Blaming Audience Attention Spans 

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(By Ronald Robinson) How is it, I sometimes wonder, that radio types slander their own audiences as people who are sporting the attention spans of gnats? Wholly satisfied, bloated termites, holed up in a sawdust bin might be slightly less alert. Any person, similarly experiencing such happy, sated circumstances, is unlikely to be paying much mind to their local radio station, either.

But that slanderous indictment can’t be assumed for all or any member of a radio audience. Such a ridiculous assertion requires direct knowledge of, or feedback from, every person in a real-time listening circumstance. Is an extremely limited attention span on the part of an audience still, at least, a somewhat reasonable pre-supposition? Unfortunately, and to our discredit, yes that is a safe assumption.

But that is not because of a generalized acceptance of wandering attention spans of the audience. Rather, it is about what radio is delivering that doesn’t even begin to earn longer periods of, or more attentive, listening.

The owners and managers of radio might need to be reminded that the same people, from time to time, and with their limited attention spans, do listen to the stations. These are the same people who can have long conversations, navigate long journeys, and manage to spend days binge-watching movies. But, when it comes to radio listening, they are accused of being bozos, distracted by shiny objects.

It is way too easy to draw some conclusions, the most important of which is: Commercial, music-radio is not supplying the content or delivering it in ways that garner longer-term listening. Given the relatively rare, but still marvelous, singular, radio “personalities” who can pull their own weight, commercial radio generally operates as a crippled medium.

Meanwhile, as Cumulus and iHeart are being mowed down in traffic, there are a number of uninformed and gullible pundits who, perhaps, are being overly affected by some combination of wishful thinking, prayer, and positive mental projections or, perhaps, access to secret information garnered from jealously guarded Ouija boards.

The truly desperate are claiming that these corporate disasters would be good for radio because other business interests would take over and, like Mighty Mouse, swoop into the scene singing “Here I come to save the day!”

Indeed, some radio practitioners are doing well in some places, some of the time. Any assumptions that these outfits will be picking up properties at bargain-basement prices and, in the process, buffing many wrecked, steaming, vile turds into shining radio gems, is about entertaining delusions of grandeur.

Further, I am satisfied that stations that are streaming do so in an attempt to maintain an audience who don’t have radio on their devices, or radios at home. Trying to develop separate digital services only takes away the time, effort, and resources necessary to drastically improve programming – the kind that increases those audience attention spans. Indeed, radio needs to address its own knitting before going into the storm door or pest control businesses.

Meanwhile, was it really that long ago that programmers hooked into promoting “commercial free” music sweeps? Even a rube from the backwoods sporting a PhD in Agricultural Sciences, but who still don’ get into town much, would hear that and conclude the station ownerships didn’t really like commercials and were apologizing to audiences for airing those nasty elements. Advertisers wonder the same thing. These are only surface issues — “deck chair” matters — none of which are part of “telling the story.”

If radio, generally, is to pull up and get back to altitude, adjustments will have to be made. Not superficial fiddling. CORE matters — base, fundamental, communicative approaches that radio, so far, refuses to consider or exploit. Mary has been kept, or chosen to stay, in the dark, as has Bob. There are multitudes of others.

It is the mandate of every radio operator to generate longer attention spans in their audiences. Blaming “the great unwashed” for being dullards is not only criminally irresponsible, it is wholly inaccurate.

Generating better content, while definitely on a list of priorities, is still secondary. The primary need is for radio to exploit more effective communicative processes — those elements that have less to do with what, and more to do with how, specifically.

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. Reach out to Ron at info@voicetalentguy.com

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