The author of this commentary is communication lecturer and faculty director at WGSU(FM) at SUNY Geneseo, Rochester, N.Y.
Many years ago, more than I care to remember, I heard a radio interview with a major rock artist of the time. I think it was the late Tom Petty. As I recall, the interviewer asked about his politics. His response was something along the lines of, “Man, I’m for everybody.”
It was an astute reply by a savvy public figure recognizing: a.) He was a music artist, not a politician or expert on all things; b.) He had fans of, undoubtedly, many political stripes; and c.) He didn’t want to alienate any of those fans, which was smart — if in a purely financial sense.
Four decades later, celebrities, corporations and, yes, even radio stations big and small seem to glom onto the latest social fad, fancy or frenzy by posting symbols such as colorful flags or raised fists.
Is it wise for radio stations?
The marketers might say so. After all, what’s more important than connecting with the “youth audience” no matter the cause, wrongly viewing “youth” as a monolithic group.
I think they’re wrong — and that Tom Petty was right.
Customizing social-media logos, for instance, to conform with the latest cultural or social fad often represents, at best, virtue signaling — potentially alienating up to half a station’s listeners or more, if many — including those supporting a particular cause — view it as disingenuous corporate pandering, which, let’s be honest, it frequently is.
Consider the reactions to some of the most inane virtue-signaling social-media posts by big corporations. When followers asked Oreo, for instance, “But what does this have to do with cookies?!” … it’s a really good question. And how many radio stations shared rainbow-flag images in June but were too afraid to post the U.S. flag on Memorial Day, Flag Day and Independence Day, even though most of their listeners are Americans … living in America?
This isn’t to suggest that radio stations should avoid ever taking a stand on anything, which would be rather bland — especially for formats, such as talk, with consistent political slants.
But, for others, especially music-formatted stations, first know your audience, and ask yourself beforehand: Is it worth it? Do I really want to potentially alienate up to half — or more — of my listeners? Then think about your own motivation: Is it genuine? Or could it be seen as “jumping on the bandwagon” and pandering, if, deep down, there’s a good chance it is?
For many consumers, virtue signaling (“woke smoke” from “woke capitalism”) is growing wearying and off-putting, with a strong chance of backlash. So whether selling Oreo cookies or trying to reach radio audiences in especially challenging times for legacy media, why make the effort even harder by potentially alienating half your customer base? Instead, consider adhering to the venerable business-school advice: “Stick to the knitting“ — with what you know.
Tom Petty had it right: Just be “for everybody.”
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