On Long Island, New York, the radio station 103.1 Max FM plays “classic hits of the ’70s, ’80s, and more.” Billy Joel, AC/DC, and Journey are in heavy rotation.
Its DJs–actually located in Long Island–have regular names like Patrick and Ralph; Jim and Kelly do the morning show. It’s a typical American commercial radio station in every way. Part of that, in 2015, means a social media presence that opens into a meme-ified rabbit hole that stretches around the globe: Iraqi pandas, Lithuanian videos of terrifying mountain paths, and jokes that plays on musty ideas about how much women like to cook and how much men like pornography.
The station is hardly alone.
In El Paso, Texas, 95.5 KLAQ posts pictures of Marines singing Disney songs and Jimmy Kimmel segments to its 57,000-plus fans. “Have you seen this yet? A guy proposed to his GF by using a McDonalds Sandwich,” KJ 97, San Antonio’s Country Station, recently asked its 754,000 fans. And this is not just a domestic phenomenon: Lithuanian radio station ExtraFM has over 400,000 Facebook fans, and posts cat pictures, fail videos, and image macros. Their “About” consists of a link to their website and a video of a man in a zebra costume singing a song to a group of children in a parking lot. This is not something you’ll find on the social media of local television stations or newspapers.
So what exactly is going on here? What do Iraqi pandas have to do with Billy Joel?
The biggest problem that social media presents to companies of all kinds is simply that it exists. As of early this year, Facebook reported 1.44 billion active users. The total population of the world, meanwhile, is 7.1 billion people. Numbers like that practically force companies of all kinds, but especially any kind of media company, to ask itself: How could we not use a free and effective way to communicate with 20% of humanity? But what if it turned out that you didn’t really have anything to say?
Joe Varecha is the digital market and content manager for Connoisseur Media, whose stations include 94.3 The Shark, K98.3 (“Music that makes you feel good!”), Walk 97.5, and 103.1 The Max. While in college, he had a professor who worked for Connoisseur who recruited him to be an intern.
“I drove the van around for a few years,” Varecha told me over the phone one recent afternoon. “And about six years ago, they needed someone to do the Facebook. I was right out of college, so it started off just doing Facebook and grew from there.”
Now Varecha is effectively in charge of everything happening on the Internet for Connoisseur that isn’t related to advertising. I ask him for his general social media philosophy.
“Basically, we know that Facebook is everywhere,” he says. “It’s on their mobile devices, [people are] looking at it at work, so it’s just another way for us to engage with our listeners when they’re not listening to the radio. It’s just a great tool to get that brand message in their head all the time and get them to return to the radio station. With any company, you’re trying to reach people as much as possible.”
When I ask him why his station posts so many memes on Facebook, he’s very ready with an answer.
“It’s just that getting the logo, getting the call letters, getting the frequency out in front of people is always good. Like I said, memes are a good way to reach a lot of people, at almost no cost. It goes to a lot of people, so why not do it? Why not use it?”
The Awl’s John Herrman has of late become a sort of de facto social media philosopher. In a series of articles under the heading “The Content Wars,” he’s been chronicling the publishing industry’s slow capitulation to social media and its general confusion about how to approach platforms that are suddenly so vital. These posts are illustrated with GIFs of robots, alternately seeming menacing and amusingly buffoonish. In a recent article, Herrman outlined media’s general approach to Facebook:
In recent years, Facebook’s News Feed created an enormous opportunity for the publishing business. Facebook, the place where people went to see what their friends were up to, became a central destination. News Feed collected and spread links and comments and videos, creating a virtuous cycle of attention–to organizations posting from the outside, its growth and ability to drive attention suggested endless demand. This culminated in something like industry dominance; news organizations and entertainment sites and video producers, some more intentionally than others, found that, even on the internet, the best way to reach the most people was still through a platform that isn’t their own. For Facebook, publishers filled a void in the service, supplying near-endless matter for conversation, reference and consumption within the feed; for publishers, Facebook provided growth.
Facebook as a video host, or as a host for articles, strains the definition of partnership. How can you partner with the company that provides the entire context for your existence? This arrangement likewise strains the definition of a publication, which–having lost some degree of self-determination–is reduced to the sum of its content.
What, then, to do if you’re a media organization whose content cannot be represented on Facebook?
Andrea Ocampo is the digital content creator for Florida’s Palm Beach Broadcasting, whose stations include SUNNY 107.9, X102.3, and WIRK 103.1. Her stations buck the local radio trend–they largely post music news on their social media. I ask her about the meme phenomenon embraced by other stations.
“Everyone has their own very specific opinion,” she says, about why stations behave this way socially. “And my opinion is: I think everybody just looks at social media as a one-size-fits-all formula.”
This is a problem, Ocampo believes.
“Everbody that creates a social media page, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to resonate with your audience. I think you really need to know exactly who you’re talking to. And once you know who you’re talking to, you have to share content that really resonates with them. That could be a meme, but it’s not going to do much beyond maybe creating a chuckle. You really need to listen to your audience, your demographic, your listener. I think that’s where people really miss the mark; to understand what you’re trying to give to your listener.”
What is it that someone thinks they’re getting when they follow their local radio station on Facebook? Maybe they’re chasing the spirit of that station: the patter between DJs, the contests, the attitude behind the cartoon lightning bolts or lipstick smacks that make up stations’ logos. And, in that sense, maybe a video of a panda is very much on-brand.
“Radio stations are a portal for pop culture,” says Luke Carrell, strategy director at We Are Social, a social media marketing company that’s worked with clients like Jaguar, Adidas, and Evian. “One of the ways they try to establish that is maintaining relevance however they can. Obviously memes are an easy and relatable way to do that in the digital space.”
“A meme is one of those things you can’t really illustrate on air,” says Varecha. “When you ask a question, you can go back on air and say, we asked this and Joanna said xyz. A meme, you can’t really explain that on the air.”
What does a station (or any company, for that matter) really get out of social traffic based on people memes? Carrell says the answer to that question is far from certain: “You might get lots of views, but are people then going to go and tune into your radio station? Probably not.”
Despite this, riding memes is a popular strategy for organizations of all types (as any follower of Brands Saying Bae can attest). So popular, in fact, that Carrell says “it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. On Facebook, if you see a meme or a story or something like that starting to trend, you can get a lot of views and traffic by posting about it, as well. But you have to find ways to stand out in that context. It becomes a ‘who’s fastest, who’s funniest’ competition, and not every organization is equipped to win that.”
In many ways, memes are one of the last common touch points in our fractured culture. “David After Dentist,” posted on January 30, 2009, has racked up nearly 130 million views, and is still going strong. Ask people who are trapped inside a cubicle all day if they’d like to watch a clip of a dancing raccoon or, say, a chipmunk yawning, or a cat on a trampoline, and the answer will invariably be: Oh, hells yes.
In this sense, talking about memes–reproducing the moment of discovery, of sharing, and of disbelief/delight/disgust–is exactly within a local radio station’s wheelhouse. It’s something you can talk about for two minutes and move on.
Until more cats who can’t believe you’re not helping them show up.