Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Backing into a CNR

I was working at Plan 9 in Albemarle Square this past Saturday and on two separate occasions, customers came in looking for Rodrigo y Gabriella. They wanted the disc because they heard it on the radio. Nothing unusually there – Charlottesville's blessed with a number of stations that play more than the usual Top 40.

In addition to WVTF and WMRA, the two public radio stations that deliver NPR news, classical music and some jazz, there's also the more eclectic WTJU and WNRN.

Usually, when folks come in asking for a classical piece, it's something they've heard on WVTF. If they're asking for anything else out of the ordinary, it's usually a track they've heard on WNRN – most often, the "Acoustic Sunrise" program.

This time, however, both customers heard the tune on WCNR – a new commercial radio station in town.

I have a lot of respect for Mike Friend, the founder of WNRN. When he was a volunteer at WTJU he offered up a number of ways for the station to grow, all of which were enthusiastically ignored. He took those ideas and started WNRN, which has become a real success story for this area (and several other areas as their coverage continues to grow). WNRN thrived while WTJU continues to just survive.

Mike recognized that no one was programming music for college students. 3WV used to before their album rock playlists became frozen in time. WTJU used to as well until DJs ranged further and further afield – some to distance themselves from "popular" music – and left their audience behind.

WNRN's programming served the twenty-something audience and serves it well. Eventually, someone took notice and WCNR arrived. Make no mistake about it – WCNR is out to eat WNRN's lunch.

And they have a slight advantage – they're a commercial station. WNRN is non-commercial, which means their underwriting is limited by the rules laid down by the FCC.

1) No calls to action – you can't say "come on down," "call now" or other phrases that prompt action.
2) No reference to prices – you can't say "on sale" or "only $5.99" or "free" or anything like that.
3) No superlatives – you can't say "best ribs in town" or "lowest prices on air conditioners," "widest selection" or any other similar descriptors like you can in an ad.
4) No inducements to buy – you can't talk about special sales happening this weekend, or how every Thursday's ladies night.

So for local business (especially restaurants and bars), commercial radio can potentially be more attractive than non-commercial radio from an ad standpoint.

But this isn't a one-sided struggle. WNRN has been around for some time and has built a large and loyal audience. Plus, they already enjoy good relationships with many of the businesses WCNR is trying to woo.

So were the two customers that came into Plan 9 the first crack in the dam, or just two blips on the radar that mean nothing?

I don't have an answer, but it was something that got my attention.

- Ralph


  1. I didn't think I would, because I tend to not like commercial stations, but I love The Corner, and now listen to it all the time, and not to WNRN.

    Why? Probably because of the fact that I'm no longer the 20-something to which NRN is geared - I'm in my early 30s, and I tend to like hearing the stuff I've grown up hearing, as well as new and interesting stuff, and I hate the hard crap they play on NRN. (I'm a curmudgeon, I guess.) The Corner really does have an awesome, diverse, good playlist. All the time. It doesn't change to rap at night and to fiddle-time in the mornings.

    I continue to listen to WTJU at times, for the specific shows I like (when I can remember they are on). But NRN? not so much. I don't need it, I don't miss it.

    I like diversity, though, so I hope all of the stations stick around.

  2. Excellent point. I think the "Acoustic Sunrise" also appeals to an older demographic, and I suspect WCNR has been paying close attention to what appeals to that audience as well!

  3. If HD-Radio were a true mass medium, WNRN would also face competition from WVTF, which I believe has plans to put a AAA feed out over 89.2. They may already be doing it, but, I don't have an HD-Radio.

  4. Good point. Of course, WNRN could split off its various formats into different HD Radio channels as well.

  5. If anyone knows, you might know. Are HD Radios selling in Charlottesville? In Virginia?

    Me, my next "radio" will surely be a wi-fi radio.

  6. By all accounts (outside of the HD Radio Alliance) HD Radio is DOA. The public radio conference I just attended had an HD Radio session, and even though they were upbeat, the panel strongly urged stations to stream their digital channels.

    I think WiFi (and perhaps WiMax) is the way forward. Which makes the SoundExchange's effort to throttle Internet radio in its cradle even more wrong-headed.

    - Ralph