My 2016 year in review is here early, because my 2016 started early.
I’ve decided – in retrospect – to let the day in late November of 2015 that I resigned from my job as a radio news director stand as my New Year’s Day (at least for this year).
Being away from radio news for nearly a year after spending 20 of my 30 odd years as a reporter working exclusively in broadcast journalism has only strengthened my opinions about what I fear is a growing trend in cost-conscious private radio operations; a failure to understand the value of their news departments and how they contribute to the bottom line.
Most of the thinking that follows applies to the unique situation of small market radio, and might not stand up as well in cities with all-news offerings on the dial and enough competition that strategies for attracting and keeping listeners aren’t as straightforward.
A lot of stations that serve smaller communities promote themselves as being news-forward, with an emphasis on local stories, while at the same time their management is chipping away at the resources needed to live up to that claim.
I’ve seen cuts to news departments, I’ve seen stations add news roles to the duties of non-news staff (or vice-versa) to reduce payroll while keeping up the pretence of having a news department, and I’ve even heard general managers imply news departments do nothing to bring in revenue.
Here’s why I think that’s completely wrong-headed:
A lot of people, both inside the industry and out, believe the product a small market commercial radio station sells is the music, the personalities, news weather and sports, or the mere fact it’s “local” (although, in many chains, a lot of the so-called local programming is uploaded by staff in other communities).
The product radio stations actually sell to paying customers is listeners, and eyeballs on their websites. The more people who listen/click the more ads they can sell at a profitable price, and the more money everybody makes. It’s a pretty solid business model, if you can produce listeners.
The music, an engaging host, and news are just the tools to produce those listeners – the means of production if you will – and news is the sharpest tool in the box, but it needs to be wielded by skilled craftspeople.
Why is news the sharpest tool? Because, to mix my metaphors dangerously, it is radio’s gateway drug (that’s especially true online. It’s a big driver of traffic to local radio station websites).
People who aren’t into whatever music format you’re playing, or are lukewarm on the morning host, will tune in to check out a newscast from time-to-time to find out what’s going on in the community, or swing by the website to read the latest story from town council. They’ll do it more often if they’re hearing a high quality newscast delivered by professionals, and reading stories based in credible journalism (and, yes, they can tell).
The hardest listener to produce is a first-time listener, and that’s where skilled craftspeople wielding the sharpest tools excel. People who’ve never tuned in to your station before are more likely to tune in for the first time to hear a newscast above anything else, and if they find that newscast is the product of professional, credible journalists they’ll probably tune in again to hear another. Ideally, they’ll like whatever programming follows the news and keep listening for a while. Suddenly, boom! New regular listener.
None of that happens when your first cost-cutting instinct is to trim news staff or their resources, or try to get by with human Swiss Army Knives that are part disc jockey/part reporter (or, God forbid, part sales rep/part reporter), especially if that person has little or no solid journalism training or experience.
Small market stations should be a shining light in an industry that’s been going through dark times. And stations that recognize news, and the journalists behind it, can create a lot of the product customers crave – listeners – will be. But you need to let them be journalists, because letting them be journalists, and letting them be seen in the community as credible, professional, journalists, adds to the bottom line. Anything that dilutes the credibility and professionalism of your news department will eventually make it harder to produce those listeners your potential customers want to buy.
(Princess Bride fans are saying, “Credible: you keep using that word.” I do know what it means; and it’s vital for a small town journalist).
Bonus opinion: Although I work for a newspaper these days, I still believe local radio is the first place people will turn to as an indispensable source of information during an emergency. But a radio station without a credible, professional news department will probably fail that test when it comes. And the listeners it loses when it fails will be hard to win back. In the worst case the community won’t even bother tuning in in an emergency, because they’ll have already given up on your day-to-day news.
Bonus lightening of the mood: Journalism is tough gig… and to blow off stress I used to write draft resignation letters. Here’s one I drafted using stolen song lyrics. (Alas, it wasn’t the one I submitted when I left my radio gig). Feel free to sign along. Or cut-and-paste when you’re ready to quit your current job!
I get up every morning, from the alarm clock’s warning, head at 2:15 to the station.
Everything is bleak, it’s the middle of the night. I’m all alone, and the dummies might be right.
But this newsman sings his same song; one more radar lover gone.
Though we really did try to make it, something inside has died, and I can’t hide, and I just can’t fake it.
The feeling inside me says it’s time I was gone. Clear head, new life ahead, it’s time I was king now — not just one more pawn.
And although there’s pain in my chest, I still wish you the best with a…
My last day will be _______.”
***With apologies to: BTO, The Tragically Hip, Golden Earring, Carole King, Rush, and Cee Lo Green.