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Small Market? Hire Local. Hire Smart.

Your station can provide community service — without going broke

WIGO(FM) in White Stone, Va., created a sister website that covers local news and events; see

credit: Courtesy Bill Sherard

(Click to Enlarge)

What happens when a radio station in a small market becomes a music jukebox? The population suffers, and eventually, so will the owner.

While actual ratings may not be relevant to advertisers in small communities, results are vital. Commercials must motivate listeners to show up in stores or to order services from contractors and suppliers.

For decades, radio has been the reliable source for everything local in a community. While it may seem odd to big-city folks to hear obituaries read on-air alongside scores from a high school basketball game, this is music to my ears.

Give me the lunch menu at the elementary school or tell me the name of the kid down the block who won the town hot dog eating contest, and I will present the owner with a gold star for understanding the mission. Inform me of a breaking weather condition — like a dangerous flash flood or lightning strikes — and I will guarantee you a place in the hearts of local listeners.

Anybody can create a music jukebox; nearly everyone I know does this daily. And yet, what’s happened to so many small-market stations? They sound just like their large-market counterparts — song after song, with that decidedly non-local, perfect-sounding voice track that doesn’t even have the occasional regional accent.

Before you send me an email about how expensive it is to operate a small-market radio station, please reflect on what got you into broadcasting in the beginning of your career. Likely, you wanted to have an impact on listeners by telling them something they didn’t know or by entertaining them.

So how does a small-market operator provide local community service today without going broke?

Hire smart. Hire local.

Give a chance to young people who are more interested in the experience than the salary. Hire part-timers who want to work in radio because it’s so much more fun than their other job. As an owner, if you have the ability, do on-air work yourself. Cut a promotional deal with the local newspaper or a hyper-local website to do some of your on-air news for you, concentrating on highly listened day parts, like mornings and afternoons during the week and mid-days on Saturday and Sundays. If possible, sell (or give) local shows to community groups or religious organizations on the early morning weekends; they can put their own folks on the air to talk about local issues, play local artists or discuss zoning.

On the revenue side, consider selling a direct mail piece two to four times a year in conjunction with a solid three-month radio schedule. Contrary to what the media tell you, don’t believe that direct mail in small markets is dead. If the offer is a good one, a direct mail piece can move consumers to action. If you’re not convinced, add a local coupon page to your website, then heavily promote it on-air.

What happens when a small-market owner has more than one station? Obviously, there will be more than one format, so the local, local, local approach can be the same and may even render some savings by utilizing the same staff over several stations.

Another note of encouragement to small-market operators: If a large, out-of-town company owns a competing station, they are highly unlikely to embrace this local strategy. It’s not the accepted wisdom anymore, and those who advocate greater “body count” are perceived as being out of touch with corporate reality.

Don’t let anyone tell you that radio in small markets is dead and new media alone rule. Only broadcasting efficiently reaches a mass, non-fragmented audience with high-impact messaging. Local small-market radio is where it’s at today, and where it will be tomorrow, if we play to our strengths.

The author is president of Lapidus Media. Email[email protected].