Radio’s Flea Circus

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(By Ronald Robinson) While what will be presented here is an old technique, I believe a reintroduction is in order, especially since the recommendation to take radio talent and “treat them like dogs” has already been put forward as an incredibly insulting, but apparently sincere, piece of training and motivational business.

I have difficulty relaying my revulsion that any programmer with over six months experience could present such disgusting and distorted positions. That such tactics could generate anything less from on-air staff than a full, frontal (or subversive, sabotaging) counter-attack on any programmers that might, a.) Agree with the submissions, and, b.) Develop assumptions that presenting them would not have serious, negative consequences, is a shock to my imagination.

Any halfway intelligent individual could be brought in to monitor a thousand radio stations, invited to ask some questions, and to come to some conclusions. After listening for a week or so, the questions he might ask would be:

1. “Why do the radio stations all sound the same?”
2. “When do people who live in the same towns get to work on the local radio station?”
3. “How is it good for an audience when the on-air material isn’t delivered “live” but recorded a few days previous?”
4. “What is worthwhile about making the on-air presenters sound like they got kicked out of their grade schools and then beaten with a blunt object?”
5. “Are there any benefits to the audiences and the advertisers for running so many commercials back-to-back-to-back-to-back?”
6. “Why are so many fine marketing opportunities destroyed by presenting commercials that are so insulting, maudlin, banal, and irritating as to turn audiences’ brains into small bowls of mooshed-up peas?”
7. “When will the on-air people be allowed and encouraged to say something interesting, and when will they be skilled enough to deliver that material?”

Breaking News: Radio has a secret that is so secret, radio doesn’t know of its existence.

Since the development of more and more efficient glues, showmen discovered the quaint and audience-pleasing presentation of the “flea circus.”

The teeny little buggers would be wandering through tunnels, jumping over objects and obstacles, making spectacular leaps, get themselves hooked up to wagons and carts and (happily) drag them around a laid-out and open, but limited environment.

None of that could happen, of course, until they were properly trained. And the way to do that was as follows:
– Place a clear, glass pickle jar on a table.
– Pour in a copious number of fleas.
– Place lid on jar.
– Note that the fleas will commence to jumping high – so high they will bang their noggins on the lid.
– After a small period of time, the fleas learn that while they can still jump, it would be better if they jumped just a little lower than the location of the lid.
– The fleas that hadn’t killed or concussed themselves have been conditioned/trained and are now ready. It’s “Showtime!”

The alien who had been brought in to come to some conclusions about radio would offer as his first determination: “Radio is a jar for training fleas. The dimensions of the jar will determine the limitations of the medium – across the board.”

“Further,” he might add, “the dimensions of radio’s ‘jar’ has been determined by habit, tradition, and a lack of enquiries made into what other options – sizes and shapes – might be useful.”

Now, I have no intention of recommending that talent be released from bondage and given the keys to the station vehicles. I am, however, in a position to suggest that an expansion of “the jar” would not only be advantageous, but a necessary strategy to improve talent/audience relations. The remaining questions would be about what forms a retraining will take.

Other concerns, however, have to do with an acceptance of the “fleas and jar” analogy and, more importantly, whether ownership and radio management have at least a suspicion that implementing talent-training would be advantageous, cost-effective, and profit-producing.

Having talent banging off arbitrarily set lid heights will only continue to deliver what, I suspect, are generally undesirable results. Teaching the talent to do new and better tricks is an essential element. Continuing to have talent concussing themselves on very low lids would be of little use – and borders on the sadistic.

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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