Robo-Radio Doesn’t Cut It

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(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 info@voicetalentguy.com

18 COMMENTS

  1. That’s right, shelley.
    If you can’t challenge the message (and you can’t), by all means, debase the messenger.
    I suspect she also has car keys AND the vote.
    She has no idea of my history other than that which I have volunteered, and that is only partial.
    By the way, we are wrapped on this one.
    That is, unless you want to trade slanders.

  2. ZaBiggie rambles on demanding evidence that has yet to be produced.
    For radio, I am presenting mostly, all new materials.
    Any evidence I can supply, I understand, will only be accepted as anecdotal and, therefore, not particularly worthy.
    And then there’s another anonymous troll, shelley.
    Well, she just rambles.
    I think we’re wrapped here.

    • If the evidence is factual, naming specific stations, revenue reports, and ratings data, it’s not anecdotal. If you provide your personal life experience, talking about your first 30 years on the air, that is anecdotal. So far, all we have is your personal life experience. That’s great if we want to know about you. But what we want to know about is radio. So perhaps if you can focus more on specific stations that do what you suggest, we might learn more. That’s what most of the other writers here do, as you know.

      • Ronnie has no facts. He’s an ex-rock jock who has been hired by a few agencies to voice spots because he has a nice voice. He’s getting old and bitter as events pass him by. He’s never owned a station, never sold radio for a living, never been in management. He’s like your morning man who tells you how many spots a station should run, what stores should be allowed on the air and what production music they should be confined to. RadioInk loves him. He’s free.

  3. Indeed, robo-radio is winning in some places.
    For radio, however, “winning” – a relative term – is not enough. Not nearly.
    Radio, I submit, is missing opportunities to not only win, but to dominate.
    This is what it will take to claw up past the #5 position that radio currently holds as an embarrassing position.
    We could be great – providing more appealing programming and more influential advertising.
    For those who are satisfied with the status quo, there are no reasons to improve.
    And that is an option – preferred, it seems, by most operators.

    • Once again, specifics would help your argument. “More appealing programming” is a subjective term. More appealing than what the top rated radio stations do every day? There is no number higher than #1, so they are obviously very appealing to the people who listen. As I said, study the stations that are succeeding, explain what they do to succeed, and then enumerate the specific changes stations can do to accomplish those goals. There are over 14,000 radio stations in the US, and thousands of station owners, including a few big colleges and state governments. Those 14,000 stations are looking for ways to improve every day. But throwing around generalities and opinion doesn’t help anyone. You might as well say “Just do it.”

      • Ronnie is always subjective, A. He thinks just because he says something, it’s true and anyone who disagrees is not being specific. A little game he plays in his head.
        He loves descriptions like “sound better.”

  4. Yes, ZaBiggie.
    I understand how fewer and fewer stations are cranking out their own spots for local advertisers – unless the janitor is looking for a hobby.
    The communicative aspects, however, do apply to both on-air and commercial writing.
    And radio is poorer, again, for that circumstance, as well.

    • It depends on what you mean. Communication is not a function of location or time. People are quite engaged with late night talk even though it’s national and pre-recorded. In addition, I challenge your view that “live radio, done well, will pound competing robo-radio outlets.” Perhaps you’re familiar with the Canadian-based Jack format? It’s winning in LA, Dallas, and Nashville, to name a few. So robo radio can be done well and with great results. Give specifics rather than generalities. That might help your argument. Otherwise, the world is full of baby boomers who pine for the radio of their youth.

  5. Although the blog has already been dumped, I remind TheBigA that there is very little documentation available because stations have yet to make the necessary changes to instil better communicative approaches -on-air and commercial writing.
    I have never made any claims otherwise.
    This is all new territory.
    Meanwhile, I have yet to experience any interest at all from anyone in a position to make such decisions on making these important and required improvements.
    My contention is: “Live” radio, done well, will pound competing robo-radio outlets into dust… and oblivion.

    • You’re talking about two different things. This blog is about live radio. The other subject you mention is better commercial writing. Hiring commercial writers is done from a different department than hiring live air talent. Most of the commercials stations air come from outside agencies, and not the station itself. This is not to say there isn’t a connection. Just yesterday I spoke with a DJ who was going to a client event (on a Sunday) to meet with advertisers. That personal connection may not happen at a station that uses out of town VT or syndication. But if you want to address the subjective issue of commercial copywriting, that goes to a different department, and they aren’t affected by whether or not the station is live or automated.

  6. What’s missing from this article is documented facts. Instead we get a lot of personal history and subjective opinion. Here’s my suggestion: Study the radio stations that are live & local, study the cost of operation compared with the revenue they attract, and present it in a clear and factual way. If you can prove with documented evidence how live radio makes more money than robo radio, great! I have found when you present management clear documented facts with a track record that shows a very clear road to increased profits, they will listen. They aren’t opposed to spending money when there’s a chance for making more in return. What’s usually missing in the discussion is someone who speaks their language. Give current examples of where what you want is working. There are quite a few.

