Independent Radio Stations: Getting By With A Little Help From Their Friends
Despite economic challenges, independently-owned radio stations focusing on localism are finding ways to thrive.
Adult alternative-formatted mvyradio, broadcasting from the island of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., prides itself on breaking new singer/songwriters while playing the best rock dating back to the Beatles. So, what was it doing playing AC icon Barry Manilow's "Looks Like We Made It" on a recent Friday?
A detour into '70s schmaltz can be forgiven, given that the station was celebrating having raised $600,000 from listeners to remain broadcasting for at least the next year. Mvyradio reached the sum on the 59th day of its 60-day "Save mvyradio" listener pledge drive, thanks in large part to its strong streaming presence, as the station was among the first to embrace the technology in the late '90s.
A close call, perhaps, but it looks like the station did make it.
Citing that the recession had damaged mvyradio's ability to be solvent, Aritaur Communications sold the station's 92.7 FM (WMVY) frequency, its terrestrial home since 1983, to Boston University's WBUR late last year. Still, while Vineyarders now hear NPR affiliate programming on the signal, mvyradio lives on as in Internet-only entity, having adopted a non-commercial, underwriting-based model now owned by the non-profit Friends of mvyradio. (It hopes to secure a new local FM frequency going forward; it does, however, remain on the FM dial in nearby Newport, R.I., via a translator at 96.5.) In addition to its daily programming, carrying over online is mvyradio's rich reservoir of artist interviews and performances, from those recorded in-studio, including John Mayer during an Island visit early in his career in 2001, to shows, such as the Newport Folk Festival, Merlefest and South by Southwest.
Mvyradio's makeover reflects the ingenuity needed for independently-owned radio stations to survive in an industry in which corporate ownership became the norm following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which loosened the restrictions on the number of stations that chains could own.
In addition to mvyradio's successful fundraiser and segue to non-commercial broadcasting, stand-alone stations often emphasize a local touch that larger owners that employ out-of-market programming – and even air talent – can't match.
Folk singer Kate Taylor (sister of James, and longtime Martha's Vineyard resident) praises mvyradio after a recent concert in Scituate, Mass.
FROM RESIDENTS TO PRESIDENTS
"The recession has surely been a challenge for every radio station, but as an independent station, when revenue dropped, we had fewer options to reduce costs," mvyradio PD PJ Finn (above, center) says. "The flip side is that we didn't employ cost-cutting measures that might've stripped the station of its individuality. We didn't have someone at a home office far away centralizing a playlist across several stations, for instance." Sure enough, mvyradio-exclusive programming like the Local Music Café, new music feature "What's New for Lunch" and "My Back Pages," which mixes socially-conscious rock from the '60s through today, remains on the station's new online home.
In the face of economic challenges, mvyradio's uniqueness has helped enable its salvation. "Folks who are here year-round depend on us for local news and public service. But, since we're in a seasonal, resort community, many people care about us because we've become a part of their vacation state of mind," Finn says. "They've come here in the summer and listened to us and then returned to where they live and listened online. They may be in Iowa, but when they hear us give the Steamship Authority report on the ferries, it puts them in a Vineyard state of mind.
"We will not change a thing, going forward, in this regard."
Some of those vacationers just happen to include U.S. Presidents, including Bill Clinton, whom the station opportunistically interviewed while he was on a Vineyard respite in the '90s. Shots of other notable faces dot the picture-packed bulletin board in mvyradio's lobby, including actor/Martha's Vineyard visitor Tony Shalhoub.
Still, it's everyday listeners with whom the station has forged its greatest bonds. And, that's not by accident. "Radio is very personal and intimate," says mvyradio director of worldwide programming Barbara Dacey, who's been shaping the station's sound since she began working there in 1985. "We hire air talent with an ability for openness; real people sharing their ideas on music and life.
"Most of us were relatively young when we arrived here and were able to be open to the process of learning how to really connect with good information and insights.
"If you do that day-in and day-out, people notice. That kind of connection builds up over 30 years."
'GOTTA GET THE SNOWBIRDS'
Such a rapport isn't vital only with listeners, but with advertisers, as well.
Ed Perry (above, left), owner of AC WATD (95.9 FM) Marshfield, Mass., since its 1977 sign-on, says that independently-owned, locally-focused stations need to build a revenue-generating support system with advertising partners in order to offset their lack of corporate funding.
For WATD, especially, New Englanders' trademark close ties to their home region help. "Beyond our FM listeners, we have online listeners, say, wintering in Florida, or going to college in California, but who still make their major investments, like cars, back here. You've gotta get the snowbirds, the people who winter in warmer climates, or who are in school far away, but who still listen to us. If you do, you help maintain their connection to our area, which benefits us in terms of listening but also our advertising clients.
"So, local spots do not only us good, but also our advertisers, with whom we have longstanding relationships, on local and national levels."
Ultimately, Perry thrives on the station's DIY nature, regularly turning away offers from large-scale ownership groups. "I view the station as a community service. For instance, you need a good local news and sports department. Nothing gets parents listening like hearing their kids' names on the radio. I remember a longtime sports reporter I hired. I said, 'Make me a promise: you've got to mention 40 kids a week in a positive way.' He said, 'Ok.'
"Now, we're in our second generation of kids."
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick lauded WATD's recent storm coverage.
From such attention to elements ranging from programming to sales, Perry has seen the WATD staff's dedication pay off for more than three decades. "We had the best year we've had (financially) last year. And, we'll probably do better this year. Despite the economy, there's a lot to be said for duration."
True to his word, Perry had pressing needs to which to attend on the day last month he chatted with Billboard. "After we talk, I'm off to check our emergency generator equipment for the snowstorm that's coming [and which would wallop Massachusetts' South Shore with more than two feet of snow]. Our sales people are calling everyone right now who sells generators, flashlights, et cetera. And, on-air, we'll be the only station with the information that people who live here will need in this storm.
"It will take a lot to knock us off the air."
The declaration's meaning seems to stretch beyond the latest forecast.
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."