A couple of years ago, I read an article by Sean Ross and teed-off on it. I don’t remember if I ever even sent it to him. Today I came across the rather long ramble that I’d put to paper back then. Skimmed through it and decided to share it here.
I read an article about some newer ‘radio apps’. This one inserts between-the-records content into the flow of the consumer’s own personal listening library. If the fellow has some Michael Jackson songs in his personal library, after one of the songs plays, the thing will drop in some pre-recorded trivia about Jackson. Cool? Maybe.
Anytime I see an article like this the thing that pops into my mind first and foremost is: Man, commercial broadcast radio is blowing it. The principal and primary the problem is: No People. The people who love to Do Radio are not in the radio stations anymore. And the people that are still in the radio stations are so overworked and stressed with the twelve hours of work to do every day that they have to cram into ten hours of work (and they may be paid for only eight of those hours), they do not have time to be thinking of other ways in which they may market and brand and improve the local product on their radio stations. Even those who have ideas about how to do such things do not have the manpower/girlpower to get it done. The majority of stations are automated much, most, or even all of the time.
What is missing from broadcast music radio is: Live disc jockeys. Yes, stations are overcommercialised, they’ve always been overcommercialised. Now, finally maybe the death-knell for that particular weakness may be at hand, though I doubt it. In the 1960’s, Bill Drake and Ron Jacobs demonstrated that radio stations could make a lot of money with a limited commercial load, that the limited commercial load in and of itself was a great attribute for a radio station. Their stations raised their rates. They made more with fewer commercials because they charged what the spots were truly worth. But it was always difficult for radio stations to hold the line on this, and today it is more-so. It’s always been a dog-eat-dog business. When your base rate is fifty dollars and another station takes the ad buy with a thirty-five dollar rate, there’s a lot of pressure to bring the price down, it is difficult to hold the line. So stations take the easy way, always have taken the easy way and just lowered their rates to keep the cash flow up in order to keep the quarter up where it is targeted to be.
Radio, still, got by with it because there was no alternative. If a person wanted to listen to free and portable music, they had to listen to radio. And in any town there were only two or three radio stations playing the type of music they preferred, in many towns there was only one choice. One Pop station, one Country station, one Black station. Now there are thousands of choices available through the ‘new transistor radio’, the smart phone. And it is smaller than the littlest transistor radios we carried in days of old and has excellent, clear sound. So, over-commercialization of broadcast radio must be tamed. Radio can maintain its audience with four breaks an hour and no more than three minutes a break. We might consider other variations. One song, one spot, one song, one spot. Or, two songs, three units, two songs, three units. Better would be two songs, one spot, but I don’t know that that plan would be viable. I do know that three units is ‘acceptable’ to listeners and anything more than that becomes “too many commercials”. They may not accept three minutes. They might be comfortable with two sixties and a thirty. Or better, three thirties. Always remember this: Commercials are NOT disliked. Commercials are part of the milieu of modern life. Voices talking to us, we like that. Commercials are entertaining and informative and they help us make choices about the products we choose. The problem is and always has been: Too Many Commercials.
Once that one is put to bed, we must deal with the real Big Kahuna, the fundamental problem: Not Enough People. Music radio was as successful as it was from the fifties to the end of the century because of a combination of several primary elements; it was a gumbo of music, news, civic involvement and public service. Those were the meat and vegetables required for a well rounded diet. Any and every ‘cook’ could use the same bulk elements. What made a gumbo stand out, to be better than the rest was the cook’s choice of spices and how to use and blend them. Those spices were the on-air personalities. When you found a restaurant that had magnificent gumbo, you went back and back again. Great radio stations were like that. People ‘married’ them. They wore their stations like clothes. The station was an accoutrement to their lifestyle. An example would be Chicago in the 60’s. You were either a WLS listener or a WCFL listener. Both were sampled, one was a personal favorite. In Philly, WIBG or WFIL.
You made the choice because of the mixture of the station’s gumbo, the people-spice. You liked the people there. They were your friends and companions. They helped alleviate your loneliness, they made you feel better and a part of things that were happening. People wanted to spend time with their companion the same as with their friends and family. No, they didn’t like everything on the station; but that itself could be endearing in the way a favorite aunt hand this one little irritating tick. But they were part of a person’s life, close and personal.
We guys on the air loved the music we were playing. We were excited with the arrival of a new Paul Simon album, a new Santana album, a new single from The Stones and we communicated that. Pandora and the other music-boxes do not do that. And for the most part few radio stations on the internet do it. Sure, you’ve got the reviews of a bunch of people on the website posting comments and that is well and good, there is a community there and we could leverage that, we could use it to our advantage, but radio is aural. It arrives through the ears, not the eyes. Eyes are always going to be secondary. Maybe what people “see” on the site or on the media player screen is always going to be secondary. What we have to focus on is what we put into their ears.
Everybody in the world can put the new song by X-singer onto their media player or through their computer the day it is released and they don’t have to go to any radio station to find it. As soon as you know about it, type in just part of the name and google finds it. There’s an app where you can just hum a bit of the song and it can be found for you. Remarkable. I love this, I really do. But it’s a computer giving it to me. A person is not giving it to me, sharing it with me. After the song is over, Pandora doesn’t tell me a joke, doesn’t give me a piece of information about the song or singer. Pandora doesn’t say “isn’t that a great record! I love it!” Pandora doesn’t share it with me, it just gives it to me cold.
Pandora isn’t going to open the microphone and say: “The weather is really crappy now, but it’s gonna get better tomorrow.” “I’ll play that song for the quarterback of the Bombers. Man, what a great game he had yesterday.” “Remember to avoid 57th street today, all that construction made me late for work.” Those are the types of things people say to other people all the time. But if some guy is sitting in warm, dry San Antonio recording voice tracks for a station in Ohio where it’s freezing and slushy, what’s he going to say about the weather that is relatable? It is comforting when the record ends and the guy on the radio says, “Man, I wish it would stop raining, when is this gonna be over?!” Things like that say somebody is there with you, living in your world, that you are not alone. A radio station should be a companion. A music box is a machine without skin, without a soul. A Radio Station is person playing music for you and talking to you. That gets to the essence of what ‘radio’ is. Pandora is radio? It can be argued both ways, but if you distill music radio into what it IS, it is a disc jockey somewhere nearby playing songs for you, being with you. That’s what counts. Humans talking to humans. And Corporate Radio the Frankenstein monster of the Telecom act of 1996, and fuck you Clinton for signing that bill, and fuck you whore congressmen for voting to pass it, for putting your names to it what was written by corporate lobbyists and destroying the business I have loved since I first opened a microphone in a control room when I was sixteen years old.
But there’s no value in bemoaning it, really. We can bitch about it with old buddies over beer or weed. But screw you congress and president for costing tens of thousands of jobs unnecessarily, for depriving communities of local broadcast services and for turning over our business to greed mongers. There’s nothing we can do about it. Ownership limits are not going to be returned. What we’re going to have to do is, what is going to happen is entrepreneurs, some old fart radio guys and some young ones who’ll study the craft, the old ways and use what they think is good and add their own twists to the enterprise and re-create some new-fangled variations from the time honored blueprints. The best of them will find ways to monetize it, if not to make all of their living from it, at least to break beyond even and gain some extra income from it.
In the larger markets, they’re going to have to lower their expectations about the level of profit that is possible, invest in people/staff and to live within their means. Radio cannot increase productivity and return on investment than it already has. Not in the long run. Not with the astronomical debt load they’ve pigged out on. Not without some earthquake of change following bankruptcy.