By John Pellegrini

There is a sense among those who do radio programming, as well as Advertising Executives, that most listeners cannot fathom certain concepts that go above the basic level of understanding that a 6th grader possesses. I beg to differ, and quite strongly, that the majority of listeners to any radio station are far smarter compared to the people who work in radio.

When I was a student at The Second City, here in Chicago, they taught the belief that no matter what the subject was you were improvising, there will always be many people in the audience who know far more than you do about it, so make sure your references are 100% accurate! In fact, they’re attitude was, always assume that the audience knows more than you do about everything! This has proven to be true for me in many instances throughout my years in radio. I know of radio talk show hosts who many times have found themselves in a bind because they get calls from listeners who have more accurate information than they do about subjects. This is why most of them spend so much time before each show doing research. They check out everything because someone will always know more than they do.

So why is it that most programmers believe and teach their disciples that the majority of radio listeners aren’t very smart? I’ve found 3 reasons for it, and none of them are correct. Starting with the oldest and dumbest reason, here they are.

1. “Orson Welles broadcast the “War of the Worlds” which frightened untold millions of people into believing that Mars was actually attacking the Earth. Therefore, radio listeners are stupid.”

Of course, I’m being very simplified with this one, but the essence of it is, radio listeners are very impressionable (read that: naive), so we shouldn’t broadcast anything that would come across as “realistic” sounding when it isn’t.

This is, of course, pure elitist poo-poo. A result of an over-reaction to an event that actually didn’t happen the way it was reported. The fact is no one got so scared that they killed themselves during the “Panic Broadcast.” Less than one eighth of the entire population of the country even heard the broadcast, because most people still didn’t have radios at the time, and of those that did, many were listening to a much more popular program on the NBC radio network. Total estimates of how many people really did panic are said to be between 1 to 2 thousand, tops (some estimates put the figure much lower than 1 thousand). Also, what is the definition of “Panic” as far as these reports are concerned? Newspapers reported the CBS switchboards as “flooded with calls,” but CBS’ own statements (at the time of the broadcast) say that the number of phone calls were only slightly higher than normal (it was only days later, while trying to ride the wave of publicity from the event, that CBS claimed that they had hundreds of phone calls). And once most people were told that they were merely listening to a radio play, they accepted the program for what it was. The fact is the “Panic Broadcast” news story was as much publicity stunt as the radio program itself.

Even for those elements that are true about the situation, should we hold ourselves to a set of guidelines that were established over 60 years ago? Let’s not forget that indoor plumbing was still pretty much a novelty for most Americans back then. Today’s audience is capable of handling much more complex forms of entertainment. Heck, the movie, “Jaws” scared millions more people than were even alive during the “Panic Broadcast”; you don’t see anyone making protective decisions based on movies, except in the case of children viewing violent content. The same with the novels of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. I’m not saying that you should go out and broadcast things such as false EAS alerts, which are illegal. But, I don’t agree that just because radio is not an apparent visual medium, that we have to play to a lower common denominator. An argument has been made that since radio has no pictures to demonstrate reality, the listeners cannot distinguish fiction from truth. That is an insult to anyone’s intelligence. Your listeners are a lot smarter than you think! Certainly a lot smarter than the people who hold that statement to be truth.

2. “The listeners who call our station tell us that they don’t like confusing elements. They ‘don’t get’ those intellectual bits. So we’ve got to keep everything simple and easy to understand.”

If this is the case, then why do radio stations have Web sites? Aren’t computers confusing? Especially when you consider that, even by generous estimates, less than one third of the entire population of the country is “on line.”

If you want a listener statistic that’s a real eye opener, try this: less than 5% of a given radio station’s audience (except for talk stations—in which case it’s 25%) actually takes the time to call in for any reason. Which means those that make phone calls to stations are the ones who, literally, have nothing better to do. Which means if you’re using phone caller response to gauge how well your station is programmed, you’re programming for a bunch of geeks. Except in the case of CHR stations, whose core audience is 12 to 17 year olds who think calling disk jockeys is way cool. If that’s your target audience for your ratings, geeks and teenyboppers, then by all means, use the phones as your programming guide.

3. “Last time we tried to do something intellectual on the air, we got no response at all. Therefore, the audience didn’t like it.”

