State Of The Radio Onion


(By Ronald Robinson) Dr. Fritz Perls, acknowledged as the daddy of Gestalt Therapy, often used the analogy of “peeling the onion” as a description for identifying and examining the human psyche and behaviors. Many in the psychological community still accept this to be a useful approach, as the structure of an onion is that of multiple layers. And so…

Elsewhere, as we know, some very effective politicians get the majority of their coverage from, and place their campaign messaging with, electronic media. When politicians promote “values” through those media, they tend to get more satisfying results. There are two reasons: 1.) Audiences/voters respond more powerfully to electronic media at an emotional level; 2.) People quickly lose interest when presented with content (information) supplied through the same media. “Policies be damned!” they say. Reasonable call.

This phenomenon, while demonstrated continuously, has not yet filtered down to radio’s executive and programming leadership. There are those in some creative departments who are quite aware and they mutter to themselves, “There’s something vewy scwewy going on heyuh.” The evidence is bold and on the air – everywhere, and all the time.

As to on-air folks: “Presenters” are, for the most part, limited to providing raw information, and at the most base levels of communication. (A form of faked enthusiasm is a benchmark.) Locally produced commercials are, essentially, made up of lists of content – the ever-present “direct response” ads.

Electronic media, that also includes the online form in which this material is being presented, are substantially weaker and are, at best, secondary platforms for delivering pure content. I do myself no favors anytime I launch into technical descriptions of this or that linguistic concept, no matter the advertised, exciting benefits. Readers’ attention spans collapse, their eyes glaze over, and dribbles of drool begin pooling on their laps. This is an unfortunate, almost pathetic circumstance for anyone like myself who is toiling to disseminate knowledge – content. But, as I am unlikely to be distributing pamphlets, either, I do appreciate this forum as the only diner in town that still allows me a seat at the table and a cup of coffee.

I have a relative in North Carolina who supplies new and used textbooks to university students. For the better part of 10 years, the business prospered and life was good. However, they now have to close the doors as the bookstore has been losing money for the last year. More and more students are downloading the texts for their tablets, avoiding the significantly higher costs of hard-copy volumes.

Meanwhile, the following might seem ever so slightly conspiratorial; if not, then it is about a well-kept industry secret: Those “in the know” have concluded that accessing information through electronic media guarantees less comprehension and less retention of content than does the studying of “hard copy.” We aren’t dummies, necessarily, we just have yet to adapt to electronic inputs. (Evolutionary wheels turn slowly.)

This may come as no surprise to some ad agency executives and television leadership, especially those in charge of “news” departments. Were it not for the emotionalism of the talking heads bobbing all over the networks, audiences would be zoning out on just the content. (See: “pooling drool.”) Arguments can be made that because broadcast pundits of The Right are (generally) so much more animated, emotional and forceful, the more sedate and content-conscious purveyors of The Left don’t stand a chance at relative audience interest or impact. Bernie Sanders, however, broke the stereotype – long enough to scare the hell out of almost everybody. Senator Sanders had it covered across the board: presentation, animation, emotionalism, and content. What an electronic ride!

Radio’s leadership, on the other hand, is still operating like they were delivering newspaper-of-the-air, a scenario where “information” carries the day. Yes, I realize the direct-response, content-laden spots and on-air breaks are the easiest to produce. But, over time, the approach has become much more than a path of least resistance. Rather, it has become the only rutted, cratered, and unpoliced road into town.

In the meantime, from roadside stands, radio’s most respected pundits, consultants, and coaches continue to call out for an age of on-air and commercial “story-telling” — engaging audience emotions. The start date for these revolutionary and transformational practices has come and gone many times over the years. In fact, the startup never really happened, and the instructional manuals seem to have been discarded.

At a loss to make many pervasive improvements or changes in the talent-base, a number of coaches and trainers have fallen into patterns of simply repeating old dogma. To be fair, some of the materials being taught do have some practical value, but, given the amount of on-air time most presenters are allowed in which to attempt to learn and ply their trade, the results are hardly satisfying, meaningful, or practically useful.

I was viewing a YouTube presentation of a well-known radio trainer who was rote-reciting the standard litany of useful tips for on-air folks. The most important element was put forward as a requirement to be “personal.” Accomplishing that desirable state, the coach insisted, entails applying the second person “you” at every available opportunity. Unbeknownst to this coach, that is precisely when the whole proposition of “personal” collapses. Practically, the technique is also rude, crude, simple, simplistic, and completely counter-productive!

The liturgies continue, with all the sincerity and certainty years of constant repetition produces. I have to presume this trainer has seldom been directly challenged. There may not have been any perceived need, either, to question the standard edicts. It may have never occurred to this individual that, by initiating and promoting the “personal” mantra, they are poisoning broadcasters’ on-air communicative effectiveness, while tainting audiences’ listening experiences.

Philosophers suggest that any life (or enterprise) not thoroughly examined, may hardly be worth experiencing. “Peeling the onion” remains an unlikely process to be applied by radio’s leaders anytime soon. Maybe it’s because to do so might also make them cry.

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. Contact him at [email protected]


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