MEDIA RADIO: Media Roundup - Some outlets find there's more to radio than ratings

Few outlets cover radio beyond ratings and personnel changes, so PR pros consider radio a tough sell to other media. But the launch of XM is one sign among many that radio still has stories to tell.

Few outlets cover radio beyond ratings and personnel changes, so PR pros consider radio a tough sell to other media. But the launch of XM is one sign among many that radio still has stories to tell.

Radio has been around a lot longer than television, movies, or the internet, and 97% of adults still listen to an AM or FM station at least once a week. So why does radio remain a medium in search of some journalistic respect?

Only a handful of newspapers and magazines currently have reporters assigned to cover the radio industry full-time, with most relegating their radio reporting to a subset of either the TV or local music and culture beats.

"Most news outlets consider radio the lowest rung of the entertainment ladder,

notes Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of the trade magazine Talkers, which focuses on talk radio and TV.

"It's a much tougher pitch than television,

adds Ron Dresner, founder of the Hartford, CT-based agency Your PR Department. "If it's a radio story, you have to hype it a lot more."

One of the reasons radio does not get covered as much as TV is that while there are some nationally recognizable talk-show hosts, radio remains local in its nature. "You might think that there are only five talk-radio personalities -Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Art Bell, Dr. Laura, and whoever's the hot new commodity of the moment,

says Harrison. "But a lot of talk radio is local personalities discussing local issues, and that's where its strength is.

Even regional icons, such as the New York team of Mike and the Mad Dog of WFAN, are virtual unknown in other parts of the country.

On a local level, there end up being two standard radio stories: personnel changes and ratings. "The local stations all play the ratings game, and many of the local journalists buy into it,

explains Dresner, who adds that like any statistics, the Arbitron ratings can be spun to make any station look like it's doing well.

But some argue that this focus and ratings - and, by extension, advertising - tend to obscure that there's a lot going on in radio right now. Not only are conglomerates such as Clear Channel Communications gobbling up stations at an incredible rate, there have also been hints of the reemergence of payola and the incredibly murky role consultants play in choosing which songs get airplay and which don't.

Telling radio's story in other media

Publications such as the Los Angeles Times have done an excellent job tracking many of these stories. But Quincy McCoy, SVP with MTVi and the author of No Static: A Guide to Creative Radio Programming, says some in the news industry can be faulted for missing the big picture on how corporate takeovers have taken the individuality and creativity out of the radio business.

Paul Wood, Paine PR SVP, counters that not all trends are being ignored by the radio press. Wood spearheaded the campaign for the XM Satellite Radio launch last year, and says Paine made it a point to reach out beyond the traditional entertainment editors to target technology, music, automotive, and business writers for the campaign. But he also adds that XM was also a story many traditional radio reporters were quick to cover. "This is the first major breakthrough in radio since FM 30 years ago, so it gives them something new to write about."

An industry marked by enthusiasm

Julie Swenson, founder of Minneapolis-based Abbas Public Relations, says that radio reporters are eager to write about more than ratings.

Swenson, who represents Minnesota Public Radio and its popular Prairie Home Companion series, says, "There aren't many journalists who make radio their life, but the ones who do are really into it."

Among the reporters covering radio either full-time or as a major part of their beats are David Hinckley of the New York Daily News, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Feder, Jeff Leeds of the Los Angeles Times, and Stephen Battaglio and Stuart Elliott of The New York Times.

One of the things that occasionally hampers radio PR is that it is often left to the individual stations to do their own promotions, Swenson argues, though she adds that Minnesota Public Radio occasionally asks her agency to step in and help with market-by-market campaigns. "We just start by approaching the dailies, then follow up with weeklies and then television or monthly outlets,

she says. "There are millions of different angles out there to pitch. For example, a series on family gardening can be pitched to the family editor or gardening writer, as well as the entertainment section."

Most PR pros stress that radio is an industry in which the trade press is incredibly important. Radio is ever-changing, as program managers continually add new DJs or songs in search of that perfect mix. Thus, magazines like Billboard, Radio & Record, and Talkers are must-reads for the news, as well as the steady stream of charts and ratings that regularly dissect every major market.

But like any business, radio press can't live by numbers, and it helps to have some household name recognition. There are only a few radio personalities - such as Stern, Jim Rome, and Don Imus - who can match the popularity of TV and movie stars. But the ones who do end up being a public relations gold mine.

Earlier this year, Swenson worked with author and Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor to generate coverage for Wobegon Weekend. The event featured 300 fans who spent two days in Lake Wobegon (actually St. Paul, MN) attending a church supper, a live taping of the Prairie Home Companion show, and an ice-fishing expedition. Swenson says Keillor did no interviews to promote the weekend; his participation was enough to generate 20 million impressions, including coverage in USA Today, The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News, and the St. Paul Pioneer-Press.

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