No, it just means you got rid of the people mentioned above. Seriously, this is the difficult one to argue with. One can only say that the lack of calls in favor of a program element doesn’t signify that no one liked it. Radio is a tough medium to program entertainment for, because we cannot see our audience; we cannot see their reactions. But, just like in the movies, if you think a bit is funny, and if you try it out on others first and they agree it’s funny, then it’s funny. Having zero response from your audience whether by phone, or e-mail, or regular old postage, doesn’t change anything. Let’s face it, your audience has far more important things to do than to just call you to tell you that they loved your bit. Some will, and sometimes I’ve had calls complimenting me on stuff I’ve done, but a lack of positive responses does not indicate failure. If your ratings show no discernable drop, it means your stuff is going over fine.

People who use the previous three excuses to prevent really creative and interesting stuff from being broadcast are really telling us more about their own ignorance than they are about their “Station’s Listeners.” I get very worried when well-meaning programmers start taking the “I Know What Our Listeners Want” attitude. It smacks of arrogance, and it almost always indicates a programmer who has totally lost all accountability with an audience. Network television programmers have had that attitude for many years, and look at how low their ratings are compared to the cable channels, and other media.

The same can be held for advertising executives and creatives who believe that they must use only headline-speak in their radio commercials. One of them, a man notorious for copy that had almost no adjectives or prepositions told me flat out, “John, these people are idiots. The people who shop my clients are nothing but losers, scumbags, and morons. You cannot use big words because they won’t understand any of them.” This, by the way, was not an advertising executive who bought spots on the rock station I worked for; no…this was an ad executive who bought spots on the talk station. The very nature of the talk format station is intellectual and issue oriented discussion. Why would “idiots” or “morons” be listening to talk stations? I tried to raise that point with the ad executive, but he just shook his head and explained that I hadn’t been in the business long enough (I thought 17 years at that time was plenty long) to understand how stupid people really were.

If I was a business owner and I found out that the person who was responsible for selling my brand, product, or service to the public thought that all my potential customers were idiots, I’d fire that agency in a heartbeat! Never ever in a million years should you think that your potential audience is nothing less than smarter than you! Especially if you want them to take an active interest in what you are presenting!

Like him or hate him, the late Howard Cosell inspired millions to take an active interest in whatever sporting event he was broadcasting. Want to know how he did it? Simple, he always believed that the audience was as smart or smarter than he was. How did he know this? Because any time he made a mistake, which was rarely, he found out about it instantly due to the hundreds of angry phone calls and letters he would get from viewers who knew better. Because of his arrogant attitude, people took an exceptional delight in calling or writing him when he made mistakes. But here’s the important point: no matter how arrogant he got (and most of it was an act), he always treated the audience with total respect for their intellect.

My favorite examples occurred when Howard was broadcasting Monday Night Football. Whenever there was a judgment call by the referee on a penalty, no matter how obscure the rule that was broken, Howard would take pains to explain the penalty by saying, “As you know…” and whatever the ruling meant. “As you know, the receiving team cannot rough up the kicker.” “As you know, no one on the offensive line can move once the ball is set.” He explained everything with the preface, “As you know…” thereby stating his absolute conviction that the audience was right there with him in the knowledge of the game. You didn’t even know he was doing it, yet that’s why as much as people couldn’t stand his arrogance, he always had the highest ratings of any sportscaster in the business. Howard always stated his absolute conviction that the audience he was speaking to was the smartest group of people he knew, and he never took them for granted. If you want the audience to pay attention with conviction the way Howard’s audiences did, then you’ve got to give them credit for far more intelligence than you have.

Lawrence Olivier did a fantastic character study written by John Osbourne of a man named Archie Rice in a play and later a movie called “The Entertainer.” Archie, as portrayed, is an old vaudevillian song and dance man who was once famous, but now was reduced to playing third and fourth rate burlesque shows. He drinks, he fights, he argues with the audience and his family. He’s bitter about his failures and the career that’s going down the drain. The heart and soul of Archie’s demise is due to the fact that he hates his audience. Always has. He looks upon them as fiends to be beaten into submission. Those who won’t appreciate his act are fools or worse. He has no respect at all for anyone in the audience, even those who would pay money to see him perform.

Is that how you see your audience? Is that how you view your client’s customers? If so, then do yourself a favor and take a few years off until you get that suicidal idea out of your head. Yes, suicidal because anyone who believes this is committing career suicide. Your audience is the most important aspect of your job no matter what part of radio or advertising you endeavor. Without the audience, you don’t have a career. Without the audience, you are nothing. You must, without question, have nothing but the utmost respect for your audience, and never ever lose that ideal. Otherwise, you’ll lose your chance to ever have an audience again.