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Radio Ink Writers

(MANAGEMENT) Small-Market Mentors


Growing up in the shadow of the booming, 50,000-watt AM giants from Chicago and Detroit, I quickly fell in love with big-market radio. Everything they had was better they had great air personalities, great jingles, and it even seemed like they had the hit records before other stations got them. A giant part of my passion for radio came from the inspiration created by WLS, Super WCFL, and CKLW in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Yet small markets offered me something the big markets did not: hope that I could get on the air somewhere someday, so I could learn, practice, and aspire to be as great as Larry Lujack, John Records Landecker, Fred Winston, and Charlie Van Dyke. They were my heros at the time. But as time went on, there were smallmarket stations that sounded every bit as good to me. WERT in Van Wert, OH, WERK/Muncie, IN, and WNAP in Indianapolis sounded just as tight and awesome as WLS. I learned small-market radio could be as good as the big stations; the sound was dependent on the leadership.

As publisher at Radio Ink, I always feel its my job to reflect the industry as a whole and give ideas to stations both big and small. Surveys weve done over the years told us that small-market stations thought we catered to the big-market stations, while the big-market stations thought we catered to the small markets. (The RAB and NAB have the same problem, Im told.) But Ive never let it bother me; we know were focused on ideas for all, and weve found that a good idea can be adapted for any size market.

Today, stations style of operation often has more to do with who owns them than their market size. Before industry consolidation, automated stations were virtually never found in large markets, but today you can find an automated, voicetracked station just about anywhere. Its not unusual to drive from sea to shining sea and hear the same promos, same contests, and same voices on multiple stations.

Im not judging I can find compelling radio in most places. But the fact is, there is often more innovation coming out of small towns. Its usually driven by necessity, finding a way to make another sale, and rarely driven by ratings alone.

Recently a manager in a major market confided in me that his goal was to retire a small market where he could do real radio again. He said his stations had become so reliant on national and regional agency business that his team never had to be very creative to get business; most of it fell in their laps. So when he started seeing business fall off, he turned to small markets for ideas. Small-market radio remains the petri dish for ideas and innovation the great ideas that get snatched up and used everywhere.

Ive always felt the tension between big-city radio and small-town stations, yet we share a common interest in entertaining audiences, engaging advertisers, and selling products. In fact, I think the tension is lower than ever before. Im seeing former major-market radio executives moving to work in small towns and realizing theyre happier than theyve been in years. Though most initially find moving down a hard pill to swallow, they end up realizing that they can live more normal, authentic lives and be more satisfied.

Of course, many who make the shift will also find that what works in a large market needs to be adjusted to fit local needs and culture. When I moved from Miami to take over my first station as an owner, in Provo, UT, the
manager of the station had to sit me down and set me straight on how things are done here. I had been full of myself, arrogant, and thinking I could sell circles around everyone. I quickly learned I was a living example of the big-city mouse visiting the country mouse. It was not only eye-opening, it was one of the most important lessons of my career.

This issue focuses on small-market radio, so if youre a city mouse, your first instinct may be to ignore it. After all, what can they possibly teach you? But I think there is much to be learned from these small-market mentors, and I encourage you to open your mind and realize that ideas come from all size markets, and great ideas can make any station better. If you need an idea that has been proven to sell, go to your computer and pull up the TuneIn app. Choose a small-town station to listen to, and youll mostlikely find ideas you can use in your town too.

Eric Rhoads is the publisher and CEO of Radio Ink