Radio’s Low-Volume Lament


(By Ronald Robinson) Even as online advertising is fraught with allegations of shoddy ad placements, questionable reports on reach, and undemonstrated claims of efficiencies, radio clings to its “reach” numbers like they were water-logged ring buoys tossed to panicked survivors of a sinking cruise ship. Sincerity is high, confidence levels are low.

Recently, a credible and (deservedly) highly lauded executive in the iHeart organization wondered: “How can we have 93% audience penetration and 7% revenue share? It is a paradoxical and confusing dynamic.” This was a lament.

I suggest there are no paradoxical elements in the scenario. The injurious elements have been obvious to some for decades. Radio is guilty of serial crimes against audiences, advertisers and, to a large extent, employees. Inept, lazy programming, criminally shoddy commercial writing and, of course, the excruciatingly painful phusterclucking of spots are all openly being displayed on most radio stations around the country. Conclusion: Radio does not even sound like it could be effective!

Radio executives have been disemboweling themselves for so long, hardly anybody notices the steaming pile of guts at their feet. Nobody comments, “What’s that horrible, putrid stink?” To further run another analogy into the ground, the priests of radio still insist that “bleeding” is the appropriate approach for getting rid of diseases, demons, and disgruntled employees. Even a disinterested passerby could go, “You do realize a jar of leeches might just do the trick. Get rid of that stank, too.”

When astute Canadians, having been fully acclimatized to the vagaries of winter, get their vehicles stuck in the snow, they have already been taught that flooring the gas pedal in an attempt to get out blows the tires and makes the drivers look incredibly foolish. Only two methods work: Rock the vehicle in reverse, then drive, in quick succession, or, get some mechanical advantage (sand, gravel, chains, onlookers etc.) and continue rocking back & forth — until May.

Radio has been spinning its wheels, burning fuel, and popping tires with no discernible change in position for far too long. These events could be learning experiences, as well. Perhaps expectations are too high. Instead, this worthless activity has only created bigger and deeper ruts. Over time, I have had many conversations where radio’s apologists absolutely come down in favor of bigger, deeper ruts. Some, perhaps out of frustration, insist theirs are the bigger, better ruts.

I am reminded of a saying from a reasonably intelligent, formerly handsome, and still congenial individual. “When the learning stops, so, too, will the earning.”

While I appreciate how some radio sales groups are attempting to better understand their own medium, and to take that info to the street, the same can’t be said for the programmers. These are the people who, under duress or not, have brought us to a state where the “live” on-air presenters, if not eliminated, have been bludgeoned into submission. Unless completely usurped by the AEs, the programmers may also be responsible for advertising copy.

The results of such shifts in power to a group who have, literally, no competence in the arts and sciences of broadcast advertising have left radio in a situation similar to a group of children frolicking at a community swimming pool – first, relegated and then, commanded to: “Stay in the shallow end! No splashing!”

In an earlier post, I proposed that fully 90% of all radio stations are grossly under-performing, and have, nevertheless, relinquished any responsibilities to fully serve their audiences, their advertisers, and their employees. Given the contemporary dynamics of much of the culture, it may not even be much of a stretch to suggest a conspiratorial element might also be in play. Another almost acceptable justification is that these are a group of broadcasters that are either unaware or completely indifferent.

Newer, better, and more effective strategies on all of these fronts are required.
I can only imagine what Hartley Adkins, the iHeart executive mentioned earlier, could accomplish were these factors to be considered and acted upon – seriously. Among the elements that have been ignored by corporate and local station management include: What, specifically, we say, and how, specifically, we say it.

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]


  1. Note to shelley:
    Since it is my blog, mine may or may not be the last word.
    That would be my call.
    But, only if I thought it was important – which I do not.
    I will admin, however, that tormenting squirrels does have an element of sport to it.

  2. Bill and shelley’s comments are conspicuously, even in their snide and disrespectful ways, doing nothing more than defending radio’s status quo – an unenviable situation.
    Their remarks include no options or evidence-based critiques – and become instantly vacuous.
    What I do find disturbing, however, is these folks seem to represent the general attitude of radio’s ownership and management.
    Meanwhile, Bill’s assertion that “…most in radio would rather have high ratings than high revenue.” defines an unfortunate, subjective delusion.
    Sometimes, to me, it feels like I am scolding squirrels.

