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Are You Speaking in a Local Voice?

To find out, lock yourself in your house all day and just listen

“The best way to get an accurate feeling for your radio station is to lock yourself in your home for a half day — or even a full day — and do nothing but listen.”

I received this piece of advice from one of my mentors.

“Sure, you can record the station and fast-forward through music and commercials so you just hear the talent and promos; but that’s not how real people listen to radio. Listeners don’t have the option of fast-forwarding through things, but they can push the button and change stations easily,” he continued.

“The single most important item in this exercise is to listen for localism. Is the radio station a reflection of the community in which you live and is it truly speaking to the target demo?”

Bill Sherard told me this more than 20 years ago. Recently I was stuck at home for a long day of forced listening; it hit me hard that several program directors in my town would do well to take his advice.

As you begin your own listening exercise, consider this list of things to listen for.

Where is your radio station? If you listen for an hour and you come to the conclusion that your radio station could be in Any City, USA, you’ve got a significant problem.

Even if your station is being voice-tracked from elsewhere, there is no excuse not to have local information in the form of weather, traffic, local entertainment options, news, etc. The info doesn’t have to be long or detailed, but does have to be localized to your broadcast area.

Another common issue is confusing a studio location with a broadcast area. Listeners don’t think your studio location is the center of the universe, but your talent might.

When offering area temperatures, spread the temps out over many towns in your contour. Don’t make those burgs sound as if they’re distant or disconnected from your studio.

While listeners probably won’t care that it’s raining where your DJs are, they will care to know where that heavy rain is coming next throughout your listening area.

Can everyone on your staff properly pronounce the name of your local towns in the vernacular used by the population? Recently one of my local public radio stations has been adding state names to the end of every city they mention, as if we locals have no idea where that city is located without a state designation. Just today, I heard that it’s 95 degrees in “Springfield, Virginia” and 96 in “Rockville, Maryland.” Springfield has over 140,000 people in it and I’m pretty sure they know that they’re part of the Commonwealth.

Another issue involves simulcasts on other frequencies to extend coverage. Don’t those listeners deserve to be treated as locals too? Likely they don’t all live in your alternate city of license, so if that’s the only city you ever refer to, you’re not going to build much of a bond. You’ll be known as that station that comes in from out of town and doesn’t care that their town of residence exists.

To be a great program director, you’ve got to be a great listener. iStockphoto/Özgür Donmaz Are your commercials any good? If you want listeners to hang through commercial breaks, you’ve got to be careful about the number of consecutive units; and be certain a large percentage of your spots entertain and inform.

If your staff is too small to perform this function, outsource the work. There have never been as many reasonably priced production houses who do excellent work (mainly ’cause they’re now solo shops out of anywhere from apartments to McMansions).

Are you talking about local events? It would be nice if your station personalities appeared at a lot of places. However, if your staff is too small or voiced from out of town, you can still promote the fun stuff that’s happening this weekend. Take ownership and do it with frequency, so listeners will be aware that you care.

Do you acknowledge local history? Every city has legends, myths and facts. How often is the station plugging into this gold mine of shared emotional experiences? People love to reminisce about teams that won, amazing parades, local heroes and even weird crimes.

Do you recognize locals? The smaller the town, the more effective the mention. Even in large cities, referring to people by name and home city adds juice to your brand.

No doubt you can come up with five more things to focus on during your listening experience. Write and tell me about them.

By the way, this isn’t a one-time project. As hard as it may be to get out of the office, you should go through this exercise four times a year.

Remember the mantra: To be a great program director, you’ve got to be a great listener.

The author is president of Lapidus Media.