With Radio Blogs, Stations Practice the Art of the Possible

As broadcasters in the Internet age sought new ways to connect with their audience, many stations added Web pages, started streaming program audio and initiated podcasts. Some in the past few years also have added station blogs.
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As broadcasters in the Internet age sought new ways to connect with their audience, many stations added Web pages, started streaming program audio and initiated podcasts. Some in the past few years also have added station blogs.

This variant on Internet technology offers radio stations benefits but also some traps. Station managers have learned useful lessons about blogs even as these online content vehicles have become more mainstream.

Blogs (short for “Web logs”) are sites where entries are made in chronological order and typically displayed in reverse chronological order. Many sites allow readers of the blog to leave their comments.

While most blogs are text-based, photo, video and audio posts are becoming more common.

Stations may design blogs in several ways. There can be a separate blog for each announcer. Blogs can be set up for a program, and moderated by a host, or they may be organized by topic: music, movies, politics, etc.

WGN(AM) in Chicago started station blogs in the summer of 2005. While an exact figure for the number of visitors isn’t available, Promotions Coordinator Jenny Eck notes there has been a steady increase in use as blogs become more mainstream.

“It has definitely been a positive experience for the station, and is a way for hosts to extend the reach of their radio shows.”

She notes that typical submissions from hosts may be about questions they should have asked guests, or additional material that could not be presented due to lack of time.

Listeners may express feelings that the host let a particular guest off easily, and should have asked tougher questions. Currently WGN maintains nine blogs on its Web site.

Reflecting on ideas to build a successful station blog, Eck said, “One of the most important things is making a commitment to keep up with it, and make sure there is new and exclusive content.” In this way, she adds, it is similar to maintaining a Web page.

Online StrategyThere can be many facets to an online presence: a Web page, streaming content, podcasts, blogs and emerging media.

As the aggregate audience for traditional AM-FM broadcasts has declined, many observers believe stations need a comprehensive plan for how to embrace established and emerging online technologies.

At WFMU, General Manager Ken Freedman and staff have developed an online strategy that develops a new audience and engages them in unconventional ways. Freedman notes that blogs are just one part of a larger online strategy, which includes streaming both FM radio and independent content, a Flickr presence, a Myspace presence, online archiving of radio and Internet content and starting next year, legal downloads of music.

Freedman notes that the online audience for WFMU’s streams has been increasing while the radio audience has declined slightly.

Despite its rather large online presence, WFMU has a staff of three. Freedman said the station has been able to deputize listeners and readers to develop much of the content. Initially the staff did most of the writing and production, but that quickly changed.

“Any big site ends up using readers to do the work.” He cites Fark.com and Wikipedia as examples.Character attacks

While blogs can provide another way for listeners to connect with the station, there can be a downside.

Debbie Chavez, program director for KGMI(AM), a news-talk station in Bellingham, Wash., said, “We started the blogs about a year and a half ago, and allowed listeners to post comments. Things quickly deteriorated into negativism and character assassination.

“It became clear that when you allow people to be anonymous, it brings out the worst in some of them.”

Even worse, Chavez noted, was an incident where a poster made libelous comments and signed using someone else’s name. The potential of bad PR for the station and legal liability for slander was enormous.

KGMI quickly changed its blog policy, requiring posters to e-mail their comments to station hosts, who could elect to post them on the blog, or not.

“With the new policy, the mean-spirited messages virtually disappeared,” said Chavez. “People still had criticisms about some of our programming, but they were much more civil and thoughtful about how they presented themselves.”

She said stations thinking of adding blogs should assign someone to screen all the postings. “Some people will scream about freedom of speech, but you need to think about the station’s image and reputation.”

For WFMU(FM), a listener-supported station in Jersey City, N.J., with a freeform radio format, blogging has been a successful venture, but not in the ways initially expected.

General Manager Ken Freedman said, “When we launched ‘Beware of the Blog’ in 2004, we thought it would attract listeners to the radio programming. But the blog is such a different medium that we were not able to attract the blogosphere audience to radio.

“Instead, it brought listeners, viewers and readers to our world, but not to the radio side.” He said there is some crossover between the two media, but it has been minimal. Some bloggers donate money to WFMU during radio fund drives, but this too is a small number.

Content

The trick for success with blogs, according to Freedman, is for radio to think of itself as a content provider, delivering photos, articles, videos and alternative radio programming via the Web.

“The rules of radio don’t apply to the blogosphere. Blogs can be more powerful than radio in some ways. Radio is ephemeral, while blogs leave a fingerprint.”

He cites an example of post on the station blog about a man in Romania with a rare skin disease. Pictures led to a discussion of the disease, dermatologists got involved, readers felt moved to get the man some help.

With treatment, the man’s condition improved till he was almost cured. “That never would have happened with a news story on radio,” said Freedman.

Large media organizations may find other uses for blogs. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has the usual fare of blogs for CBC Radio 2 and Radio 3, which enable listeners and viewers to post messages and photos while commenting on programs. They also maintain insidetheCBC.com, the official CBC employee blog.

Posted here are stories such as a description of the arrest of a CBC cameraman while filming a demonstration, the death of a longtime CBC producer and a story about a long-overdue employee promotion. The site is written and moderated by a number of CBC employees.

While blogs and radio are different media, Freedman notes similarities. “An active blog is like a great radio station. They both have a distinct personality and great content.”

Experts say that as the digital age evolves and terrestrial audiences shrink, stations need to think about how they utilize the Web to extend their brand and connect with listeners. An active Web page, streaming and podcasting are a great start, but more can be done. Music and news/talk stations have different needs, but with planning, both may be able to expand their relationships with the audience by entering the blogosphere.

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