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Radio's "One Thing"


Ronald T. Robinson

I remember well when Jack Palance as Curly in the movie "City Slickers" admonished Billy Crystal's character about the Secret of Life – the critical importance of knowing "just one thing." When Mitch asked what that one thing is, Curly responded with, "That's what you got to figure out." (Well, thanks for comin' out, Curly.) Music radio also suffers from the lack of that "one thing" – the unknown element that, if only we knew it, we could change everything. Maybe I had better reveal it – right here.

This "one thing" that has to do with broadcasting in general and music radio, in particular, has within it the potential to generate better understanding of our medium. And, when applied, a transformation of what we do in this business – along with the results we can generate.

For the last 20 years and more, radio has been ever-hopeful that the Next Big Thing will come along to make everything right, and that it will be provided from outside our own group. Our own gang, it seems, can't come up with squat. New technologies have been introduced in a steady stream. Always required to sustain competitiveness and always more expensive than any manager wanted to consider, these have been ongoing and costly new realities introduced on a semi-regular basis.

During these last decades, extra education and training has never been provided for the on-air or creative staffs. To the contrary, the talent has been determined as a less-than-worthy expense. So much so that the last several years has seen the talent-base gutted and thrown into the pit. Those that remain have been suppressed, beaten, and relegated to no more than slave labor – with slave-labor wages. The culmination has been slave-labor expertise and slave-labor attitudes. This, as any manager reading this will agree, has helped the industry along in no way. That is, unless the resultant, anemic products and services constitute something worthy of pride and provide some noticeable value. These talent-crushing decisions have generated heavy, self-forged manacles. Thus, our story could be titled "Radio In Chains." Still, any manager could be excused – with all charges dropped – by them simply asking, "What the hell were we supposed to teach them?!" What, indeed.

Now, I have previously mentioned this "one thing" and demonstrated at least one of the many conclusions that are drawn from its consideration and acceptance. I have also alluded to many more. Still, it may be worthwhile to make the distinction as a single element. Here then, is the difference that makes the difference: Radio is an indirect medium.

Even as a barrage of bleats and assertions to the contrary come rolling in, there is no evidence to support the proposition that radio is a direct medium. This, though we have treated it as such since the first kid stretched a waxed string between two cans and hollered, "Can you hear me now?"

A bulk email with my name on it is still no more direct a communication than any radio station could possibly provide. It's been awhile since any jock said, "Ronald, I'm doing all this only for you – personally." Meanwhile, that so-called personalized email is still insulting and obviously so. Marketers could take note of that. I mean, what are they thinking?! Well, they're thinking the same thing as broadcasters are thinking. They're thinking they are dealing with a one-to-one medium and, as such, can make enormous assumptions about audience acceptance and understanding. Along with that, they are also taking outrageous liberties with their audiences. (More detailed explanations are elsewhere on this site.)

While I'm not expecting banners to fly, bells to ring out or trumpets to blare over this revelation, I am expecting no one will be in a position to get up on their hind legs to offer any credible evidence to the contrary.

Come to think of it, this distinction is so obvious, so pervasive, and so logical, it really ought not to take any effort at all to go, "Well, yeah. We should have known that at the very beginning!" For what it's worth, I had been in the business for 16 years before it hit me. Like everybody else, I was going along with all the assumptions and dogma that came from participating in radio and I had no reason to reconsider or challenge any of it.

Becoming aware of and accepting the fact that radio is an indirect medium comes with extraordinary consequences along with new responsibilities.

As a consequence, however, all on-air and creative personnel will have to be thoroughly and comprehensively trained or re-trained to take advantage of the many, many communicative strategies that are required of and available to those who need to become effective, broadcast communicators. The strongest of on-air personalities will still continue to do relatively well without them, but upping their game would be a killer consequence if they did. The rest, as experience is proving, will suffer, wither, and die. At best, as experience also proves, many will just fade into a state of indifference on the part of an audience. Even "Donny" – a hugely recognizable celebrity – can't do much more than stir up more apathy. As a radio communicator, he makes a terrific older brother to Marie. Not his fault. He doesn't know either. He just reads the supplied content and music radio calls that a "show."

When I had my own, original "road to Damascus" moment, I was in the jock lounge – minding my own business and not bothering anybody. As I recall, one of the other guys threw out a comment along the lines of, "Who are we talking to anyway?" And then, he left it and me alone. Apparently, the line stuck with me.

Over the next few days or so, the challenge kept getting stronger and I became even more uncomfortable while considering it. That's when the revelation hit. I did not have any idea whatsoever as to what real, living, breathing, listening person, specifically, I was speaking! Explanations about the demographic and psychographic target-audience were completely unsatisfactory. Not to mention: unhelpful, inaccurate, and irrelevant. Plus, all the other suppositions under which I had, along with my peers, been operating, began falling apart.

I felt like I had been bludgeoned, dragged onto a ship, thrown in irons, and dumped onto a deserted island – alone with what began as a seemingly harmless and puny revelation for company.

Looking back, though, I can say that's where my 16-year stint as a jock ended and my career as a broadcast communicator began. That's also when I became a student of the medium and a student of communicative strategies. I have already regaled readers with success stories in other pieces.

So, there it is: Radio is an indirect medium. Outrageous? Perhaps. Elegant? Most assuredly so. From this realization – everything else can follow. Not does follow – can follow. As such, it is incumbent on broadcast communicators to become intimately aware of and skillfully adept at delivering their content using indirect communication strategies. It's the nature of the medium that needs to be understood. We need to stop working against nature and to start flowing along with it instead. Some might agree with the logical conclusion: It is time to begin the training. Or, as Curly might phrase the point: "Time ta untie the knots in our ropes and git on with it."

Read more articlde from Ron HERE

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

(3/8/2014 7:11:45 PM)
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(7/14/2012 10:56:59 PM)
That does seem interesting, although it would actually require me to know those kind of things. I am not a big fan of laying everything out either, although I do it anyway. I assume the rationale is to give people a reason to stay tuned through the break. There are certain programs, like Dateline on NBC, that if you took out all the teases, you'd only have a 7 minute program. I feel like I'm listening to Kim Komando every time I watch it. (She does that too.)

- Ted
(7/14/2012 4:00:52 PM)
It's okay, Ted. What I'm talking about is the opposite of what every on-air presenter (that I know of) is doing. :)

As to the question of what's coming up: I'm not a huge fan of telegraphing anything on which a listener can decide before the song comes on. For example: Simon and Garfunkel's first hit was "Sound of Silence". Instead of promoting the cut, I would urge a jock to go behind the scenes and be vague about it. In this case, it would be "... a song that was completed after the artists left the studio and became a hit without their even knowing it."

It becomes obvious which promo is likely to maintain more audience interest.

- Ronald T. Robinson
(7/13/2012 11:28:14 PM)
Ok, this seems like the opposite of what I do, but I will admit that I have zero training. What do you think about the practice of saying what's coming up right before a commercial break?

- Ted
(7/13/2012 12:17:18 PM)
Yes, Ted. It does include the implication because of the included demand for behavior ("join").

Better to say something along the lines of: "Kirby is inviting listeners to come out and be a part of the activities."

Listeners then have the option to include themselves or not. But they have not been shabbily singled-out and they haven't been given direct instructions.

- Ronald T. Robinson

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