Radio station crosses the digital divide

You’d accuse me of lying if I told you there’s a radio station in this country that, at least for one week, had as many visitors to its website and social media pages as on-air listeners.

You’d have me locked up if I suggested it’s possible to replicate this success on a larger scale. Perhaps there already are other examples—I have no way of knowing. But what I heard from the post-luncheon speaker at last week’s Media Solutions Conference in Philadelphia certainly convinced me there’s light at the end of the digital tunnel.

I checked my notes again to make sure I was hearing this right. Indeed: Laurie Cantillo, former Program Director at WTOP, one of the most successful radio stations in the business and a dominant news voice on the Washington radio dial, said that for the week of March 1 the station had as many viewers on social media and its website as it had listeners on the air.

Laurie’s mission was to convert WTOP from being just another all-news background noise to a real factor in listeners’ lives and, in the process, draw in new, younger listeners, a group that has not exactly proclaimed their love for local radio.

It’s proof that broadcasters can make their radio stations relevant by getting serious about what Millennials want and giving it to them they way they want to consume it. WTOP employed an “outside in” approach, capturing Millennials at their greatest medium of impact first (see smartphones), and then gently prodding them to the airwaves.

Understand that not all radio stations are created equal. In the case of high-profile WTOP, they made the commitment to digital, hiring a staff of 15 to tweet away on breaking news, weather and traffic and build a website with real-time meaning and not just impressive archives. WTOP invested in young professional programmers and writers to maintain its digital platform the right way, through design synergy across Twitter feeds and through their website right to the on-air product.

Broadcasters, a number of them at the Philadelphia conference, kept a close ear to the dialogue, as well they should. They’ve been wrestling for years with their own digital demons, looking to convert their brands, with limited success, into multimedia machines. As so many have found and heard through well-intentioned industry guardians, it’s the way to go—but easier said than done.

Another tip from Laurie’s speech: Tell them what they need to know now, and tell them quickly. In fact, WTOP breaks their stories with short to-the-point tweets first, and invites followers to visit their website or listen on-air for more story depth.

In today’s world, broadcasters, as Laurie and WTOP demonstrated, need to build their credibility and desirability in a smartphone-dependent society. It can’t just be an afterthought. Capture them there, and good things are sure to follow.