The Influence Peddlers


(By Ronald Robinson) The activity of “reading minds” makes for a lousy hobby and a worse occupation. This is because we lay people can’t do it. The ones who can – the professionals – are already ensconced where they can make a very nice living – Las Vegas. The rest of us are rank amateurs, dabblers. Radio is rife with mind-reading amateur efforts in the spots and in on-air deliveries. They must figure they’re pretty good at it, too, as they keep on doing it.

A widely-accepted psychological adage has been: “If you want to know what somebody believes, ignore what they say. Watch what they do. Or fail to do.” Even when I don my H/R cap, I find I have to pay very close attention. People can speak with such sincerity and assurance of their own positions that it can be extremely difficult to avoid accepting that speaker’s verbal offerings as anything less than authentic. In other words: People believe their own stuff, and listeners are easily swayed.

So it is with what is presented on the radio. Generally, audiences accept what is being said with a grain of salt and without a lot of conscious resistance. But, and this is a large “but,” alarm bells – unconscious alarm bells – are going off all over the place and every day! This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the “bull**** detector.” Yes, sometimes audiences will reach a conscious threshold of what they can tolerate and will start yelling at the radio and/or tune out altogether.

Meanwhile, radio has a “prime directive,” whether acknowledged or not. The directive is as follows: “To influence audience members to support our advertisers.” When we fail to focus on that, and we do, we are just goofing off, fooling around. Everything else, while necessary, only represents preparatory endeavors. These include the attempts at attracting and holding audiences in large numbers and for extended periods of time.

If our responsibilities can be described in similar terms as the old Ford positioning statement, they would be narrowed down to the requirement to influence audience members to respond to our advertisers’ messages and be identified as “Job 1!” Comparatively, everything else would be about as important as complimentary beverages, balloons for the kiddies, wall tapestries, and air fresheners.

A stranger from out-of-town, out-of-state, out-of-country, or off-planet would be forgiven for wondering why it is that radio refuses to make every possible effort to improve the quality of its commercial content. Might as well throw in the lack of quality of the on-air presenters, and radio’s refusal to address that element, as well.

Most of my lifelong friends have been connected to radio. So, I know they are not dummies. But, they are crazy! They have been working in the glue rooms for way too long. The fumes got to them. They’re nuts. They stagger around the stations – those who are still in the business – under the impression that shoddy on-air performances and low-grade spots are not only “normal,” they are also tolerable, even acceptable. Many of them are operating as if, generally, everything is just hunky dory.

There is little doubt that while most corporate radio ownerships bleat, bawl, wave their banners and beat their chests, they are also wrecked, crippled… and crazed. Different rooms, same glue. Based on behaviors, and the lack of them, these larger outfits are demonstrating belief-sets that include a combination of: 1. A belief that it is unnecessary to redevelop on-air and local ad production – a position with which they have been saddled – likely because they don’t know what to do to rectify this tawdry and toxic situation; and, 2. A belief that a combination of increased sales efficiencies and arriving technologies will take care of any limitations under which the industry has been operating for some decades. Smaller outfits and local O&Os are functioning, essentially, with the same beliefs and are using the same templates.

Meanwhile, back to the “prime directive.” The rumor is: Advertisers pay radio stations to get audiences to perform certain behaviors. These would include getting listeners to show up at the advertisers’ places of business – and to purchase stuff. These are not unreasonable requests on the part of advertisers.

Radio, meanwhile, even as it is being operated today, can demonstrate some interesting, but nebulous, returns on investment. I accept that ROIs for radio can be, indeed, fairly impressive much/some of the time. AEs are continually telling that story or, to be fair, sharing that information. Practitioners, I suspect, will agree that whatever ROIs are being demonstrated are done so with shoddy, third-rate messaging. I encourage readers to imagine the possibilities. I submit they are breathtaking in their scope.

Everything I have been discussing here has to do with radio’s internal issues. Outside influences from other media are of no account, and it is just as well. We can’t do anything about what “the other guys” are up to. Still, radio’s inability and unwillingness to take action on these issues indicate a massive loss of incredible potentials.

The “prime directive” demands that we start generating more listenable, more interesting, entertaining, and far more influential commercials than ever before, if we are to make any inroads as an industry. Failing to do so represents a rejection of our responsibilities and opportunities.

For radio to be successful in years to come, it is essential we start to think of ourselves, first, as influence peddlers. Preparing effective commercial messaging has got to be the primary concern, closely followed by our on-air, “live & local” presentations. Accomplishing this will take re-educated and skilled professionals. An AE writing a script on a table napkin is not enough. Attending to these matters will also assist in the efforts to get more people listening for longer. Belief-sets will have to change. Otherwise, the required improvements will not.

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. Agreed, Mr. Realist, we can (safely) assume that a number of the ownership group would be putting the dough back into their own jeans. Then there’s that pesky little “debt-thingie” that is so pervasive for so many. Reinvestment is, however, an interesting concept. 🙂
    I am afraid that, for a station to make improvements in the areas in which I have expertise (on-air presentations and commercial writing), many of them will have to , first, find themselves in a horrible predicament, and will be forced to make panic-moves – unwillingly.
    A proactive strategy for the sake of greater impact, influence and revenues would be nice.
    One other thing: Anybody pulling a weekend swing shift on a music-intensive, long-sweep station will not be on the air often enough or long enough to acquire any meaningful skills whatsoever. Anybody can read promos. It takes more than that to hold any audience.

  2. It’s a story worthy of sticking to, Mr. Realist – with a couple of niggly additions.
    Those of us who acquired skills in being on-the-air, practicing our writing, our timing, our range etc. did so at 3 o’clock in the morning at some medium market station somewhere off the main highway.
    The sheer number of presenters and copywriters allowed for some creativity to pop up from time-to-time. There were, however, no guarantees.
    Contemporary radio, no matter who owns the sticks, is doomed to holding its tenuous position – at best.Identifying the relity should not be all that difficult.
    To improve, radio MUST address the proficiencies of its presenters and writers.
    The refusal to do so has always baffled me – even before consolidation made such a course of action even less likely.
    This is more the case as radio no longer has “farm teams” from which to choose another generation of on-air talent and writers.

    • That is true, but in my fanciful scenario the nights would still be voice-tracked and there would be opportunities to do live weekend shifts. I believe the individual station owners would have recognized they still needed to have a farm team.
      Of course this is sort of like Star Trek in imagining an evolved future. The old owners realized that radio stations were cash flow kings, not growth vehicles, but they may have put the cash into their pockets too. It might be naive to think the group that cashed out at such high multiples would have invested back into their product but I like to think they would.

  3. Everyone talks about the sainted owners of the pre-Telecommunications Act as if everything would be honky-dory if they were still involved and the Cumulus’s of the world weren’t allowed to extend their tentacles.
    My theory is they would have realized they didn’t need someone to push buttons at 3am each night but instead of getting rid of all the people like the conglomerates did, they would have put those resources into things we need like copywriters.
    There might still be fewer jobs for on-air, but the savings would have gone back into the stations, not to shareholders. We would have people to write not only commercials, but content for the web.
    It might be fanciful thinking, but that is my story and I’m sticking to it.


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