Monday, March 9, 2009

Diary From Another Radio Road Trip

I wonder how many Consultants, Market Managers, Program Directors and Sales Managers take “Radio Road Trips”. Living as I do now in Northwest Montana, I find myself driving more than flying— or driving to catch a flight somewhere else. And being on the road is a great way to experience our products the way our listeners do. I always find it an enriching—although lately—an exasperating experience.
This time out, I drove from my home in Kalispell, Montana to Seattle to burn some frequent-flyer miles—which for some reason, I couldn't’ do from Spokane or our own Glacier Park International Airport. I drove through Spokane (Market Rank 92) to Seattle (Market Rank 13), taking I-90 (a major east-west Interstate highway) across Montana, Idaho and Washington State my on journey to CRS-40 in Nashville.
The first thing I noticed is that I couldn’t find any LIVE programming on the weekends. And outside of morning shows, it was very difficult to tell if the person on the air was live or voice- tracked. You might think that’s a good thing…that I couldn’t tell. Except that, in several instances, I KNEW the station had a live mid- day and/or PM drive show! Not so good now, right?
I found myself scanning both the AM & FM bands continuously, trying to find music that satisfied me for more than just one song. I couldn’t! As I looked at my fellow drivers along the roadways, I saw them furiously punching their radio buttons, too…so please don’t tell me it’s “because I’m in the business”.
Along the way, when I stopped, I’d ask people—both fellow travelers and locals—what they listened to. The frequent travelers, such as truckers, told me they’d “given up on local radio years ago!” Too frustrating! Too repetitive! Too boring! Most of them were now inexorably hooked on XM or Sirius—most of them still don’t know the companies have merged, by the way. They tell me they’d “never give up their XM [or Sirius].”
My trip west was uneventful. My trip back home—eastbound— was something very different. My son, who works for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), called me while I was transferring flights in Dallas to tell me that I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass was getting hit with “a lot of snow”. (By the way, my son also works in radio—weekends and fill-in…for the fun of it.) So, when I landed at SeaTac, I knew I was in for it on the drive back home. He checked online and told me they were going to shut down the pass for “avalanche abatement” at 10PM and that WSDOT had no idea how long the pass might be closed—it depended on where all the snow would go once the blasting was finished.
It was clear that I needed to get over this pass quickly, or wait and take the long way around—through Portland—the next day. I gave into my affliction of “get-home-itis” and headed for I-90. You know what’s coming next, don’t you?
It’s Saturday night in Seattle and I’m scanning the dial— both bands—looking for updated pass reports. None! In fact, all I could find were syndicated shows! Not one local weather report, pass report or even current temperature! And this is Market #13!
I stopped at a Convenience Store near Issaquah, Washington and, using a pay phone, called the WSDOT information line (#511) and learned nothing I didn’t already know! (Oh yes, my cell phone- -Verizon--wouldn't connect me with #511.) By then, snow was collecting on the roadway and traffic was slowing, so I stopped at a truck stop and tried to access some information online. Again, nothing I didn’t already know! I asked a few truckers and they said it was tough, but passable and that I should get over quickly before the pass closed.
Well, it was the worst 4 hours of driving I’ve had in my entire life! White-out conditions, high winds and slick surfaces. My trusty Jeep Wrangler handled it well. I checked the WSDOT radio updates (1610AM) and they confirmed what I was experiencing: high winds, white-out conditions and slick road surfaces. BIG HELP!!!
Once I got to the east side, things got progressively better until I reached the Spokane Valley. The snow began (again) and I began scanning both dials for any information. By now, it’s Sunday morning (2AM) and there’s not one live show on the radio! I navigated 4th of July and Lookout Passes through Idaho and into Montana battling the same difficulties I’d experienced on Snoqualmie.
Perhaps you already know where I’m going with this: for the better part of 48-hours on the road, I couldn’t get a single updated pass report—in areas where major Interstate Passes exist! Radio provided me with no weather updates—in a rapidly-changing environment! I couldn’t even get a current temperature!
In fact, I had a difficult time even finding [clearly] local programming after 9AM!
At the Country Radio Seminar, most of the talk—in and out of sessions--surrounded the Big Picture items: music, research, imaging, promotions. Are these the only “service items” we now present to our audiences after 9AM each day? If so, we’re just begging our listeners (our product!) to find another place to get their info. My experience shows that, at the present time, no such “service” exist anywhere—online included. [Anybody smell an opportunity here?]
And it isn’t just radio! Why did my airline—one which I was a big enough customer (with enough frequent-flyer miles) to be “awarded” a “free” trip (one that required me to pay $30 to check my luggage, by the way)--wouldn’t accept my reservation at anything but a “major airport”? Some “reward”, huh?
We’ve been hearing about the loss of customer service in American businesses for decades now. Could Radio be the first to reinstate that practice?
Oh yeah, I know that I’m not P-1 to any station anywhere between Seattle, Spokane and NW Montana. But if, as a listener, my needs don’t count—then we’ve reached a place where we’re excluding some of the potential listeners are advertisers are paying us to reach!
Radio built its business on customer service: people-to- people relationships. And this extended to listeners and clients. Have we forgotten or are we just to busy--and stressed--to notice?
We should always remember that P-1’s aren’t the only ones with money to spend.

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