Language On Life Support


(By Ronald Robinson) Sometimes, pushing this “talking rock” is like pulling my own teeth with a string and the handle of a door I can slam. The Tooth Fairy’s puny payouts hardly made such a premature exercise worthwhile.

Radio, for the most part, is made up of the moderates – those who go along with the ingrained or imprinted traditions, keep their heads down, and who also realize the diminishing returns that come from challenging any of the litany of radio’s vaunted edicts. Then, there are those who won’t make challenges because the distinctions are well outside their awareness.

The majority of practitioners who have anything to do with the verbiage we are presenting on-the-air and in our copywriting have yet to even begin studying the fundamentals – never mind the nuances – of broadcast communications. Rather, it’s more likely the adherents to this radio-cult will come out roaring and swinging against anything to which they don’t cotton. They also refuse to make any inquires.

And so, the annoying banality continues – on air and from the local copy departments. Plus, sped-up, helium-sucking, legal disclaimers are just the cherries plopped on top of all that extraordinary goodness, dripping from each rich, delightful, creamy dairy-based earful of standard, stellar ad-content.

Only lucky are those in radio who still enjoy the innate, unexplored, unexplained power of radio – a power so extraordinary that listeners’ critical, thinking faculties are bypassed, and where emotionalism is the main factor for influencing those audiences. Yet, radio’s leadership keeps insisting that the ads be of the authoritative, content-heavy variety and, as such, burden themselves with the responsibility for those ads being less influential than they could or should be.

But the status quo is accepted, promulgated, and defended – at all costs – even as throwing in with the status quo is still delivering only around 7% of available revenue. I am not impressed. This is not a medium that is firing on all cylinders. I mean, not only have we failed in larnin’ to talk good, it never occurs to people that a whole range of communications above a basic use of English is also available.

A juicy example of the former is in an impressive and articulate article from Roy (The Wiz) Williams. In glowing terms and precise syntax he demonstrated how the use of metaphors is so much more interesting, engaging, and influential when addressing a radio audience. After reading the piece, my first response was, “Preach it, Brother Roy!” My second, more considered response was, “Fat freakin’ chance, Roy.” Radio cultists do not accept metaphors. These take too much time to develop, and this results in less time for products, prices, and the obligatory “Don’t miss it!” And besides, “metaphors don’t work, anyway.”

Meanwhile, I am part way through reading an actual book (hard copy) about DNA. Among other things, I have learned the following. 1. If I had to take an exam today, I would flunk out. 2. The rice genome contains between 42,000 and 63,000 genes whereas the human genome is estimated to contain between a mere 30,000 to 40,000 genes. (Maybe instead of eating a bowl of rice, I should be asking the grains some complex, important questions.) 3. Genetics also has related equivalencies with mathematics, music, and linguistics! For us, that means our methods of communicating to a broadcast audience have many gaps, chasms, and sheer cliffs. Or, as Noam Chomsky once said: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” And who, I wonder, is going to argue with that? Not I.

I am, however, delighted when well-versed radio professionals step to the fore – lining up as we do for unlettered and uniformed abuse – to call for drastic, immediate improvements in the medium. The backhanded benefit – provided by cranky, stuck-in-the-dogma detractors who drool behind anonymous troll-handles – is that other readers might start making some comparative judgments. The cultists will not be saving the language or the future for radio.

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]


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