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Nothing Left To Learn


It’s an amazing thing to talk to radio executives and senior talent who profess to already know everything there is to know about radio. I feel this is the pervasive attitude, and part of my evidence is that radio has made no improvements that are not technologically based in the last 30 years.

As the oldest of the electronic media, radio has been relegated – by others and us – to playing the part of “Gramps” in a series re-run of “Lassie." Our demands are low and our desires even less so. We have stopped even thinking about competing with the new and aggressive whippersnappers.

Still, the leadership and executive-corps could make a fairly frenzied if not compelling argument for how engaged and busy they really are. Busy, busy, busy. Sales executives are straining to squeeze, if not choke, every possible nickel out of advertisers without adjusting the product whatsoever. Programmers are taking “deckchairology” to new heights of foolishness. Their default position is “less is more." This has resulted in the suppression and/or elimination of local talent – a situation gleefully embraced by management.

Online competition for listeners has not yet taken on the specter of a plague of locusts, but well-read individuals do have an appreciation that these maladies come as gifts from the gods and also tend to arrive in a series – one-trial learning hardly ever being the case. (Most recently, the lowering of music royalties on outfits that are running online does little for radio and a lot for the Web crowd. Another gift/curse.)

Yes, a growing number of broadcasters who have, otherwise, demonstrated their credibility, are also voicing their chagrin on a number of issues that are extremely important to the future of radio. Sometimes it takes the efforts of someone like Radio Ink’s Ed Ryan to pull the issues to the foreground, and sometimes other insiders will just 'fess up and declare their concerns. I note, however, that most of the issues could be described as emanating from external forces – government inactivity or over-activity, the influences of other media, or the machinations of corporate head offices. Indeed, at the single or cluster station level, home office edicts tend to be perceived as another “external” and do little but frustrate and minimize the efforts of the locals.

As is typical in the general, business culture, radio leadership also invites input from the minions. Occasionally, they will issue memos and hang banners. Maybe hire a band. Unfortunately, any acceptance of these invitations tends to result in another suddenly missing minion. (“If I wanted your input, I would have asked for it – with a lot more sincerity!”)

Meanwhile, in the past few days, a number of managers have come out and said the unthinkable. One put it fairly succinctly by stating that our locally produced commercials “suck.” While I was impressed by his candor, I disagree with his solution: the creation of a central, internal ad agency that specializes in radio commercials. Although not a bad idea as a stand-alone entity and, perhaps, a profit center, the creation of an uber creative department has enormous liabilities built in well before the first spot is cut. The place would be overwhelmed in mere days; the quality would suffer from deadlines that actually mean right now, and advertisers in the townships would be unimpressed by “those big city advertising weenies." Or, as is so typically said by unsophisticated, but still influential advertisers: “I don’t need creative. I need to sell cars!” (The significance that the latter works better with the former is a lost concept. And that’s our fault.)

Readers of these pieces are already aware of my insistence that until broadcasters are taught to exploit our medium through a vigorous re-training in the techniques of “indirect communications” – radio being the prime example of just such an indirect medium, we are doomed to making no further inroads into the open marketplace. The ugly question I put to management generally takes the form of, “What are you going to do, specifically, that will significantly increase your station(s)’ audience penetration, its influence on behalf of advertisers, and your own resulting prosperity?”

Now, I would be less than candid if I were to suggest that the radio industry is on the cusp of great inroads and even greater days of prosperity. Rather, I am convinced that radio will continue to be the weakest of all electronic media and will be regularly beaten soundly by any number of other outfits. Not because it’s necessary or even a sick form of fun, but because giving radio a sound thrashing is easy and is just a collateral result of the other media organizations going about their businesses.

We have all heard that “confession is good for the soul.” I would say, "Confession is terrific for the intellect"!

I want to be a part of that meeting where senior management or ownership stands in front of the group and admits, “We have hit a wall and we don’t know what to do next.” This would be an extraordinary event, but an unlikely one, nevertheless. As is so often the case, we tend to be unaware of our situations. In other words: We don’t know that we don’t know. So, we have nothing to confess.

In previous articles, I make the (arguably) outrageous claim that I wouldn’t allow any new or used talent on the air or into the creative departments until I had thoroughly trained them, first. My position, however, allows for the circumstance to be only temporary. There is a way out.

I have thought this through often and over a very long time. I have worked the principles and strategies for years and my conclusion continues to be: The position, as I have described it, ought not to be "spun" and is, indeed, accurate for our business. Again, I have no expectations that radio – as an industry – will be making any vast improvements over the foreseeable future. The very best I can expect is that some manager in some organization – somewhere – will have one of those “road to Damascus” moments and begin to re-think the potentials of their own business. To realize it would be helpful to begin considering other useful strategies in order to crank up those potentials would be a significant step. This is not something I would expect from or ask of a “Gramps."

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

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