True-Life Radio Tales

Station Break

Toward the end of my tenure in radio, which happened around 2004, automation came into widespread use – and helped ruin radio.

Originally the idea behind using automation was called “hub and spoke.” The plan was to use technology to put the best “hub” talent onto the air in “spoke” markets, replacing local people. Computerization allowed the computers to play the music, commercials and so on, which was supposed to free up the on-air talent from essentially being file clerks, and get to spend more time planning what they were about to say on the air.

It didn’t work that way.

It allowed the “hub” talent to pre-record their shows, which could then be inserted into the “spoke” stations via computer. Record and insert. This could, and did, happen across markets. Soon, locals were fired and replaced by someone on the wide area network. The replacements would be paid a fraction of the former full timer’s salary. (Example, A $30,000 a year plus benefits employee expense would be reduced to $5,000 with no benefits.) Local talent was lost for all but the very best remote-location DJs who actually prepared and studied for the markets they would do voice tracks for.

Air personalities were told that if they talked more than eight seconds, they’d lose audience. Yet the stations would play as many as eight minutes of commercials in a row, usually 30-second ads. When the music stopped twice an hour, there could be 12, 14, or 16 commercials in a row. Hypocrisy. Then some stations would play long sweeps of music at prime times, only to have to make up for the lost spots in the following hours, so there would be even more commercials then.

People always ask why radio plays the same songs over and over, when there are so many other songs they could play. The answer is simply that when people tune in, they want to hear their favorites. We spent a lot of money to find out what those songs were, then tried to mix them so they’d repeat in a way to “stretch plays out” – for example, if played in the morning, the songs would be then played in the evening, then the afternoon, before returning to being played yet again in the morning.

Every station that tried to add songs beyond the favorites lost ratings.

You might think people want variety, but if that leads to unfamiliar music, or polarized songs, it doesn’t.

Think of radio station playlists this way. You go to a concert for a group you like. Steely Dan? Don’t you want to hear “Hey Nineteen?” “Gaslighting Abbie,” maybe not so much.

When life intrudes, people’s interest in music is displaced. The music they grew up with becomes a marker back to those good old days. New music doesn’t have that magnetism, even if it’s good. Radio is about instant gratification, or the listener will move on. So you can’t count on listeners paying attention deeply enough to get into a song they don’t know.

Programmers know how long a station’s core audience listens – and at what times. Those heavy listeners comprise 80 percent of the station’s audience at any minute. You can then calculate how many times to play a current song (or power library cut) to hit the largest percentage of your daily/weekly audience.

We had research groups of likely listeners who would rate each song. Some songs would turn out to be “universals,” liked by everyone. Some would be peculiar to a certain age group or sex within the target audience. We could also get the song-by-song playlists of virtually any other station to see if they had discovered some songs we hadn’t tested.

Hit songs are like endorphins.

Oldies, for seniors or older folks mostly, are like a serious dose of endorphins for them.

Christmas music: big squirt of endorphins. When stations go all-Christmas they can triple their audience. Think of what that music takes you back to…presents, family, happy happy.

Since the early 2000s, corporate control has increased. Local program directors now have little power compared to my days when my on-air freedom was virtually unlimited. Corporate “initiatives” rule the formats now. Vice presidents of formats (and yes, there are VPs for each format) force obedience. Freed from previous government regulations, the large companies bought so many stations on shaky financial terms that debt became a major factor. Bankruptcies ensued. Then competition for advertising from digital media like streaming and internet radio sucked even more blood from radio.

These days I find it hard to listen to radio because as a former program director, I know what’s wrong, and a lot is wrong. I can’t listen as an audiophile because most stations hammer their audio with multiband automatic gain controls, limiters, compressors and clippers. Theory says listeners prefer the louder sound. Perhaps not the loudest distortion. And as popular music is compressed to death to start with, the audio largely sucks.

Today, corporate radio is pretty much a morning show followed by a jukebox. iHeartMedia recently completed another round of layoffs and is building a number of “AI-enabled Centers of Excellence.”

I went into a station multi-station cluster on a weekend some years back. There were six stations broadcasting. And not a soul in the building.

Since 1976 I have been doing voiceover work – acting or announcing in commercials, being the “voice” of TV stations, radio stations, and a variety of other types of work. In subsequent articles I will touch on that.