The Unknown Listener


I may never understand. But I do appreciate how radio folks can go into the “Oh s***!” mode when they are confronted with information that challenges their traditions, dogma, and radio “truths.” The revelation of the “one-to-one” approach being a toxic and disastrous approach is one of those. Leadership at all levels insists the “you” approach as the holy grail of radio. More appealing and more effective alternatives are available.

I can also appreciate how some practitioners would consider these materials, including the introduction of the “you” factor, as being superficial and unworthy of any serious consideration. A recent commentator referred to the information as mere “semantics” – code for “word-stuff with no value.”

The semantics and overall presentation of spoken-word communications, however, represent the only elements over which radio stations have real control. Further, these elements are fundamental, primary, and so important that radio’s failing to address them cannot be overstated.

Meanwhile, the lengths to which defenders of the status quo will go are quite staggering. So ingrained are the wholly accepted tenets of radio communications, one could make a comparison to the dynamics of other “faith-based” phenomena with which we are all familiar. This is not my own opinion, as I believe it would be much easier, by providing information and evidence, to bring radio practitioners to more rational and useful positions. But, as I have also learned, it’s still an uncomfortable stroll off the pier.

In a career of more than five decades, over 35 of those years have been in researching, practicing, and assessing the results that have come from the applications of these alternate models-of-radio communications. While applying the principles on-air and in the creation of ad copy, I was also studying to deliver counseling services – a special environment that requires extraordinarily precise communications.

Any psychologist worth their sheepskin, when dealing with fractured, couple relationships, will instruct their clients to begin by dropping the “you” from their speech patterns when communicating with each other. Even in real-life, real-time, organic, one-to-one communicative circumstances, the “you” can be debilitating to reasonable understanding.

Of course, the “you” is not a single word being dangled out there without being wrapped in the rest of a sentence. But, readers may agree how the “you” is too often understood, first, as a challenge. Discourse is shattered before it can begin. Likewise, radio has similar dynamics. And radio also is replete with other distinctions beyond and separate from organic one-to-one situations.

Meanwhile, over these last decades I have, pretty much, heard all the justifications for maintaining the “you” status quo. A recent and quite interesting example was provided. It referenced the past popularity of the McD’s slogan “You deserve a break today.” On surface, that could be a compelling argument. Fortunately, the argument breaks down… instantly. That line was not spoken, it was a jingle tag!

Radio forces a neurological response as listeners access it. Spoken words have a certain influence. Songs have a deeper, yet separate access and influence. A songwriter can go wild with the “you” elements as there is not one listener in Dog Fart, Montana, or anywhere else, who hears that “you” and concludes it is directed exclusively at them – the delusional notwithstanding.

When, however, a listener is having visceral, emotional responses to the tune, good for the listener and good for the artist! By the way, this phenomenon speaks extremely well to the efficacies of jingles – misunderstood and discounted tools that they have been. I understand the standard radio rationale for avoiding jingles: “Who the hell is going to be influenced by some rinky-dink jingle tag when there are products to be rammed?” Tough sell.

Interested parties might wonder if there are any exceptions to the “You Rule.” Sure. But they are few and a little more complex. That’s fodder for another cannon, to be fired off at another time.

Other concerns from radio practitioners that come up have to do with the assumptions that eliminating the “you” will have the results of: 1. Disconnecting the listener from the speaker (on-air or ad copy); 2. Limit the speaker from being “personal.” These objections may be sincere, but they are invalid.

As to the former: Listeners are not, in any way, connected to the speakers in the first place. They are listeners and that’s all. A listener’s experience is based on his or her own interests, enjoyment, and emotional responses, and (often unconsciously) accepted influence. As to the latter: Broadcasters have made a grave assumption over the years, holding the practice of being “personal” as a priority. Can’t be done. Not without excluding almost everybody else almost all of the time and at the same time.

The desirable position is that of being personable! Dropping the “you” and replacing it with third-person references will only aid a presenter in being more personable. That, and all the other capacities and potentials available to a broadcaster – congruencies, words, tonality, pace, volume, pauses, tempo and the rest – only enhance the effect a speaker can have. Like the Unknown Comic, all listeners have a paper bag over their heads. They are the Unknown Listeners.

I know! I was applying this and other techniques for over 10 years and not one single individual ever figured it out or challenged me! My ratings were uniquely off the charts. And my out-of-station ad copy generated demonstrable and significant results. Radio’s model-of-communication is, indeed, hallowed and protected ground. But, it is no longer uncharted territory. I am willing to provide maps.

It’s true. Nobody ever, ever caught on to the devious techniques I was applying. When I (mistakenly) revealed some of the material, management’s heads started detonating. They went directly into the “Oh, s***!” mode. Plus, I got myself blown up and out. That’s what happens when “dogma control” is more important than effect. I should have shut up, worn a paper bag, become the Unknown Jock and hid under the board. Then, as now, I had to be the smart ass.

Ronald T. Robinson has been involved in Canadian radio since the ’60s as a performer, writer and coach, and has trained and certified as a personal counselor. Email him at [email protected]


  1. Jason attempts to take a “higher ground” while slinging mud – while repeating himself – as he digs a deeper hole by attempting to apply a sanctimonious shovel. Trite and droll.
    A comment on the content would have been more interesting – maybe even useful.

  2. “Dogma” is a term that you are certainly fond of. Normally “dogma” is used derisively by agnostics or atheists as a term to describe heartfelt belief practiced by religious followers (who live much happier and productive lives than their critics, I might add.)
    You might, instead, use the term “industry standards” or “widely-used practice” instead, unless you are afraid of those somewhat complimentary-sounding descriptions.

    I’ve also noticed that when the usual absence of agreement with your writings occurs, you immediately become defensive and blame the silence on fear, ignorance or “unwillingness to change.” Instead, I would point to a general puzzlement on exactly what your point is, or, wonderment on why you obsess over such small shit.

  3. So. Jason demonstrates another of those all-too-common, knee-jerk reactions without thinking the matter through. In the process, he accuses me of being unstable. I guess that does justify his non-position.
    I note, however: As the commentator is wholly uninformed about the subject and (I must presume) unwilling to learn, there will be no legitimate counter-points made from this source.
    Consistent, long-term results be damned, particularly when dogma is challenged.
    Jason, by lashing out, has also just provided a fine example of someone going into the “Oh, s***!” mode. 🙂

  4. Ronald,

    Pure psychobabble. Your questioners of the past few weeks made a much stronger case. Your clinging to a shaky opinion shows desperation or obsession. But, if you’ve believed something for 20+ years and it’s easily shot down by one reader, that’s a rattling development for you.


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