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Ron Robinson

The Radio Brain


At a recent radio conference, Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman suggested the industry needed to be more "in the face" of marketers and not rely so heavily on agencies and buyers alone. He admits that many marketers don’t understand this platform and it’s up to the leaders in radio to make them understand. Laudable. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely as radio’s leadership still fails to understand its own medium!
If radio’s leaders understood their medium, they wouldn’t be compelling their stations to continuously broadcast the flotsam and jetsam that are constantly being foisted on an unassuming and otherwise innocent audience. Nor would they allow for commercial messaging to continue being produced for advertisers from a model that was cobbled together in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s -- a model, by the way, that wasn’t much good even then, but who was around to argue…?
I have yet to speak to a senior manager who can articulate the specifics of how radio “works” – never mind carry on with an explanation of a cohesive set of strategies to exploit the significant, but innate distinctions that radio still enjoys. And when I say “yet,” I mean never, ever – not once. Further, I have yet to meet a manager who even cared, let alone was excited to have the discussion. After all, there were sales calls to be made, which was, and remains, the priority.
Although I have referenced the following before, it is still mostly unknown and certainly uncharted territory for radio-folk. As the following, minimal explanation proceeds, some might find themselves zoning-out. The point of the explanation is in how it leads to other, significant and severe implications. I would say “conclusions.” But then, I do have a more detailed appreciation of the material and can’t realistically expect others to latch on instantly and start declaring powerful, personal revelations.
Given the well-understood principles of reach and frequency, I am obliged, from time to time, to drag this "freak flag” out of the bag again, unfurl it, and run it up the pole. This, to see if the wind is still blowing, and to verify there are many who would rather just tear it down in a righteous rage and salute something else.
It all begins with some very basic, bargain-basement neurology. Decades ago, people in sensible shoes, dapper, white lab coats, and shirts with pockets sporting nattily colored nerd-buckets demonstrated how electronic media are accessed by audience members, primarily through a sub-dominant hemispherical process. Lay people, like myself, say that as: “with the right brain.” Right away, the “magic” or “weirdness” begins, immediately followed by an extraordinary irony…an irony that is ongoing.
With the exception of the odd honk, bell, whistle, or other sfx, music radio has two elements: tunes and talk. The sub-dominant hemisphere of an audience member is crackling away quite nicely while an individual is listening to the radio. The music is accessed and processed with natural ease. That’s because that’s one of the things the right brain does so well, all by itself, without much interference or assistance from the other (left) side. (Some can, intuitively, accept that.)
But now for the big, honkin’ "however": processing of language.

That is a natural element and function of the left brain. This is not the hemisphere listening to the radio!

Understanding, appreciating, responding to, and communicating with language delivered to different hemispheres are very distinct applications with equally distinct results being generated by listeners!
When presenters on the radio and advertisers’ commercials load up on pure content/information, they are unwittingly bypassing the capacities of the sub-dominant hemisphere while the dominant hemisphere is left out of the loop. (I am inviting readers now, to gird their loins, grab hold of something, and re-read that last sentence until the “zone-out” either goes away or becomes an incomprehensible haze.)
Here’s the thing: An audience member’s “radio brain” processes and responds to emotion far more powerfully than it does to literal, content-loaded messaging. The exception to this would be when the content, itself, is so powerful or provocative as to generate an emotional response. Yet, radio continues to present content and commercials like a quicker, smaller version of a “newspaper of the air." (Reading “hard copy” is a completely different neurological experience.) An audience member’s “radio brain” responds more vigorously when approached with very specific and precise forms/patterns of language.
Plus, any casual listening to most radio presenters and most commercial messages becomes a lesson in how to deliver multiple episodes of sensory deprivation. This is unfortunate, as the “radio brain” luuuuvvs sensory references. Add to that the listeners’ experience of being threatened by annoying amateurs telling them what to do, and we have a scenario in music radio where tuning-out is a viable option delivering fast, fast, fast relief.
The vast majority of presenters and our commercial content are structured in such ways as to leave us representing ourselves as a bunch of vacuous cloth-heads. The outrage is that this is part of a programming strategy that has persisted like a nasty virus for decades.
Meanwhile, it can’t be ignored that radio’s leadership continues to clamor for “The Story” – even though we don’t have one. Bob Pittman’s suggestion of leadership approaching further up the corporate food chain when pitching to potential advertisers may, however, have some merit.
And yet, I wonder: Is Mr. Pittman even aware of how radio really works, or the state radio is in – besides structurally and financially? Has anyone ever told him of the abject, ongoing failures of this medium at providing worthwhile services and products for audiences and advertisers? As Bob is the guy at the pointy end of this stick, it might be a generous and important courtesy for somebody to dial him up and clue him in.

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