Is Radio Losing Touch?
Richard Harker
Richard Harker

Avatar is the highest grossing movie of all time. It has taken in more than $700 Million dollars. On top of that, it was nominated for nine Oscars.
           How well did radio tap into the Avatar phenomenon? Were there major radio events using Avatar as a central theme? Did radio stations turn Avatar from a national phenomenon into a local one?
           Perhaps some stations recognized the promotional opportunities. Whatever was done, was low key and below the radar screen.
           If Avatar had come out a decade or two ago, radioís response might have been very different. A few attentive stations would have quickly sensed the movieís momentum and created promotions. Word of the promotions would have spread, fueling more promotions and bigger events. Ultimately stations all across the country would have had major events having people running through forests dressed up like a Naívi or Omaticaya.
           Local television news would have carried stories of ďa local radio stationĒ assembling dozens of blue colored people at a local landmark. People would have talked about Avatar as a local radio station event, not just a popular movie.
           And what about the movieís more serious theme of deforestation? Did any station tie the movieís message to local conservation efforts? How many stations did ďsave the parkĒ events with an Avatar theme? That too could have connected a national movie to a local issue and scored points for the radio station.
           Urban Cowboy and Saturday Night Fever gave two formats songs to play, but radio embraced both movies beyond the music. Mechanical bull promotions spread well beyond Country. Disco, before it became a format, was first a novelty element on many CHRs. Given the state of radio, if similar movies came out today one wonders whether radio would do anything more than play a few songs from the soundtracks.
           Good radio people have always had a sixth sense about what people were going to be doing and what people were going to be talking about. Radio always found a way to exploit and co-opt pop culture and become part of social fads and trends.
           Unfortunately, radio seems to have lost its touch, its ability to tap into whatís happening.
           Too many radio stations pretend to be plugged into pop culture, but arenít. They stream, they tweet, have a web site, are on Facebook, but there is a hollowness to the efforts.
           Just having a web site isnít enough. Having a Facebook account isnít enough. The fact that you tweet isnít special or significant. It is what radio does with these social networks that matters. And too often what we do with social networking is follow pop culture, not shape it.
           The irony is that radio today should be better equipped to impact trends instead of just watching them from the sidelines. Larger station groups were supposed to give radio stations the resources that smaller groups couldnít afford. It hasnít worked out that way.
           Larger groups were supposed to better facilitate the pooling of creative ideas. Does anyone think radio is more creative today than before consolidation?
           Why hasnít radio exploited the potential of flash mobbing?
           Of course programmers will argue that given the ability of the Web to instantly alert the world about anything from the most important geo-political event to the most trivial provides radio little room to keep up with trends let alone keep ahead of them.
           The argument misses the point. Successful radio stations have always had the ability to turn something in the national consciousness into something local.
           In the mid to late 1990s, Beanie Babies were a national phenomenon. Everybody wanted them, but nobody could find the highly sought after ones. A station that could get its hands on a Peanut the elephant, Nana, Quackers, or Chilly had something people would fight for. The buzz was priceless.
           What radio station is looking for the next Beanie Baby?
           Lady Gaga has sold more than 8 million CDs (those are the round shiny things that people used to listen to music on) and 20 million digital singles. She has nearly 3 million Twitter followers and over 5 million Facebook fans.
           Where are the Lady Gaga promotions? Where are the look alike contests? Is radio doing anything to tap into the fascination with Lady Gaga other than play her songs?
           Before the Internet, labels would come to radio offering artist promotions and tie-ins. Exclusive interviews and give-aways made it easy.
           Now artists can communicate directly to fans through social networks. The labels donít think they need radio. Finding a local angle is harder, but worth the effort. How many of Lady Gagaís 5 million Facebook fans live in your city?
           The Twilight Saga has become a huge book and movie franchise. Twilight sold 10 million DVDs in 2009, more than any other movie. New Moon generated $26 million with its midnight debut (a record), made $73 million its first weekend (a record), and $142 million its first weekend, third biggest ever.
           Where was radio? How many stations were there for Twilightís midnight release?
           Radio can once again become a local marketís fashion arbiter. We have a powerful set of tools to do it. Web sites tell us what people are Googling, blogging, and tweeting. Web sites report the latest Hollywood gossip, the latest gadgets, the latest fashion, and monitor the whereabouts of A-list people. Listeners are awash in information and Web dispensed minutia.
           We can serve as the listenerís aggregator of all things culturally hip. The one thing radio needs to do is synthesize all this information, figure out what our listeners are going to be doing and talking about, and turn it into compelling radio.
           Whatever people are talking about, we need to be the local contact point. Our goal isnít to out-gossip TMZ, out-exclusive E!, or twitter before Ryan Seacrest. Our goal should be to find a local angle.
           It will work as well today as it has in the past. The only thing that has changed is the pace at which information now flows.
           We need to more quickly see the wave of interest coming, we need to position the radio station to be ready when the wave hits, and then we need to embed the station into whatever is happening.
           Someplace along the line, local radio became nationalized. In the process, too many programmers forgot that even in an Internet connected world, local connections matter most. Make something happen locally.

Richard Harker is President of Harker Research, a company providing a wide range of research services to radio stations in North America and Europe. Twenty-years of research experience combined with Richard's 15 years as a programmer and general manager helps Harker Research provide practical actionable solutions to ratings problems. Visit www.harkerresearch or contact Richard at (919) 954-8300.


Nikki Nite,
VP of Prog. & Ops,

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