

Both require the kind of strategic effort and investment that few are willing to make.

Better start now.

* = required field
  • Mark,

    I saw this first hand about five years ago. MySpace was all the rage, and I was consulting a company called KickApps. They provided a white label and very sophisticated social network for local media to utilize. I remember sitting down with radio people and explaining the incredible assets that radio could bring to bear in bringing together their listeners into a community:

    They share geographic area, age, musical taste, and gender. Of course, radio formats have broader or narrower groups depending on the format, but basically we were looking at built-in group of people that shared both demographic and interest (music) level factors. Compare this to the launch of something like Twitter, where the potential audience shared exactly zero interests.

    You would think that establishing a radio social network would be much easier than establishing one for Twitter or even Facebook. You’re starting with people that share tastes in music, favorite radio station, favorite DJs, geographic area–I mean, this isn’t a community, it’s a Seth Godin tribe! Radio was sitting on a gold mine… the next local version of MySpace!

    But we quickly realized that our assumptions were wrong. Sharing all of those things, all those important local and behavioral things, simply WASN’T ENOUGH. A random 22 year old female fan who lives in Pittsburgh and loves pop music and has a favorite radio station and morning show has NOTHING in common with another 22 year old female listener who lives in Pittsburgh, loves pop music, and has the same favorite radio station and morning show. All those similarities ultimately mean very little in terms of shared interest. We are just too complex in terms of our interest and our behaviors.

    This is important in terms of your discussion of “local” because the discussion of shared interests goes deeper than what we know. For example, in Pittbsurgh, you can also assume that the people also share a love for the Steelers, that they probably share a political and religious point-of-view, etc. The important point being that ALL of this shared experience of being “local” should lead a radio station to an important asset in terms of its shared community.

    Yet this isn’t the case. We can dig all day into the overt and implied power of local interest, and when we get to the bottom, people would STILL be unique, with an array of differences that make all the assets of “local” pretty much non-existent. Godin addresses this in a different way, but he is absolutely right.

    Ultimately, what matters is something much more simple to understand yet much more difficult to achieve–that one-on-one relationship with the listener, a relationship that basically ignores local and other relationships for the individual things that really matter to each person. That can be a love of a morning show, a love of a mix of music, or even something as stupid as “I’m too lazy to figure out how to change my presets so I’ll just listen to this station.” Whatever the reason, those relationships are built directly on a dynamic that has nothing to do with the shared experience of being “local” (paging Howard Stern).

  • Well that does sum it up, Jim!

    Thanks for the thoughtful note!

  • Hi Mark

    I’m not sure that I agree with Seth’s new definition of ‘local’…

    Working for a network of locally-programmed stations, I was always intrigued by the distinct differences in music tests within the same format. A song that would be considered a great fit for the format would test very well in one market, and not well at all at a different market. I know in your own perceptual studies, you help stations understand the unique blend of musical styles that their audience wants the most.

    By Seth’s argument, since all of these tribes are connected by the same
    thing – their love of the format – then those test results
    should be consistent… but they’re not.

    It would seem to me that being ‘local’ still means tailoring your product or service to meet the UNIQUE needs of the people in that locale. Folks in San Diego don’t have the same exact music tastes as those in Nashville, even if they are connected by a broader shared taste. One could make the argument that the fact that the people who all score a song very highly happen to live in the same zip code is secondary to their actual bond (sharing a love for that particular song) – but it overlooks the possibility that folks living in another zip code won’t share that same bond, because they don’t care for the song itself.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks Mark!

  • Dan, there is NO question that music tastes differ to one degree or another by market. There is NO question that one can and should tailor the mix to the market and the particular context the station lives in.
    But that is the view through the lens of today, not tomorrow.

    Through tomorrow’s lens, every individual in every market can have their own particular blend of whatever they want without having to settle for what their market deems popular – if that’s their desire. The trend is most definitely towards control and personalization.
    This doesn’t mean the market-wide tailoring of the average radio station will be irrelevant – just that it will not be my only choice as a listener any longer. And it may no longer be the best choice FOR ME.
    So that takes us to the big picture once again – the non-music elements which can’t be so easily co-opted or atomized. The things which bring us together because they are so unique.

  • Andy McNabb

    In other words, it’s about identifying the biggest emotional hot button of the people with whom you want to connect and catering to them in that context. This, in terms of providing an enriching experience for that constituent that puts them further ahead today than they were yesterday (constituent aka listener and/or fan and/or tribe member and/or local citizen, etc.).

  • And taking that to the practical level is always where some folks get lost! But you’re right!

  • That makes a lot of sense, Mark. Sometimes when I’ve read wise insight from you or Seth, I wonder just how far off into the horizon your eyes are focused. Discussions like this help me bridge the gap between where we are now, and where we’re headed.

  • Hey thanks Dan!

    The problem is that change is accelerating…..The future comes quicker than it used to 😉

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