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(TALENT) Radio’s (Cracked) Mirror

In a recent editorial, the esteemed publisher of Radio Ink, Eric Rhoads, made reference to the concept of, and the value in, a local radio station being reflective of the community. On the surface, that seems like a useful, and perhaps even noble, proposition. However, I am obliged to state that “mirroring” is an incomplete strategy and, as such, flawed.

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to Eric’s premise. “Local,” I believe, is an important part of any station that still supports live and real-time talent. Including local references in on-air presentations, however, and contrary to the insistence by many managers, does not offer any salvation to those outlets that suffer from obvious, but still unidentified, malaises.

Even now, managers who are long on desperation and short on solutions are trying to figure out ways to drop local references into their maudlin, syndicated, or V/T’ed programming, as well as those elements that can still be presented “live.” I do wonder. Are some cobbled-together comments on the Dog Groin, Montana, chapter of The Ladies’ Freedom Militia Tea, Bake Sale and Sharp Shooting Extravaganza at the local Moose Hall going to spur audience members and advertisers into supporting the station? No.

Meanwhile, back to “mirroring”. The concept of mirroring has snuck its way into the lexicon under a few other assumed names including, matching, pacing, and gaining rapport. The premise is based on the abilities of a knowledgeable, skilled, single communicator to gain an unconsciously produced credibility with a listener – occasionally, from a group. The whole point of the exercise – and this is key – is in after having accomplished this so-called rapport, it is immediately incumbent on the communicator to carry on and LEAD. So, the strategy would be represented as: Match, mirror, pace, establish rapport…LEAD.

In my H/R environments, this is a fabulous approach for moving other strategies and processes along with fewer episodes of “resistance.” But – and here’s the kicker – a live, real-time, one-to-one communication with an individual in the same environment, and experiencing a radio signal, have no commonalities. I mean, none.

With all sincerity, and perhaps a confidence that one might expect to go unchallenged, Eric reinforces a somewhat vague concept of “mirroring” a city, town, community etc.
This might be a fine premise – if only it was practically possible!

Local radio in Boston, I understand, outdid itself in the professional coverage of the criminal outrage perpetrated on innocents at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. One could understandably make an immediate claim that those stations were, indeed, “mirroring” the city. But this article is about important distinctions – distinctions that have to be made clear before managers start making programming commitments with overblown expectations.

Any claim that the coverage of the tragedy was a “mirroring of Boston” is a dangerous generalization. “Boston” is not a single thing. It is not a singular attitude or style. For the purposes of this discussion, and as it applies to radio, “Boston” is a geographical location where millions of unique individuals are living their lives, and where radio station signals are available. No more.

Those residents, for convenience and targeting purposes, can be considered as larger groups with factors in common. Those groups can be subdivided into even smaller components. Those can be sub-grouped again until only one, older, confused person is left on the sidewalk, sporting a green, bowler hat and wearing a sandwich board that reads, “In my head, I still hear W-Beatle-Z!” Irish bars with petitions demanding former Boston Bruins’ star Terry O’Reilly be made a saint would qualify as an extremely intense sub, sub-group. One doesn’t trifle with Bruins fans.

Yes, the bombing was the event that was brought to the particular awareness of Boston’s population for the week following, but even that wasn’t every individual citizen’s biggest story. Covering the story was a matter of choice for most broadcasters and media outlets.

In the week following the carnage on Boylston Street, however, thousands of other Bostonians lost or found a job, lost a loved one, were injured in accidents, were assaulted or murdered, or were the victims of another crime, were charged or convicted of a crime, were caught cheating on their spouses, lost, bought or sold a house, had a pet die, were diagnosed with an illness, were cured of an illness, and on and on. For these people, those personal events were more important to them than what was being covered by the media. And no radio station is ever going to be able to “mirror” all or any of that!

My point: Covering the tragedy was not about “mirroring.” It was about a foreground awareness that elicited ongoing interest in large portions of the population through a decision for extraordinary media participation.

And now for the good news! Radio can still do a great deal of pacing, matching, and gaining rapport in order to better influence or LEAD an audience. But, it is going to take the skillful application of new knowledge. This won’t come about by stuffing an arbitrary piece of content into a programming mix. It will come as a result of education, training, and practice on the part of the presenters. It was worth it for me – in spades – particularly in terms of ratings generation and spot efficacy. A significant increase in revenues also ensued.

With a respectful tip of the hat to Eric Rhoads for generating the thought-starter, I remind radio’s elite and influential: The only thing a mirror will do is reflect a reversed and distorted representation of ourselves – a momentary event – that is also filtered through our own beliefs and values.

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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