Can a commercial radio station also be listener supported?

Gary Chetkof (photo by Alan Carey)

You know the economy’s making big shifts, losing old business models, when a regional news website and one of the region’s top independent radio stations make paradigm-shifting announcements in the same week.

The website shift came from Watershed Post on March 12, when it announced the regional news entity would be stepping back from full-time news coverage in an email and Facebook announcement (see sidebar).

But that came after WDST-Radio Woodstock, based in the town it’s been named after at 100.1 FM since its founding 37 years ago next month, sent out its own announcement that it was shifting from the industry’s long held basis in advertising support to a new “local business and listener supported” platform.

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Radio Woodstock’s move drew a variety of responses from other radio stations around the region, both positive and negative, including a blistering commentary from the low power Woodstock-based WIOF station it had engaged in an unsuccessful lawsuit over the past year.

Taken together, the region’s radio industry indicated that the move towards some form of listener-supported commercial radio was understandable, given the ways in which all advertising-supported business has shifted since the emergence of the Internet. But many on the non-commercial side of the bandwidth spectrum also raised concerns about increasing competition during a time when long-held public support mechanisms have come under new political fire, as indicated by the Trump Administration’s recently-released budget plans.

In its press release of March 8, Radio Woodstock-WDST noted that the company had finished a week-long “Supporters Drive” on March 3 during which it asked listeners to pledge $100.10 to “help independent radio survive and thrive in the Hudson Valley and for Radio Woodstock to maintain its unique blend of rock and roll programming.” Over 300 pledged support, the press release announced, and henceforth the station would start “cutting back the number of commercials minutes per hour with no commercial break longer than two and a half minutes to give listeners a better listening experience and better exposure for local businesses,” instead of the average “14 or more minutes of commercials per hour in a long string of messages” they purported other commercial stations were running.

Station owner Gary Chetkof added that the station “needed a major shift in order to survive among the large corporate radio groups…We support emerging artists, honoring rock and roll history and our Woodstock heritage. As an independent, stand-alone commercial radio station, we do not have other radio stations in the market or a national corporation supporting us (like the other radio stations in the Hudson Valley). This puts us at a tremendous disadvantage for many reasons, including the ability to amortize expenses.”

Alan Chartock, president and chief executive officer of WAMC/Northeast Public Radio, 90.9 locally, the region’s top fundraiser for fund-drive supported non-commercial radio formats, called the WDST move, “an interesting idea…I’m a great believer in letting a thousand flowers bloom and if it works it gets my blessings. Basically, though, the difference between what we do and what they’re trying is that the people who own that station will continue to own it, whereas everybody owns WAMC. People have to make up their mind about that.”

Will Stanley, owner of the regional WKZE-FM that broadcasts at 98.1 from Red Hook studios since 2006, said that he’d long considered such a move for his own station, but worried that such a move might send a signal that his station was in financial trouble.

“It makes sense in so many ways when you have a format so many people feel invested in,” he said. “We get people asking us all the time if they can donate money but we tell them that no, we don’t have a mechanism for that. We tell them that if you want to support us, support our advertisers. We’ve found that goes a long way.”

But Randi Steele of the new WIOF low power station found at 104.1 FM in Woodstock, another veteran of the New York City radio world like Chetkof, had another thing to say, altogether.

“I think Gary Chetkof could have saved more money by not having sued us,” she said of the regional radio giant’s unsuccessful attempts to bar the smaller station from using the Woodstock name in any way, or playing rock and roll music. “What they’re doing borders on misrepresentation. WDST is a commercial station. Everyone who works there makes a salary, and they charge several hundred dollars an hour for specialty shows. We’re all volunteers, and people contribute to what we do because they like the different service we’re providing, and they’re hearing. This entire push, I should add, started after we came on the air; it’s as though they were forced to put their tail between their legs and started begging for money.”

 

Internet disruption riles the industry

Chetkof, who bought WDST in 1993, meanwhile spoke about how a one-time payment of $100.10 compared to the $8.35 average cost for satellite or streaming radio would include passes for the station’s live performances and radio broadcasts in the Utopia Studios first built by Todd Rundgren, and allow “first crack” at tickets to Radio Woodstock concerts and events. He added that Radio Woodstock was planning, at present, for two annual supporter fund drives a year, with a follow up in summer or autumn.

