May 14, 2024

Radio Needs Some Northern Exposure

I’ve been rewatching Northern Exposure lately, the comedy-drama that aired on CBS for six seasons starting in 1990, and I am reminded of what great radio sounds like. In the series, John Corbett plays the character Chris Stevens, who is a modern artist, an extremely well-read philosopher, has eclectic music tastes, spent time “in the joint,” and just so happens to be the morning DJ on the local radio station 570 KBHR-AM in the tiny town of Cicely, Alaska.

Northern Exposure took place in the fictional town of Cicely, Alaska. (Credit: Shutterstock/Birdiegal)

The station owner, Maurice Minnifield, played by actor Larry Corbin, is the stereotypical small-town businessman and owner of KBHR. Maurice is frequently perplexed by Chris but is smart enough to know that he is a true reflection of the community and needs to be given the freedom to get crazy and try new things. Maurice’s only requirement is that Chris shows up for work.

Chris has a unique gift for entertaining, educating, and challenging the norms of the community. Whether he is reading Nietzsche, recounting a story from his time in prison, or simply describing his view of town outside the studio window, his passionate delivery style and content are engaging and compelling. Now, I know that Cicely is a fictional town filled with unique characters. Heck, the average local blue collar worker can discuss the pros and cons of federalism vs. republicanism. But, following up on Sam Milkman’s previous blog, “What Is the Purpose of Your Radio Station?”, KBHR and its morning show has a purpose.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I traveled to the small town of Chama, New Mexico (population 915). After lunch we browsed the stores that lined the main street, and I noted that every single shop was listening to 96.1 The Eagle (KXJR). While nowhere near as avant-garde as 570 KBHR-AM, The Eagle understands its purpose.

KXJR-FM is a community-focused station in Chama, New Mexico. (Credit: Shutterstock/Silvio Ligutti)

It plays music for the tourists, critical to the local economy. But it mixes that with truly local, authentic programming that brings together this small community living in a media desert. It generally plays a mix of Classic Hits that serves as a soundtrack for the tourists who visit the town to shop, dine, and enjoy the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. However, the station also mixes in programming specifically for the locals like “Beautiful Chama Valley Travel Show”, “Seeds of Liberation!” (…explores the many ways we can improve our lives by liberating ourselves from oppressive constructs…), “Chama’s EDML (Eleanor Daggett Memorial Library) Book Teasers”, “The Farm & Ranch Show”, and more. There’s even a local high school kid, Keith Trujillo, who DJs his own show that “kicks it with a blend of Funk, Hip Hop, Rap, and Country that’s vintage & new, chill & upbeat.” Instead of a station voice, you hear members of the community, even kids, announcing the Legal ID. Is it polished, professional radio? No. But, the community is listening and isn’t that the point?

What is your station’s purpose? It has to be more than playing 12 songs in a row, the most New Country, the best mix of the 90s to Now, etc. What is your station’s purpose in the community? What are the unique things you can offer that your listeners can’t get anywhere else?

As Sam Milkman wrote in his blog, ”You have the ideas. Let’s get crazy and try some of them. Let’s find our purpose again.”

So, I leave you with this, “True insanity is knowing the result yet continuing to do the same thing anyway.” It is time to try something revolutionary!

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