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The Big Market Bias

March 7, 2024

Edison Research recently released some of their “Share of Ear” data about the difference between AM/FM radio listening in urban versus rural areas. In short, rural residents spend more time with radio than urban ones do.

The radio industry has been guilty of having a big market bias for decades.

The trades are constantly littered with articles lauding the successes (and failures) of stations in New York or just about any other top 20 market station. And I will fully admit – I am equally culpable. I spent my programming career in large and major markets. I (we) had the hubris to believe that because we rose to that level, we were smarter (better?) than those on the lower rungs of the ladder.

I now live in a small college town. This is a two book a year diary market dominated by two radio groups. What I have learned – and experienced – is that local media is far more important in a market of this size than it is in Boston or Washington, D.C.

There is a greater sense of community here than in the big cities. A market like Washington, D.C. (now referred to as the DMV) is fractured. Events in Maryland have little meaning to listeners in the District or the Virginia suburbs. To be “local” there means tackling larger, more universal issues.

Here in the “valley,” local events have a greater impact on local lives. The annual country fair or the building of a new high school garners tremendous attention and interest. A few years ago, when the local national park was hit with a raging forest fire, people came out to help the first responders. We could see and smell the smoke. It affected all of us.

And radio was there to lend a hand and keep people informed. Yes, the local newspaper was involved, as was the lone local TV station. But radio was on the streets, collecting needed items, and providing constant updates.

(Side note: One radio group did this while the other was piping in programming from outside the market.)

Back to the bias. Is the local talent “better” than shows heard in major markets? Probably not. But they are here. When the three local colleges have their graduations on the same weekend – which more than doubles the population – radio is all over it.   

You may find it quaint that the local country station conducts a Saturday morning tag sale. You may even chuckle, but it does not lack callers or content. It actually is the definition of local.

The big guys like to tout radio’s power with the “live and local” mantra. Perhaps, instead of looking at how this is done at the top of the food chain, we should spend more time examining how successful radio can be from the bottom up.

So many of us got our start working a fringe shift in a smaller market. Rather than referring to these opportunities as a stepping stone, maybe we should consider them our bedrock.

If you’d like to read Inside Radio’s analysis you can do so here.

-Steve Allan, Programming Research Consultant