Midlands Media Group calls Columbia, SC home. MMG is as local as local can get in Nielsen’s 75th DMA. The market boasts about 80 radio stations and digital platforms, including the usual mix of “Big Boy” radio companies. Kirk Litton and Keith Stover are Managing Partners of the group that owns Undivided Country 94-3 the DUDE, 93.1 the Lake and ColaDaily.com, a free local digital news platform.
MMG, like other groups, took a COVID hit, Litton telling Radio Ink, “Q1 began very strong, up 11% over 2019. Q2 we saw a COVID dip of course, with April being our low point. As for July forward, we anticipate mid/high single digit percentage growth.”
Even with the hit, the group had no layoffs, no staff reductions and even added staff. That is the story Litton and Stover believe can help other owners prepare for whatever may be on the horizon.
Stover: As soon as it became clear that business would suffer as a result of the shutdown, Kirk and I decided that we would do everything in our power to avoid layoffs and salary reductions and if cost savings were necessary it would start with us.
Fortunately we run a frugal ship and had reserves set aside for such an unexpected disruption in business. We created sales guarantees for a period of time to make up for the loss of commissions.
We actually added to the programming staff by bringing longtime market talent, Tony Clyburn, off the sidelines to help with our initial Covid-19 content and have expanded his role to afternoons on 93.1 The LAKE.
Radio Ink: How did you keep advertisers interested during shutdown phase?
Litton: It’s twofold. First, we were already well regarded as a true partner when the crisis hit. They knew they could count on us. We do all the little things that make for a better relationship & ROI for our partners. Overall focus being, if it was your business – your money – how would you want your business’ message treated? If the partnership isn’t good for both, it’s not good at all.
Second, we were very proactive from the moment Covid hit local businesses here in mid-March. We immediately extended a helping hand – offering any business grace period on invoice payments, reduced commercial pricing, and our team excelled in turning out countless production updates to keep up with the ever changing restrictions to conduct business. This was especially true for our over 50+ restaurant partners.
We set up co-op partnerships with our local chambers of commerce to create messages that benefited the entire town (ie – Support Lexington Restaurants, they need you more than ever!) so those restaurants could each contribute a little but be a part of a larger all encompassing push. We also set up a 803# Local Business Hotline, that we promoted to both our current partners and anyone listening to call in to give us ‘updates on your business’ for free.
We received hundreds of business updates from current partners and non-partners alike. We cut dozens of these updates with several business updates in each, that 12+ times a day for for 6-8 weeks. That has since evolved into our Hometown Heroes feature where we spotlight those doing great community work daily.
For those clients most affected by downturn, we agreed to keep running their messages anyway to not brand retreat in the midst of a crisis. Way too many historical examples of bad outcomes from those that ‘went dark’, so we pushed through to not only survive but grow their brands for future success. Those that needed to increase their messages, promote a new offering (delivery, curbside) we offered to do so on deferred payments or even gift card trade vs cash.
Some radio partners also shifted their advertising to our online newspaper, ColaDaily.com, as well as those analytics rose sharply as consumer demand rose for local news content. The point being, we didn’t hide & wait for the “we need to talk” call. We approached all 200 partners immediately, and asked them “How Can We Help?, We Are In This Together”.
These are our friends, neighbors, soccer team coaches that own these businesses…. when your friend needs you, you jump in. Solve the problem together, and keep promoting their business until they come out the other side, stronger & a closer partners than ever before. Amazingly, not only did we retain roughly 95% of our customers, we’ve added dozens more in the midst of the pandemic with fresh ideas & customer first approach.
Radio Ink: What are you doing now that things are opening up?
Litton: From an advertiser perspective, it’s becoming a little more normal every week as we return to more normal conversations and partnerships. I would say about 90% of our clients are back at pre-Covid levels. There are certainly still some advertisers working their way back to their previous advertising plans as their business continues to improve.
We finished flat year over year for month of June, July will finish above June and single digits ahead of year prior. August forward, we look for high single digits growth over prior year if we have a college football season. As a Clemson Football affiliate, most of our sponsors are on board and ready to go. So if games occur, we are in really good shape
Stover: We have certainly seen “shutdown fatigue” with people cooped up and ready to re-engage a more lifestyle. We have backed off of the intensity of all the initial Covid19 on air conversation while still keeping people updated on health news and local restrictions.
Our intent is to be an escape and inspiration with great music and fun while still keeping everyone updated on what they need to know about the current conditions. For instance we partnered with Dunkin Donuts for a series of Free Mask Mondays giving away a cup of coffee with a mask with the station logo on it to welcome people that are heading back to work everyday.
Radio Ink: What can the “Big Boys” learn from you?
Litton: Both Keith and I did “Big Boy” radio for years and our approach has always been different. When I arrived here in 2012, it was eye opening. Gone were the days of faceless advertising avails, CPPs/Ratings, or “spots & dots” if you will. Replaced with eyeball to eyeball partnerships with other local business owners. We weren’t “the media”. I was Kirk Litton, an owner of two local radio stations in town.
So focus was 100% “What is best for our partner?” and “If it was my money, what would I want from my marketing partner?”. We don’t run your :30 second commercial inside a 6-7 minute commercial break. We don’t run your :30 second commercial close to your competitors ad. We don’t run your ad AFTER some national chain. LOCAL runs FIRST. We needed to educate the advertising community that “smaller” radio stations can be equally or even more effective than the “larger” stations.
Research shows 23% of listeners tune out in the first minute, 50% tune out in first 2 minutes, and tune out percentage falls off a cliff the longer it goes. So if ‘Big Boy’ Station X has 100,000 listeners, and “Little Guy’ Station Y has 50,000 listeners – if Station X runs your ad 8th in 6-7 minute break, and Station Y airs it in the first 60-90 seconds – which message reached more people (for likely half the price)?
I’m a C student graduate of University Of Maryland, this isn’t rocket science. We just need better leadership, and stop diving for dollars from the latest “avail”. We are 95% Local Agency/Local Direct here, Regional/National business is the ‘cherry on top’ when it comes, but we build the sundae from ground up.
Stover: Our strategy is driven by being hyper local in everything we do. Some of the “Big Boys” talk about being local but in reality they have lots of global, national, corporate initiatives that eat up a lot of their content time. We don’t have corporate driven, massive initiatives to promote every break and can devote our energy to local content with local personalities for the benefit of local people. That sets us apart from generic shows and Spotify. We are committed to being THE go-to local media outlet for what is happening in our community.