Radio’s Brain Sprain


(By Ronald Robinson) Radio, and every other electronic medium — including television and all other digital devices — have one thing in common: they all bypass the portions of our brains that process informative and intellectual content. Instead, electronic media, primarily, trigger those portions of our brains that are mostly responsible for processing material at emotional levels. There are other distinctions. But, for our purposes, that is The Biggie – The Fire Starter.

Firstly, I am obliged to point out a nasty irony: as this blog is being delivered through an electronic medium, the value and hoped-for impact of presenting available stats and pure, intellectual content that I could provide, become, essentially, disconnected ramblings from the beyond. Astute readers and myself would be far better served were they to be accessing this material through hard copy – the print medium.

Not surprisingly, radio has failed completely to make this distinction. For example, the majority of “direct response” ads, particularly of the “yell & sell” variety, can still be described as “little newspaper ads of-the-air.” When delivered in the traditional manner, these ads, while loaded with as much content as can be crammed into a 30-second spot, almost instantly become of little appeal and, as often, maddening.

Our brains, in the attempt to make some sense or reason of the presented noises and content-heavy drivel by processing with the wrong brain hemisphere, get overwhelmed and confused, and go to the default positions – Tilt and Tune Out!

Over the years, and with these (above) distinctions in mind, I have been promoting the position that, for radio to be more effective, a completely different and separate set of language patterns must be learned and applied by on-air presenters and by those who type the hype – the copywriters. Some sophisticated, high-end advertising agencies have been applying these linguistic distinctions for over 30 years. But they treat it as proprietary information — as I do myself — and are stridently unwilling to share.

Most politicians, for instance, are hardly aware of these distinctions. Many of their media reps, however, are more than aware. So much so, that I am willing to posit that political media handlers are willing to forego any standard-issue ethics and morals on which the culture depends, in order to produce and disseminate the vile, toxic, and wholly untruthful electronic ads we have come to expect and, most importantly, believe!

These electronic ads, compared to print ads — or editorial content — are far more powerful in generating the required, predetermined emotional responses of fear, disgust, and/or unsubstantiated appeal and unearned trust. (Some combination of those works best.)

Print ads, news, and editorial content, on the other hand, are being accessed by that part of our brains (dominant hemisphere) that responds much better to reason and rationality, and also encourages the opportunity to do some, gawd forbid, critical thinking. I further submit that political interests, like religions and corporate advertisers, want nothing to do with any challenges emanating from their target audiences. Should those folks ever start demonstrating any of that loathsome and dangerous critical thinking stuff, there may be a number of unwanted ramifications.

None of these principles have much to do with contemporary radio, of course. Our level of sophisticated and purposeful communications is still mired in the era of “C’mon down today and make your best deal at Phat Pharley’s new and used vehicles – home of all your cream puff needs!” (This closer would have been preceded by an overwhelming amount of price/savings/rebate content.) Audience members would, absolutely, be careening to the side of the road to get that important information written down.

While severe and animated discussions can be had about how special interests are knowingly using electronic media for cynical, manipulative purposes, there is no getting away from the reality: electronic media bypass cogent thinking and impact more on the emotional properties of our brain/minds.

Here, then, is a somewhat maudlin justification about radio: when audiences tune in to a radio station, they know full well they are going to be exposed to many, many commercials. By continuing to listen, they are implicitly agreeing to allow those commercials to attempt to influence them. For radio, however, the justification may be premature — and unnecessary.

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. Contact Ron at [email protected]


  1. Short answer for joe shmoe:
    No, they are not as able to process information/content as were they to receive the material in hard copy.
    Of course, what we (audiences) determine to be “normal” doesn’t press the issue at all.
    Any television or cable broadcast that doesn’t have significant emotional appeal (of some kind) would be relegated to the ratings toilet if only content was reported in a straightforward manner.
    This is an innate result of processing electronic media that, in many cases, is also recognized and being exploited.


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