(By Jon Quick) There’s a pretty well-known American out there who would attribute a lot of his early success in politics to doing an Indianapolis-based radio talk show that was once networked to a couple of dozen small cities and towns in the Hoosier State. He would tell you that it was through radio that he began to become one of the most well-known figures in the state. When he was first elected to Congress in 2001, this man who once called me his program director never forgot his radio roots.
He remembered those real, hard-working people — farmers, bankers, factory workers, moms and working moms — who got him elected. Realizing the importance of staying in touch with them, he was the first U.S. representative to install radio equipment in his Washington, DC office to make himself available on a regular basis to stations across Indiana. Politics aside, he knew how to use the power of radio to his advantage. It later helped elect him governor of Indiana.
Recently, we’ve heard that Mike Pence has moved back to Washington. Some might be less than happy about that, but let’s set those opinions aside for now.
One of the great powers of radio is still its ability to be more locally focused than any other medium. Many would also agree that the more radio becomes just another music box with nondescript announcers and the lack of any differentiation, the more radio’s relevance will fade. Others might say that’s already happening.
If you don’t agree, feel free to turn to another page. But if you have some concerns about the state of the radio industry, stay with me.
So where has real radio gone? Many of my colleagues contend that the place where you hear it most is in the smaller markets. These operators just don’t get enough credit. Let’s change that. In fact, a momentous change has already been made. With the advent of digital media, conceptually there really are no market sizes anymore. Anyone can hear most any radio station anywhere in the world, including those small markets where the unique medium radio once was still lives.
Those of us who are real radio geeks find immense joy while driving across America listening to these local radio treasures. They are still on the AM and FM bands, but also streaming on a variety of new platforms.
Of course, we called upon the beloved radio historian and holder of the title “Radio’s Best Friend.” Art Vuolo quickly responded, “Smallmarket radio is where the fun is, where the caring people are, and where the key elements of radio serving a community still exist.” Art adds, “In a business not known for its stability, you can find 20-, 30-, and even 40-year veterans in places like New Ulm, MN; Saginaw, MI; and Athens, OH. That’s hard to find at big corporate stations in major markets today.”
This doesn’t at all mean these talents aren’t good enough to work in a bigger market. Most of these dedicated personalities just love small-market radio, where they can still have fun every day, not worry about the price of the company stock, and be allowed to be creative without tight clocks and so many time restraints. In fact, more and more major-market greats are going back to their small-market roots for just that reason.
With credit to the many great radio stations and personalities in many of those bigger markets, you still hear people saying, “Whatever happened to radio?” James Edward “Jed” Duvall of WFYI in Indianapolis reminded me of a jingle done back in the early ’70s, way before people had the serious concerns about radio they have today.
That jingle went something like this: “It’s a shame what’s happened to radio, but they can’t afford to do it anymore. It’s a shame they can’t hire a section of strings and a group that sings ‘W-I-B-C’ (or ‘K-V-I-L’) … but they can’t afford to do it anymore (do it anymore).”
Maybe it’s time we brought back that jingle.
We can find great radio in a lot of places. But for now, let’s focus on the Midwest, known as the Heartland of America. (It’s also referred to as “flyover country” by people who don’t know any better.) Let’s hop around and visit a few of these stations. We’ll find some notable examples of real radio — stations entertaining, informing, and taking care of their communities.
First stop: WEFM 95.9 in Michigan City, IN. Today’s it’s the home of one of America’s legendary radio personalities and the author of Records Truly Is My Middle Name, John Records Landecker. Soon to be honored this fall after being elected into the National Radio Hall of Fame on the first ballot, Landecker says, with no qualms at all, “There are few people in this industry today who really know how to make radio work, from creating informative and entertaining programming to creating advertising that really works, despite the ratings.”
Landecker adds (just slightly tongue-incheek), “And it’s not accumulating $20 billion in debt! I still love doing radio because of my love and enthusiasm for radio. I know that’s why I got into the business.”
Today you can hear Landecker (on-air or online) doing a weekly radio program in Michigan City. You might also be lucky enough hear him doing an occasional high school football or basketball game or a town parade. “It’s the most fun I’ve had in radio in a long time,” he says. “There are no ratings here. Just people that really get it. But hey, gotta sign off now. Going to do a remote at the local Honda dealer. (I’m not kidding.)”
