Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Value of Air Talent

The value of air talent is sinking faster than the cost of a gallon of gas ($1.94 here in Minneapolis as of this writing). Whether the solution is extended shifts, voice tracks, or a non-stop segue serenade the next chapter in operating radio stations has been written. We still need to be a personal medium, but there will be less persons being personable in the personnel pool.

I have been very consistent in my opinion that it is NOT voice tracking that is the problem. It is bad voice tracking that stinks. I have always used a Tonight Show analogy—nobody cares that Jay Leno is recorded, all people care about is that he is funny. Nobody thinks twice about time shifting a program on their DVR or iPod. All they care about is that it is good. Pre-recorded programming may in fact be desirable!

Just as the radio industry poisoned listeners to the idea of commercials years ago—and then gave them double the amount, we are training people that outside of morning drive all we are is a jukebox with two or three long commercial interruptions per hour. Outside of talk radio and a small group of stations this is the truth. The days of radio making personal connections, providing companionship, and prompting appointment listening are over.

That would be OK if we had moved on to the next great thing. Nope, stay tuned folks 10 songs will be played next—there will be 2 dead roll segues, 2 six second voice tracks, and a bunch of short produced liners with forgettable positioning statements. All that will lead up to a short passion free :30 break informing listeners that a fun time will be had this Saturday at the tire store where you could win a free alignment. WooHoo! We could get away with this half-assed version of radio when music was mostly exclusive to radio.

OK, OK I am overstating things a bit. But, admit it—radio as I have described is being broadcast every day in too many places.

I have an idea. Block Programming. All voice tracked. This is where you are supposed to think I have lost it. I’m not suggesting a program of Chamber Music, followed by an hour of news, with Polka’s coming up next. Not even close. I am talking about producing great content in a shorter program context—an hour, maybe two at the most. Programming that will keep music central but far more interesting and compelling. Unique.

At the very least I hope I have sparked some thought.

2009 may be a more challenging year than 2008. We must not only think about who’s getting cut and how are we going to get by, but how can we broadcast programming that’s not watered down but actually new, different, and enriched.

We have two choices. We can either “Cut, Cover, Coast” or “Cut, Cultivate, Create”.


Anonymous said...

I Understand Pres Obama will be doing away with voice tracking. He wants live radio stations in the top 60 markets from 5A to 12M.

Mark Lassoff said...

I am glad someone else is out there saying this. Voice Tracking is not the problem. If done well, its just as entertaining and good at pacing the programming as live air personalities. But the tracking has to be creative and interesting.. or no one cares.

Radio, a friends ipod with commercials. said...

I’d say voice tracking isn’t creative or interesting. Nor is a live jock, who’s pushing buttons and doing artist intros.
Radio’s leaders are driven by blind ambition. They’ve ruined it.
Uninformed presenters with verbal diarrhea and bland music formats composed from shallow over researched playlists. Most listeners today treat it as background noise. What a way to cheat advertisers and don't get me started on 8 to 10 commercials (interruptions) back to back.

Anonymous said...

To start, I voicetrack so many shows in a day that my voice hurts(and I get good ratings), so I've got an idea of how this is working.
The analogy of Jay Leno does not work for this reason. He is taped in front of a live audience(with a huge staff to help with content.)He does one show a day and spends well paid hours prepping his show. His time shifted show is a live show played back.
Jay Leno is like having Ryan Seacrest on with a cut up version of his morning show in your afternoon drive. He is not a "tracked show" the way you are talking about tracks. And he is good at what he does, and is paid well to do it. (neither show example incorporates the unique instant interaction radio is singularly equipped for that we seem to ignore now)

As a real "tracker"
I can no longer use the energy or the personal interaction that the audience gives. I can no longer use the medium that is the most effective of any to reach someone directly and give live updates on anything or moderate the electronic version of a town hall where we share music and laughs and stories.
I wont go into the all of the ways we as entertainers have been told that we don't know how to relate to our audience anymore, that research shows "insert this weeks new thought school here, to be changed next week"...This from higher ups who are just now figuring out MySpace, but still dont get quite how to use it to the stations advantage. (I can't imagine they would think twittering is anything pure or natural)
I know what I'm doing, enough to be in demand for this version of our industry, but I have done and can do so much more that would increase value in the long term, but for a line in the budget they are willing to make the choice that I don't share those talents the way I know how.

