With today’s large consolidated radio groups, most radio stations have people with equal marketing and programming skills and similar resources. As a result of consolidation, radio’s playing field is more even than it ever was.
Yet a more level playing field hasn’t tightened battles, or made for fewer losers.
Look at any ranker and you’ll find that shares of stations outside the top two or three drop rapidly. Every market has a few stations with large audiences, but most have a fraction of the leader's listeners.
No format is a guaranteed winner. Every format has its share of losers. As of last Fall, winners in the 36 non-embedded PPM markets came from sixteen different formats.
Head to head battles are nearly always lopsided. As a rule, the second station in a format battle has a third fewer listeners than the leader. And these battles don’t seem to favor any one company over another.
It doesn't matter who owns the station. Clear Channel, CBS, Citadel, Cumulus, Emmis and Entercom all have winners and losers. No group has a lock on winning.
If every format has winners and losers. If every radio group has winners and losers. And if even within a market cluster there are winners and losers, then there must be some quality, some element that no brain-trust or deep pocket can replicate time after time.
What is it?
Winners possess an intangible quality, a winner's aura that transcends ownership, resources, and all the other tangible differences we tend to focus on when judging a radio station.
It is the winning aura that attracts listeners. Listeners sense a winner. They recognize it when they hear it.
And listeners can smell a loser. They sense when a station is faltering. People don’t like listening to a loser.
A station can play the best testing music, have the best jocks, and give away bigger prizes and still lose if it sounds like a loser.
Losers sound like they are going through the motions. Jocks sleep-walk through their shifts, sounding like they’d like to be anywhere other than the studio. Promos sound tired and repetitious, promoting the same recycled contests and events.
The music is predictable, the song choices uninspired. The music is scheduled with a similar lack of inspiration.
These things tell listeners that the station is a loser even when by every objective measure, radio people think the station sounds great.
How many times has a radio group taken the format of a successful station to another market and had it fail miserably? The second station may be a perfect formatic clone of the first, but unless the clone captures the aura of the first, it will fail.
Listeners know a winning station when they hear it. A winner draws them in. It lures them to listen longer.
The jocks sound like a neighbor. They live in the same town, have the same local experiences, and share them on-air. They sound like they want to be on the radio, they want to share with the listener, whether it is a song, a contest, promotion, or even just the weather.
The music of a winner is both familiar and yet a bit of an adventure. There’s a balance between the new and the known, a comfortable but wearing-well mix of music. There’s a natural flow to the music, like a mix tape made for a friend.
The marketing for a winner is an extension of the winner’s programming. It doesn’t try too hard. It is more a subtle inducement rather than bribe. It reinforces the feeling that the station is a winner, conveying the same confidence that the station effuses.
A local programmer and local talent are key to a radio station’s success not because they are smarter than anybody else. It is because they are local. Only local people can really care about the station and its listeners. Only local people can create a winner’s aura that draws people in.
Even as local radio’s competitors grow, competition is not local radio's greatest threat. It is consolidation and the nationalization of radio. If local radio ceases to be local and loses its aura, it will be consumed by the coming tsunami of national alternatives.
However, if broadcasters invest in local radio, leveraging local talent to create and enhance local radio's aura, no national service can prevail.