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Muuusic Power – Gone

4-2-2013

During a recent drive to one of my out-of-town gigs, I had another opportunity to spin the dial and listen for what was going on in a number of small and medium markets outside  Toronto. As, over time, I have learned to expect very little, I wasn’t terribly disappointed. Modern, music radio everywhere continues to be as contemporary as a cassette and as appealing as the no-name brand of “Cardboard-In-A-Can.”

Senior radio folks may recall when radio had a “figure-four leg lock” on their target audiences. Many stations targeted everybody by offering “block programming” – an hour or so of Country, multiple hours of MOR (middle of the road), evenings of rock ‘n roll with a “candlelight and wine” equivalency stuck in there somewhere at night. And… they pulled it off! If someone wanted to hear some tunes, they either bought them or they got them from the radio. We had our audiences herded into pens; fish were jumpin’ and the cotton was high.

As a jock, all I really wanted to do was rock out – “talk dirty an’ play the hits.” Still, the experience of approaching and attempting to communicate to audiences other than my peers was invaluable. I actually did gain some appreciation for music to which I was not naturally predisposed. Yes, I actually introduced Buck Owens and The Buckaroos as well as “the twin piano magic of Ferrante and Teicher.” (I still love their rendition of “Exodus” and so many others. Really.)

A few of us – and our organizations – are continuously making transitions to more contemporary times, modes and approaches. Radio is not one of those. To the contrary, where some stations desperately cling to the old forms by day-parting their playlists, others have given up altogether and just roll the music through in the hope that audiences will be impressed with non-stop tunery and may not punch-out for some other station’s offerings of the same thing. (We are now also aware of a Florida station that has turned the playlist over to an online audience. The technical term for this practice is: “surrender.” I could offer other examples.)

There was a time when a station’s declaration of “Muuusic Power” actually had an impact. But then, Stevie Wonder started sporting some facial hair. After that, stations still just kept on brandishing the same forms of braggadocio. They haven’t let up since.

Given the proliferation of signals, the necessity to carve up a generic music approach into ever-tightened niches has made stations’ potential at reaching large and diverse audiences non-starters – even as fantasy. This is the case. But it doesn’t have to be the case.

As we already know, choosing any music format is no more than a general, demographic, targeting strategy. And that is where we stopped. We have to continue making outrageous claims – with an expectation they will be accepted like sweet nectar. “Buffalo Groin, Montana’s Best and Most Music.” “The Greatest Hits of All Time.” A listener could legitimately wonder: According to whom? Compared to what? When? These are worthy inquiries. But, we’re in radio. So, we don’t actually pay much attention to what we say on the radio. We just keep on saying what we have always said – in just the same ways we have always said it.

Even when Top 40 radio had a monopoly on the younger demos, programmers were – for a few years anyway – aware that the tunes were not enough. Even “The Hits” were not universally enjoyed and cherished. Top 40 was not a rock n’ roll format – it was a “pop” format that included rock cuts – heavily day-parted rock, it must be noted. The accepted reality was one in which programmers required the skills and appeal of on-air personalities in order to make much of the music at least tolerable enough for an audience to stick around. For the time it lasted, radio had a great one-two punch – tunes and talent!

Indeed, programmers were well aware that personalities were essential to supporting the format. Strong, intelligent, witty, sardonic, politically and socially aware personalities were available in greater numbers than there has ever been since.

For the sake of accuracy, these personalities were not as pervasive as many might remember. Nor did the phenomena last for all that long. By the time the “Drake” format hit, and was then poorly cloned and bastardized by less-than-competent PDs, the shutdown had already begun. Little by little the personalities – and their incomes – were being culled out of the stations in favor of music-intensive programming. And, to be fair, it worked – for a while.

Now music radio finds itself in a situation where the music is no longer monopolized by radio. And without letting any cats out of the bag, our appreciation as an extraordinary and unique advertising medium has also slid off the charts. Plus, since most of the talent has already been carted away a long time ago, there is little relief from that department.

Radio no longer has either the power of the music or the power of the personalities. Barely tolerable (sometimes) tunes and even less tolerable syndicated programming or voice-tracked breaks make a mockery of what could still be a dynamic and “live” medium. Yet, those people who are still working “live” are, for the most part, so weak in their presentations as to be an embarrassment to the stations they represent and an insult to the audiences they are supposedly trying to reach.

To regain any credibility, radio must re-train its on-air and creative staffs. This is not a suggestion to take a ride on Peabody’s “Way Back Machine.” It is, rather, an admonition for music radio to get skilled, get contemporary, get real and go “live.”

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 www.voicetalentguy.com




(2/4/2013 3:08:11 PM)
Perhaps I might have also added "... and get 'local'" in the piece. But then, maybe I shouldn't have to.

- Ronald T. Robinson

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