Thursday, March 12, 2009

Get local, get fired

I used to work in radio. It’s an odd business. The people who work in radio are odd. Radio stations are odd. People who listen to the radio are odd. The entire industry, from the highest-level exec, to the lowest of board-ops, has become resigned that they are working in a dying industry. It’s a slow bleed, but it’s definitely a kill, not a wound. (Respects to Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs.) People in radio know their days are numbered, but nobody talks about D-Day. The boat is sinking and the band continues playing as they disappear into icy water. Everybody knows, but nobody acts. Odd.

The radio business was in the tank well before the economy collapsed. This is not like the bank industry, where imminent demise is a relevantly new development. Radio has been in the ICU for years.

It’s the contradictions that make the radio business really weird (and by weird, I mean insolvent).

One such inconsistency is the local-versus-national debate waged numerous times over the course of my sterling yet brief radio career.

Program Directors want to have as much local programming as possible. The idea being that regionally-centric programming will be a greater draw than nationally based shows that may not be relevant to a local audience. That makes sense. Right?

The inconsistency comes when the same PD fires local show hosts to bring in cheap syndicated programming because the station can’t afford to pay a talker 12 bucks an hour. The same story has been played out in AM stations across the country, no matter if the station is a Clear Channel flagship or a 1000-watt station in Bumblefuck, Nowhere.

This drawn-out story and scenario got me thinking about an idea I’ve had for a while and previously published on a now-defunct motor racing interweb site.

In a nutshell, the plan calls for a full time single-car IRL team with a revolving door of local drivers to contest each event. For example, Memo Gidley would be in the car for Sonoma, Clint Field at Mid-Ohio and so forth. Local one-off sponsorships would be sold and the league foots any remaining cost. All crew members, engineers, marketing types and other staff would be up-and-comers, guys and gals with little or no experience in the sport. A few experienced guys (I hear Derrick Walker is free, hint, hint) would mentor the young whippersnappers to make sure everything is safe and done in proper manner. It’s the motor racing equivalent of local programming.

It seems like a no-brainer. Local drivers and sponsorships attract more local fans. Everybody is a winner! Of course, at least now, it’s almost impossible to sell anything, so the financing could be an issue. But, if the league would jump on this plan, and really devote some money and manpower (in terms of some bright young salespeople), this could be a reality. If executed properly, the investment return would be quick.

Alas, someone in the sport has to play the role of radio Program Director (aka the Kill Joy). Is it Tony George? Is it Brian Barnhart? Is it the individual team owners? Yes. Probably. And yes. Local programming has long been cut, and fields are filled with drivers of little relevance to the average fan. Hopefully the IndyCar Series is not subject to the same fate –obscurity, demise, death, and destruction- as radio.

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