“The attention span of a gnat.” That’s the justification a number of radio people put forward when they become aware that audiences are tuning out. They also refuse to take responsibility for such audience behaviors and, often, will claim their audiences are dysfunctional dolts. I have been hearing that hobbled justification my entire career. (To be fair, I sometimes have wondered myself.)
As counter-productive as it is, this convenient rationalization is delivered with severe sincerity – almost as “fact” – with uncomfortable penalties awaiting those who might question the edict. Does it ever occur, I also wonder, to the leadership that audiences lose their concentration because: What is being offered to them is mostly from the dull, boring, and insulting-crap category? Short answer: Hardly ever. And yet, radio folk have continuously railed and stamped their little, indignant footsies as they proclaim the real “dummies” are in the audience. Granted, and to be sure, there are some. Still, the practice of assigning blame to an entire group only freezes the blamer.
I also have to conclude the leadership of contemporary music-radio is (so far) unwilling, or perhaps incapable, of “standing back,” so to speak, and listening to their stations as an audience member might. Other ways of describing this useful and important behavioral capacity are “taking the second position,” or having an “ability to disassociate.” Some might also call the position “objective” – an interesting, but still confused, claim at best.
I also suspect the majority of management and leadership listen to their own stations only to confirm that already instituted, unchallenged dogma, and traditional, habitual practices are being followed. (This was the justification for the “Bat Phones” – direct lines from the PD’s office to the poor saps in the control rooms.) One of the job descriptions for PDs then was, “Must be a maniacal egotist with obsessive and sociopathic tendencies.” There was a swarm of qualified practitioners, some of whom dressed in leathers and were sporting masks and floggers. (I recall responding to my PD after one of his useless and feverish rants, “If you’re going to abuse me again, you’ll have to dress up.” Fortunately, for me, he laughed, and the meeting broke up.)
Meanwhile, as I ask for the indulgence of regular and astute readers, I want to repeat the challenges offered in my last piece. At the most fundamental levels, radio’s core approach to audiences – on-air and ad creation – must be improved, and drastically so. The following can serve as, at least, a few thought-starters.
- Is radio a “one-to-one experience” or is it something else? As a preliminary but still substantial clue: Everything in life is experienced as an individual. Radio, however, makes no actual or intimate “connection” to any “one,” specifically.
- Do speakers on the air (“live,” V/T’d, or in the spots) have any actual authority over anyone in the audience?
- Do human beings experience their lives – including this medium – through their full sensory functions, as well as their cognitive and unconscious processes?
Considering the (above) fully is, I believe, necessary before any more meaningful discussions on other improvements can take place. Thoughtful approaches to these matters will also determine if radio is still a potential “theatre of the mind” medium or just another, shabbily presented, electronic conduit for delivering (mainly) content. My experience, so far, has been that very, very few in leadership will even trot through this requested process. Theatre of the mind has become, essentially, no more than a handy, but vacant, phrase for someone in sales to toss out like it was a huge, magic pumpkin.
Further, the standard-issue model of radio communications has never been questioned, considered, or probed. This, I suspect, is because broadcasters have never considered the (audience) filtering that goes on when radio – an electronic medium – is being applied to listeners. Plus, the acceptance of the premise that naturally occurring and intuitive language presentations are “good enough” has been a major hindrance to researching available alternatives. Any model of communication – until demonstrated to be effective, should be considered tentatively “carved in soap.” Radio, however, has chosen “stone.” (Audiences, meanwhile, would prefer being gently washed rather than brutally pummeled.)
There is little point in repeating many of the other available, compelling and effective strategies and methodologies – some obvious and many others that are nuanced and subtle – until there are a few acceptances made on these three foundational points.
I was mightily impressed when Radio Ink Chairman/CEO Eric Rhoads postulated that there was a “one thing” possibly available to radio that would pave the road to further prosperity. I was even more impressed when he candidly admitted to not knowing what that “one thing” might be.
There are few arguments against it being incumbent on radio to make its presentations – on-air and in the creation of local ads – more interesting, more entertaining, and more influential. This is necessary, even though general, audience participation remains somewhat consistent and steadfast, even as they may be populated by “dummies.”
Plus and oh, by the way, sales folks would benefit from taking much higher quality materials to the street. Blaming the audience for having “the attention span of a gnat,” meanwhile, is not only generally untrue, it is a poisoned premise from which to begin.