Localism has always been a vital component of running a successful small-market radio station. It may take the form of local news and sports coverage, a presence at parades and local events, and public affairs programming.
Listeners can sign up to receive text alerts when public schools, tech institutes and higher education close their doors for bad weather.
WMFD, a local radio-TV broadcaster in Mansfield, Ohio, has explored localism through a successful text messaging campaign. Rob Meisse, president and general manager of parent company, Mid-State Multimedia Group said it didn’t happen overnight.
“We started five years ago with school closings. Then we added high school sports scores. Sponsors were signed up. From there, we just kept adding more categories and topics that our listeners could receive text messages about.”
Today, he says, WMFD has 60,000 subscribers and sends 32 million text messages annually. WMFD can also send email messages to its listeners, but text is by far the preferred medium.
Listeners can go on the station website and sign up for messages in categories including breaking news, severe weather warnings, Pump Patrol gas prices, pollen alerts and health department alerts.
“The secret to our success is making it hyper-local,” said Meisse. “And with sponsorship, we’ve grown it into a significant revenue stream for the company.”
There is a technology component involved in sending out large numbers of text messages in a short period of time.
Meisse has an IT degree, and wrote the code for the original software used by WMFD to send text messages. “We used to run the entire operation in-house,” Meisse said. “But as the service grew, we had to send millions of messages out in short order. At that scale, it was no longer feasible for us to go it alone.”
The station farmed out the distribution component to TextCaster, a permission-based messaging system that allows its customers to broadcast content to many people and across multiple delivery channels. The service enables users to reach target audiences with a few keystrokes via text messages, email or across social media. Other options include mobile web and web syndication.
Some of the stats published by TextCaster suggest the power of this approach to reach people. Ninety-five percent of texts are read within three minutes. Text messages have a 209-percent higher response rate than phone calls. And a 99-percent open rate ensures that the messages do get read.
There is also a bit of salesmanship in the process of signing up listeners for the messages, Meisse said. “When someone goes on our site to sign up for breaking news alerts, for example, they see all the other topics and categories that we have available. Rarely do they just sign up for that one thing.”
The takeaway from the WMFD experience seems clear: Text messaging services are a great way for stations to enhance their localism and boost the bottom line at the same time.
Meisse offers a few pointers: “Our success with texting is all in the content. Know what kind of information your audience needs, particularly that which is not readily available elsewhere. Start small and get a feel for what is involved. Most important, do it well, and do it consistently. This is where many stations come up short. If you do it right, your numbers will grow big time.”
WMFD partnered with the Ohio State Highway Patrol, which was looking for a way to communicate with the public about road issues while reducing the number of calls to overworked dispatchers.
Stations contemplating a text messaging campaign also need to consider some of the legal implications. Marty Stern, a partner at Womble Bond Dickinson*, specializes in legal and strategic council for telecommunications, information technology and media firms, and advises clients on TCPA matters. He advises stations to understand the regulations that govern mass dissemination of text messages.
“The Telephone Consumer Protection Act governs text campaigns. It is implemented in FCC rules and regulations, and enforced by the FCC, and in the courts through class-action litigation.”
He adds that TCPA regulations are unforgiving, with a statutory $500 per-call fine for violations.
“There is also an aggressive TCPA class-action plaintiff’s bar, which files cases in federal courts nationwide. Seven-figure settlements for TCPA violations are not uncommon,”
A key point of TCPA, according to Stern, is that stations need prior express consent of the called party. When a listener signs up for messages and provides a wireless number, he or she is giving consent to be called. Stations must have in place a way of obtaining consent as well as documenting and maintaining that evidence.
Another issue that stations need to be aware of, according to Stern, is what to do if consent is revoked by a listener, or their cell number is transferred to another customer. A procedure must be in place for detecting and recording revocations, and ensuring that those requests are honored. Users need to scrub lists of reassigned numbers periodically. He adds that there are some services that provide lists of reassigned numbers.
Stern notes that even if a station opts to have a text casting service handle the distribution of their messages, there is still a legal obligation for the station to do due diligence in investigating the service and ensure the contract between the station and the service spells out compliance with TCPA.
He adds, “A recent court ruling held a media outlet vicariously liable for the actions of a telemarketer in not removing the names of those who asked to opt out.”
In all cases, stations need to be sure that the maintenance of lists of listeners who have subscribed, those who have opted out, and those who have changed their mobile numbers is accurate and up to date. Also, those interested in launching their own text campaign would be well advised to seek advice from legal counsel with experience in communications law and the TCPA in particular, according to Stern.
Has your station developed a creative solution to a common radio management challenge? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This article was updated Nov. 21 to reflect the law firm's name change from Womble Carlyle to Womble Bond Dickinson, effective Nov. 1.