Sometimes the answer is right there in front of us.
The economy in the past year and change has redefined the way we think about business, staff, margins, and sales. Even as the recovery happens in earnest, a "new normal" has set in to radio stations throughout the country, in both small markets and in New York and L.A.
Everyone has been forced to get by with less. And I would submit to you that in subtle ways, the product has suffered greatly. It's like seeing those pictures taken over several years of the polar ice cap. You may not notice the oxidation and deterioration if you walk into the same station day after day. But over a period of a year or five, it is impossible to miss the toll the slashing has taken.
You see it on station websites, hear it on the air (especially over weekends and at night), and it's on display at the hundreds of events stations are forced to fulfill every year. Where you don't see it is in the near total absence of outside marketing that has made many big brands all but invisible. And sometimes, the insidious nature of being budget conscious creates an atmosphere where programmers and managers simply stop asking for resources because they know the answer. Consequently, the ideas dry up.
But there is a resource that really wasn't available a decade or so ago that all stations can tap into - the community. And by that, I mean the audience, the core, the fan base. You hear a lot about buzzwords like "community" and "engagement" in social media circles. But those terms aren't that elusive when you consider the advantage that radio has over so many other media outlets.
In spite of everything, reasonably well-programmed and executed stations still have their legions of rabid listeners, the regulars who still show up, and listen day in and day out. And social media tools like Facebook allow for them to participate even more in what you're programming, promoting, selling, and presenting. They're in the database, they're texting you on a regular basis, and they're connecting with you in many different ways.
FM 94/7 in Portland (Entercom's KNRK) has been a great example of this since they dumped the extreme music and the shock jocks a few years ago, and turned to the community for inspiration and guidance. Programmer Mark Hamilton, who shepherded the station through many of its Alternative variants, has been highly successful, tapping into the unique vibe that is Portland, Oregon.
Mark doesn't call it crowd sourcing, but he has consistently utilized the creativity of his listener base to create promotions that meld his music position with the imagination of his audience. The most recent example is a promotional effort with Muse, where listeners were assigned the task of creating a concert poster for the band's local appearance this month. The band selected the winner among the ten finalists at a "secret location."
Talk about engagement. And creativity. Because when you flip through the finalists, you'll likely conclude that this level of poster artwork would have cost thousands of dollars. Instead, it came from a radio station's listening audience, it costs nothing, and it created a fun, clever, engaging, and music-centric promotion. Think about how many bored area artists just couldn't wait to show off their skills for a radio station that was happy to give them exposure.
(This is the part of the relationship between artists, radio, and the audience that musicFIRST will never understand. By working with radio, their ability to put together these types of promotions where everyone wins - the band, the label, the station, consumers - has always been available, especially at a time when stations are cash-strapped).
But the potential goes beyond designing poster art. John Hager's 97Rock in Buffalo has consistently called on his audience for advice and guidance for nearly a decade. Picking up on some of the original "neo radio" philosophical tenets, John has given his listeners a cushy seat at the table, providing them with an opportunity to select special weekends, vote on themes, submit playlists, and hundreds of cleverly conceived engagement devices that keep the audience interested in a station that doesn't play currents.
It's an ongoing relationship - just like Facebook - that engages the community. Not just once a year for "March Bandness" or "Rock Girls." When the audience "gets" that you are committed to dealing them in, allowing them to offer opinions and input, you end up with a brand that has meaning, connectivity, and a sense of freshness. When you consider your in-market radio competition, syndicated talent, or the thousands of Internet or satellite stations consumers can listen to, tapping into the community becomes a secret weapon.
And it goes beyond programming because within the community is more than poster artists. There are salespeople, who love your station and actually have sales skills. You don't need to spend a year teaching them about the value of your station, why the music is compelling, or who the afternoon guy is and how long he's been around. They know, because they are committed fans, unlike some of the reps who use up oxygen and valuable resources while they waste a position on your sales staff.
At a time when stations have had to live with less, I would submit that many have not done a great job using the assets and resources they've had all along. It goes beyond loading more duties on the folks who still have jobs at your station. If you stop spamming your database, and instead, think of the audience as your sixth man, there are answers, solutions, ideas, and creativity just waiting for you to tap into.
That's what community and engagement are all about.