Where Did the Listeners Go? Literally?
I’d been working at home all day. I’d had no human contact.
I was sort of wiped out. I needed a pep talk. We all do sometimes.
I knew what I had to do.
I reached for my phone. And played the produced sweepers that I’d had professionally voiced. “Ross On Radio – number one for programming theory and fun!” “If it’s about a song that sounds like another song, you’re reading … Ross On Radio!”
I still needed to hear a friendly voice. So I hit another sweeper, and heard a series of them: “Really thought-provoking”; “How do you remember all that stuff?”; “I read it all day at work.” They weren’t actually my friends and readers, however. It was too hard to coach them to sound natural.
Okay, here’s what I really did yesterday.
I listened to a medium-market CHR in the last hour of its morning show. Two good topics had been thrown out to the listeners. Each time there were five or six Facebook responses read on-air. But not even the best one resulted in a caller making it to the air. The only listener I heard was the one in the multi-voice sweeper who actually gave a name and hometown.
I listened to a News/Talk AM in the same 9 a.m. hour. There were two lengthy interview segments. Neither was local. One was pre-taped (volunteered by the host as a way of explaining why some subsequent news developments hadn’t been covered). Neither involved listener calls.
Then, just for comparison, I turned to WSAN Allentown’s two-week-old “iHeartPodcast” format. I did not come across a listener call on “Ridiculous History,” or expect to, but with two hosts, a producer, and a guest, I did hear as many different voices and as much back-and-forth over the course of an hour as I’d heard in some of my other listening. The podcast didn’t have any more listener involvement than what I’d just heard. But it didn’t have any less.
You don’t hear nearly as many listeners on the air these days. About 15 months ago, I heard a major-market CHR night host doing what would have been utterly ordinary a few years earlier — a series of short teasing exchanges with callers who were there basically to supply his laugh track. But now it sounded novel.
A variety of forces keep listeners off the air. Voice-tracking makes callers more of a logistical challenge. Public radio with its more produced shows and pre-interviewed guests has long made “spoken word” more than just “two-way talk.” PPM ended the notion of a participatory morning-style show in every daypart. It made programmers and on-air hosts afraid to put celebrities on the air for too long, much less a listener.
National contesting and the switch to “text-to-win” makes listeners scarce on-air, too. The screaming winner promo is a cliché of a bygone century. The winner who won’t scream is a universal frustration. Airing an anonymous winner with no proof of locality, just to have some payoff, is now considered not worth it. So now there’s often no proof at all that real people win.
Program directors used to use the station’s comment line for authenticity — even the negative feedback rallied a station’s fans to the phones themselves in defense. Now listener voices are used a few words at a time like movie drops or other audio artifacts. That promo I heard that actually ended with the listener identifying herself is the exception.
The comment line used to be a regular second step in any station’s launch. Some stations made it sound bogus by airing comments within the first hour of a format change. But now, the entire 10,000-songs-in-a-row kickoff may pass without hearing thank a station for bringing back all those songs they haven’t heard on the radio in years. So for weeks, there is no phase two.
Of all the feedback I’ve been asked to give stations over the years, “We should get some listeners on the air” is the advice least likely to be acted upon. I understand that usable comments are hard to get and hard to coach. I realize that listeners are no longer in the habit of calling stations — a self-fulfilling prophecy that is dispiriting to try and derail.
And yet, listeners do show up to answer a station’s “Impossible Question” every day, no matter how rote the execution. Even then, their role is perfunctory. Wrong answers are quickly dispatched, even the intriguing or unintentionally comic ones. And I’ve heard some hosts do even “Impossible Question” without the callers.
Should radio start airing more callers? “Only if they are good,” says talent guru Valerie Geller. “You have to get them to get to their story fast.” Yes. And “only if it’s good” is the measurement for any element. Nobody wants the old clichés or indulgences back. But even the screaming winner would be novel again.
Even when listeners have found other ways to communicate, an actual voice or two makes a difference. BBC Radio 2 reads a lot of texts on the hour’s topic, but usually punctuates with a call or two. The call to “join the conversation” that CKNO (Now 102.3) Edmonton, Alberta, made famous throughout Canadian radio usually means texts, too. But today there was still a caller to finish the stories on “symptoms that finally sent you to the doctor.”
Listeners reinforce immediacy and the notion of radio as community. “With just the minimum of companionship, why not choose your topic and host at the time you want in a podcast?” asks former Tom Taylor Now publisher Robert Unmacht. “Why not use the musical equivalent of podcasting — Spotify or Pandora?”
Listeners ratify our programming decisions, and sell other listeners more convincingly than we can. The power of the on-air host as spokesperson has long been rediscovered. We would never edit that endorsement down to three-word fodder.
At this particular moment, listeners reinforce broadcast radio itself. For the last decade, radio’s story has depended so heavily on the size of its audience. Can we not produce at least one listener to back that up every now and then?