Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The joys of small-market radio

I live in a large urban area (the Inland Empire of California) which is right next to another large urban area (Los Angeles/Orange County). So it goes without saying that I have a relatively large choice of over-the-air radio stations to meet various musical (and other) tastes.

One drawback of this diversity is that our radio stations are fairly well segmented. We have a local JACK FM outlet, and a local JILL FM, but radio programmers would keel over if someone were to try to launch a "JACK & JILL FM." That sort of thing just isn't done.

But when you get away from the large markets, that type of radio segmentation starts to disappear.

So let's get VERY far away from the large markets - let's go to Lanzarote. H/T to Joe Dawson; before I read his comment in this Robert Scoble thread, I had never even heard of Lanzarote. If you haven't heard of Lanzarote either, it's the easternmost of the Canary Islands. From Discover Lanzarote:

Lanzarote is situated just 79 miles off the coast of Africa and is the most easterly of the Canary Islands. The island is 37 miles (60km) long and 12 miles (20 km) wide, making it the fourth largest island in the Canaries.

According to 2006 statistics (PDF, page 8), the entire island only had a 2006 population of 135,194. Over 3/4 of the population was from Spanish-speaking countries (Spain, Colombia, Ecuador), and only a little over 5,000 of the population were from the United Kingdom. Although not specifically identified, no more than 20,000 of the population use English as a first language.

Talk about a small market for an English-language radio station. And yes, there is an English-language radio station on the island - UK Away FM.

Established in 2001, Uk Away fm is the first and only English Language radio station to broadcast entirely from Lanzarote. Our music policy combines popular and specialist shows to cater for a wide variety of tastes. We also provide local, international and sports news and weather to keep our listeners up to date with events as they happen.

I've listened to the station off and on since I discovered it, and so far I've heard snippets of everything from Oasis to Cher. "Cater for a wide variety of tastes," indeed.

What accounts for our desire for variety? Perhaps the iPod:

"A lot of radio stations are sanitized and corporate. They're playing it safe," said Chuck Tweedle, regional senior vice president of Bonneville International Corp., a Utah company that owns three stations in San Francisco and 20 around the country, including 95.7, now known as KMAX, or "The Max."

"Take that and contrast it with the amazing success of the iPod. A lot of folks, myself included, have a diverse selection of music on the iPod and put it on shuffle."

Put that format on radio and you have a new phenomenon.

Of course, when you look up "variety" radio, you normally get redirected to some "Jack" variant. But the format is, well, a format:

The stations tell listeners "we play what we want" or "we play anything." But they're really carefully crafted to keep advertisers happy, observers say. Song choices target a lucrative but musically hard-to-define demographic, 25- to 54-year-olds who want to hear new music but not rap and bubblegum pop and who declare themselves too young to listen to the oldies.

And at least one of the "variety" formats is going away:

Newsweb Radio is dumping the music formats on a trio of its Chicago-area FM stations in favor of simulcasting the progressive talk of its WCPT-AM 820....

“We felt like we were on the verge of something,” said one of the affected FM stations’ staffers, who were told of the changes Friday. “We felt like we were reaching listeners using good old fashioned ploys, like talking to them and listening to them and playing what they wanted to hear.”

But Chicago is not really a small market. However, there is a newsletter that serves small radio markets:

The Small Market Radio Newsletter was started in 1983 by Bob Doll, a prominent radio man who by that time had owned several small market properties in the Midwest. In thinking about the industry and how he could contribute to it, he realized there was no publication that specialized in the concerns of the small market radio broadcaster.

Before he published the first issue, Bob decided to visit small market operators across the country to get a better feel for what some of those concerns were. Not only did he get a feel for what was going on in small market radio all over the United States, but he began gathering the profiles of fascinating small market broadcasters that have been an important and popular part of the newsletter from the very beginning....

In 1993, Bob approached Jay Mitchell with the idea of Jay taking over publication of the newsletter. At that time Jay had been in the consulting business for over 15 years, and saw the advantages of spending less time on the road and more time with his family - and talking to small market broadcasters all over the country every week. So, nearly ten years to the issue from Bob's first edition, Jay took over publication of SMRN.

Currently the newsletter goes to small market broadcasters in the U.S., Canada and even the Pacific Rim ... to vendors to the industry ... to music licensing firms ... and to state and national broadcast associations.

I don't know if UK Away FM subscribes, but I'm sure there are a lot of stations mixing up Oasis and Cher to reach an audience that wouldn't be served otherwise.
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