The (Un)Comfortable Pew


Pierre Berton, a Canadian historian, author, and national broadcasting icon, wrote a book in the mid-60s, The Comfortable Pew. It began as a report commissioned by the Anglican Church of Canada. As a book, however, it was a blistering critique of the Anglican Church that rent the fabric off the status quo while accusing the organization of a corrupting form of relativism. He also decried the practice of “churchiness.”

Unlike many modern secularists, Mr. Berton shied away from challenges to any of the core beliefs of the church. He was a member! He did not withhold condemnations of philosophical positions. Among other important conclusions, he was solidly critical of how the declining congregations, having not actually lost their faith, were nonetheless demonstrating little or no zeal for the church’s edicts, dogmas, and liturgies. Most were simply going along to get along. Some called them “Caspar Milquetoast Christians.”

Maybe 15 years later, when I was doing talk radio, I had occasion to visit with Mr. Berton. A discussion of the book came up. He was delighted to point out the irony in the title. Anybody who has spent an hour or so sitting on a standard, unpadded church pew – and what with all the fidgeting and bobbing and squirming around in attempts to relieve “numb bum” – will appreciate there was nothing at all comfortable about them. But, there the faithful (or unconvinced), regularly perched.

As an analogy, I submit that radio finds itself in a similar circumstance. A set of business practices, philosophical positions, communications models, and the required, but still stilted behaviors of the on-air and creative corps have been hewn from raw, somewhat suspect materials. And they are mandated by radio’s leadership. These are all to be believed and followed – without question.

In my most previous blog post, I introduced the disconcerting reframe that our (radio’s) core responsibility was to “manipulate” the hearts and minds of our audiences on behalf of our advertisers. Gaining and maintaining an audience could be placed either before or after the premise. At some point, though, generating effective advertising still becomes the primary need and concern. While perhaps chilling, that is the job.

I have always asserted that the information – techniques, strategies and methodologies for accomplishing the generation of much more effective radio advertising (and on-air presentations) – has been available to us for some decades. The more courageous of readers could begin with a single online search of “psycholinguistics.” Just that one, alone, is enough to send even a literate individual screaming into the night. Warning: Considering even some of these materials is to cross the Rubicon.

My part in all this came about as I was studying and training to do H/R work – a field where precise and effective communications are essential. As I was already about 15 years into my radio career, I could do nothing other than to consider how, specifically, this information could also be applied to broadcast communications. So, I sorted through the materials and collated the most useful, appropriate and, most importantly, most easily learned by radio practitioners. I began inserting the techniques into the show.

As I became more adept at applying the strategies – both on-the-air and in the writing of commercial copy, I was able to discern that which was too cumbersome, too sinister, or obviously manipulative, or was too subtle to make much of a difference on most broadcast elements. Again I stress: Making the material accessible while maintaining a (relative) ease of learning was key in the collating of the material. My “discovery” of these materials constituted one of the great “a-ha!” experiences of my life.

The realization that some major ad agencies have been all over these techniques for decades may, but shouldn’t really, come as a shock. While local radio, to my knowledge, has ignored all of this, a number of larger agencies understand their mandate perfectly: Influence/manipulate consumers to buy, do, or believe that which they weren’t going to buy, do, or believe all by their own damn se’fs. Fat invoices, as we know, are inserted immediately.

Radio’s current approach to audiences – as a separate practice – and on behalf of our advertisers, remains wastefully and horribly superficial, at best. The plethora of ‘bot-jocks and crude, authoritarian, presumptive, and content-laden ad scripts stand as ample evidence of the proposition.

Our responsibility, is to engage our audiences with the full powers of our (as yet unrealized) influential potentials. While the sales departments seem to be involved in ongoing processes to improve their results, the effects and results they want/need to represent are, mostly, unavailable. Programming has, indeed, gone AWOL.

Some very bright and successful broadcasters understandably lament the lack of appealing and effective on-air personalities. (Programming ‘bot-jocks would do that.) They realize the obvious needs, but come up empty when scrounging for resources – both financial and in terms of talent.

While the odd gems might still be somewhere out here, the consensus remains that most of the superior talents (on-air and creative) have already been excommunicated. Newer recruits tend not to fall off turnip trucks. Any number of former or newer presenters could claim: “When being on-the-air or writing for radio becomes meaningful work for a grownup, I might consider it.” Re-training is still required.

Radio still has opportunities to step away from its tack-studded pew, to challenge its own liturgies and dogma. Radio, after all, is not a faith-based enterprise. There are no real or implied penalties for considering what else is possible and more effective. A good hypnotist might make a suggestion: “…and broadcasters can…snap out of it!”

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. Hannity just made the admonishment to revert to a form of “live & local”.
    Anybody know how to successfully execute such a strategy?
    It shouldn’t be a stretch to realize that throwing more “live” meat on the air, while jacking up expenses, is unlikely to accomplish squat.
    Engaging unskilled labor, I submit, will only generate unsatisfactory results.

  2. Could Ken, perhaps, be a little more specific?
    Might it be the analogy?
    Might it be the factual nature of the criticisms?
    Might it be an unwilingness to realize the necessity for change?
    Might it also be the desire to avoid doing the work required to make the changes?
    Might it be that his particular situation is one represented by the “Comfortable” pew?
    Is it the responsibility of RadioInk, or any other publication, to knuckle under to frustrated protests?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here