Cornering the (Small) Market

By Mike Johnson

“Ya know, they always say if you live in one place long enough, you are that place.”
~ Rocky Balboa

I was pouring over a radio message board some time ago and saw my name in a thread about Aberdeen, South Dakota. Seemed I was being called out for having never ‘moved on’ from a small market.

I was dumb-struck!

For some reason I guess, some of my peers find it hard to believe that I have spent my entire career in a small market by choice. I often joke with them that I have stayed in a small market all of these years because I am too lazy to move. Much the way I joke that I have stayed in radio all of these years because I’m too lazy to learn any ‘employable’ skills that might harvest me an honest job. I’ll be totally honest: when I do have the rare chance to do absolutely nothing, I’m not above it. But that has nothing to do with why I have stayed in a small market all of these years.

Sure, I once had all intentions of moving upward and onward in radio. But after just my first move, I met my wife, Evelyn, and we built a life together in a town that we both enjoy living in.

It just happens to be... well, small.

It’s not like I set out to establish myself as some sort of big fish in this particular little pond. Fact is, oddly enough, when I initially came to this town it was not for a radio job. Having spent nearly three years at a very successful station, I had decided to leave radio -- at least for awhile -- and satisfy my wanderlust while pursuing another passion: playing live music. I had met up with a band from a big city that was quite good. They had a record. They had a video. This was my big break and a chance to leave small town life behind to see new and exciting places from behind my drum set. Opportunities like this don’t come around very often, and I knew I had to take it.

 However, years of apartment dwelling had allowed my drumming chops to dry up, and I needed to woodshed for awhile to get back into gig form. I needed to find a house with a basement where I could play drums without the Police being called. So at the age of 22, I moved to Aberdeen, South Dakota for one reason only: I knew where I could rent a house with a basement for just $200 dollars a month. Fast-forward a few months, and when the time came to join up with the band out on the road, I had fallen for the prettiest girl I’d ever seen, and I decided to hang around for awhile and ‘see what happened.’

That was 1992.

At that time, my market had the same handful of stations that I had grown up listening to: three AM and two FM stations (one of which was even 24 hours!) A total of five signals represented three ownership groups. I applied at all three of them, and took the first job that I was offered.

Small market life isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and because of that we had a lot of turnover at that station. I went from being a part-time jock to being the Program Director in nine months. I decided to dig in, work hard and see what happened.

Over the years I have kept in touch with friends who have moved on to larger markets. Some are still in the biz and doing quite well; others are still in the biz and considering a change, while others still have changed careers and never looked back.

But at the same time, the opportunities that they left a small market to search for have all seemed to find their way to me over the years.

Work for a larger company? Professional growth? Advantages of big-city living? National exposure?

Well, as it turned out, I didn’t need to move to a city to work for a bigger company: In time, they came to me. (I would eventually work for the same company as Rick Dees and Rush Limbaugh without even having to change offices.)

And, while I never successfully left radio to learn a new craft, the tools that I use to perform my job today hold no resemblance to those that I used when I was starting out. With the internet, I have gained direct access to some of the most incredible programming and production minds in the world. Talk about professional growth! And as far as national exposure, I regularly voice commercials for radio stations all over America and several other countries. And, did I mention my morning commute all the way across town… takes me four minutes? (Five if the light is red.)

So, in my mind, packing my possessions into a van and moving to a new home would have been a lateral move, in the end. I’ve never felt shame for having stayed in a small market. In fact, aside from the above opportunities, I’ve had some other, perhaps more rare opportunities, reveal themselves to me here.

Have you ever taken your child to a city park playground and he had the whole place to himself? Ever had a neighbor snow-blow your driveway because he had been listening to you cover the blizzard on the radio, and he knew you were going to be working through the storm? Do you know of a gas station where there is always at least one pump open with no waiting? Those things are not uncommon in my life.

I won’t lie; small market life is not perfect. It has all of the trappings of radio. After de-regulation, mine, like pretty much every other radio market in America, began its series of steps backwards until finally, one company gained control of all the signals in town. For the first time, I felt that all forward momentum had been slowly bled from the stations, and my career.

Shortly after, I was let go.

Once I was outside looking in, I could clearly see how stale and homogenized radio had slowly become over the years as out of town companies bought and sold the various groups of stations. It no longer resembled the business that I had once been so in love with. And since I was now being forced to consider the prospect of moving, for the first time, I was also seriously considering changing careers.

Perspective -- another thing that had found me.

Five days later, before I even had a package put together to send out, my phone rang. It was the first of a few calls that would lead to me being offered a position that was essentially my dream-job.

I eventually accepted the position of Operations Manager with a brand new ‘Ma & Pa’ broadcasting company that was being formed, to build two new stations in my market

 The unexpected prospect of being part of an entity that could stand up and challenge everything that had become wrong with radio in my market excited me. Suddenly I felt re-energized, and after some soul-searching I realized that I had a chance to help undo some of the negative changes that consolidation had wrought upon my market over the years.

Not bound by what stock-holders or investors thought we should do, this company was free to do things a little differently than most broadcasting companies do today. We did the things that we knew we should do, because they were the right things to do. All of our programming is generated locally. We limit our commercial inventory to twelve minutes an hour. We offer exceptional commercial production, and we don’t barter anything, instead reserving our advertising time for local businesses. My States’ Broadcaster’s Association has noticed us too, presenting us with three awards in our three year existence… including their highest honor, Broadcaster of the Year.

My market now has ten radio stations -- twice as many as when I came here. There are more choices for listeners than ever before. I’m proud to be a part of that.

I had an opportunity to really make radio better. Better to listen to. Better for advertisers. Better to be a part of. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And yes, it’s worth mentioning one more time… it came to me.

Fulfillment. In a word, it sums up everything that one might move on in search of. And, it sums up every reason that I have stayed right here… at home.

Maybe I’ll move on to a bigger market someday. Maybe someday I’ll leave radio to pursue some other prospects that intrigue me. But for now, I think I’ll stay put… you know... just to see what happens.