Isolated at our summer home in the wilderness of the Adirondack Mountains, our lives instantly change. We have to drive 20 minutes to the gas station to pick up the local newspaper, and the nearest grocery store is 30 minutes away. Pine and birch trees, water and mountains surround us. There are no billboards, and we have no local television. Without inundation by media, we relax and live a slower pace. Radio reception in the mountains is spotty, but here, radio is the lifeline to the community.
One of the first lessons I learned as a radio programmer is that reflecting the community and being a part of the community are keys to success. Today, many stations around the country pretend to be local when they are not. Saying a town’s name when giving the weather is not community involvement, yet often that’s the extent of it. People may listen to your station anyway because they like other elements of the station, but it’s next to impossible to fake localism. Your community listeners know when you are truly one of them.
Here in the woods and small towns, radio is the accessible media. You listen to find out local news, local events, who died, who was born, whose dog is lost and who has an old washing machine for sale. It’s localism at its best.
I’ve chided radio for losing its soul, for being too formulaic, for lacking creativity and for not being local. I’ve changed my mind. This summer, I spent a fair amount of time in the car, driving through a number of towns in the region. What I heard was refreshing.
Indeed I heard McRadio in a number of places, with the same tired, old lines about “biggest hits, better variety, best hits of the ’70s, ’80s. ’90s…” BORING. Would it still work if it were put up against something fresh and innovative?
What was not boring were the small-town voices. Some were 100-percent live, some were automated or satellite operations, yet many of those stations still managed to be the voices of their communities. In some cases, what I used to consider bad radio was refreshingly good. Why? Because it was real: not hype, not contrived. On one station, I heard a kid with a cracking voice. He wasn’t slick or affected, yet he was very funny, and everything he talked about had a local reference. It felt like bygone days, when I would cling to every word, when radio was exciting and fun.
In this hectic world, there is nothing better than a cross-country drive, listening to small-town voices. In those small towns, one can still find vestiges of our radio heritage: local involvement, innovation created by the necessity to survive, and some folks who understand that formulas and hype are not real. These people, forced to be in touch with their communities, have realized that the slick sound on many radio stations is not so appealing to locals. This is where radio is still alive, creative and refreshing. I can’t help but wonder if adopting this homespun, small-town approach would appeal to audiences where every station is over-produced and a little too slick. Is it time for big metropolitan radio stations to become small-town voices?
8/23/04 Radio Ink Magazine. By B. Eric Rhoads