(By Ronald Robinson) My radio career, which began soon after Marconi pounded out “And The Hits… Just Keep On Coming,” has, for the most part, been about performing on the air – and getting away with it. My friends and I always read spots and a few of us took an interest in the creative elements of copywriting, as well.
With so many quality role models available around the dial, there were always different aspects of being on the air that were constantly being demonstrated – “live.” These were the jocks whose styles and techniques we studied, applied, and plagiarized – ripped ‘em off. No shame.
If I were to write a pamphlet of my first 30 years on the air, it would be akin to another story of the kid who ran away and joined the circus. It would be a tale of a youngster who started out shoveling elephant poop, but who was still treated well by the feature performers. It would be a yarn about studying how the performers trained, and asking them innumerable questions.
In due course, the kid was invited to play bit parts during the sawdust show, sometimes wore the clown suit, and was encouraged to begin training with some of the feature acts. Fifteen years later, he found he had been elevated to being a star of the trapeze. That’s right. He became a fully-fledged member of the radio equivalent of The Flying Zucchinis!
Near the close of that personal on-air epoch (early ‘90s) none of we, the Primetime Players, had to don our Sherlock Holmes deerstalker caps or fire up our Sherlock Holmes Meerschaum pipes to discern a dark skullduggery was afoot. Even before the deregulation fiasco of the mid-‘90s, owners and programmers began chiseling away at the talent base. It wasn’t difficult. All they had to do was drastically increase the music sweeps and suppress or otherwise limit the on-air participation of the jocks.
It didn’t seem to matter that I was consistently delivering boxcar numbers. I, too, was on the “hit” list, destined to become a part of ownership’s “scorched earth” policy. Pricey talent was being hunted into extinction. The strategy, of course, was based on the premise that by devaluing the services provided to audiences, costs would be cut substantially, the bucks would continue to roll in and there would be no consequences for, otherwise, under-serving audiences and advertisers. In the last two years of this on-air stretch, I hired on to a couple of other stations. But, it was too late. The virus had traveled, and the managers were sporting pus-oozing sores.
Fortunately, I was not a One Trick Pony. I was more than 10 years into a study and application of linguistic patterns that, when applied, worked wonders in providing personal therapeutic results, and went gangbusters when turned towards unsuspecting radio audiences. I also had the smarts and/or anxiety not to tell anybody about what I was up to. That’s not completely true. In an extremely loose moment, I did tell my PD over an enjoyable Italian lunch about just one of the principles. He freaked out, and spit up spaghetti. Two days later, I was stuffed into and shot out the second story window from the station’s cannon – an ironic reminder of former, jollier circus days.
Radio periodicals are rife with materials intended to develop AEs into becoming more proficient in motivating potential clients to invest in their stations. Examples of the efficacy of radio as an advertising medium are included. This is noble and necessary work, indeed. Still, AEs have to contend with other, competing AEs who may not be as suitably trained, and that, like caged ferrets, are eager to chew each other’s legs off.
Meanwhile, I read a plaintive comment from a serious and credible iHeart executive. I repeat his lament: “How can we have 93% audience penetration and 7% revenue share? It is a paradoxical and confusing dynamic.” Confusing? Maybe. Paradoxical? Not at all. After all these years of witnessing radio’s decline, I repeat my own response: We do not attract more ad dollars because 90% of radio stations do not even sound like they could be effective! Dead, doll-eyes are not fetching. Robo-radio is not appealing.
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]