Radio is going through a series of quiet crises right now, one of which is the acquisition of new talent. Where is the next generation of radio stars going to come from?
Learning how to do properly radio is hard. VERY hard. Just ask anyone who has ever had to speak in public. It requires a certain number of skill sets that require coaching, nurturing and time.
In the old days--the era in which I enterted the business--you honed your skills by working your way up through small market stations. Dues were paid working weekends, overnights and holidays. It was ugly, hard and extremely low-paying. But I wouldn't have had it any other way.
Working these shit shifts at shit stations was how radio announcers got better and developed as personalities. You figured out who you were on the air. You learned to talk about things that engaged your audience. You learned technical skills in both the on-air and production studio. You made friends with like-minded radio obsessives and you fed off each other's enthusiasm and ambition.
The weenies were weeded out and the true professionals emerged. And with the right amount of time in the minors, a proper amount of coaching and just a little luck you'd make it to a major market. You could have a career in radio.
Things, however, are vastly different today. In an effort to keep margins growing (or at least stable), there have been drastic cuts to on-air line-ups.
Thanks to the cost-cutting glories of automation and voice-tracking, there aren't as many entry-level opportunities at small stations anymore. For example, when I worked at KX-96 in Brandon, Manitoba, in the early 80s, we had seven full-time announcers. Automation and voice-tracking has apparently cut that down to three. THREE announcers for 168 hours of programming.
Hell, there are now stations in markets as big as Vancouver where they have that many live bodies in the control room.
Budgets are forcing program directors to hire as cheaply as possible. "Find someone for $10 an hour!" the GM barks. "How hard can it be? Get a student! What about that intern that's driving the station van?"
(When I was a PD, I had many battles with bosses who wanted to voicetrack or automate certain dayparts. I'm proud to say that I won more of those battles than I lost. But the losses still eat at me.)
The upshot is that you end up with rookies on the air, unseasoned announcers not fit to open a microphone at a medium and large market stations. Understandably, they make rookie errors. It's not always their fault, either. Because they haven't struggled up through the ranks, they don't know any better.
Bottom line, though, is a sub-standard on-air product. Learning to be on the radio while being on the air in big cities is a hideous situation for everyone involved. Listeners tune out. Program directors, sales managers and GMs freak out. More restrictions are made on talk. And the station is irretrievable set on the road to being nothing more than a non-programmable jukebox with commercials.
Meanwhile, the wannabe noob announcers have their confidence crushed and forever have a warped view what it's like to have the privilege of being able to crack open a mic. Nobody wins.
My recollection is that devaluation of on-air talent began at the end of the 1970s. A brutal recession forced all businesses to re-evaluate their costs. Some big-name radio stars from the 60s and 70s were given the boot because they were too expensive. The mantra became "more music, less talk."
The same happened in the early 90s during that recession. Lots of bodies were lost. Meanwhile, many radio stations morphed into jukeboxes with commercials. "Shut up and play the records," came the instructions. "Audiences don't like talk!"
"But wait!" I'd sputter, "Don't you mean that audiences don't want meaningless talk? What about talk that is engaging and entertaining and enlightening and informative? Isn't that what we as radio professionals should be doing? And should the staff be encouraged and coached to do just that?"
"NO!" came the thundering response. "SHUT UP AND PLAY THE RECORDS"
(Amidst all this though, I was miraculously assigned to do an hour-long documentary called The Ongoing History of New Music where I played unfamiliar music, never gave the call letters and talked a LOT. Funny how the show was a success, innit?)
Another change came towards the end of the 90s when stations moved away from playing actual CDs and carts (the cartridges that contained commercials) to hard drive playback systems where all the music and spots were played by a computer. From there, it was an easy jump to eliminating the announcer altogether and just letting the machine do all the work.
Now with radio facing more competition from other media choices, radio management is freaking out by a lack of new talent. At conferences and in private conversations, I've heard so much talk about the difficulty in acquiring and retaining talent.
Much of this talk is complete and utter bullshit. It's a problem of their own making.
First, they decimated the farm system where they used to grow new announcers. Second, they insist on showing the door to established talent. "Budget concerns," they say. "You've come to make more than the position is worth." What?
(Okay, okay. I'll admit to some bias here because of, um, personal circumstances. But I'm hardly alone. How many times can you remember one of your favourite announcers suddenly disappearing?)
Now, I do have sympathy for program directors today. In the old days, the PD only had to worry about what was his/her station was pumping out through the speakers. One station, one on-air staff, one playlist, one sales department.
Today, though, many PDs have to manage two or more stations. Two might be in the same building and six more might be hundreds of miles away. Some also double as the promotions person. They might have to pull an airshift. They have to work with sales and clients. Plus they're being told that they have to take care of the website--which, as any Internet user knows, is a completely different mountain to climb. All this weighs on their minds 24/7.
Where in the day does the PD have a chance to coach and aircheck announcers? It has to be done, but it's harder than ever.
And just to talk out of the other side of my mouth for a second, I also sympathize with general managers who are under pressure to deliver revenue by their bosses. Shareholders demand value and if it isn't delivered, then heads roll.
What I'm saying is that ratings and revenues can go up if time and money is invested in making sure the on-air product is massively appealing to audiences--and that includes making sure that the people you have on the air are top-notch.
I believe that radio needs true personalities more than ever. In an era when anyone can get any song they want anytime they want it on a multitude of different devices--all without commercials--radio has to have something that nothing else can deliver. And the only thing that can deliver that USP is people.
Entertainers! Provocateurs! People with opinions! Those who know how to deliver fascinating and engaging material! People who know how to keep listeners from going to their iPods and the Internet! Humour! Intelligence! Relevance! And while we're at it, how about allowing qualified and experienced PDs to spend more time coaching, training and encouraging the on-air talent? (Oh, and let's make sure that everyone is paid properly. But that's another conversation.)
But sadly, the pool has become very shallow for all of the reasons I've just mentioned. Check out this sobering article in The Hollywood Reporter. If you're in the business--or if you just have a love for radio--give it a look. Go ahead. I'll wait.
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Back with me? What did you think?
Keep in mind that I'm speaking in generalities here. I know of several radio companies (big ones, too) that still understand that radio's strength is people--the talent on the air. I also know of many program directors who want to do the right thing but can't because of the orders they're given. I get that.
And I bring all this up not because of any sour grapes or bitterness. I've devoted more than half my life to this industry and I plan to keep fighting for the medium in all forms for--well, until the end, whatever that means. If you look around this website, you can still that I'm still deeply, deeply involved in traditional terrestrial radio on a daily basis for stations across Canada. And I hope I can be a part of it for years to come.
I just hope that there are more like me out there--people willing to speak about what radio needs to survive and thrive in an increasingly on-demand digital world.
Video didn't kill the radio star. Radio is doing a fine job of that on its own. Please make it stop.
NOTE: I wrote this rant on a Saturday morning in sort of a stream-of-consciousness thing. I reserve the right go back and tinker with things if I feel I need to make my point a little more coherently. Meanwhile,
I fully expect to get flamed by people who think they know what I did, didn't do, said, thought, believed and experienced as an announcer and PD. They know jack shit. Fuck 'em.
Ask anyone who worked with me or for me. I'm pretty sure most of them will tell you that I fought the good fight as best as I could. I know where I succeeded and I know where I failed. And if another similar opportunity presents itself, at least I'll have learned from my experience.