(TALENT) Too Deep For Sheep


There are certain kinds of research that are extremely useful. Radio asking audiences what they want is not one of them. Accepting those surveys as meaningful has only done radio massive damage. Ownership jumped all over the research that suggested audiences wanted “more tunes, less talk” and, by deeming that research as significant, radio drove off the cliff.

Further, by the time radio had been consolidated, it then got bogged down in the exercise of limiting or eliminating multiple stables of high-strung on-air staffs and burnt-out spot-cobblers. The industry-wide exercise did result in a slight whittling down of corporate frustrations. Timely, convenient, destructive, and self-serving, that!

Meanwhile, there is the more recent phenomena of “on-demand everything.” Platforms are available where audiences can pick and choose their favorite tunes, design lists, separate them by genres, color them by category, order pizza, and buy cut-rate car insurance. This is, supposedly, very exciting stuff. And I suppose it could be – for those whose interests are only “about the music” and who are also retentive enough to take the time and make the effort to go through the exercises.

We have dozens of music channels on our cable TV services and uncountable more online from which I can choose any number of uber-genres, sub-genres, particular favorites, and transformational, hypnotic, Tibetan chants – all commercial- and announcer-free. They, however, serve me as no more than a background din. And frankly, I find I get bored fairly easily. A steady stream of “The Greatest Hits Of The ‘80s” or some other iconic era just tuckers me out. I have a fairly low annoyance threshold that cranks up surprisingly quickly. I am not a better human being because of any of it.

Radio – at one time – would have been close to the antithesis of relief from any ongoing, creeping banality. Non-stop music is nowhere near what it is cracked up to be. “Muzak” would cover it nicely. Radio, however, continues to behave as if it really is “all about the music.” What an incredibly lazy and unacceptable approach! There is a reason that bars hire bands. Ownership still has to sell some booze to make budget. The band is only a demographic-targeting device. Big distinctions, too, in audience appeals, are obvious for both “The Skull Krushers” and “The Velvetones.”

Recently, a radio commentator suggested that stations begin approaching their audiences with “FOMA” (Fear Of Missing Out) elements in mind. I agree that’s worthy advice. Big-league morning show performers are attempting that. The single presenters who are working other day parts at almost every other radio station have no time, no opportunity, and no permission to even make the attempt. (Whether they have the skills, and are even able to piece together and deliver a few of these gems, is another matter.)

The ongoing, working reality for the vast majority of on-air presenters is one of “FOFA” (Fear Of Falling Asleep). They won’t be found scribbling down bits, gag lines or generating shtick – certainly not while Facebook, the station website, and V/T’ing duties are on their plates, or when toilet paper rolls have to be replaced.

Elsewhere, I enjoyed a video a while back of a large flock of sheep moving from one pasture to another. Capturing the scene was accomplished through the use of a drone at around 300 feet or so. What was remarkable was how, like massive flocks of birds, the sheep were able to move gracefully and in unison and to do so through – unbeknownst to me – a form of communication among the group that kept the whole process from becoming a video of sheep carnage.

It is also unlikely the sheep had any awareness of how each of them was receiving and responding to these instructions to move this way or that. There was too much space between the camera and the flock for anyone to see or hear one sheep turning to his companion and saying, “Hey Gary. Did you get a message just before we all turned left?” It was during one of these viewings that I was struck by the similarity between this huge flock and the radio business.

Some pundit, years ago, made the comment: “Once you’ve heard 10 radio stations, you’ve heard them all.” Seems about right. When radio was consolidating into overwhelming, toxic swamps of robo-matic noise, clogging airwaves and blotching the media landscape, did anybody stand their ground or attempt alternative, programming strategies? Why, no. They did not. Nor could they.

Over the ensuing years, has any radio organization found the status quo to be limiting and unsatisfactory to the degree they would try different approaches? Why, no. They have not. (Format changes don’t account for anything other than the equivalent of flapping a white flag.)

Has any radio organization made any attempt to engage or invest in what the rest of the world calls “R&D”? No. They have not.

Has any radio organization ever pondered why it is that they and their peers all respond to the same set of stimuli in exactly the same way? Not to my knowledge.

