Local radio is still 'red hot'

March 28, 2017 01:30

By JJ Green, RTDNA Contributor

Back in the 1980s, the Radio Advertising Bureau ran a campaign with the tag line, “Radio: Red hot because it works.” People who grew up listening to radio never doubted that, because it was everywhere; in the car, at home, in the office, in the middle of nowhere.

But a comparatively new and pernicious threat looms. Attempts to ostracize local radio are becoming more frequent.

A few years ago, in pursuit of an interview with a top U.S. government security official, a spokesperson told me, “We don’t think WTOP, or local radio, is a good use of our senior leader’s time.”

Stung by the encounter, it prompted me to think more deeply about why an entire industry and it hundreds of millions of constituents was being dissed by a spokesman. Uninformed bad-mouthing of radio is not new. People have been prematurely eulogizing it for decades, claiming every new technology is going to kill it.

But frankly, it’s indestructible.

During natural disasters, power outages, places where smart devices and other electronics don’t work, radio is there; a lifeline during those desperate times. And on those bad days and every other day as well, radio comes loaded with indispensable information, education, perhaps most importantly, imagination.

But since 2009, when the incident happened, a new strain of radio detractors has appeared. I, and other local radio journalists, have been stone-walled or put off by political officials and spokespeople who’ve questioned the value of engaging with local radio, claiming no one of import was listening – even in Washington. The aforementioned spokesperson said, “We can best get our message out using the Sunday shows, large newspapers and broadcast networks.”

What’s funny about that statement is that every day, the people from those very same genres of news along with authors and every type of newsmakers imaginable, line up to get on radio for a three minute live segment to talk about their work.

NPR's Jack Speer, a colleague I’ve known and respected for decades, bristled at attempts to devalue local radio. “For someone to say that local radio doesn’t matter is totally off base. I’ve been in both, network and local radio for quite a while and I think all radio is local. People drive around in their cars. If they’re listening to my NPR news on the local public radio affiliate, here in Washington, D.C., they’re also listening to the local radio host, here in Washington and the news they present. So it’s not just an either or proposition.”

As far as a local radio being an alleged waste of time for political leaders, former Deputy White House Press Secretary Shawn Turner, who served in the Obama administration says, “Political leaders have to understand that local radio is one of the best possible resources for people who live in and visit areas like Washington, D.C. It’s also one of the best possible resources for politicians attempting to get their information and messages out.”

To be clear, this is not just an “inside the beltway” issue.

Joel Oxley, Sr. VP/GM for Hubbard Radio, based at WTOP says radio is hotter than ever, everywhere. “Listenership in radio overall is higher than it's ever been. In the United States, more than 250 million people per week listen. Almost 93 percent of the population listens, regularly.”

Part of the reason for that, according to Oxley, is the growing traffic problems in many cities around the country. “People also are incredibly busy and are in their cars a lot. Listening to radio is a very efficient way to get your news and information.  Not that people, of course don't use their smartphones to get a lot of information, but radio gives you a wide variety of information”, Oxley said.

And he says those who listen to radio are rewarded. “You’re covered when you come to us. You’ll how to get to work, what to wear, what's going to be up for your kids that day, and what's going on in the stock market, sports, the big news headlines. So by the time you get to work or when you go off to that event in the evening, you're prepared because you're able to listen and drive at the same time.”

Some of the senior leaders the aforementioned spokesman referred to, confirmed in private conversations that they disagreed with his view regarding radio, but given the hectic pace of their jobs, they had no time to intervene in the press selection process.

The notion that local radio is a waste is misguided. But to counteract the problem, we practitioners of local radio have to do our part. Recognition of parochial attempts to devalue radio is the first step. Next, more aggressive push-back against it is vital. And finally, supporting the work of our colleagues in local radio is an absolute necessity.

JJ Green is National Security Correspondent at WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C.