Monday, July 14, 2008

Musings on the Fourth of July

As I write this, it’s the morning of the Fourth of July. We’re still many hours away from the barbecue and fireworks display that we’ve been looking forward to for weeks. I’ve just finished eating breakfast and reading the newspaper, and something I read reminded me of a radio story from years ago. The story I read was about a newspaper editor who loved taking his family to see fireworks on the Fourth of July, but who occasionally had to work the night shift at his paper, thus missing out on the annual display.

Reading that, I was transported back to Eugene, Ore., where I can vividly remember being a young DJ working an evening shift on the Fourth. I know many of us have been in this position, but this was one of those times where I was the only human being in our entire building. The studios of KKNU-FM had a couple of small windows that opened out to the parking lot. From where our building was situated, I couldn’t see the local fireworks display, but by opening one of those windows, I could hear it.

So the next time I cracked the mic, I mentioned that fact. It wasn’t a woe-is-me break, but I’m sure I said something about being so close, yet so far. And about 15 minutes later, an amazing thing happened: Two listeners drove to our deserted parking lot, got out of their car and set off a small collection of fireworks. I opened that window again, stretched my microphone arm as close to them as it would go and recorded the sounds for a few seconds. During my next break, I described the scene as best I could and played some of the audio. The whole thing was just magical.
Of course, this story has less to do with the Fourth of July and more to do with the power and intimacy of radio. We could discuss some of the more serious ways in which we’ve all seen that in action, but this is a good reminder that we’re not only broadcasting to the masses, we’re also talking to individual listeners. And sometimes, when we’re really lucky, they show us that they’re listening.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Where Do You Live?

One of the challenges facing every on-air personality is figuring out how to localize their show. That doesn’t mean that you should ignore national/international stories or “location-less” stories, but if you’re not talking about things that listeners in your town can actually do, see, hear, touch, taste, smell and just generally experience, you’re missing out on a goldmine of potential show material, and you’re probably not doing your job well enough.

I heard a great example of localization recently from Leela K., who does afternoons at KUPL-FM in Portland, Ore. She told the story of driving home late Saturday night and being the front car at a red light when her path was blocked by a naked man…on a bicycle…who was blocking traffic for at least 100 of his naked friends…in a naked bike ride. She closed this part of her break by saying that she thinks she finally gets it when people say, “Keep Portland Weird.”

There are a couple of important things to know here:

1. Leela is relatively new to the Portland area, so she is still “discovering” lots of new things about Portland.
2. You see “Keep Portland Weird” bumper stickers all over Portland (just like you see similar bumper stickers in cities like Austin, Boulder, Louisville, Houston, and, I’m sure, many other cities).

What was great about this story was that everybody in the Portland area (count me among them) immediately knew what she was talking about, and that this was an unmistakably local story.

It’s been said that the best shows are the ones that people from outside of the market in question wouldn’t necessarily “get.” That’s an indication that you’re so plugged in to your community that you’re almost speaking a secret language that only people in your town understand. The danger in speaking a secret language, of course, is that you have the potential to alienate some of your listeners – especially new ones – so it’s important to balance your in-speak with enough explanations that nobody feels left out. The tipping point will vary from town to town and bit to bit, but as long as you’re conscious of the need for that balance, you’re probably going to be just fine.

You don’t have to have “Keep (Your City) Weird” bumper stickers for this to apply to you, and your story doesn’t have to be as unusual as a naked bike ride, but you should keep your eyes open for good, local stories that you can share with your audience. Sharing those stories will strengthen your connection to your area, and they’ll also bond you and your listeners in a very special way.

If you want to hear the aircheck of Leela’s naked bike ride story, just let me know, and if you’ve got an example of a great local bit you’ve done, send it along and I’ll share it with everybody else.