I've embraced the new media and find joy in a well delivered track that sounds live and email or chat interactions with listeners. I care about each station, try and learn the market etc. but I can't afford to do that in real time as I have to do many stations to survive or this becomes a secondary hobby to whatever career I would be suited for.

Unfortunately the companies don't think a live person is important enough to pay. In some cases there are lower ratings because of that, in some not and I understand the question in that case "Why bother to have someone live". Well, live builds real time loyalty with real people beyond today's PPM station tune-in/tune out without a thought. Live gives another body to sales to get out and do appearances and remotes making clients happy. Live gives a face to interact with communities and be someone they trust when a crisis comes down or a celebration is needed, or a neighborhood movement is seeded. Live gives something real for people to relate to(or why not just have an Ipod, all of my listeners do, plus Pandora and Imeem accounts) but they are looking for something else beyond.

The good tracks your are looking for can be found , done by Air Talents who care beyond what they are paid to put the time in. It's not easy and on the days my tracks are the liners I've been told to read, know that I know what this could be, but give me a break for following the new rules of radio. I can only push back to change things from the inside.
And I'm trying...

Utah Radio said...

Voicetracking IS the problem!

The trouble with taping the show in advance is that you throw out most of the tools that allow a person to build the connection with the listener.

In television Jay Leno can get away with taping because its a "DAILY" show. But what if he taped a month's worth of shows in advance? The shows would be trash! Why? Because he would lose that day-to-day connection with the audience.

Radio is not a daily program. It's a CONTINUOUS program. In order to be effective, we need to be on our toes being everything to everyone. When you voice track, you lose the ability to connect with listeners through:

- Commentary/chatter with the traffic reporter about timely incidents.
- Talking with listeners about what they care about, beyond celebrity gossip.
- Breaking news.
- Emergency information.
- Real weather updates. A huge deal in the mid-west, or winter school cancellations in the mountain west.
- True companionship.
- Listener calls.
- Listener calls!

For radio to succeed it needs to talk about what's happening NOW. You can't do that with a voicetrack. You can't do that with a live jock who sticks to the liner cards.

I'll listen to a music format I hate at 2 A.M. if I know the disc jockey is live. There's something refreshing knowing you are listening to a real human being, and if the world came to and end, he/she would be the first to tell you about it.

HARVE ALAN said...

I am so pleased this subject has generated some much needed conversation! At this moment we need action, but conversation is a good start.

The live model with listener interaction holds a very special place in my heart--I started my career on weekends and overnights doing just that.

My post suggests a complete rethink about radio programming. Entertainment and information produced in one and two hour segments presented in a non-DJ format. The boundaries are specific station defined--some might be fun and funny, others might be theatrical, and others might be more informational.

My point is that the live DJ interacting with listeners has been the "format" since the late 1950's and now as we approach 2009 it is time to at least think about and try to develop doing it a different way---live or recorded.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous multi-tracker again. In a sense I think you are talking about the origins of radio. I'm hearing Burns and Allen in my head, or War of the Worlds.

It certainly is a way of handling filling airtime. It might be very entertaining if produced correctly. Again who will pay for that production? Are we looking for syndicated production pieces?(how many people are left in production in a single cluster?) The reason we are tracking is because it is meant to give the illusion of being live without paying a live person.

Internet "radio" shows are often produced in this way out of pure love for the music or topic of the show. We could use a station to put on popular internet shows in 2 hour blocks and hope the hosts stay true to what they love because if they ever want money, they will be out of luck too.

I don't accept that live interaction need be something we wax nostalgic about. I think it is the duty of broadcasters using the public airwaves to interact with the community they reach.

Now this can be in a multitude of styles or presentations, but there should be someone there. The only reason there is not is because of cost cutting. You get what you pay for, and the audience attrition is not solely based on new technologies, its based on the lack of getting what they want where they used to get it.
We can create new ways of doing things, but right now the companies pay for tracking. They have to believe in the growth of the industry they control. I do.

DJ Mo said...

