(By Ronald Robinson) In a recent Radio Ink article, the owners of Lifelock were over the top in their praise of, and solid belief in, radio as their go-to advertising medium. Radio practitioners always take heart anytime advertisers experience and report spectacular results. It needs to be noted, however, that Lifelock took control of the creative and the delivery of the talent who were presenting the messages.
I suppose I could be criticized for being the guy who seeks out and finds powerfully destructive wind shears in otherwise puffy, cumulus (sorry) clouds, huffing along in all their cotton-candy candescence. As an experienced radio participant and personal coach, I encourage readers to expect the obvious.
Marshall McLuhan is misquoted as having said, “The medium is the message.”
What he actually said was, “The medium is the massage.” No matter. (Sticklers will still insist on the distinction.) The point to be taken away from the Lifelock experience is their attention to the messaging and the messengers – two sides of a golden coin.
Most observers will agree that, day-to-day, those message/messenger elements are the last to be addressed, if any attention is paid to them at all. After a quick search of the building, it can easily be determined that the majority of creative departments have been decimated. And that happened so long ago, there are no smoldering ruins. The areas have all been policed up nicely and swept clean.
The Lifelock experience, while impressive and satisfactory for everybody involved, does not represent a huge WIN for radio. The people at Lifelock took responsibility for and control of, not only the buys, but the creative as well. This isn’t newsworthy, as many advertisers are represented by agencies that take care of all that. Certain stations get to be part of the “buy.” The “win” got mailed in.
Radio does work, sometimes extremely well. We can agree that those times when the buy is “iffy” and/or the messaging is second- or third-rate, an advertiser’s ROI is going to suffer. So, if we want radio to kill – we need to start paying attention to the size and scheduling of the buy. Equally as important, we must pay attention to the messaging.
The dynamic that has certainly been stifling radio – some might say, “crippling” – has always been about the messaging, both on-air and out of the creative departments. Even 30 and 40 years ago, when every large station had a minimum of 12 “live” on-air presenters (not enough) and a half dozen writers toiling over their scalding-hot IBM Selectrics or Remingtons, the quality of the product was still, more often than not, of the questionable variety.
Writers were forced by a combination of corny but very real advertiser expectations, time constraints of traffic deadlines, and stacked-up production schedules. All of this resulted in fewer opportunities to develop actual “creative.” Instead, easily produced, cliché-ridden, hacked-out drivel had to suffice in order to keep the writers and producers from passing out from overwork. The mind-numbing frustration was an understood and necessarily tolerated part of the job. (A spot that was creative, and that got through the system, was cause for celebration.)
Fast-forward to today. Radio continues to be steadfast in its refusal to address the “messaging” and the “messengers.” That evidence should have to be provided is redundant, and an insulting exercise. Is there anyone in this readership who would even dare to openly defend the communicative status quo? It hasn’t happened yet.
That most commercial ad productions are of the shoddiest kind, and that on-air presenters have been lobotomized, neutered, and shackled to short chains is not ever challenged. The rarity of exceptional spots and the lack of stellar on-air personalities only demonstrate and reinforce the point. Nobody is made happy about it, either.
As anyone who has tried to wash dishes in cold water knows: That method immediately guarantees a distasteful, grungy, and wholly inefficient experience. And we won’t even discuss the resultant, gnarly “dishpan hands” syndrome. Yet, that’s exactly what radio is practicing! Radio’s refusal to address the communicative aspects of the medium is an abject failure to add the Dawn dish detergent to a sink of hot water! There will be no grease-cutting here, and no squeaky and sparkling finishes. Food-goop will be left on the plates and cutlery. Plus, after draining, the sink will always be ringed with a slimy crud.
The Lifelock crew, on the other hand, brought their own Dawn. They also regularly coach their dishwashers – those personalities who are delivering the messages. Those stations that are participating in the buy, while legitimately earning the numbers to qualify, can be lumped into the “Lucky” category – good billings and nothing else to do.
Meanwhile, I regularly insist that radio’s reluctance to make massive improvements in the communicative elements of the business represents a titanic loss of opportunities. This also borders on – because of the callous and knowing mistreatment of advertisers and audiences – a dereliction of duty.
iHeart and Cumulus (The Two Big Blunders), while not exclusive, do take a lead on these failures to perform. They continue to set the bar on what is or isn’t acceptable, corporate radio behavior. Every morning, they set off smoke grenades and water-bomb tons of red herrings all over the radio environments in order to dissuade everybody from addressing more important matters. “Sowing Panic, Confusion and Inactivity” are, indeed, the orders-of-the-day.
Now, I am willing to cut a little slack for those who have yet to even consider these issues as “matters of consequence.” Some, almost but not exclusively in sales, refer to this as “the small stuff.” They do themselves and the business a great disservice. After all, there are no other elements than what we say and how we say it over which we have complete control, especially at the local stations. But, so long as cold-water dishwashing remains in play, many of our invited guests (advertisers and audiences) will continue being grossed out by the tables we set.
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]