Monday, February 12, 2007

Is Radio Out of Sync?

Have you ever seen a movie where the audio is not in sync with the video? Doesn't it drive you nuts? I don't know about you but if somebody doesn't fix it quickly they've lost me. This happened with a movie I was watching recently and I found it to be incredibly distracting. I'd be hard pressed to tell you how the story ended. Suddenly I was more interested in the technical snafu and not the storyline. And once, when there was one projectionist for each theater, something like this would be rectified quickly. Now, there's one projectionist for twelve theaters and if something goes wrong in Theater 1 and he's threading Theater 12...well you may be outta luck. One projectionist for twelve screens; it's great when things are working smoothly, but when things are in the hopper...not so much.

American commercial radio is that way. Instead of twelve theaters being serviced by one projection booth we have a cluster of different radio stations coming from the same computer rack. I know, you're saving thousands of dollars, there aren't as many staffing issues, it takes up less space, it sounds 'almost live', so what's the big deal? The 'big deal' is that radio's slice of the pie is shrinking. It's audience is going to other places for entertainment and information.
Radio was always the 'personal' medium; the guy on the air was talking to human to another...there was a connection. Could it be that even the average Joe out there can sense when there's a real live body talking to him as opposed to a Pentium IV on steroids cutting and pasting pre-recorded audio files?

Granted the computer systems are amazing. We can stick an entire radio station in a desktop computer. I have hundreds of songs on a thumb-drive and I have a better selection of oldies on my iPod than the local oldies station. And there's part of the problem. People don't need to go to radio stations any more for their music. They can download that from places like iTunes or even take their old albums and convert them to mp3's. I don't think the powers-that-be in the business have totally grasped that yet. And this migration to other places is not going to end any time soon.

So what can radio offer that you won't find at iTunes. The answer is really very's that human connection that we were just talking about. By it's very nature, talk radio works because of that human connection. Maybe it's time that the music stations started to think about reintroducing real live personalities again. With all of the voice-tracking that's going on these days...placing an actual warm body in the studio might prove to be a novel idea. Some programmers and consultants will say that people get in the way of the music. I mean, could we live without 'non-stop music' hours? What would happen to the station without another 'continuous hour of less talk and more music?" In the long run, it might become more successful.

Consider this. When you think back on the great radio stations of the past fifty you ever think about one that didn't have great personality? WABC in New York wasn't just was Dan Ingram, Harry Harrison, Cousin Brucie and all the other great people who worked behind their mikes. WRKO in it's youth was a music intensive station, but it worked because it had great jocks who knew how to breath personality into an otherwise sterile format. You can trace the beginnings of morning talk icons Imus and Stern to personality music radio.

Making the move back towards personality music radio isn't achieved by merely sticking a live person in studio. It will require some work on the part of the programming department. Every announcer isn't a personality. They'll have to search for good talent. In the old days, programmers would get in their cars and drive to different markets, in search of something 'new'. They might have to start doing that again. And, because radio hasn't been cultivating young talent, it's going to be a harder search.

One of the biggest radio shows in England is Wake Up With Wogan. Terry Wogan is a funny, listener-friendly radio personality. People of all ages like the guy because he surrounds a well thought out mixture of contemporary and classic hit music with great personality. He has an audience of nine million people which is a lot in Great Britain. Some may say that he's successful because he's on government sponsored radio (BBC is commercial free...for the time being. There are rumblings that it's going to commercialize.). I say, listen to the guy and then try and tell me that he wouldn't be popular over here. Personality radio may not be in vogue, here in the US, but it still works.

I realize that a format adjustment such as this might initially have a negative impact on ratings. There will be the inevitable tweaking and fine tuning and it will cost more money to produce this type of programming; good talent isn't cheap and it shouldn't be treated as such. But, I believe that the business is going to have to have suck it up and take the hit until audiences catch on. Radio's only option is to give listeners what they can't get somewhere else. It's the only way that it can stem the tide of diminishing listenership. Radio has got to 'sync up' or listeners are going to find permanent alternatives.

Those are my thoughts...what do you think?

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