I believe being physically inside the studio & taking calls while the show is happening gives much more listener feedback & better idea to what listeners really want to hear. TAKE REQUESTS & FULFILL THEM!

Once a caller interacts with you, you will establish a connection & gain a loyal listener in the long run. You can voicetrack part of a shift, but use a couple breaks to do it live giving shoutouts & such.

I have gained & know many loyal listeners this way for the past 3+ years. It pays off!

That's my reality & I'm shticking to it.
- DJ Mo

Mike Bratton said...

Harve, I appreciate your thoughtfulness. Thanks for the forum.

Let me observe that segmented, pre-produced, well-produced block programming is not a bad idea. However, let me also observe that there is still a gold standard of live, local personalities who actually interact with listeners.

Until the economy nixed my most recent gig, that's what I was doing--and what I had been doing for the lion's share of the past two decades.

Listeners respond well to real, talented personalities. Particularly when they can interact with those personalities.

A legitimate on-air personality who's live and local can trump voicetracking ten time out of ten. Only problem is, it costs money. If station and group owners could be satisfied with less-obscene profit margins, perhaps more real talents could be employed, and even (gasp!) developed.

And yes, I've heard the same thing as your first poster, that President-Elect Obama (cough, cough) actually wants voice tracking to be a thing of the past between 5 a.m. and midnight.

Imagine that--agreeing with our new socialist overlord on something!

But seriously, folks. Radio stations are supposed to act in the public interest, as a public trustee. Voice tracking doesn't, and cannot, help radio meet that standard.


J.B. Goodspeed said...

This is the hottest topic outside your local indoor mall. I love it!

Look here: Someone said "Time is realtive" (I'm talking Einstein, Einstein). BUT, the whole commercial radio industry (and all the economies it supports) have been built on a linear system of time. This is happening, then this is happening etc... Voicetracking on the other hand is designed for a system that manipulates this kind of linear time. i.e. this which HAS happened (the guy or gal speaking) is also that which is happening right now. Voicetracking speeds up the past right into the present so that in the future the financial gains can trickle back down... Oh wait, they only trickle in the form of vodka at CEO christmas parties. Whatever, you get the picture.

Ken Matthews said...

wow- a ton of great comments. Harve-0-licious..great post.

Voice tracking doesn't always help extend the brand..sometimes it sterilizes it. I get the budget thing, but real talent is TALENT. I also agree..the Leno analogy was a bit of a stretch- Jay is basically rebroadcasting a STRONG LIVE PRODUCT.Mr. Lassoff makes a great point- if it's not creative & one cares. Reading liner cards and playing that back all day between tested why there is a CONTENT CRISIS ! heck with the recession brotha ! we need some LIVE FRESH CONTENT.....remember when on-air people could and did answer the fone..when show prep was more's 49 degrees in pick-a- town where pick-a-name is listening
at pick-a-work place. It's
As long as radio managers are in fear of losing their jobs..and most are....well not the ones that just renewed big know who you are...BTW -THAT had to make their on-air people feel swell. Hey, good news..The PD's gig is safe til 2011....ok now let's go over that aircheck. You're not time checking enough.
Anyway, as long as GMs, and PDs,air staffs and sales teams live in fear of losing their's voicetrack city...and can you pick up some milk and eggs on your way home from detailing the station van? Dood- I thought you were a team prep on your own time...we've got a carpet to clean..corporate's coming.So... Are you having your talent voice track to extend your brand and theirs..or do you just need to cut bodies so YOUR salary doesn't shrink any more than it already has? STAND BY FOR MORE SHRINKAGE.....unless it's a brand name talent who is already good ..voicetracking only makes things worse..but it does free them up to do something else in the panic.

SirRoxalot said...

Leno ain't radio, and people don't expect the same thing from Leno that they expect from radio.

Voice tracking - no matter how good - lacks the immediacy of live talent. Yes, a good VT artist gets into the right time and place that the shift requires, but no VT artist can replicate what's actually going on in any location. Sudden storm sweeps through? Not on a VT. Take a phoner? Not on a VT. In short, VT is never going to be as immediate, relatable, and personal as a live jock. That means that VT is never going to be as entertaining as a live jock.

