Radio’s (Unlikely) Paradigm Shift

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(By Ronald Robinson) As provided in a recent Radio Ink report, Neilson numbers suggest that radio still enjoys a significant advantage over other electronic media in audience penetration. Depending on demographics, radio apparently continues to attract 90-95 percent of available audience. While no longer newsworthy, the stats may yet be useful to some AEs. So, what’s next?

Some thoughtful and astute radio practitioners will also appreciate there is still a sphincter-tight vacuum in the radio/advertiser/audience dynamic. Or some may prefer: “Radio still suffers from a gaping, sucking chest wound!”

The most bizarre extension of this (proposed) reality lies in that radio refuses to call in an EMS unit and prepare for transport to the hospital. One can only presume that quarts of morphine are being self-injected – pain control writ large. Unfortunately, such a massive drug intake also contributes to the suppression of critical thinking capacities.

I have yet to read, hear, or receive any messages from the beyond insisting that radio’s “live” on-air presentations and locally produced commercial content are superlative in any way. The rare, exceptional personalities only serve to highlight the lack of quality performances emanating from the rest of the pack. One must presume this circumstance is more than acceptable to an overwhelming number of owners and managers.

I have to conclude that this malaise, and the tolerance for such shoddy work from the on-air and creative staffs, is also an acceptable position to the troops themselves. If not, they aren’t saying much. Perhaps this is an understandable circumstance, as few of these folks would be into direct, conscious self-immolation. Keeping their phony-baloney jobs does rank up there as a reason to keep their traps shut.

This characterization, I realize, is tantamount to accusing radio’s leadership of manifesting degrees of missing, situational awareness and confusion. The elements required for maintaining such a “we’re alright the way we are” position would include distorted and delusional thinking, refusals to consider the matter at all, ingestion of large quantities of drugs (see: morphine), and/or a complete lack of awareness of the already-existing, and likely, future consequences.

While I expect there are other industries out there that behave in a similar manner, radio is the one that is best known to me. As such, I can speculate and claim radio still refuses to improve its products and services. In fact, radio has gone out of its way to suppress, limit and otherwise sabotage its capacity to make such improvements. The result: Over the last decades, the quality of on-air deliveries and the entertainment value and influence of locally produced ads has dropped – significantly. Plus, the potentials to even attempt the required improvements have been escorted from the building.

I am obliged, meanwhile, to acknowledge the odd cluster or single stick operations that are doing quite nicely – while providing enjoyable environments for their staff. I want to work with them as well. They would be delivering at least semi-acceptable results for their audiences and advertisers. This, by no means, is a suggestion they are off the hook. They, too, fail to make the next, logical step of accepting their responsibilities and forcing massive improvements in their on-air and spot-production capacities.

In this space, I have provided and explained a number of proven methodologies that address these very issues. (I have also withheld many more.) Rather than asking for more clarification, radio participants have jumped to so many conclusions and provided so many arbitrary rejections that I wonder if some cult-like edicts are not being challenged. I retract that. Actually, I don’t wonder at all. Wholly accepted (by the industry) dogma and standard practices are, without question, not being internally challenged.

My responsibility is to provide practical, effective solutions. However, so long as radio refuses to accept that there exist substantial and debilitating problems that immediately require reasonable and applicable solutions, the chances of the issues being addressed are slim, to be sure. Radio, I believe, continues to hope that an increase in sales department efficiencies will be enough to get this stalled juggernaut moving again. Wouldn’t hurt.

Elsewhere, some outfits are taking the courageous step (acidic sarcasm intended) of throwing a couple more “live & local” talents on the air. Given the nebulous and questionable skills of many bolt-on “live” performers, more damage than good is likely to be generated. Plus, especially with music-intensive, sweep-saturated, phuster-clucked-spot stations, the programming-mandated, low on-air minutes, and the few occasions in a given hour where a “live & local” performer might have any impact at all, absolutely limits the potential impact any of these presenters might have on an audience.

Now, I have already accepted that radio – as an industry – won’t be entertaining, never mind embracing, a paradigm shift in these areas any time soon. This is a symptom of a gross instability in the philosophical makeup of the business. AE-written spots and shackled ’bot-jocks are the norm. But, the shoddy products and the subpar, programming-induced performances do nothing to advance the medium’s effect as either an advertising or an entertainment platform. Nor have on-air staff been paying attention.

Without a program of intensive, at least short-term retraining, there will be no improvements in the products and services radio has been foisting on undeserving advertisers and audiences for decades. The status quo, while obviously tolerable and maybe even acceptable to many, will stay what it is. Radio’s communication model hasn’t changed before or since payola was an enticing income opportunity.

Even as Neilson still alleges (or demonstrates) a comparatively significant reach into the markets, it would not be unreasonable to query “And so, what of it!?” That data can only generate a sigh of relief. The information does nothing to reinforce a need for additional behaviors – those behaviors that constitute a paradigm shift. That’s an “inside job.”

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. E-mail him at info@voicetalentguy.com

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