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Ron Robinson

Music Radio Has Become A Flock

by Ron Robinson

This was a clear, quiet, warm and sunny day in November a welcome and calm Toronto, Sunday morning to step out on the stoop for a smoke and a coffee while the rest of the family continued their zonk-fest. I had already turned on the radio to hear the locals doing their part in V/Ting their audience into a drowsy,  low-volume, background state of indifference. A couple stations were running with Junior Jocks leaving a distinct impression that, as a listener, I was worth  less on a Sunday than I was on a Monday.

During my morning meditations out on the porch, Barry, our resident squirrel-buddy, came by for a brief moment of eye contact and a quick and wary scoot  up the huge pine in the front yard. My neighbors crab apple tree (the one with the overhanging branches above the sidewalk) had just fruit-conked another  strolling pedestrian - one of the inmates of the local Fort Fogie at the end of our block. Managing quite well, he was too, even as he was struggling somewhat to  navigate the apple-infested intersection with a crippled gate and a necessary cane - determined to give his apple a relatively hefty penalty kick for the offense of obeying The Law of Gravity.

On the other side of the avenue, one of our familiar, feral cats, also named Barry, was crouched in some taller grass, waiting to ambush any temporarily  negligent bird that might touch down. And one did along with 15 or 20 more of his kind all independently bobbing and pecking for whatever morsels might be on the sidewalk or lawn.

The cat launched a mighty and impressive pounce and came up with nothing but sidewalk. (Im thinking he went far too high and suffered from the extra  hang-time.) Yet, in that same instant, every last one of those birds lifted off - as one squadron - and booked it back across the street, expertly dodging the  collection of tangled sneakers on the phone lines as well as avoiding the cable and power lines, to perch in the crab apple tree.

Now, I didnt know if these were sparrows, wrens or starlings as my ornithological education does have severe limitations. Even so, they definitely werent  chickens. Still, the speed, precision and what seemed like a unilateral spontaneity with which the maneuver was executed struck me, once again, as an  insurmountably complex, exquisite and stunning piece of Nature.

This entire episode was all transpiring as I was ruminating on the state of Corporate, Music Radio.

Although we dont talk about the entire gaggle of Music Radio stations across the country as being a flock, we could. They certainly behave as one. When one  station implements a strategy-of-some-kind, they all do! When one builds a ghetto into which to shuffle a block of spots, they all do. When one starts lopping off  the heads of Talent, they all do. There is little point continuing as insiders can complete this list when they have some free time.

Meanwhile, I do appreciate the spectacular, unfathomable behaviors of flocks, schools, herds and other animal-groups to, somehow, instantaneously  communicate to each other when the time to get out of Dodge is now. That these maneuvers execution happens so quickly and that they evolved as finely tuned strategies for survival is incomprehensible. I am also more confused, as to the seeming necessity of a whole genre of human-constructed organizations, most  notably here Music Radio - to emulate the same practices. My rationale is that, as survival tactics, they might have some value. But as strategies for gaining  ground and developing beyond the industrys status quo, they are highly questionable.

I am not an animal! said the Elephant Man. Indeed, as humans, we expect we can think beyond and/or outside our biology and our environments. Or, so the  story goes. I mean, the concept of Freedom of Choice is in all the psychology books. Although and it must be said: a number of pshrinks are not completely sold  on the concept. Freedom of Choice, they will say, is a learned and only occasionally applied concept. (In my other life as a personal counsellor and trainer, my experience suggests that too many folks are operating out of an Either/Or, binary position where choice hardly ever factors in or from a pre-programmed,  reactive state where choice isnt even a consideration..)

Im a little deeper into the morning now, as so many local Music Radio outlets are rolling out the next set of voice-tracks across the city. They are presenting  them with equally boring, mechanical precision and uninvolved banality. Seems to me to be the reasonable behaviors of a group that has been operating for a  very long time in an environment where there have been no other competitors or predators and where the apples are hanging low and are there for the easy  pickin.

Note, then, to Radio: There are other meat-a-sauruses encroaching on the territory. Fast ones, too - with teeth and sharp feet. Some can also fly, follow and  attack! Oh, and one other thing: Our own traditional prey-species of audiences and advertisers the ones that used to be so easy to pick off - are also getting  smarter, more flexible and harder to catch!

The knowledge that Music Radio is no longer the only predator in the territory along with the fact that Radio has also been moved to be included on the Prey  Species list of those other predators can sure break up a broadcasters Sunday morning reveries.

Meanwhile, I am still deeply concerned about Radios penchant for emulating the birds in its habit of flocking off as an integrated, single-minded group. While  this capacity has, in past, been a viable survival strategy, it has some serious contextual disadvantages. Im reminded of those flocks that take off and fly directly  into the whirling blades spread across a farm of wind turbines.