  3. I am sorry to report, Fred, it is Bill who has it all figured out.
    You and I are not only mistaken – we, or me, for sure, need “help”. 🙂

  4. So here is food for thought for iHeart/Clear Channel.

    You pushed the idea that listeners should fight to save radio because radio is local, then you fired the local sales people who know the local business people and community, outsourced news, weather and traffic to people 1,000 miles away, push HD hidden channels then put nothing on them, load up schedules with 20 hours a day using voice tracking and non-live national hosts, keep carrying the Kidd Kraddock show going five years after he died, chased off Howard Stern, loaded up on Spanish language and minority targeted formats – and this lack of ability to generate ad revenue is a mystery?

    Once that radio button on the car radio goes to something else, you aren’t getting the listener back without spending a lot of money and effort. SiriusXM proved that the advertiser supported business model has run off the rails. People are willing to spend $10-20 a month to not endure 20 minutes an hour of poorly targeted advertisements.

      • Churn is high because of the constantly increasing subscription rate, firing off talent and short play lists. They are gutting themselves.

  5. A quick heads-up for Bill:
    On air deliveries and commercial copywriting are the elements that make up my expertise. This is what I do.
    For installing and balancing tires, see the guy down the street.
    A denial of these factors being key to any improvements for radio amounts to no more than a sincere apologist’s feeble attempt to defend the status quo, while ignoring the evidence that demonstrates otherwise.
    An’ Gawd knows there’s a lot of that floating around.

  6. This is beginning to resemble a few conversations I’ve had with teenagers who reject outright the position set forth by an adult, even when they are out of real reasons for their intransigence.

    It’s become an obsession with you, Ron. Copywriting and on-air delivery have become the focus of every column you write. Obsessions are extremely difficult to shake, I’d say impossible if the subject is convinced he is right and any look at another viewpoint or successful experience of others is not tolerated.

    I wish you well and hope you get help.

  7. I repeat, Bill.
    Radio is becoming more of a disabled horse because of: 1.) Horrible on-air presentations and 2.) Equally horrible commercial writing. Those two – the combination.
    Meanwhile, yes, my copywriting has often been responsible for generating spectacular results. But, that’s an anecdotal circumstance. Believe me. Don’t believe me.
    Further, I suffer from no delusions that radio, generally, will pick up on newer and more effective approaches. A very few might have an epiphany and that’s what it’s going to take.
    Plus, my approach is less about winning awards, and more about increasing efficiencies. Most of radio, however, will likely continue to bring its horse to the track in an ambulance, and finish fifth – out of the money.

  8. Ron,

    You’re back to your original premise of alleged poor ad copy and production being responsible for a meager 7% radio share of advertising revenues.
    You’ll really need to get off that kick because
    a. You’ve beaten it to death
    b. It’s not true

    I’ve listened to some of your mike and writing work. It’s excellent in it’s acceptability among other broadcasters. Does it work for the advertisers? Only they know. To dream that such a level of sonorous work is possible on 13,000 radio stations in all market sizes is a pipe dream.

    By your standard, only the late Billy Graham would have the ability to fill churches. Local parishes would be empty because the preacher has a nasal voice.

    Mercury Awards are for radio types. They mean nothing to local advertisers or local audiences.

  9. Radio, I am suggesting, Bill, although just another electronic medium, still has a unique and powerful advantage: People can be tuned in WHILE they are doing other things!
    (The TV being on in the background can have a similar impact when people have access only to the audio.)
    That, I submit, is where much of the 93% penetration is generated.
    The 7% revenue fiasco, I believe, is ALL about radio’s inability to so powerfully influence the audiences to the degree that advertiser ROI numbers go through the roof.
    It is likely that radio’s top managers have no confidence that such results can ever be generated.

  10. With the puzzled quote from the iHeart exec- “How can we have 93% audience penetration and only 7% revenue share” you sum up the core problem nicely, Ron.
    But, it’s in the solution to that dilemma where you fall short. If radio had such terrible programming and commercial writing it would not have 93% audience penetration.
    The real problem, so succinctly revealed in that observation from the iHeart guy, is that most in radio would rather have high ratings than high revenue. Doesn’t high ratings lead to high revenues? Not necessarily. It does lead to satisfied egos and pleasant thoughts of future accomplishments that never seem to follow.
    I have further thoughts on this for another day.


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