(By Ronald Robinson) As a (somewhat) worthwhile generalization, radio’s overall situation could be represented as follows:
Two extremely thirsty buzzards lurch-hop into a bar located just off a highway running through a bone-dry desert. It’s the late afternoon after a day of clinging to a telegraph wire, baking under a blazing sun. The bartender spits into a used shot glass, wipes it out, looks up and says, “You guys kill anything today?” One of the buzzards, thoroughly insulted, replies, “That’s not how we operate, barkeep. We wait for things to die, and we’re good at it!”
Recently, radio pundits and apologists have been doing very little to restrain their delight at the diminishing audience penetration of both network and cable television services. The implication has been that television’s loss will, somehow, be transformed into radio’s gain.
Only voodoo thinking supports this position. On the other hadn, considering their part in the overall ecology, buzzards are perfectly suited as the cleanup crew while keeping the prospects of desert diseases well in check. Radio enjoys no such a useful and honorable position. So the analogy could be a tad weak. Buzzards are genetically predisposed to maintain a “hurry up and wait” stance. Buzzards don’t hunt!
Radio, however, does enjoy the potential to provide a share of a honey pot of prosperity with its advertisers. Radio still has the capacity to plan, redesign its approaches, improve its services, and to do so without waiting for wounded or gullible advertisers to stagger into a station’s foyer – desperate for relief.
With the exception of the participation of some very astute national agencies, radio has been stuck with the leftovers for some decades. When smaller local advertisers go to the marketplace for ads, they get saddled with the weakest and least influential forms of available commercial creative. Guilty parties include local television, local digital, local print, and local radio. Only if supplied by outside sources do local advertisers have much of a shot at actually being satisfactorily influential.
An old buddy of mine from one of the station sales departments where we both toiled, was a fairly congenial guy. But, when he hit the street, he took the position that the advertisers/clients were the enemy, determined to deny his family food on their table. On his way out the door, he would announce to anybody in the room: “Remember, people. You can only eat what you kill!”
Meanwhile, a number of radio’s apologists have been rising from their multi-decade hibernations to realize that many of their old traditions are being challenged as “dogma” — materials that are presented with limited, practical evidence of viability, but are nevertheless accepted by the rank and file as truth.
One of our esteemed colleagues who enjoys some significant credibility, recently dragged out radio’s first commercial — a 15-minute infomercial that ran in 1922. What I take issue with is that he used the approaches in the spot as a model for modern strategies for radio. I don’t get it — a 100-year-old spot that applies none of the contemporary research and scientific evidence from the disciplines of psycholinguistics, neurology, neuro-linguistics, transformational grammar, and other fields that point in a completely opposite direction! As non-sequiturs go, this comparison is Number 1 — with a bullet.
I do, indeed, make the claim with the advantage of a personal, studied expertise, personal experiences, and the benefits of a body of scientific evidence that supports completely other conclusions in this matter. I am obliged to accept that the principles, as demonstrated by a 100-year-old radio spot, are (essentially) the same as those being accepted and used by contemporary spot scribblers, especially at the local level.
It is unlikely that modern copywriters are explicitly aware of these materials-of-the-ancients. They may even be surprised how the art and craft of communicating to a radio audience is still based on a stridently held, tersely defended, but still nebulous set of outmoded principles. I also suggest these principles are actually injurious to writers, advertisers, audiences, and radio stations. But I guess sincerity counts.
Buzzards evolved to wait for something to die. Radio did not. Yet, to a large part, radio still relies on finding road kill.