These then, I realized, are the behaviors of obedient, pre-programmed sheep. Sheep, by the way, have limited futures. They will either be sheared or slaughtered. (There are also other, disturbing rumors.) Those who are allowed to live a little longer will still become mutton – old sheep meat.

Radio cannot satisfactorily claim the ignorance of the beasts. Nor can leadership justify the colossal blunders in programming and ad creation that are being artificially maintained on life support. I have to assume the concepts of “change” and “improvement” are being considered as horribly painful and expensive ideals – perhaps even unnecessary. Radio requires more well-trained, “live & local” presenters communicating far more effectively, and much more often.

The awful irony is that cures and relief have been available for years. I wonder if there are any among the flock who can make these distinctions. Or, perhaps all this is too deep for sheep.


  1. In response to your second post, El Barto:
    I have always found “It’s business.” to be an extraordinarily powerful, but still bogus position.
    Too often it is presented, as in the case of radio, as a strangely-acceptable position that is really code for: “We don’t know what we are doing or how to change the situation so we are going to slash and burn.”
    For those who remember, the corporations who bought out radio had no clue about the programming (“Show Biz”) requirements; couldn’t organize a bunny-rut and, as a result, gutted their own industry.
    Fire Sale prices, greed, arrogance and an assumption of competencies will do that.
    What has surprised me over the last few years is how so many radio-folk come out – frothing blood at the jowls and spitting venom – IN DEFENCE! of the status quo.
    Some ownerships, however, will still be trembling in abject terror when they learn what it is going to take to turn the business into a mature, functioning and far more influential medium.

  2. Indeed, El Barto, I remember it all – often very fondly.
    Perhaps you might agree that radio has fallen and crashed through so many sets of floorboards that the mere decision to add “live talent” would be an anemic experiment leading to disaster.
    More talent is certainly required. I also insist such is the case.
    The rub lies in that before any of the new or re-treaded personalities be allowed on the air, they will have to be trained to be competent communicators.
    The first challenge is to begin with those few who do remain on the air as “live” talent, and to train them. Only then can considerations of adding more talent to the mix be made.
    ROI is a fair benchmark. There must be a satisfactory result from taking such measures.
    I am also in agreement that festering over social media requirements pales to the results that come from superior on-air performances.

    • It always comes down to cost cutting. And I get it, from a business perspective. You can’t let costs runaway on you, or operate long-term at a loss. But it went from cost cutting to full-scale gutting. The more we turn radio stations into curated playlists with ads, the more we’ll see the Pandoras and Spotifys of the world eat our lunch – because they’re not just curated playlists with ads (or without if you’re a paid subscriber) – they’re PERSONALIZED curated playlists.

      I’ve had Sirius/XM in my vehicle before. I pulled the pin on it and removed it because all that variety ran on the same X hour repeat rotation as every terrestrial signal out there. Even they moved to bring in personalities to try and drum up interest over their original all music concept. Because that’s what switches people from a playlist/CD/MP3 player to a radio station – the parts that ARE NOT music. It’s the local music, the local information, the feeling of being part of the community, and (where it still happens) the actual interactions with the talent.

      But that’s been gutted. It’s all about Selector rules, category rotation, never straying from the charts, and timing the voice tracks, bashed of as quickly as possible so they can focus on things that are NOT our on-air product. Our actual broadcasts have become some kind of weird by-product, almost a distraction, to the business of everything BUT doing a solid radio show.

      That’s the part that makes me worry for our industry, far, FAR more than streaming audio, more than the iPods that were going to kill radio before that. We’re programming ourselves into extinction, and cutting the people who can save us to reduce costs.

      Meanwhile, our sales teams are on the ground telling local businesses you’ve gotta spend money to make money……….

  3. Once upon a time, the on air talent was what drew people to a radio station. Now bean counters have decided it’s really the music programming, and the ‘talent’ has become pretty much anything but. It’s all about tracking (often for multiple stations the same day) and getting social media updated – because, by jingles, they’re tracking every one of those likes and follows and re-tweets, calling it “audience engagement.” Remember when audience engagement involved people calling in – putting calls on the air even!! – or flocking to remote broadcasts to meet the personalities? Now we see ‘talent’ who don’t know how to even take phone calls on air and remote broadcasts staffed by copy writers and sales people because there isn’t enough on air talent to spare a body from the building.


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