“The Internet has proven to be a disruptive technology for ​many business sectors, such as shopping malls, the music industry and media,” Chetkof noted in a series of email answers to questions about the genesis of his move towards local business and listener-supported commercial radio. “In the past few years, companies started to migrate large portions of their advertising business to the internet. Along with a tepid economy, advertising revenues started to decline in the radio industry over the last few years. We decided that the best way to combat this was to make our programming more unique with both our music mix and our  focus on our local community.”

The former radio attorney from New York added that the listener-supported push would accompany other slower-developing revenue-enhancing ideas such as a live events division, several regional festivals beyond Mountain Jam (on which it partners), and various online “marketing enhancements.” The new idea emerged from “more than a year  brainstorming ways to better engage highly dedicated core listeners” while not shifting the station’s advertising rates other than to add value to them.

Chetkof explained that he, station manager Richard Fusco, marketing director Asso Sacko and the WDST programming team led by Jimmy Buff and Greg Gattine spent more than a year brainstorming ways to better engage their “highly dedicated” core listeners into becoming supporters of the station.

“At first we discussed a Super VIP type membership program, in which those who joined would get certain benefits. But we wanted the program to be inclusive not exclusive,” Chetkof said. “This meant that we had to open up on the air and tell people what Radio Woodstock stood for and that we were economically vulnerable…I think Bernie Sanders’ campaign for President emboldened us to stick to our core values and to ask our listeners for support.

“It is a challenging time for media companies and unless they evolve, they will die. Magazines and newspapers are struggling for survival right now…Traditional media needs to embrace digital but also find other symbiotic revenue streams too,” he added. “It’s a totally new world than when I bought the radio station 24 years ago. Deregulation has created giant corporate radio companies and has decimated local independent radio. ​And while radio has always flourished in the face on new technologies — from 8-track, cassette players, CD player and even satellite radio — the Internet has been the big paradigm shift. There are more choices than ever, and many of them are free. Radio’s strength is still in car listening, but that too will eventually change.”

 

Kickstarter culture

One of the difficulties of the approach is that contributions to non-profits, such as WAMC and the low power locals, are tax deductible, while those to Radio Woodstock are not.

“What I can say on this is that a lot of online journalism outlets are experimenting with ‘hybrid funding models,’ a mixture of public and private funds — think Slate plus, the Guardian, and many other news outlets that solicit voluntary support, and other news organizations that partner with nonprofit outlets such as The New York Times-ProPublica partnership,” observed SUNY New Paltz Associate Professor of Digital Media & Journalism Lisa Phillips of the Radio Woodstock move. “I’m not surprised to see this in music radio, particularly an independent station. The competition for listener attention is enormous in the age of streaming music and radio. It has long been a buyer’s market for advertisers because air time, and for that matter classified ad space, are no longer scarce resources — the ‘real estate’  is limitless so property and time are cheap.”

Chartock, speaking from his home in the Berkshires, said that such “paradigm shifts” involving advertising, or underwriting in his case, could be more than made up for in listener support as witnessed by WAMC fundraising having broken all records in recent months.

“We brought in $500,000 in one day,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised that others look at what we do as something they’d like to try, but it’s just not the same thing. Granted, I love WDST; they do terrific work and my wife listens a lot. In fact, she’d probably send them money. But in the end, they still have private ownership.”

Lynn Sloneker, station manager at WGXC-FM of Columbia and Greene counties, one of the leading newer stations in the region, more akin to WIOF than WAMC or WDST called it a “Kickstarter culture, where for-profit entities too often mask their revenue generating activities as comparable to the charitable fundraising non-profit organizations rely on for survival.”

Steele, the blind radio professional behind Woodstock 104, WIOF, put it in more basic terms. “Our goal is to stay on the air and not improve our profit margin,” she said. “He (Chetkof) can do what he wants to but you should be able to play by the rules of your business.”

There are 2 comments

  1. TheRedDogParty

    I loved the original programming of WDST, ‘The Bulldog’, named after founder and owner Gerry _____?) dog. He encouraged great conversation and call-in programs and read (in his distinctive gravelly voice) novels and stories for an hour each morning. This was before the NPR program ‘Selected Shorts’ existed.

    While WDST has not quite followed it’s origins, it should be commended for it’s programming nevertheless.

    I don’t see any ethical, legal, or business problems in WDST engaging with it’s audience in new and creative ways.

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