Call me a curmudgeon if you will. I don’t care. If caring about the classic art and craft of doing radio makes me a curmudgeon, then I’ll get a “Curmudgeon” face tattoo and wear it with pride.
Figuratively speaking. Face tattoos are a horror.
There are two plagues afoot in the world of radio.
Decline And Fall: Broadcasters – especially big broadcast networks – have been strapped for cash for a decade and a half. Big chains, like IHeart, went on leveraged buying sprees in the mid 2000s, just in time for the advertising market to collapse in 2008. The revenue never really bounced all the way back – the recovery from 2008 coincided with the rise of streaming, “renting” music, and a near complete collapse of the music radio market that had kept radio handsomely afloat from the late fifties to the early 2000s.
So big radio networks are in the same bind as companies that manufacture white-out, paper checks and rotary phones; they cater to a market that’s shrinking by the month. Outside of conservative talk, Spanish and sports radio, most of the radio industry involves trying to coax a shrinking cohort of baby boomers and Gen-Xers to tune in to morning shows. Music radio, once the marketing cornerstone of the music industry, is scarcely relevant.
The traditional talent pool in broadcast, up until probably the 1990s, worked a little like this: people started as disk jockeys, usually in small markets, and via combination of talent, perseverance, opportunism and luck, worked their slow, laborious way up the ladder of market size; from Cody Wyoming to Casper, thence to Palm Springs, then on to San Diego and finally Los Angeles was a typical trajectory, with each echelon in the market weeding out tranches of non-hackers, who went into sales or real estate or managing Shopkos, leaving only the most talented, determined and lucky to make it on the air in the big-money markets.
Rush Limbaugh altered that dynamic in talk radio – pre-empting the bottom of the talk food chain with his syndicated shows; joined by Hannity and Pagliorulo and Prager and Hewitt and the rest, the middle of the ladder pretty much evaporated as well.
And then in the rest of radio – with little money left in the industry, and most of what was there soaked up by the Dave Ryans and Tom Barnards who were left in the business, most of the “disk jockey” jobs at the bottom, and then the middle and upper-middle, of the ladder transformed into “voice tracking” – recording bits onto computer files which would be stitched into place between songs by computer. A jock might earn decent money – but be tracking for several stations during a given shift, not really building up an identity as a “star” anywhere. Which was fine, given that stardom was more or less irrelevant.
And so with the talent pool in both music and talk radio disrupted, the big broadcasters needed to find another source of talent to fill in slots when the holdovers from the golden ages of music and talk started leaving the scene.
The Plaguecast. And so major broadcasters – commercial and public – turned to the pool of “podcasters” that sprang up around the time streaming began supplanting broadcast.
And it’s been mostly dreadful.
Good radio is the original social medium. Since the dawn of music and talk radio, the hallmark of good radio is being able to reach through the signal chain – the microphone, the transmitter, the electromagnetic spectrum, your receiver, and finally to you – and give you the impression the announcer, the host, is talking to, playing a record for, telling a joke or story, to and for you. To be able to push that “live” energy through all those layers of misdirection, not to talk at you, but to talk to you. Personally. Or at least give you that feeling deep down in your gut. Its a live medium (or used to be), a conversation with stimulus and response traveling back and forth at the speed of sound and, in between us, the speed of light.
Podcasts, on the other hand, is one or more people talking into a microphone and getting recorded. There is no fact, much less illusion, of pushing energy out to real, live people. Podcasts are, at best, storytelling (which can be wonderful, but is not interactive; it’s tellers, and it’s listeners, and never the twain shall meet. At worst? It’s a group of people having a conversation that you listen to.
And you can tell when someone who’s started in that medium tries to transpose that style to live (or live-ish) radio. Buck Sexton and Clay Travis (or is it Buck Travis and Clay Sexton? I have no idea, to be honest), who sit in Rush Limbaugh’s time slot ‘cross much of the land, but can’t seriously be said to have “replaced” him, are classic examples. They chatter through the issues of the day – but unlike Limbaugh, who pushed an energy down the signal chain that felt like he was in your car with you, talking to you. Clay and Buck came up through the world of podcasting, and they were very successful at it. And they sound like a couple of guys kibitzing – because they are a couple of guys kibitzing, via a digital connection, watching each other via Skype.
The format makes a little more sense on NPR – because public radio has always given the impression that it’s a room full of “elites” talking to each other (barring a few old-timers, like “Weekend Edition”‘s Bob Simon, who is one of the most gloriously talented and utterly underrated broadcasters on NPR…
…which is rapidly becoming a podcast network, in the worst sense of the term.
We’ll come back to that later today.
Chatter. Speaking of Public Radio…
One of the iron clad bits of craft in traditional radio is “Don’t half-ass it with an open mic. Say something, or be silent. Don’t create background chatter”, whether that chatter be walking over other voices, or just making inchoate noises in the background. They are a distraction. They divert the energy you’re trying to push out in the world.
But over this past 2-3 years, something has crept into the NPR style guide that annoys the crap out of me.
It goes a little something like this:
HOST: “So, what’s your take on the situation”
GUEST: “Well, the impact it’s had has been drastic…”
HOST: (Quietly, almost non-verbally) Hmmm.
GUEST: “and weill be affecting the area for years…”
HOST: (Barely audibly) “Huh”
GUEST: “…to come”.
I say “Added to the style guide”, because to paraphrase Fred Thompson in Hunt for Red October, Public Radio doesn’t take a dump if it’s not in the script ,and it’s not in the script if it’s not vetted against a style guide by an editor.
Why? To give the illusion of empathy? To create the audio impression the host is paying attention?
Little subvocal interjection are all over the place, and they drive me absolutely insane.
Together, they are two of many plagues upon the radio industry.
More about both, tomorrow noon.