By Trent Rentsch
I happened to be in the newsroom when the tour came through. None of us saw them coming; the cubicle walls are about 4 feet high, giving even the tallest a good 3 inches of cover. For all we knew, the promotions guy was just there for the same reason I was… drop in, see what condition the news folk’s conditions were in. By the time the first little head popped around the corner, it was too late to scatter.
I obviously like kids, I have 5. And I obviously have nothing against children at a radio station; my favorite gig was with a kid’s radio network. It’s just those tours. 30 or 40 sets of pre-school eyes, glittering with the assurance that they are about to be entertained — an assurance that was given by their teachers as they were loaded onto the buses, no doubt.
I was designated tour guide in another life, another radio group. I had made the mistake of letting some kids Darth Vader up their voices with the Harmonizer within earshot of the GM, and since I had made the tour “so much fun,” I got the reward of adding tours to my job description. Not the worst task to pull, right? The problem was, other than a few Harmonized voices, these kids could care less. A generation of not just video, but computerized, short attention span multi-media. Try making some guy reading news behind a mic seem entertaining to these kids — unless the guy is Toby McGuire spinning a web at the same time, it’s not going to happen.
Fast-forward a few years. I know I’m sitting in ground zero of radio tour boredom as the kids troop in, but I also know that I’m fairly safe; I’ve kept my past to myself at this station. Still, the urge to flee is high. I avoid the promotion guy’s gaze as he looks for someone, anyone to explain what goes on in the newsroom. I glance at the people who really have any business in the room; they all suddenly seem VERY focused on the news stories they weren’t working on moments before. This is not good. Hidden past or not, I’m the man holding the coffee mug, no computer in front of me, obviously the one person in the place with nothing better to do than regale these children with tales of AP wires and National Weather Service advisories.
Our Assignment Editor suddenly stepped into the wrong place at the right time, for me at least. The promotion guy didn’t even give him a chance to escape, crowding the kids around the editor and telling the whole room that THIS guy knows EVERYTHING about radio news and that this will be VERY INTERESTING. It was interesting to watch. He gave it a good shot; I’ll give him that. Almost succeeded in making a portable MiniDisc recorder seem sexy. But in the end, the 30 or 40 pairs of pre-school eyes began to glaze over, the squirms started looking like a twist contest, and a solitary, “I gotta go,” was followed by a large chorus of, “Me too!” As the tour quick stepped to the little DJ’s room, I couldn’t help but think that full bladders weren’t to blame. But it also wasn’t the fault of the put upon news guy left holding the MiniDisc. Our world is not their world.
I’ve always felt that I was born too early or too late. The uncle and aunt that I always looked up to were hippies, and I was quite certain that they and their peers were going to change the world into one big peaceful, war-free lovefest. At some point, after they had enlightened the world and their older brother (read: my father), I would inherit a tie-dyed world that had taught itself to sing in perfect harmony. Of course by the time I was their age, polyester had replaced tie-dye, the songs the world was dancing to had a disco beat, and the majority of my aunt and uncle’s peers were doing their best to beef up their stock portfolios. And while my aunt and uncle continued to live from the land, pursuing the dreams most had tossed out with their love beads, I became one of the superficial that the ‘70s spawned — I say that with no pride and no small amount of regret.
Now in my mid-forties, I look at my daughter and her younger brother and see my aunt and uncle. The tie-dye is back, along with the Grateful Dead, the incense, the black lights. I’d dismiss it all as retro hippie wanna-be nonsense, but it’s more than cosmetic. My son has become vegan, and hosted protests until the middle school cafeteria added more vegetarian choices to the menu. He’s also big on recycling, and started an ecology club. His sister tells me that there’s more to life than money, rides an old beat-up pink bicycle around the upper Midwest college town she lives in, encourages me to listen to Phish and Big Wu, and makes hemp necklaces and key rings. They are living lives of youth and idealism, but not the youth I experienced. Still, I understand it, like dusting off a childhood memory, and find it’s a little like going back in time talking to my children. Imagine the flashback for my aunt and uncle!
Our industry is ruled by numbers now more than ever. So much concern is given to target demos, P1, 2 and 3s, and that ever important 25-34 listener. Getting the numbers is what it’s all about; it’s the way we gauge success. But there seems to be an element missing, the people behind the numbers. Our News Talk station does not target kindergartens; we target adults. So it’s no big surprise that a conversation with a news guy makes them want to go potty. But hopefully said news guy understands their parents enough to avoid the same reaction from them.
Who is the person behind the number? How do they feel? What do they enjoy? What are their dreams, hopes, fears? When we know the life of the listener, we can speak their language… really communicate. We may not live in the listener’s world, but all I’m saying is we damned well better understand it if we expect them to give our station a chance.