(By Ronald Robinson) As an aural illusion, voice tracking is a sorry attempt at providing what radio listeners hardly ever articulate as an element for which they yearn. Although an inaccurate representation, otherwise astute pundits have labeled this dynamic “companionship.” Though poorly defined, radio people have accepted the interpretation – with few challenges.
Companionship. Now, there’s a term, rife with all the warm, fuzzy, and comfy qualities that, if it were a Dairy Queen treat, would be “gushing with goodness in each rich, creamy, and satisfying mouthful.” I mean, interacting with a companion can deliver a wonderful and valuable experience. It could be with a family member, a good friend, a dog or a cat.
In “real life” — a wholly subjective state that many of us seem to assume we share with others — every experience of identifiable companionship comes with a feedback loop, and it’s in real time! Often, it is a full sensory experience. Each of the participants has some combination of visual, auditory, kinesthetic (feelings), and ongoing thoughts about what is happening. Sometimes there are also olfactory (smells) and gustatory (taste) elements in the experience. (Those who regularly lick their cats can appreciate that — if they are willing. Should the cat comply with kitty-kisses of its own, then we got ourselves a fine example of a connected feedback loop!)
A phone call, although limited to only one sensory modality, still qualifies as a completed sensory loop. Those then, are the components that are necessary for any form of verifiable “companionship” to exist.
A radio performer, whether voice-tracked, live, or bleating out innocuous, pre-recorded commercial content, is not participating in any audience feedback loop, and therefore is not generating anything close to companionship. Radio’s pros still ignore the evidence and accept the illusion. What is actually happening is akin to ingesting continuously sprouting, toxic mushrooms — the ol’ “one-to-one, up close and personal” radio delusion.
So, if not companionship, then what? Articulating the alternative is easy: Learn and strive to be listenable and appealing. “Hooray! Let’s do that,” some might say. “If only,” says me.
While acknowledging the small number of on-air superstars, the talent base’s inability to be listenable, appealing, or as importantly, effective, are the demonstrations of radio’s main hindrances to becoming a superior, audience-pleasing and effective advertising medium.
Operators’ limited understandings of the work necessary to bring radio’s presenters up to a level where they can exploit their on-air situation are significant. I have no other choice than to urge those that are considering some form of “live & local” to hit the binders and cease whatever attempts they are making to adhere to, or try on the concept. Better, I suggest, allowing for better informed reconsiderations.
The next inquiries would be about what, specifically, they are reconsidering and how, specifically, they would be addressing the matter. Those issues are toughies, particularly since music-radio is still married to long music sweeps and (certifiably) insane, interminable phusterclucks of generally shoddy spots.
Given that, I wonder how often, and for what duration, these aforementioned, newly minted, and exemplary examples of “companionship” would be taking place. Radio’s working reality is one in which the skill levels of whatever number of “live” talents that are already on-the-air are highly suspect.
It is no stretch to speculate that most radio owners have no intention of bringing in more unskilled and communicatively illiterate talents. I concur and appreciate that. To do so would be an abjectly irresponsible piece of business. Management, I suggest, has had a pretty good set of intuitions about this. A suggested default position could be offered as an encouragement to keep the voice tracking and whatever live talents are still cowering in the hallways as what they are – barely functional. Instead, begin the necessary improvement of the spots.
Throwing some doe-eyed neophyte on the air with instructions to make references to local events and local geographical locations is like heaving an unsuspecting turkey into traffic as the first step in dinner preparation. Hardly appetizing as a mooshed entrée imprinted with tire tracks.
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. Email him at [email protected]