Radio Station or Gas Station?

I was lucky enough to grow up in a town that had an unusual set of characters on the radio. In that era of Detroit radio, I was able to witness first-hand the power of the medium when a compelling, unusual, and entertaining personality had autonomy to actually do a “show” instead of a “shift”.

The passing of former WNIC “Pillowtalk” host Alan Almond last week reminded me of how lucky I was to grow up in that market.  I’ll admit, it was kind of cool to have the chance to work with him years later at WNIC when I oversaw programming for Clear Channel in that market. Yes, Alan was a bit unusual… a perfectionist through-and-through, who took himself and his show VERY seriously. At times it was amusing, but I always appreciated his sense of showmanship. This guy was a master of “one-to-one radio”… he would have a conversation with you every night,  and his words and mellow voice had a seductive quality that made adult women very curious about him… and the fact that he never allowed himself to photographed and never made public appearances only drove the curiosity further.  Men would laugh at his schtick, but who cares… they weren’t the target anyway. And you can bet your life that even if they wouldn’t admit it, they checked him out once in a while. And everybody – and I mean EVERYBODY – knew who he was. To this day, if you mention WNIC to an adult female who grew up there, the first name that comes up is Alan Almond, followed by the legendary former morning host Jim Harper. The whole show was theatre of the mind. It was a world that existed only on the radio.

Another interesting and unusual talent was known as “The Electrifying Mojo” (not to be confused with legendary morning host MOJO from WKQI). He would start the first several minutes of his show with spacey sound efx… then would announce that “the mothership has landed”.  And I’ll never forget riding down I-75 one evening when the Electrifying Mojo said something like “if you’re riding down I-75 right now, blink your headlights, and let ’em know you’re listening to the Electrifying Mojo” – and just at that moment, everyone on the road as far as the eye could see started blinking their headlights. It wouldn’t be unusual to hear artists like Prince just stop by and debut his new song on Mojo’s show. He helped to introduce many urban artists of that era to the audience – and because he was ultra-cool, he made the artists ultra-cool just because they were on his show.  In Detroit, he was bigger than the artists  – he was bigger than life on the air. And the artists knew it – which is why they all campaigned to be on his show. Again, it was a world that only existed on the radio.

Creative Program Directors were always on the search for unique and compelling talent. They wanted people who would break the rules – because with so many radio station options, that was really the only way to stand out. You had to have something unusual – maybe even bizarre – in order to capture the audience’s attention.

We now live an an era with vastly more audio entertainment options – in our wildest imaginations, we could not have conceived back then the number of media options we would have today. And what is the radio industry’s response to even more choice? Become more generic. Cut Corners. Minimize talent. Become a commodity. Does that seem like the right answer to you? Is it even logical?

Commodities are not brands. Yes, I like the Marathon gas station up the road, but if the BP station on the corner is a few cents cheaper, I’ll go there.  After all, the product is the same, so who cares? That’s what happening to radio. Station A does 98 minutes commercial free, so Station B does 2 hours commercial free… and that’s the only difference. Station A does a countdown, Station B does a countdown. Station A gives away Taylor Swift tickets, Station B gives away Taylor Swift tickets. The imaging on station A is just an overproduced list of facts – nothing really creative… same goes with station B. Station A plays 85% of station B’s playlist. Station A teases stories on their website twice an hour… station B teases stories on their website twice an hour. Station A is doing the $1,000 a day group contest at 7, 11, 1, 5, and 7, station B is doing the $1,000 a day group contest at 8, noon, 1, 4, and 7. If you’re lucky, you might have a good morning show to differentiate yourself… at least there’s something different – if you’re one of the lucky few. All this while PD’s are busy filling out paperwork and dealing with HR matters… or they’re busy schmoozing record labels to cut deals so they have a good lineup for their station’s NTR concert…. station A gets the same lineup for their Christmas show that station B will get for their Spring show.

You get the picture.

And then we wonder why people are just going away. Could it be that we are boring them to death? Could it be that we have nothing special to offer compared to the thousands of other media choices that they have? Whatever happened to the concept of working to actually ATTRACT an audience? Right now we are simply pacifying the existing audience – and eventually they will be gone too. The people in charge don’t care – after all, they’ll be long gone by the time the whole thing collapses.

There has to be a better way.



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