The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Today’s Challenges for Small Markets and Family-Owned Stations
Our work in traditional media has seen its challenges. The recent bankruptcies of two of the largest radio broadcasters, as well as mergers, acquisitions, and transitions are main topics as I continue to engage in conversations with my colleagues. Their opinions are as varied as the size of their radio markets.
The varied scope of each radio market, group ownership, family-owned and solely-owned stations, proves there is no “one size fits all’ action plan that will succeed every time. The consolidation of radio has shown that. Every market is unique and each station has its own personality. In this column, I’d like to share about my heritage in the “family of radio” which shaped my early experience the industry.
“She’s a Valley Girl.”
In 1959 (many years before I was born), my dad began his broadcast career in Los Angeles as an engineer for radio and television stations KHJ/K-EARTH and KHJ Channel 9, then owned by RKO General. I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. My dad, after spending more than 20 years in Los Angeles radio, announced that he wanted to pursue his life-long dream to build, own and operate his own radio station. Back then there were still plenty of FM frequencies available and he found one about 90 miles east of Los Angeles, in Victorville, and filed for a Construction Permit from the FCC. This was the first of several applications over the course of many years.
As any entrepreneur and broadcaster will attest, this was a very exciting time for Dad, and subsequently, for his family. By the time we finally moved to Victorville, I was 16 and a junior in high school. I wasn’t at all pleased about the move, but once I adjusted, I learned this was where my adult and many professional experiences would originate. The lessons from my years in Victorville remain with me, providing a wealth of wisdom—some unconventional—in professional and personal development.
“You suck on the radio!”
In such a small town, it wasn’t long before I became “famous.” I didn’t choose to be a radio personality or an advertising salesperson, and I wasn’t even remotely interested in the radio business, much less “business” at all. After all, by the time the station was built and we went on the air, I was about to start my senior year in high school. Almost overnight I went from being “the new girl from the San Fernando Valley” to “Kelly Orchard, the famous radio personality with zero experience.”
Admittedly, I was awful on the air during those early months. My oldest brother possessed all the announcing talent. His dream was to be a radio personality and he had honed his craft for years in anticipation of our family operating this radio station. He’d already had several jobs in radio as an announcer before we arrived in Victorville, so he was in his element.
But for me it was a journey of humiliation, embarrassment, feelings of failure, and stumbling over my words when reading a live broadcast. While my peers were going home after school or to their part-time jobs at a local fast food place or pizza parlor, my after-school job was to read the afternoon and evening news live. I felt way out of my comfort zone. Fortunately, Dad was patient and encouraging as he trained me to read without stumbling, and to control my voice. Little did I know that while I was reading the news live, calls were coming in to the station requesting them to “take that little girl off the air; she’s horrible!”
I found myself being teased and mocked by my peers, both in my classes and at parties. It was emotionally degrading to hear repeatedly, “You really suck on the radio!” Learning to sell advertising and become part of the business community wasn’t any easier. In the beginning I suffered anxiety and fear at the idea of walking into a business to ask them if they’d like to advertise on our radio station.
THE GOOD: Positive psychology and coaching worked for me.
Thanks to coaching and training from my dad and older brother, I quickly improved, and I am forever grateful for the opportunities and lessons learned along the way. Whenever I struggled and felt frustrated or insecure, my dad’s words would pick me up: “It’s not the end of the world …” he would say, as in “Don’t sweat the small stuff. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a huge world out there. You’ll be okay.” The first time he said that, in his effort to add some laughter to what was an emotional experience for me, he added “… It’s only Victorville,” meaning, it’s not that big a deal.
Among other invaluable benefits, working for the family radio station provided pride in ownership, interest in the success of the station, and opportunities to learn every aspect of broadcast operations and how we served our community.
THE BAD: It’s a family affair.
Small market stations are much like family-owned stations. When a family works side-by-side, day in and day out for years, the family dynamic makes it even more interesting, to say the least. Separating personal feelings and family politics is even more difficult than separating professional differences.
In addition, you must integrate non-family members into the operations of the business.
Although I could make business and operational decisions that didn’t have to go through a corporate process, there were times when we wouldn’t agree on how an issue should be addressed, whether it was with a client, employee, or other operations matters. As with any family, there are personalities and issues that can overshadow operations of a radio station. Dad, Mom and my brothers all worked at the station. There were sibling rivalries, generational issues, and different ideas on programming, promotions, sales and events. This sometimes resulted in significant tensions and plain old-fashioned arguments. The manner in which a family handles their personal concerns does not always translate to a healthy workplace. It was one of the elements of working with family that made it most challenging.
But step by step, we managed to work things out and our success grew. Eventually, we owned and operated five radio stations.
THE UGLY: If only I knew then what I know now.
Eventually I learned by the school of hard knocks, making mistakes and failing repeatedly. But the important thing is that I learned. I am especially thankful that Dad practiced basic leadership principles, provided appropriate training and coaching, and was a well-rounded owner/operator.
These early years of operating the family radio stations were the best for honing skills and overcoming obstacles. Each of my family members had dreams, goals and a vision of their own for their career, and the business. But, there was one principle we all agreed on: A successful radio station meant we were all a success. The same is true for each member of your team.
The radio and media landscape has dramatically evolved since my early years in radio in a small town. Broadcasters that are competing with larger group ownership must do more with much less and it certainly takes its toll. As a well-being and mental health advocate, I want to encourage small broadcasters to become aware of the stress and emotional state you find yourself experiencing. There are plenty of resources, programs, and information that can provide the solutions you need today. I am happy to have a confidential conversation with anyone who seeks resources that will pave the way for success. Be assured, awareness of a problem is the first sign of readiness for change or growth. When you realize there is a problem to be solved, you’ll begin to seek the answers.
The challenges in family-owned and small market radio stations are as unique as each person within that station. Remember, there is no quick fix or “one size fits all” action plan that will succeed in every case. But there is lots you can learn, lots you can do, and lots of reasons for hope!
Kelly Orchard is a professional speaker, author and trainer. In addition to more than 30 years in the business of broadcasting, she has a Master’s Degree in Psychology and a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Science with an emphasis in Organizational Leadership. Kelly specializes in working with radio industry executives in times of trouble, turmoil and transition, to help them stress-proof their leadership. She is a 2008 graduate of the NABEF Broadcast Leadership Training Program, among others. She is also an FCC Compliance Specialist and licensed psychotherapist. Reach her at email@example.com