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
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