Im sure Music Radio has no conscious desire to be offered on the menu as a fricasseed specialty. We might want to consider whether accepting Group Thinking and Group Responses are still viable attributes for avoiding becoming Blue Plate Specials.

Im also obliged to mention another group of animals that behave in a similar fashion lemmings.

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 counsellor. Ron makes the assertion that the most important communicative aspects of broadcasting, as they relate to Talent and Creative, have yet to be addressed. Check out his website

(10/24/2013 12:12:30 AM)
QtfqZ0 Thanks so much for the post.Really looking forward to read more. Much obliged.

- NY
(1/14/2012 9:18:10 AM)
Music Radio is in the state it is because of a number of attitudinal positions that have become a kind of Truth.
1.) No amount of Talent will bring the profit-curve to intersect with expenses and drive profits way above expectations.
2. Music Radio is the way it is because everything that could be tried has been tried and alternatives do not exist.
3.) Justifying the status quo - even while it is unsatisfactory - is important, as doing so rationalizes the behaviors of the last many years.
4.) Music Radio - mostly driven by corporate entities - is unlikely to be embracing any "innovators" anytime soon. Innovation includes that which is not understood by most management and is, therefore: Unmanageable.
And Gawd knows... we can't have that!

- Ronald T. Robinson
(1/13/2012 8:14:59 PM)
I agree with the last comment. Like it or not radio is not about doing "good radio" It is about "maximizing profits".

Why do you think that the stars of the industry are now Market Managers and CEOs. There are no more Robert W. Morgans or Scott Shannons.

That era is over. Just turn on music radio today and listen to all of the so called "personalities" voice tracking. 20 years ago, most of these people would never have had the chance to be on the air. But now they get to be on the air because they are cheep. It's sad, but it is just a fact of how things are.

Z100 in New York is not great because of what it does today. It sounds just like any other CHR. It is great beacuse of it's history back in the 80s, its brand, and the fact that it is in Market #1.

I am as sad and dissapointed at where music radio is as the next guy. But we all must face the fact that all good things come to an end.

I honestly believe that FM Music Radio is where AM music radio was 30 years ago. It is going to need to adapt and change in order to survive. All the industry needs is an innovatior to lead the "lemmings" down the path.

Not shure that is going to happen.


- Bob
(1/13/2012 7:57:31 PM)
Thanks to "BC" for an outstanding and articulate series of comments.

While some of the issues have been addressed in my next Radio Ink article, it might be useful for me to point out my frame. That being: A station or organization is missing tremendous opportunities to dominate their markets by applying the talents of exceptionally well-trained, local and "live" performers.

I have no expectations of Radio making any exceptionally dramatic, strategic changes. I'm more like the baseball manager who sez, "I'm not trying to change The Game - I'm working to get this organization a championship."

Thanks, BC.

- Ronald T. Robinson
(1/13/2012 9:17:22 AM)
Articles like this are based on a perhaps false (at least not obviously true) premise that the market will reward "good radio" enough to make a difference in my company's financial performance. I submit that nearly all the empirical evidence suggests that this is not true.

Successfully investing in "good radio" requires that the investment in talent and other parts of on-air performance pay off enough to more than offset the increase in cost, and to the degree that the investment will out-perform other possible uses of the money. However, radio's portion of the advertising universe is not expanding and it is not going to expand, if for no other reason than that the pie is being divided among more competitors. Thus, by definition, any increase in revenue is going to come at the expense of other radio stations. From this it follows that we must have some reason to expect that our ratings will increase (or, perhaps, that response to local advertisers' commercials will increase) enough for me to steal enough revenue share to pay for it. However, the evidence suggests that most of the audience is satisfied with the radio they have; moreover, since the predominant driving force in advertising sales is price, they are able to operate at a cost that makes it nearly impossible for a station that does not do the same to compete successfully on a CPP basis. So, it is difficult to see how the investment necessary to do "good radio" will actually pay off.

Whether you and I like it or not (and I don't, at least aesthetically), radio is a mature business selling a product that is priced like a commodity. This is why we have the radio we have now. Moreover, the job of corporations is not to do good radio. It is to maximize profits, insofar as possible.

Maybe radio survives this era, maybe it does not. Maybe public taste will change dramatically and people will clamor for Robert W. Morgan to reincarnate. But I would not bet on it. And if radio, as an industry, fails, so be it. That's also part of capitalism. I'm sure there were a lot of people in the buggy business who were wringing their hands when the Ford Model-T started rolling off the line, too.

- BC

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