Sometimes, being a fan of radio feels like rooting for a perennially losing sports team, decades removed from its glory years. The wins haven’t come often and when they do, you have to savor them. Now is one of those times.
This example of a victory for commercial, terrestrial radio is WJR-AM in Detroit, billed as “The Great Voice of The Great Lakes.” The station’s 50,000 watt signal can be heard in 38 states and much of Canada. In its heyday, it was a powerhouse of local flavor, national-caliber hosts and billings, lots and lots of bills. But under corporate ownership, the past decade has seen the station shrink, like just about every other across the country. While the station boasts strong talk personalities Paul W. Smith, Frank Beckmann and Mitch Albom, much of the airtime is taken up by syndicated national programming or paid shows.
WJR’s current owner, Cumulus, though, seems to be emerging from bankruptcy with the beginnings of a plan to stay out of it. Unlike others that have cut and then cut and then cut some more, giving new listeners hardly a reason to tune in, WJR is showing signs of investment. It bid on and won the rights to Detroit Lions broadcasts for this season. And now, they are dumping a nationally syndicated political show, Michael Savage, and hiring a trusted, proven local voice, really a household name, to host a daily, local news talk show. (Details in this Crain’s Detroit Business story, featuring Tanner Friedman analysis).
Guy Gordon is a professional news broadcaster. Prepared, polished, inquisitive and fair, Gordon has spent more than 30 years on Detroit TV. I competed against him when he was at WXYZ-TV (his 6pm newscast and the one I produced at WDIV-TV were neck and neck in the ratings, but we eeked it out more nights than not) and I have worked on stories with him at both WXYZ-TV and since his move to WDIV-TV over the past 18+ years. He asks great questions and tells great stories, with high respect for the audience. For the past two years, he has filled in as a host on WJR and has made it sound easy.
For now, Guy will be on 3pm to 5pm but I hear that could expand once syndicated programming contracts expire. Cumulus wants WJR to be more local and it’s a safe bet that advertisers and listeners will respond well to this void being filled. When was the last time we could say a station like this had something new to sell that customers actually want, not settle for? There just aren’t many places for news that emerges during the day to be explored on the air for commuters and even time-shifted podcast listeners. Guy’s reputation and Rolodex will mean his show will be a go-to place for newsmakers to talk beyond the headlines by answering his questions.
This is something for other radio stations and their owners to consider. What are you doing, other than cutting salaries, to sustain, or maybe even grow, your business? What investments in product could lead to more audience and more ad dollars?
Newspapers, you’re due for a win too. There’s something to think about here.