An idea to inject much-needed cash into local businesses during the coronavirus pandemic spread across northeastern South Dakota nearly as fast as the virus itself.
Brian Lundquist, who is part of a group that owns radio stations throughout the region, said they sold nearly $1 million worth of gift cards by hosting local radiothons during the month of April in communities across the area including Aberdeen, Watertown, and Redfield.
“I think we hit a home run,” Lundquist said. “I hope we never have to do this again but one of the investors said if we need to do this again, let’s do it again.”
Big Stone Radio in Ortonville, Minnesota, was the first to hold a radiothon to sell gift cards for local shops. The idea was that gift card purchases would generate cash flow for the businesses that had to close due to the pandemic. More than $100,000 in gift cards were sold during the first radiothon in Ortonville.
“We’re like okay, if we can take the same kind of concept and roll it into Aberdeen what could we do?” Lundquist said.
Big Stone Radio in Ortonville and Hub City Radio in Aberdeen are under the same ownership, so Lundquist and his team partnered with the Aberdeen Area Chamber of Commerce and had big ideas for a campaign they called ‘Small Act - Big Impact.’ However, those ideas exceeded their wildest dreams thanks to a phone call less than 48 hours before they were about to go on the air.
“We had some community angel businesspeople call us,” Lundquist said.
Those ‘angel businesspeople’ proposed the idea of gathering $50,000 in funds to match gift card purchases during the April 8 radiothon. The intent of the matching money was to help out local businesses by doubling the gift card purchases and also help local consumers by making their money stretch farther during a difficult time.
“It is pretty amazing that you can send out one email and say this is what we need to do,” Hub City Radio Sales Manager Kristan Morris said about the generosity of the community and incorporating the matching funds into the campaign.
By the time the radiothon was on the air in Aberdeen more than $90,000 in matching funds had been raised, including a donation to the fund from Northern Electric Cooperative.
“We were all amazed by the Aberdeen community’s support for this campaign goal,” Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce Director of Member Services and Events Bea Smith said. “The match dollars from the community-minded individuals and businesses was a game-changer for the radiothon."
The matching funds for the Aberdeen radiothon were exhausted after the first three hours and the event sold more than $200,000 worth of gift cards. The entire ‘Small Act - Big Impact’ campaign sold $274,000 worth of gift cards by the time it wrapped up in mid-April.
“We heard about the gift card program that Aberdeen had put on and thought it was a wonderful idea,” Grow Spink Executive Director Gianna Lantero said.
The success of the radiothons spread throughout the region and the Spink County economic development organization - Grow Spink – organized its own ‘Shop Spink’ event less than three weeks later.
“Our businesses were so excited to hear about this project. They were extremely grateful that we put something like this together,” Lantero said.
Grow Spink raised more than $30,000 in matching funds which also included a donation from Northern Electric Cooperative. The ‘Shop Spink’ event ran out of the matching money within the first two-and-a-half hours of the radiothon. Lantero said gift cards were purchased for all 55 participating businesses across the county. The entire ‘Shop Spink’ campaign accounted for $94,250 in gift card sales.
“A lot of callers expressed that these business owners are family and friends to them. These businesses are places that they all love to visit, and they wanted to help them during this difficult time,” Lantero said.
"The community rallied around itself to help out their friends and neighbors. We wanted it to be Christmas in April."
The money raised by the Aberdeen ‘Small Act - Big Impact’ campaign has already been distributed to business owners to help them make ends meet during the pandemic.
“The best part was being able to take those checks to the clients and businesses and see their reaction,” Lundquist said. “We walked into these businesses with a check and said here’s how many gift cards we need.”
One Aberdeen business owner told Bea Smith of the Aberdeen Area Chamber of Commerce that the money generated by the campaign helped pay their rent, utilities, and employees.
“Business owners were very appreciative of the gift cards purchased. Some got emotional when being told the amount of money raised for their business,” Smith said.
Similar radiothons were also held in Webster and Milbank.
Lundquist knows the money is likely only a temporary reprieve for the local owners that had to close their doors during the pandemic. However, he is grateful the radiothons have been able to provide a boost to the local communities they serve.
“The community rallied around itself to help out their friends and neighbors,” he said. “We wanted it to be Christmas in April.”