I remember standing-room-only at a radio conference some years ago, when the speaker was radio wizard Randy Michaels. He said about those who think a successful radio product is all about ratings, especially for the News/ Talk format: “Selling cost per point misses the point. Instead, the real sellers today can sell beyond the book. They know how to sell radio’s impact factor.”
The small markets have learned to do that. Many of them are in unrated markets, yet they still find ways to sell both the on-air and the online product. Plus, they are masters at selling events that add substantially to the bottom line.
Scenic southern Minnesota is where you’ll find three-time Marconi finalist KNUJ in New Ulm, a small town of just over 13,000 people at the confluence of the Minnesota and the Cottonwood Rivers. (New Ulm is home to Schell’s Beer.) One of many small stations owned by Tor Ingstad of the famed Ingstad family of broadcasters, KNUJ is as progressive as any station in the larger markets.
General Manager Jim Bartels says, “We don’t use ratings. We sell Main Street, not Wall Street. We sell the power of real hometown radio. We sell results, and do it by developing solid relationships with our clients and community of listeners. It takes work, but it’s radio the way radio was always meant to be. I think the big boys from the large metros would really enjoy watching us operate. They might learn something — and we might learn from them. It’s time radio people from all markets started working together to make radio stronger than ever.”
And, by the way, the Tor Ingstad-owned stations have embraced digital and social media as well as any, and realize there’s a whole new world of revenue out there.
Another Minnesota small-market station, this one 45 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, is KCHK in New Prague. A daily polka hour is still alive and well, and the station still features live music in studio on the popular Live Musician Friday.
Just about another hour down the road, we can tune in to KNUJ/Hutchinson, MN. Another part of the down-home charm found in the small markets are those cherished real-life local characters that you just cannot invent — naturally funny personalities who speak the language of their listeners. Perhaps the most famous was Wally Pikal, who for decades did a Friday radio show called The Pikal Patch on KDUZ/Hutchinson, entertaining audiences with his old-time band.
A true character, Wally played two and even three trumpets at the same time, sometimes doing so while jumping on a pogo stick, to the amazement of his audiences. In an appearance on The Tonight Show (guest host Joey Bishop was filling in for Johnny Carson) in 1973, Wally played three trumpets while jumping on his pogo stick, to which Bishop responded, “Son of a gun!” Wally continued to perform almost until he passed away, just this past March. His death brought emotional tributes in media outlets big and small throughout the area.
Meanwhile, if we jump way up north to the portion of Minnesota known as “God’s Country,” we find KTRF-AM/Thief River Falls. “A radio station like KTRF-AM is as important to a community as the hospital, police station, and fire department,” says GM Jake Weber. “Over the past 70 years, broadcasting technology advancements have greatly improved the tools we use to serve our listeners and clients in Thief River Falls. However, a voice coming over the radio in the middle of a storm will always be our greatest strength. If you want to truly feel alive and see the power of radio firsthand, go to work for a small-market station. I’ve worked in bigger markets, but I came back.”
Continuing our journey, just two hours to the south, on the border between North Dakota and Minnesota, the AM giant known as “The Mighty 790,” KFGO, still stands tall. This Duke Wright-owned radio station is one of the true examples of radio greatness. Twice the winner of the Marconi for News/Talk Station of the Year against some of the most distinguished major market stations in the U.S., and booming across vast stretches of Minnesota, the Dakotas, and north into Canada, KFGO prides itself in being all-local 24/7, with a news unit and personalities that rival any in the country. The station has also won two Peabody Awards, one of them for what law enforcement and major political figures called “life-saving public service” during coverage of major flooding that crippled the region — as KFGO stayed on the air while other media found it difficult to operate during power outages.
“What’s old is new,” says KFGO GM Dan Cash. “Local radio has so much going for it. We are the original Facebook Live. We are the original mobile medium. We created geofencing through live broadcasts, yard signs, and banners. Our success will be defined by our ability to recognize that we did these things first. It’s time to re-educate the masses on just how powerful live radio, nontraditional-revenue-producing events, jingles, and local production really are.
