By Gene Kauffman
As I watch comments on Facebook about the state of radio today, I can’t help but summarize my experiences as a public information officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Radio is alive and well in many small markets, and it was easy to tell why. When hired, I had 39 years’ experience in radio doing every job at the stations. I started as an engineer then worked as an announcer, salesperson, and general manager. For over 30 years, I have owned small market stations in several markets around the Midwest, so my comments that follow are my opinion.
After I retired, a friend who worked for FEMA asked me to send them my resume, and in a few months, I was a reservist. I was on call when a flood, tornado, hurricane, or natural disaster struck somewhere in the country.
I was assigned to disaster areas to meet with media outlets for interviews and questions for those affected and how they can get assistance. I was assigned to cover from one to multiple counties in the affected areas. I did 21 deployments in nearly five years with the agency and loved every minute.
The differences in response from some of the radio outlets were striking.
In markets with multiple stations in one building, it was frequently difficult or impossible to even meet with someone responsible for local programming. It was common to hear, “we don’t have a news department.” I occasionally heard, “we don’t do local PSA’s. As a former station owner, I was appalled at the response and lack of concern for the communities they served. However, many larger market outlets were helpful and scheduled interviews, news segments, and PSA’s.
Small market radio, without exception, was a different experience. Dean Sorenson, a wise radio friend, once said, “the smaller the town, the more important the radio station.” I found that to be true. Despite a small staff, almost every single small market station was helpful, and some yanked me through the door, and we were on the air in minutes. Most stations gave me all the airtime I wanted. I scheduled my visits with interviews to remind survivors of the disaster of how to get assistance and updated anything new the field office wanted. In many instances, when I walked in the door, I was put on the air.
I called on small-market stations that were rundown, shabby, and barely able to keep the doors open. I stopped at beautiful stations with excellent equipment. Without exception, all were helpful and did interviews and news stories. The one common factor was these stations were serving their communities. I heard lost and found obituaries, local talk shows, and live programming all across the country—the kind of programming some broadcasters mock.
The majority of the small market stations I visited were full of spots and involved in their communities. The involvement was apparent from the on-air promotions and talk show response. I was always welcome and treated with respect.
Some markets with multiple stations in one building were always a challenge to visit. Some suggested I needed to make an appointment despite, in some instances, hundreds of homes suffered damage, and the disaster was a major story in the area. I found no sense of urgency.
In their defense, many of the staff had multiple responsibilities. I met a program director of five stations, who also did the morning show, voice-tracked others, and in his spare time, he did production. He still found time to help me get some PSA’s on the air. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the men and women who were doing this.
Small market radio is alive and well in a lot of places in the country. I’ve heard all the arguments about live, voice tracking, and automation. Still, the stations I saw who were most successful had a few things in common. They were live part of the day. They had good production., Good audio, Good salespeople. (I heard lots of spots) and had active involvement in the community by the staff. They also had heavy community involvement from lost dogs to local sports, news, and weather.
I don’t believe radio is dead. It’s alive and well in towns all across America, but it’s local, and it’s live.
Gene Kauffman spent 39 years as a Radio Broadcaster owning 10 stations. He was an engineer, news director, salesperson, general manager and errand boy. Following his retirement, Kauffman became a FEMA Reservist.
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