tips from a radio dinosaur

I spent 14 years of my life behind a microphone while being exposed to RF radiation.

And while it’s been a little more than 5 years since the last time I held down a regular airshift … enough time for the entire industry to change and most of my operational knowledge to become obsolete … there are radio fundamentals that never change. These core basics are centered not around the technology or current trends, but on the listener relationship.

Most of the problems with current radio talent lie in the fact that the old training grounds have been torn down by technology. My first “real” airshift when I started in radio was midnight-6am on Saturday night/Sunday morning. The drunks and people working the 3rd-shift are much more forgiving as you make mistakes and learn. It’s a great place to experiment, discover what doesn’t work, and find your voice. Today, in most markets, the overnight shift has been taken over by automation. Newbies don’t need to start in a drivetime airshift; they need a place to develop their talent.

The place to develop that talent is not through voice tracking. Knocking out a 6 hour shift in 30 minutes is a positive for the station’s bottom line once you know what you’re doing, but radio novices need to get a feel for how the flow of the station occurs in real time. There is a certain zen quality of actually having to sit and wait for 3 or 4 minutes to pass before you can fire that next event. It makes you think about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. It lets you experience the station in the same way the listener does. And obviously actually being there in real time allows interaction with listeners though the phone (and I guess through social media now as well).

Fast tracking radio talent also allows a bypass of one of the most important events in every radio career; the ego snapback.

Every radio personality has an ego. It’s essential to the job. Great air talent has to convey a bigger-than-life feel that makes the listener think they’re listening to the most important stuff in the world. After they initially get comfortable being on the air, radio newbies start to drink their own Kool-Aid. At some point in their career, a listener, an advertiser, a boss, or something lets them know they’re not all that they think they are.

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All these things are contributing to the decline of good radio; both on the big picture macro level as well as minor bad habits that I’m hearing hear more and more in large, medium, and small sized markets across the country. Just a few that are standing out to me:

Me. Me. Me.— This one is becoming intolerable as a result of the lack of the aforementioned ego snapback event. Save for maybe 10 / 15 air personalities in the country; no one cares about the life happenings of any “DJ”. What you did or are going to do doesn’t interest anyone but you. Great air talent talks about the life of the listener; not themselves.

“All of you out there” — Radio works best as an intimate conversation as one person talking to one person. When you either remind the listener that they are just one of many or you place distance between you and the listener, it’s a subliminal death knell.

“Your Sunday.” “Your weekend.” “Your afternoon.” — This is a crutch. People don’t own any days or time periods.

Sloppy boardwork and/or faulty automation — Events firing over each other. Last Tuesday’s weather playing on Thursday. Dead Air. Someone has to care about how the station sounds. This person is missing at many stations.

Overuse of meaningless filler— Hey there! How ya doin? That’s right!

Leaving the listener in the dark— Two ways this happens: One is a technical issue when listeners literally can’t hear what you’re saying because you’re not approaching the mic correctly or your gain and/or compression is too light/heavy and the music is drowning you out. You’ve lost the listener. The other way are inside jokes or non-universal content. Making the listener feels like a third-wheel outsider is not a way to win.

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Nitpicking? Maybe. But the radio industry and each person in it has to ask this question: What differentiates a terrestrial radio station from an iPod? As the Internet enters the last bastion of radio, the car; what will make a consumer choose to spend their media time with the radio station rather than something else? The answer is the personality and the local connection. That’s always been the answer.