10 Secrets To Success In Small-Market Radio


(By Michael Dudding) Small-market radio success is very attainable when you decide your station is going to be the best. If you can use just one or two of these ideas to help your small-market station grow, then I’ve accomplished my goal.

1. Research. The more you know about your broadcast area, the more doors you open. The previous station owner said, “Now, this area of the state isn’t like the area you came from. It’s not as agricultural.” But current Iowa State University Extension data indicated our area of the state was rated 1, 2, or 3 in virtually every ag statistic. We changed our farm markets almost overnight. We eliminated a piped-in farm market network (robbing us of local ad dollars) and started reading markets from DTN — the same used by banks, elevators, etc., with their 10-to-15-minute actual market reporting delays. Research also means finding out what your radio station can do better than any other, then “growing that seed!”

2. Open more doors. We wanted our market coverage to be better than any other radio station’s. We contacted the Chicago Board of Trade and Chicago Mercantile Exchange and soon had “live markets as they happen” (for a fee). The CBOT and CME said we were one of only two radio stations nationwide to broadcast live quotes. We weren’t sure about our return on investment, but less than 10 days after promoting this new feature, a farmer congratulated me for adding it; he’d made $10,000 on selling his corn thanks to our instant farm market. He didn’t hesitate to record his story for a station promo. Our markets have been sold out for years.

3. Remodel. I believe remodeling and updating equipment as needed, in cooperation with the engineer, should be mandatory. Staff perform better in a clean, fresh environment. Furthermore, we never know if our next visitor might be the governor of Iowa. We annually make a list of equipment we’d like to update and other improvements, and what I do is predicated on my quarterly and projected P&L statement.

4. Respect. Annually, I have an evaluation of every staff member where I ask them to grade their performance over the last year and explain what they can do better, and how I can help them become better. Ask them to write what they believe is their job description; it might surprise you, and help solve problems. While all employees appreciate the annual compensation increases, one mistake I was making was not saying “great job” or “thank you” enough. Words meant more than money. I now try to communicate with each staff member, whether about their job, family, or what’s going on in their lives.

5. Allow staff to incorporate new ideas. I have a staff member becoming more involved in sports broadcasting. He wanted to enhance his play-by-play and game coverage, so now during his broadcasts, he has a number of area schools that text him the scores of their games as they happen. Listeners get the big picture.

6. Go above the norm. Besides insurance, we want our staff to be healthy. Everyone has a membership at a local fitness center, plus membership at our local 18-hole golf course. I’ve always believed in holiday bonuses — usually gift cards to be redeemed at local advertisers. One year we far exceeded our annual sales goal long before December 1, so we generated an “extra holiday bonus.” At a staff party, we explained, “For every $1 sold between now and December 31, 50 percent of that sale goes into an extra employee bonus fund.” We were honored to write checks totaling over $40,000.

7. Never stop building your audience. Being visible at public events is very important. Annually, during our county fair, we have a booth and invite listeners to stop by and record a liner about our radio station while identifying themselves and their hometown. (We have 10 to 12 pre-written liners we want to use for our station the next year.) Those who record receive a KDSN marketing item. We’ve averaged around 300 new recordings each of the last 23 years. Yes, many are duplicate “recording stars,” but roughly 75 percent each year are new voices. Guess what happens when they or their friends hear them on the radio three, six, nine months later? You might have just locked in a new listener. Everybody wants to hear themselves on the radio.

8. What does your audience want? We conducted a survey of over 1,500 people, asking them what they wanted or didn’t want to hear on our stations. One question asked what collegiate football team would they rather listen to, Iowa State or Iowa? We were already carrying Iowa State. Final tabulation showed only 20 votes’ difference between the teams. Solution? We have two stations, so we carry both. The results also helped sales: “This is what people want to hear. Let’s have your message before, during, or after this program.”

9. Open-door policy. My door is always open, and I will always stop whatever I’m doing and communicate with that staff member. Yes, it might mean I have to finish my work Saturday mornings, but as the saying goes, “You’re either green and growing or ripe and rotting.”

10. Most importantly: Keep it local! Local news, local activities, local talk shows with current people in the news locally. Anything can happen, anywhere. Take a current national story or crisis and interview local officials who can answer questions about “What if that happened here?” Have a “Good News Day” where listeners can call in positive things happening to them or their community.

Michael Dudding is owner and GM of the KDSN radio stations in Denison, IA, and one of Radio Ink’s Best Managers of 2016. He can be reached at [email protected]


  1. I’m sure I’m not the only implementation flunkie that read this and thought ‘I need to work for this guy!’. Instead, we get weekly staff meetings where we’re told ‘we’re broke’ every week, or a 5 minute annual review where they tell you ‘thanks for your hard work’, and that’s it. And a staff of 4 people for 5 stations. yeeha.

    • You “are broke” because you have an inadequate and probably poorly paid staff. Remember you got to spend money to make money……….a very valid adage.


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