Radio’s Abandoned Responsibilities – Part 1 

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(By Ronald Robinson) “To sell more spots for bigger bucks.” Contrary to popular assertions, this ought not be a stated radio responsibility. Rather, it is an internally motivated, desired outcome. Similarly, “cutting expenses” is not a responsibility. One might argue, given the vigor with which cost-cutting is pursued and tackled, it would seem like more than a responsibility; it could be the prime directive.

Commercial radio, given some rare exceptions, has practically abdicated its two major responsibilities. The result of the jettisoning is impacting on the following groups: shareholders, employees, audiences, and advertisers. Of those, audiences and advertisers make up the sectors being stridently ignored – and harshly so.

Although not an accepted, prevailing mandate, radio still has the responsibility to attract and maintain larger, more attentive audiences than it has over the last decades. In fact, “reach” has become the only relevant factor still being foisted by radio’s apologists. Any expectations that this status quo will remain over time could easily be construed as a form of wishful thinking. It’s not as if steps are being taken to maintain or improve such a nebulous, shaky, big-and-shiny phenomenon.

Even those owners, managers and senior performers who are willing to grudgingly admit that audience development – as a responsibility – has been cleared from the table, it is mostly the denials that such a situation is pervasive that are most often trumpeted for anybody sporting any passing interest. Mostly, the denials are no more than delusions slathered over each other. Accusations that audiences are being systematically discounted make up criticisms too harsh to even consider, never mind defend.

Some owners will attest that the idea of “live & local” might serve as a panacea for the malady. But, they also are well aware of how significant expenses would be an assured part of any application of the strategy. Plus, owners and managers may also be suffering from a not unrealistic premonition or intuition that “live & local” really won’t be the difference that makes any huge difference. They would be correct. More “live” and undisciplined lip flapping presented on the air more often assures a catastrophe. 

While there are a number of exceptional talents available here and there, most of the presenters are wholly unqualified and unprepared to be any more appealing than the already available, canned, voice-tracked efforts, or those who the current “live & local” players. These presenters have yet to be educated, trained, and provided with opportunities to practice and gain the necessary skills that are required to be of greater appeal to an audience and value to the station.

This abdication of the further development of each station’s audience by ownership and management is based on some fundamental elements.

Ownership demonstrates they are willing to continue with the status quo because, although not to any impressive degree, they have all been getting away with it. Nobody is storming the gates with pitchforks and torches. So far, so good.

Most ownership does not go out of its way to extol the virtues of “live & local.” It can be speculated they have little confidence the strategy is worth the significant, extra expense.

Most significantly, those who even have suspicions that “live & local” might be of some value, have no idea how to implement it. Contrary to other widely held positions, “talkin’ good on the radio” needs to be approached as a very sophisticated, communicative process. (Extra expenses are assured. So, the potential of anyone in authority taking action is slim. Therefore, the prognosis is grim.)

Would it be so cruel, I wonder, to lay the ownership of the results of the systemic and knowing abdication of this, the first responsibility, at the feet of owners and management, specifically? The answer is a hearty, full-throated “No!” Consultants, coaches, and corporate programmers have also colluded in the decimation of the numbers and skills of the very talent base that is essential for radio to prosper.

Meanwhile, for no convincing, evidence-based justifications, corporate radio continues to argue/plead for greater ownership of more stations in their markets. This is unlikely to advance any cause for greater profits. Instead, the crippling of the medium will continue – from within. 

(Part 2 next week)

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]

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Ron Robinson
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. Ron makes the assertion that the most important communicative aspects of broadcasting, as they relate to talent and creative, have yet to be addressed.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent point, Dave.
    Here’s the rub:
    While “relatable” is an important term, although a rare commodity, in contemporary radio, the “How, specifically?” component is always missing.
    I make the claim that the issue is NOT about being personal – it’s about being PERSONABLE! I am more than willing to have “relatable” as a worthy and useful synonym.
    A personality who is better able to demonstrate such a concept is not just providing an attitude or a philosophy. They are, intuitively or, although unlikely – purposely, accessing some acquired skills.
    Those communicative abilities are what radio needs to introduce into its on-air programming, as well as its generation of local ads.
    Without higher quality, educated presenters, “live & local” is a doomed strategy. Expensive, too.

  2. Interesting post, Ronald. “Nobody is storming the gates with pitchforks and torches. So far, so good.” If you believe that then you haven’t Googled “Radio is dead” lately. Read thousands of posts stating just that. It’s more than “live and local” – the best would be “live, local, relatable”. In the 90s a very successful afternoon show on WLW in Cincinnati went “national”. There are idiosyncrasies about Southwestern Ohio that people in Atlanta or Minneapolis or Portland won’t understand. This show suffered because became less “relatable”. When the national experiment ended the show resumed its success until the host (Gary Burbank) retired. His replacement(s) had a very different kind of show-not as “relatable”-hence, not as successful. When Rush was at his peak, he was relatable first, trumping (sorry) live and local.

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