The Local Angle
May 31, 2013
I'm at 37,000 feet over Abilene, Texas. I've never turned a radio on in an airplane, and, whether or not there's really interference that would cause trouble with the flight (and let's not get into THAT debate), I wouldn't do it, and, besides, I didn't bring a radio with me on this trip. (I didn't think THAT would ever happen in my lifetime, but, well, smartphone...) But I do wonder, sometimes, just as a hobbyist, what stations I would get if I tried.
At least, I used to wonder. Now, I imagine I'll just hear hundreds of variations of the same thing -- same music, same accents, same talk shows, same imaging, same everything. I won't belabor the point -- you and I know how that evolved, how localism has withered in radio across the country. It just is, and while we don't have to be happy about it, it's not going to change. And, yes, I know of the exceptions, the stations that are aggressively, proudly local, with local news and local talk and local everything, and they are to be celebrated. But they're not growing in number. That ship sailed a long time ago.
So, that's the fault of radio managers and bean counters and investors, right? Not so fast. Radio is far from the only business to forsake localism over the last few decades. It occurred to me this way: I just took off from a place where the local malls have Macy's, Nordstrom, Sears, Kohl's, and JC Penney, and after flying across the country, I'll be in a hotel next to a mall that has Macy's, Nordstrom, Sears, Kohl's, and JC Penney. TV stations long ago branded themselves after their network affiliation, and the anchors usually have no trace of a local accent or local anything. We've seen many news articles (the New York Times seems particularly interested) about how some regional accents, even the Brooklyn accent, have been disappearing. Local ain't what it used to be. And with the Internet, broadcasting can be free of the technical limitations that sort of forced localism on radio in the first place -- whereas in the 1930s, WLW pushed to make its 500,000 watt superpower permanent to cover much of the country with one signal, now, anyone can reach people all over the world for free. And the old cultural divisions, from different senses of humor to "regional hit" music, have dissolved as entertainment options have become universal; "The Big Bang Theory" is the same in Texas as it is in Manhattan.
Yet, there is still power in localism. There is still -- maybe more than ever -- a need for news coverage of local issues, because, whether every city has Macy's and McDonald's or not, there are still things happening on the state and local levels that won't make the national radar but should be talked about. (We haven't even discussed hyperlocal, although it's still unclear that anyone will really make money covering neighborhoods) There are still local businesses for whom local radio is still more efficient than streaming. There are still differences between New York and L.A. and Philly and Texas and Miami and Minneapolis and Casa Grande. Sports radio has, at least in major markets, exploited this well -- you can't talk about SEC football in Philadelphia and succeed, and you can't talk about nothing but the Lakers in Minneapolis and succeed; it's all about the local teams. Then again, there are all those national sports radio networks out there finding an audience, too.
Anyway, I understand the economic reasons why stations turn to syndication and voice tracking and "Premium Choice," and they make sense. But there are still reasons to be local, and in an ideal world, I'd turn on the radio up here and hear local people from all over the place talking about local issues with local accents and giving me a real sense of their towns and culture. A New York station would sound like New York, a Dallas station would sound like Dallas... but in an age when Dallas has Bloomingdale's and there's a Neiman Marcus in Westchester, I'm not sure it matters as much anymore.
While I'm away, I have to put All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, where there are hundreds of stories and comments compiled with radio in mind, in a semi-hiatus state. I fully intend to throw items up here and there during the next week, but I don't know what my schedule will be, so, well, keep checking and be surprised. Or not. Anyway, find all of that by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where you'll find every story linked to the appropriate item. It's free, so what's the problem? And there's a fresh "10 Questions With..." Josh Leng, who's gone from the PD side to the syndicator side with his Talk Media Network -- read it and find out about his company and the shows he's offering, plus a lot about his unusual path to radio syndication.
Follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon, find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon, and visit the other site I edit, Nerdist.com. And watch "The Nerdist" on Saturday night at 10p (ET) on BBC America (or Sunday at 7p (ET) on Space in Canada) -- it's the season finale with Seth Rogen and Zach Galifianakis.
If you'll be at that talk thing in New York next Thursday, I'll see you there. If not, well, it's a convention, so you can follow along with my grumpiness on Twitter. That's always fun.