Taking a quick flight down to southwest Indiana, the owner of DLC Media, Dave Crooks, says, “Radio is in my blood so thick that I chose to give up my second love — politics — in exchange for creating a mini-empire of nine radio stations in small towns that include Brazil, Washington, Terre Haute, and Rockville, IN.” The six-term Indiana member of the Indiana House and onetime U.S. congressional hopeful today faithfully sets his clock radio at 5:58 to catch CBS News at the top of the hour — then travels each morning to the White Steamer restaurant to catch up on the rest of the news.
“My staff appreciates that I am in the trenches with them,” Crooks says. “I don’t ask them to do things I wouldn’t do myself.” Crooks believes he has the formula for building a good local radio station: “You’ve got to do a respectable job of covering the local communities and putting the local high school basketball games on the air.”
He also stresses the importance of an exceptional news product and weather coverage strong enough to be life-saving when needed. Recently, Crooks even brought in significant revenue by doing play-by-play of the Indiana All-Star State Little League Championship. The idea started when one of his morning announcers, DeWayne Shake, told Crooks his 14-yearold son made the All-Star Team. He obviously takes an interest in his employees’ lives and shares their joys and sorrows.
“Despite all the new digital options consumers now have and which we use extensively, I still believe traditional media remains strong,” says. “People still want to read their local newspaper and listen to local radio stations. If you keep the content local and take good care of the communities you serve, there is still a path to success.”
These small-town stations have several in common. First, it’s local programming that touches the community in a variety of ways. Also, from a sales standpoint, they know how to sell based on relationships. They don’t have ratings, nor do they need them because they have mastered the art of real salesmanship.
Radio is also still especially viable in so many of these small markets because they often don’t have a daily local newspaper. Local radio fills the bill with daily listings of birthdays and anniversaries, school lunch menus, births and death notices. Even swap shop and “Tradio” shows are still popular and add to the charm.
One of radio’s greatest visionaries, Emmis Communications CEO Jeff Smulyan, says, “Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge fan of radio in any size market. Yet it occurs to me sometimes that some companies have forgotten the dedication to the great live and local personalities — people who touch their communities with relevant content that is entertaining, informative, and sometimes life-saving in the case of natural disasters and severe weather coverage. That’s where local radio shines. I especially applaud the smaller markets for their performance in these areas. We can learn a lot from them.
“At Emmis, we are working hard to keep local radio alive and well. We are very proud of the progress we have made with NextRadio, designed, in part, to keep real local radio alive and well. Today we carry smartphones like we once did transistor radios. To have radio easily available on our phones is a natural, both to provide easier access to local stations for entertainment, but also for vital news and information that is sometimes only available on radio.”
Despite the naysayers, NextRadio will be a home run in helping local radio survive, if Smulyan, his team, and the NAB have anything to say about it.
Back around 1990, I cut out a piece I found in the radio trades, and I keep it in my top drawer to this day. It’s from one of America’s all-time great programmers, the late Rick Sklar, the man who made WABC one of the greatest success stories in radio. It’s as valid today as it was then – maybe even more so.
“Programming and marketing decisions in radio today are driven by numbers, statistics, and computer-interpreted data, often at the expense of plain common sense and showmanship. People are afraid to be creative unless it’s been researched. But the longer I’m in radio, the more obvious it becomes to me that we’re in show business. The giant stations that dominate their markets year after year, like the long-running hits on Broadway and the top ten movies, songs and books of the year, entertain with a capital ‘E.’ Stations that don’t creatively entertain, first and foremost, are doomed to mechanical mediocrity in their sound and their rating performance.”
If you’re one of those who sometimes wonders “Where has all the great radio gone?” take some time to check out some of the too-often unheralded small-market stations, personalities, and operators. As more of the big companies face fiscal crises and their stations become more and more generic, the day may come where real radio is gone and the industry must reinvent itself. Let’s hope not. But if so, maybe a good start would be a trip to New Ulm, MN; Washington, IN; or Fargo, ND.
Jon Quick is a veteran manager of over 25 years for CBS/Minneapolis and Emmis/Indianapolis. Today he consults radio stations, with a specialty in small markets. He is also the president and owner of a full-service ad agency, Q Public Relations & Marketing, headquartered in Indianapolis. He can be reached at 317.432.0309 or [email protected].