Despite economic challenges, independently-owned radio stations focusing on localism are finding ways to thrive.
BUILDING SUCCESS ... FROM ONE BUILDING
"Localism is key to our success," echoes Greg Runyon (above, right), operations manager of independently-owned mainstream top 40 KZIA (Z102.9 FM) Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The station scored the highest ratings among all demos in the market's latest Arbitron measurement period, besting five signals owned by national chains.
Runyon says that simply being in the same building as his company's ultimate decision-makers helps give KZIA a leg up on his nationally-owned competitors. "If I want to do something promotionally, or with our programming, I walk down the hall and ask the owner, not propose it to my market manager … who runs it by a regional VP ... who runs it by a senior VP ... and on and on. I work at a company that puts the product first and expects sales to follow from good programming. The other stations in town, meanwhile, have a quarter of the programming staff that we have. They choose to run with few local people. They choose to run centralized playlists. They don't have to do those things, they choose to."
Like Perry, Runyon champions community involvement. "We have a station marching band, made up of staff, listeners and friends, that participates in parades. We have a station rock band that does bar gigs. We put on an adult prom that draws hundreds of people. We participate in fairs, festivals and farmers markets, not with one jock and a cell phone, but with 10, 12, 15 people and a 35-foot beverage truck that we converted into essentially a giant boom-box.
"This is show business and these are opportunities to show off," Runyon says. "Being visible in the public is also an opportunity to do the political work of shaking hands and kissing babies and forming a connection with people so when they tune up and down their radio dial, they find us and say, 'Hey, I know that guy!' You'll never get that connection with an out-of-market jock."
Ultimately, any and all success a station earns stems from its on-air product. While he can understand how, out of sheer size, larger companies may find it more manageable to pipe in on-air elements from afar, Runyon decries that responsibility belonging to those who don't know his market as well as he and his staff do. "I've heard some of the least-interesting radio I've ever heard being done under the guise of my [nationally-owned] competitors' centralized programming, something that's positioned as putting the best air talent into more markets. In reality, a great deal of it is nothing any second year DJ couldn't do given a small amount of training. But, they'd rather it be done as a national platform than spend the $8 an hour to have a local person do it.
"If all you're presenting is music, imaging, commercials and 'content' you've gotten from the Internet," Runyon says, "you'll lose people to their iPods, which have all the songs they like but none of your repetitive imaging and no commercials.
"Or, you'll lose to a station that can give them something neither a national jock nor an iPod can: What time is it? What's the weather going to be like? If I'm looking for something to do in my town, what's out there for me? What is going on in my part of the world? Too many radio stations have made themselves less engaging than a well-programmed, truly local station, and less engaging than an iPod.
"I don't see how that is a recipe for success."
A WORLD OF SUPPORT
Clearly, such strong local links, at independently-owned stations throughout the country, can lead to prosperity. And, thanks to dedicated programmers, air talent, sales people and other staffers hyper-focused on their communities, a loyalty that knows practically no bounds.
"During our pledge drive, people wrote us stories about how the station and its music have been an integral part of their lives; their vacations, drives to work, weddings, births, convalescences, paths out of depression, drunken escapades and mundane drudgeries," mvyradio's Finn muses.
"We estimate that only half the donations we received came from within our FM broadcast area. We got donations from all 50 states and 14 countries.
"I even got my friend Ben to donate. At the time, he was in Antarctica, conducting research with underwater robots.
"So, we like to say that we have listeners on all seven continents."