Radio is "saving" themselves into bankruptcy. By making radio a background medium instead of a foreground medium, they're seeing revenues sink, while trying to pay off acquisitions made under the premise that revenues would grow while expenses would shrink.

PS - Go ahead and block program. A good, live, local radio station will crush you.

1Letterman said...

Nobody cares that Jay Leno is recorded because he's recorded fully live, in tact and unedited. It's the real show, just recorded in advance.

If Jay were to come out, do his monologue, then ask all his questions in a big giant block, then drop those recordings as questions and responses to his guests, NOBODY WOULD LIKE IT.

And people wonder why the business is rotten.

Voice Tracking sucks on all levels. It sounds rotten. It isn't live. Requires less skill and expertise, and the "magic" of the live mic and having to nail it is gone.

Well all know what voice tracking has done to employment at stations.

Question: Is voice tracking BETTER than a live jock? Answer: NO.

So the people telling you it's OK, well, take their opinion with a grain of salt.

They have already allowed their standard of excellence to be a technique known far and wide as lesser than the optimum.

Congratulate them for their wholehearted embracing of mediocrity. Rationalizing it all the way as best they can.

HARVE ALAN said...

The value of great talent doing live personality radio will always hold some value.

I am suggesting we all consider a complete rethink of how we make radio and try some of those ideas. What I am suggesting is ALL PERSONALITY radio...centering around TALENT...not MUSIC. I am suggesting we develop new ways to produce shows. Maybe even with an audience like that Leno guy.

We live in a world that increasingly values time shifting and shorter length programming.

To continue to do live or VT'd DJ shows playing 10 in a row will continue to decline, in my view, due to the commoditization of recorded music.

What people expect from radio is changing because the way people access personality, music and information has changed--especially for those under 35. To keep radio like it has been for the last 60 years is a recipe for possible extinction.

1Letterman said...

I think the idea of a live studio audience, even of a dozen people, is a great idea.

I used to do it on my late-night talk show in the 90's. More like performing to begin with, and real feedback from an immediate audience.

And getting laughs in person is always a rush.

Utah Radio said...

I like the comment above connecting listener loyalty to phoners and live e-mails.

It's true. Over the summer, I listened to LBC, a live/local talk format in London, UK. They began talking about hospitals here in the US, so I wrote in an e-mail from an American perspective.

Within minutes the host said, "Looks like we've got an e-mail here from an American. He writes ..." and then read my e-mail verbatim, and them started commenting on it with Londoners who called in.

I am a fan of LBC for life! And I don't even live in London.

But what it does help me realize is the dwindling audience loyalty here in the states is most CERTAINLY correlated to the loss of audience connectivity thru live programming.

gen x radio guy said...

I VT on an AC station and I love it because I don't have to actually listen to that crappy music all night. And you are wrong if you think normal people know when a jock is not live. It doesn't matter to them any more than when a news piece is produced in a package and the reporter does a stand-up toss into their own voice-over! Case in point: Casey Kasem wasn't live on AT40 and we all loved that. VT isn't the cure but it isn't the disease either, boring talent is.

Anonymous said...

Skywalker says…..

The devaluing of air talent could be likened to what has happened to the stock of hundreds of companies on Wall Street.

Nothing is worth what it used to be!

Market manipulation? Absolutely! Government involvement? Deregulation ruined radio for the listener. But don’t tell that to Clear Channel or Mel! Corporate cowards bending to stockholders. Yes sir! The almighty buck rules at the expense of EVERYTHING.

Lee Iacocca once said, “People, product and profits. Without the first, the other two don’t really matter.” GM’s cutting corners to manipulate the bottom-line. Salespeople giving away the store to make a buy.

The hell with quality. What product? People don’t buy junk. Stop giving it to them!

Radio used to LEAD! Now it follows. Consultants, Consultants, Consultants!!!

Consultants in conjunction with deregulation and corporate greed and stupidity have done more to screw the listener with shell games and smoke and mirrors than the web and the I-Pod.

The reality is Radio has NEVER been as sterile as it is now and it lacks any sense of companionship to the listener.

The LISTENER! Yes even the listener has been devalued.

Radio forgot that those listeners fill out diaries.

Build a product and keep ‘em company with talented communicators 24/7 and you don’t have to worry about having enough listeners. It works every time.