I may be a little late (or maybe I’m perfectly timed for the one-week anniversary of the sign-off?), but like everyone else who’s been around radio for any length of time, I have some thoughts about last week’s sign off of two storied media brands – PLJ in New York and Mix 107.3 in Washington, D.C.
In case you missed the news, both stations signed off the air Friday after their owner, Cumulus Media, sold the stations to the Educational Media Foundation (EMF), a not-for-profit Christian broadcasting outfit. EMF converted both stations to become local outposts for its “positive and encouraging” K-LOVE brand, with programming piped in to stations around the country from EMF’s headquarters near Sacramento.
Consistent with my brand as a radio nerd, I first learned of both PLJ and Mix 107.3 as a teenager, listening to jingle demos – specifically JAM’s Breakthrough and Digital Mix, respectively (the latter having the added allure of being used on my hometown’s Mix 107.5 (KWMX/Denver)). Over the years I came to learn that PLJ and Mix two were among a small handful of influential stations that, in many ways, set the standards for contemporary personality-driven radio. More significantly, stations like PLJ and Mix, among others, helped me understand what “good radio” was supposed to sound like, and to establish my own principles and values of successful broadcasting.
Much has been written over the past several weeks about these two legendary stations and their impact on radio, but the one piece that caught my eye was composer-turned-media-technologist Shelly Palmer’s blog post What is a Radio Brand? In his post Palmer argues, in so many words, that PLJ isn’t really a brand because it existed only on the radio and “[o]objectively . . . had nothing special to offer.”
“What fascinates me,” Palmer writes, “is that even though PLJ had been promoting itself relentlessly for the better part of 36 years, the best it can hope for as it rides off into the sunset is to sell a commemorative T-shirts.”
It also misses the point.
What’s fascinating is that a radio station – the type of enterprise that usually gives away t-shirts as promotional items – established enough of a following to establish a market to sell t-shirts. Put differently, people cared so much about PLJ that they were willing to pay money for the opportunity to show their allegiance to the – dare I say it? – brand.
Definitions of “brand” abound, but there are a few that have always stood out to me as being especially applicable to the media business: Sergio Zyman describes it as “essentially a container for a customer’s complete experience with the product or company.” Seth Godin says it’s “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.” Ashley Friedlein of Econsultancy describes “brand” as “the sum total of how someone perceives a particular organization.”
If by those measures PLJ isn’t a brand, then I don’t know what is. As the station entered its waning days, and word spread of its impending demise, some New Yorkers became quite emotional about the loss of what they perceived to be a companion. Many had grown up listening to the station and had forged connections with PLJ’s on-air personalities. One need only read the comments on social media to see that people had strong emotional ties to the station.
Palmer amplifies his point by noting that “outside of broadcast radio, the PLJ brand has no value. Could you start a streaming service called PLJ and have anyone outside of the NY metro area even recognize it?” He also points out that PLJ’s music format – Top 40 or Hot AC, depending on your perspective – has become commoditized, and that the same music is available, without those pesky commercials, on myriad digital services such as Spotify and Pandora.
Well, yes. Of course PLJ wouldn’t have broad brand recognition outside of New York. It’s a New York brand, and it did exactly what local radio brands are supposed to do: foster deep connections with their communities and, to plagiarize Congress (because who could say it better than Congress?), serve the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” To suggest that PLJ’s brand was nothing beyond the music it played is to ignore the personality, community, and local focus that radio stations, and indeed, all broadcasters, are uniquely situated to offer.
As I wrote in the days following the Route 91 Harvest music festival shooting in Las Vegas, everyone is quick to joke about the legacy media dinosaurs – traditional radio and television – “[a]nd yet despite the jokes … I have heard of not one person who tuned to Spotify to hear important evacuation information, or who flipped on Hulu to find out where to donate blood. I searched and searched but couldn’t find any weather radar in my Netflix queue.”
To be fair to Palmer, his piece goes on to provide some sage advice on how to ensure that a media brand can transcend its distribution mechanism. That’s an important consideration to be sure, but radio should never lose sight of what it does best: being local, having personality, and engaging the community. To make radio stations look more like the digital services they compete with would be to give up the differentiating qualities that give stations a competitive advantage.
We should never let obsession over technology replace that which makes radio unique. Neither should we ignore the promise of new technologies; instead we should harness their power to amplify our effectiveness. Video didn’t kill the radio star, and neither did the internet. Indeed, it enhanced its reach by making it available in more places, and arguably to a wider audience than ever before.
So What Killed PLJ?
PLJ was a victim of circumstance. Cumulus needed money quickly to dig itself out of bankruptcy and selling radio stations in big markets is a good way to do that. Meanwhile, EMF believes it’s on a divine mission to expose as many people as possible to the word of God, and a good way do that is through radio stations in major markets. (Note that EMF didn’t just create a Spotify playlist…interesting).
Willing buyer; willing seller. Economics 101.
The demise of PLJ (and Mix 107.3 for that matter) thus had more to do with simple market forces than botched branding.
Would Cumulus have spared PLJ and sold one of its other New York stations if only PLJ had developed a stronger brand? I doubt it. And even if it had, we’d probably be having this same discussion about that station.
I’ve been either closely watching or working in broadcasting in some capacity for nearly three decades; in that time I’ve seen dozens of format flips, but I have never seen one generate the widespread emotional response that PLJ’s did.
That suggests to me that PLJ was doing something right.
People still value the local, engaging, personality-driven sound that has defined radio for more than half a century, and that, in turn, suggests that despite reports to the contrary, “radio” — whether delivered through wireless telegraphy, the internet, or some other means yet to be conceived — isn’t going anywhere.
I guess we could call that “positive and encouraging.”