  7. Worthy feedback, fellas. I appreciate it.
    Note to Kevin:
    If a station has to go to all that effort to make robo-radio work, why not just develop the Real Thing?
    Note to Jess.
    While you have accurately described the challenges, the question is one of: How are the newbies and WILLING seniors to be re-trained to become much better communicators?
    Further, while the life of a jock was, indeed, often Gulliverian, it was a way to move through smaller markets and into The Majors – make some bucks, too. 🙂
    Note to Chris:
    I’ll make this short and directly to the point. 🙂
    Assuming an appealing Personality is on the air and they are “live”, the intrinsic real-time, stream-of-consciousness opportunities are more than any V/T can deliver. This element, I must insist, is what constitutes the Magic of radio.

  8. Ron always has a point, just takes the long and winding road to get there. I suppose that’s one of the things I both love AND hate about his pieces.

    Kevin – I’m kind of surprised to see you defending ‘robo-radio’ here. You are, to an extent, somewhat correct. If you have jocks/MDs/PDs willing to work their butts off to make themselves obsolete, you CAN make robo-radio that can fool some of the people most of the time. But none of them all of the time. An astute listener can ALWAYS tell.

    I’ve heard many automated stations/dayparts that do a good job of SOUNDING live – but everyone knows that the evening jock 5 nights a week is NOT also live all day Saturday AND Sunday. But we hear it all the time. A network “morning show” (if you can call them that) might sound like they’re part of a station to a handful of nitwits, but it takes about one hour to decipher that the cackling buffoons with laugh tracks worse than evening sitcoms do not say one SINGLE word about the market you’re in … they don’t say ONE thing about what’s happening in your city … in fact, because they have to be so incredibly generic for multiple markets, the don’t say anything at all!! Hours on end, every single day, cackling at their own jokes like they’re actually funny … and calling it a morning show.

    We’ve culled almost all the talent from the industry as a whole. We’ve removed all of the incubator positions that developed the next generation of talent. And as the chickens come home to roost, we wonder why we have trouble finding talent that … has any talent. It’s because they’ve been devalued to the point where they earn more money at McDonald’s, are the first things cut at budget season, and get yelled at the most for not delivering results when the books come out.

    We’re demanding high results from undervalued, underpaid talent that isn’t given opportunities to develop their craft, and then justifying the lack of results for more cuts.

    Look at the SiriusXM model – they started out with NO talent, just music. How long did that last? They figured out that people listening to radio actually WANT to hear the chatter between songs. But somehow radio itself still hasn’t got the memo.

  9. Enjoyed the chronical of your on-air years, Ronald. Pop stations decided at some point that the music was really the draw and audience surveys backed them up that DJs could be a negative.
    Copycats entered and the rush was on. Then Schafer automation came in, Drake-Chenault, TM and many of those cheap-to-run stations did well. Plus, fewer DJs meant fewer impossible egos to wrestle with.
    But, it is very difficult to find new announcers who have a pleasant voice, good verbal skills, keen interest in their world, apolitical personality and wish to settle in to a community.

    You admit you traveled around, Ronald. DJs have the reputation of being itinerant. They rarely seek ways to really become part of the station’s community besides the obligatory fund-raisers. They don’t join churches, few even get married and buy a house. They are tumbleweeds. Management does not view them as long-term or worth investing in long-term. Stick with the sales staff or the news department.

  10. Actually, so called “robo radio” could be VERY effective…but it takes lots and lots of preparation on a number of fronts:

    First…accurate time checks and temperatures on weather forecasts are possible with today’s automated systems. The problem? It takes an incredible amount of time to set up. Every jock has to record every possible time check for their shift and every conceivable temperature combination. But, when it’s done…it’s virtually impossible to tell on the air whether you’re “live” or “memorex”.

    Secondly…the “personalities” (whether live or tracked) need to prep, too. Out of towners need to know city and county names, venue names, street names (whether it’s LAN-caster or LANK-uh-ster. Russian or “Roo-Shee”, etc.) I use our free station app to take and play “requests”, since I work basically 9 to 5, but do an overnight radio show. I also record a “conversation” with one of our station meteorologists about the weather to come for later that day. It’s a “what to expect”, not a “what’s happening now”.

    Just as it was in the day of the “Boss Jocks”, radio today takes preparation, concentration and moderation. Just of a different sort than before.

  11. This piece, Ryan, is no plaintiff whine.
    It’s a warning.
    But, it also takes an astute participant or observer to make that distinction.

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