(By Ronald Robinson) As soon as I jotted down the title of this piece, I had to admit I was flat-out lying with click bait. A search for accuracy and a regard for my own personal integrity demand I completely rephrase it as: Live Talent Can Attract and Hold Audiences and Advertisers — based only on sometimes, maybe and depends factors.
Radio’s practitioners — always looking for the most expedient and cheapest ways out of the maze in which they are unquestionably trapped — have been paying mostly lip service to the “live & local” option. And I appreciate the consideration of such a terrifying option. Ownership and management may have little clue about what “live & local” should sound like. But I suspect they do have very strong intuitions about the carnage that could ensue were they to arbitrarily implement the strategy.
From time to time, urgings are proffered from senior radio-people, who should know better, for management to go out on talent scouting parties. Whoever loses the bet gets to go on an extended road trip to case local stations out in the boonies. (Winter travel is not recommended as dispositions can get extremely ragged.)
There are other downsides that come from hitting the trail. Monitoring grotesquely shoddy broadcasting out in the hinterlands, gagging down ptomaine-inducing fast foods, and reveling in all the comforts of fleabag motels featuring 40-watt light bulbs and scum-covered swimming pools, might cause some to wonder how they got to this position in their careers. This is hardly conducive to masterful, effective schmoozing or the snide bullsh**** of potential recruits — those starry-eyed rubes — with tales of Big City Radio.
Even as I am uncomfortable with bringing in a “back in the day” reference, the unchallenged fact of contemporary radio talent — while allowing for those few wonderful exceptions — is that hardly any of the “live” talent is:
- Allowed to experiment.
- Is on the air often enough or long enough to make personal improvements to their deliveries.
- Have enough peers at the station who are impressive and motivating.
- Are paid enough to want to stay.
Back in the day, meanwhile, we had “live” peers in every slot — each of us trying to work our way up through the day parts. We challenged each other and drove ourselves hard; our dues were being well and truly paid. If we weren’t sweating at the end of our four-hour shifts, we were likely doggin’ it. People noticed, and the obviously guilty were accused of “phoning it in.”
Seeking out new talent is never executed as a reconnaissance-in-force. Rather, it is about accepting the shortest straw, going through the motions, and retreating with a couple of names of on-air talent who just might not screw everything up. There is also an overtly accepted presumption that modern radio managers could even recognize potential talent when they heard it. Huge assumption, that one. There are very few diamonds in their own backyards.
But let’s say that some wandering scouter does hear somebody they find even slightly appealing. Or maybe, out of desperation, they find the nice lady whipping up omelets at the local Popeye’s franchise to be chatty and friendly. I had just such an experience at the Miami airport some years ago. But it wasn’t a viable option to take this person from the kitchen and feed her to the attack dogs by throwing her into middays.
Most of the on-air “personalities” of days of yore were self-taught and/or peer motivated. Role models, however, were everywhere and local performers were expected to emulate the best. Those that couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t were given their hats and shown the door.
Radio finds itself trapped in a snow globe from which all the liquid has leaked out. The flakes, meanwhile, remain at the bottom, dried, crusted, and useless. It no longer matters how hard the globe gets shaken. It is broken.
Radio’s leadership has yet to begin training the talent effectively, because they don’t yet know how. Nor are they asking around.
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]