Content May Be Secondary


(By Ronald Robinson)  (At the risk of bloviatin’ … a short pre-ramble…)

Because I have noticed how only some attention has been paid to a phenomenon of radio of which I have been aware for decades, I offer it up again – as a bonus that can be an extra asset to radio reps.

Radio, lucky for all concerned, is considered a “passive” medium. By that I mean listeners can actually chew gum, drive, wash dishes, do surgery, and perform any number of tasks while having the radio on at the same time. The benefit of this is that listeners will also (as often as not) tolerate the commercials. There are limits, of course, and radio certainly exceeds them consistently. Still, radio enjoys a consumer-tolerance not found in other media.

People who are online can’t wait for the 4 seconds of the 30-second ads to pass before availing themselves of the option of blasting out of the spots, or instantly bashing the banner ads – in order to get to their desired material. The online experience, by comparison, is an “active” process and takes a user’s full attention to participate. Again I repeat: Lucky for us. (Thus endeth the pre-ramble.)

Meanwhile and as to the title:

The sincere but plaintive wail for “content” goes on unabated. Pundits insist on the desperate need for more and better content. How to generate this content, who is going to deliver it, and at what cost, particularly at the local level, goes unaddressed. Syndicated programming, or smaller block features, are less about providing better content than about sucking a little more lower-cost marrow from radio’s bones.

Now, philosophically and practically, I agree how more and better content certainly wouldn’t hurt, especially for those stations that are almost bereft of much that would qualify as “better content.” Even so, there is another element that usurps the priority stapled to “content”: connecting to listeners

Generally, radio presumes and vigorously asserts it is already connecting with listeners. And, in some cases, it does. Rather, some individual “personalities” are successful at “connecting.” For the most part, however, and fundamentally, radio goes about its patronizing and maudlin processes, and then labels these banal and anemic attempts as “connecting.” Throwing breadcrumbs at a flock of seagulls, while generating a flurry of noisy activity, doesn’t do much to quell the appetites of hundreds and hundreds of birds. They are left hungry — and bitter. Some observers have suggested sinister, seagull plots are being hatched.

Too often, on-air folks have been strangled so harshly, they come off sounding like they are straining to “connect” with cans of mixed vegetables. Although a little cruel, it may not be much of a stretch to suggest that some of these presenters are about to pass out.

Audiences have no responsibility to connect to a performer. That belongs to the performers. It is up to the talent to be more listenable, more congenial, more informative, more entertaining and more credible. And as often, it is also up to the talent to be less authoritarian, less invasive, less confusing, less patronizing, and less painfully predictable.

As a lousy mind-reader – just like everyone else – I can only speculate, although with some confidence, that ownership and management are completely unwilling to address the only element of radio over which they hold complete control – the forms our communicative methodologies take. They seem to be taking the position that everything about this matter is quite hunky dory, and that no improvements are necessary.

Based on what has been getting most of the attention lately, a more assertive telling of “the story” along with slicker sales techniques will launch radio back into a higher echelon of advertising media. This is only a portion of a, necessarily, more complete, fleshed-out strategy.

Radio, I further submit, is still in a position to exploit its potentials and the potentials of its performers and creative department staffs. Force-feeding arbitrary content, while probably worthwhile, is still not nearly enough to make improvements of much distinction or value. Squabbling, cynical seagulls are not particularly desirable or valuable companions. Connecting more powerfully to audiences is less about meat. It’s more about the secret sauce – and lots of it. Adding the sauce encourages famished radio audiences to chow down.

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]


  1. Indeed, Realist.
    Given that we accept radio as a “passive” medium, our job, I trust you might agree, is to next – provide audiences with communicative techniques that would encourage them to engage the “other” ear.

    Another way of saying this could be: We (radio) are invited to make the medium more “foreground” more often and for longer periods.
    I believe: Improving our potentials to be more “connected” is a viable, assuredly successful and necessary strategy – one that is worthy of implementation.
    Those that do, I submit, will prosper even more.

    • Agreed. The more “foreground” the better but background is much better than not tuning in at all. A lot of “digital” is really the new print and as such it is a “selective” medium. And, to my eyes, digital is a much less effective “print” product.
      Smart advertisers are waking up to this fact.

  2. “Radio, lucky for all concerned, is considered a “passive” medium.”

    Exactly. That is a huge benefit that not many radio people like to acknowledge. People are only listening with “half an ear” but they ARE listening. It’s why I know the words to dreadful songs like “Open Arms” and “Turn the Page” without wanting to. It’s why people turn up the volume when their favorite song comes on. It’s why we have been so resistant to the erosion that has hit TV and Newspaper a lot harder. And it’s why people can get the key bits from commercials even though they are not in the market for that product at that particular moment.

    That part predicates on if they do have things worthwhile to say and have enough repetition. But that has always been our job to explain that to advertisers.


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