(By Ronald Robinson) Very seldom, when I am visiting with old friends who are not involved in radio, do I bring up any of the material I discuss in this space. Somehow, I did touch on it when having a coffee with a good pal. He listened to some of the points I regularly make here, paused briefly and said, “Psy-Ops.”
As if there aren’t enough conspiracy theories out here to keep some people on edge and twitchy much of the time, I hesitated for quite a while before I decided to “confess,” so to speak, and confirm that yes, by definition, the information and methodologies I have been providing do, indeed, constitute a “psy-ops” program.
As I accept this representation as being somewhat accurate, I may as well go ahead and reframe the material I have been promulgating in a way that might encourage some individuals to reconsider – to re-evaluate what it is that so few of us in radio attempt to do. Most don’t. Most won’t. A few might. Avoidance does make radio less “scary.”
While much of the industry maintains its viability and some even prosper, the commercial radio field has been floundering – and for some decades. This assertion is relative to my other beliefs about radio’s, so far unrealized, potentials.
In other blog posts I have contended that local radio’s first order of business, its “prime directive,” is to: Influence our audiences to support our advertisers. Gathering and holding larger audiences for longer periods is necessary. I accept the idea that doing so seems to be as important. But, if we are not prepared to serve the first priority, we are just messin’ around, while under-serving our clients (listeners, too).
The key word in the description of the prime directive I provided is “influence.” It is with that in mind that I arrive at the severest of criticisms of radio’s current model-of-communications. Radio has yet to even begin the dissection of how we communicate to our audiences. Radio’s leadership has yet to, systematically, consider how our communications are impacting our audiences. We certainly have yet to seek out and consider more effective options, even as they do exist.
As a direct result of radio’s refusal to address these matters, we have the status quo – a system of second-rate, on-air, and commercial presentations that are often, among other things, boring, annoying, insulting, disingenuous, crude, invasive, authoritarian, superficial, and, above all, less than effective. While a harsh indictment, I wait for any worthy challenges.
Meanwhile, I use the term “influence” mostly out of habit, and because it is a more socially acceptable word. There are other words that suggest similar intentions, among them: guide, sway, leverage, inform, persuade, and coach. What I really mean to say and what is a more accurate description of our mandate and responsibility comes by applying the term “manipulate”! Now, I realize that, for most radio practitioners, “manipulate” seems just too strong. It can be disturbing to the sensitivities and sensibilities of many. It leads people to presume that a disturbing and extremely sinister force is being brought to bear.
I urge readers to consider the implications of this hasher reality. For decades I have said, “We (radio) are charged with, and have an obligation, to work for the betterment and success of those advertisers who buy our ads.” While contemporary radio’s legion of apologists will rise on their haunches to declare, with embarrassing certainty, that radio does, indeed, have the welfare of its advertisers as the priority, the evidence suggests everything but.
I acknowledge the intentions and sincerity of those who rush to defend radio’s status quo. However, almost every astute practitioner also realizes that the very last elements of a broadcast day to be addressed are the work of the on-air presenters and, more importantly, the quality and influence of locally produced commercial content. Whether local advertisers or station personnel are writing the scripts makes no difference.
Meanwhile, people might well remember the plot of the movie The Manchurian Candidate – the story of an individual who was captured and cruelly brainwashed to, in future, demonstrate certain behaviors when a stimulus (the Queen of Diamonds playing card) was presented. The individual was also rendered an amnesiac. Terrifying implications.
Let it be understood: For decades, large, successful ad agencies have been applying precise, linguistic techniques to their productions that would stagger most of us in radio – if we only knew what they were up to. Dozens of books have been published over the last decades that deal with just such techniques and strategies. Granted, none of these were best-selling page-turners. But they are available, and techniques are being applied.
I also understand there have been, and are, many people toiling in radio today, who are taking the position that spots only need to make price comparisons, some quality claims, and also supply a call-to-action (“Buy it today!”). Anything else that smacks of “manipulation” – usually unconscious – invites charges of immorality. I struggled with that one much earlier on. (I’m feeling much better now.)
Many audience members are, I believe, sophisticated enough to know that any time they are exposed to commercial content, attempts are being clearly and openly made to persuade them to buy products, do things, or believe stuff that they wouldn’t necessarily buy, do, or believe of their own accord. Accepting this position means it’s “open season” on the cranial parts of we, the unwashed consumers – caveat emptor.
Practitioners married to the former position can and will continue to generate anemic messaging, as they always have. Others, however, could realize there are opportunities, maybe even responsibilities, to be more effective, compelling, and yes, sneaky. Manchurian Audiences are everywhere.
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 [email protected]