Sat. Aug 18th, 2018

The Radio Station Is Not Your Jukebox

Recently I was on the road visiting family. My wife, my kids and myself set out on the 13 hour drive from our home in Raleigh, NC to Biloxi, MS, where my dad lives. I used the drive to sample sports radio in various enclaves as I drove through the South. This was on a Thursday before a huge college football weekend.

Rather than name drop the shows I listened to and highlight what worked and didn’t work for them, I want to focus on one show that really got under my skin. I am not going to name anyone, so as not to embarrass them, but it made me think of a rule from my college radio days and why it can be helpful advice.

When I was in school at the University of Alabama, I worked at the student station, WVUA. We were a pure college rock station: plenty of the alternative bands people knew, but way more that they didn’t. The typical clock included 12 songs and two open slots. Those were the DJ’s opportunity to play whatever he/she loved from the WVUA catalog. The idea was to force you to explore the CD racks and find new stuff you liked.

In the first meeting each year with the new air staff, the program director would explain the purpose of these spots and say “This is the only place you get to pick what you play. Station’s not your jukebox.” The message was that the station is supposed to sound a certain way. We can’t go from shift to shift with everyone playing whatever the hell they want. It doesn’t serve the listeners. “It’s just masturbation,” as George Costanza might say.

I bring this up because we were driving through the DEEP South. It’s the kind of place where if they could, they would replace past Presidents’ pictures on their money with portraits of SEC football coaches. I can’t remember how far out of the metro we were, but this station was just starting to come in and I hear the host say “In the next segment I’ll tell you why a three-peat is a sure thing for the Pens this season.”

I literally said out loud “what the f*** is he doing?”. My wife was less than pleased when my six-year-old son started giggling, a sure sign that he had heard me say those very words as we watched the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals together.

I waited through the break. Maybe I misheard him. Maybe the Pens weren’t the Pittsburgh Penguins, but some local high school team that’s been particularly dominant in recent years. I mean we were literally two states away from the nearest NHL franchise. Surely this guy wasn’t going to talk about Sydney Crosby when all of his listeners were thinking about SEC football.

When the show returned, the host started with something to the effect of “I know you guys don’t like when I talk hockey” in the worst impression of a Southern accent you’ll ever hear. “But you know,” he continued. “I’m from Chicago and it’s my show and I want to talk hockey.”

Station’s not your jukebox, dude.

I am trying not to get too specific, but let’s just say this particular state’s flagship university is going through quite a transition period in its football history at the moment and the team was getting ready to face a rival.

  • Could a win in this game give the interim coach the job full time?
  • What NCAA punishment would you be willing to put up with for a win this weekend?
  • Has this scandal completely overshadowed the team to the point that the nation doesn’t realize they actually have a chance to win this game?

I don’t even live in the market and I just came up with three topics that are more relevant to this guy’s audience than what he chose to waste twelve minutes on in the days leading up to a major local sporting event. Not to be overly dramatic, but it’s not just a wasted opportunity to talk about what you like instead of something more relevant to your listeners, it’s insulting.

We all get into this business because we are fans. As professional as we strive to be, sometimes those old allegiances die hard. The listeners always have to come first though. Why? Because the station’s not your jukebox.

Go into every show with a checklist of two or three topics you have to hit. Decide which ones are worth taking swings at from multiple angles. For instance, a host in DC may do one segment on Scott Brooks’ really interesting and personal take on LaVar Ball. Later in that same hour, he might bring on Chris Mannix to preview the game. Those are two very different discussions about the same relevant, local topic.

Next, look at the topics that will generate good content. These might be more national stories, but the kind of topics everyone will have an opinion on. So maybe that same hypothetical DC host may ask what the appropriate punishment for Yuri Gurriel should have been for game 4 of the World Series. Now tie it in locally. This hypothetical host is in DC, right? Fold in the debate around the Redskins name. Even if the topic is not obviously local, having a local tie better engages listeners and best serves your audience.

A guy in the Deep South, two states away from the nearest NHL franchise, talking hockey is the perfect sports picture of “station’s not your jukebox.” You always have to serve the listeners first. What are their interests? What do they want from the show? If you find the answers to those questions so boring that you won’t even try to find the angle that interests you, you aren’t in the wrong market. You’re in the wrong business.

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