by Dave Foxx
I had a rather long and detailed discussion a couple of weeks ago about what we all do for a living. As you might guess, it was with someone totally unfamiliar with the broadcast and advertising businesses, except as a consumer. The odd thing was, I think I came away learning more about our business than she did. Very often, I feel the same way about this column; I probably learn more from writing than you do from reading it. (At this pace, I might end up being the genius I think I am… or not.) What I learned from this particular encounter is that our audience doesn’t have a clue about how it influences them. Whether it’s to buy a specific item or brand, use a service or just continue to listen to the same radio station, the motivation to do so is pretty much unrecognized. They seldom, if ever, know that they’re being sold or encouraged to do anything at all. Oh, they recognize a commercial for what it is and understand the overall purpose of such a message, but never realize what it is that actually nudges them in the direction we want them to go. The question for this column is, do you?
In one of the very first columns I ever wrote, I talked about radio rats; people, who eat, drink and breathe radio. We’ve all known and might have even been one at some point. That pimply-faced kid, who hangs out all hours of the day at the radio station, maybe works the overnight shift or volunteers time to file CDs or even reorganize the library. You almost never run into him out in the community because all his time is spent at the station. If you do run into a radio rat in the real world, he’s making a food run or picking up laundry for the deejay on duty. Let me reiterate here that as charming (?) as he might seem, and even useful to the station, he makes a very poor candidate for a really good radio/advertising person. (Pardon me keeping my example radio rat a male, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a female radio rat, though I suppose anything is possible.) The reason master radio rat is a bad future radio employee is because he knows everything about radio and absolutely nothing about the real world. If he ever cracks a mic or writes a spot, your audience will have less than zero in common with him. He will never move them to do anything, except change stations.
The really successful personalities, producers, writers, and even managers all have vibrant lives outside the radio station. On a daily basis, they take the time to read a newspaper to keep up with current events. They watch some television and frequently go to the movies. They dine out as often as their budget allows. You’ll see them at ball games, in the amusement park and at concerts that don’t necessarily fit the station’s format. They love to mingle at parties to talk politics or just tell stories (seldom about radio) and generally behave just like normal, breathing, everyday human beings who know how to have a good time. They are just like their audience.
Yes, being articulate is extremely helpful to an on-air personality. Being well read can really boost any writer’s skills. Understanding music (not who sang what song in 1996 – rather that a certain song uses a Tango rhythm or another borrows a musical phrase from the Rolling Stones’ Miss You, kind of understanding) makes any producer stand head and shoulders above the pack. But all those things will only get you so far. The wildly successful personality, writer and producer truly understand his or her audience. The truly great manager knows this and takes great pains to get his/her people out of the radio station to have a real life. The people most highly desired as employees of the really big, major market radio stations are people who speak the same language as their audience. That language is the lingo of life.
A fairly recent phenomenon is social networking on the web. I remember the light bulb going off over my head several months ago as I sat in a conference room with a few other people, waiting for a meeting to start. They all started talking about somebody’s post on Facebook and how funny the attached video clip was. I had NO clue and sat there listening to people who could just as well have been speaking Farsi. DING! I had completely missed all this because I hadn’t wanted to go on Facebook to take part in what I viewed as a total time suck. Consequently, I was definitely NOT speaking their language. I couldn’t relate to what they were saying. I knew that if I ever wanted to reach these people on some kind of “networking” basis, I had to bite the bullet and get in on the larger conversation.
So now, you can find me on Facebook, which I visit every day. I was correct in my prior assessment; it’s a gigantic time suck, so I have to parcel out a little bit of my time each visit, but it has already taught me more than I imagined it ever would. Now, don’t take this as license to cruise the web for hours on end. You want to become conversant with it, not an expert. Most of your audience knows a little bit about it, a few are farming, growing bunnies or passing out Mafia Wars invitations, but these people are the internet versions of radio rats. You don’t want to be one of them either.
So, let’s bring all this back to the original question: Do you understand what motivates your audience to actually do something you want them to do? They need to sense (and they’re really good at this) that you are just like them. They need to know that you are one of them; that you’re not just some detached voice that floats out of their speaker to coax them into doing things they don’t necessarily want to do. For you to be truly successful, the audience needs to trust you implicitly. You can be funny or sad, scientific or philosophical, but if they detect one hint of BS, if they even suspect you’re not “one of them,” they will tune you out and you are done. Pack up, walk out the door and go home, because they’re not going to do anything you want them to do.
Fortunately, the radio audience is very forgiving, sort of. They’ll give you an almost unlimited number of do–overs. They’ll come back to your station for the music, and when the music is over, they’ll give you just a few seconds to try to capture their minds again. If you improve your communicating skills, or are finally “speaking their language,” you have a second chance, or even second thousandth chance. Eventually though, if they never connect with you, they’ll give up. At that point, you might want to look into selling shoes or pressing pants for a living.
I know a lot of producers who have wives/husbands that beg them to cut back on hours. (I knew an insurance guy once who said that his company had devised actuarial tables in preparation to offer divorce insurance. On-air personalities were the number 2 highest risk, right behind Doctors. Advertising execs came in 4th.) If I told you that going home could be more beneficial than staying late to finish a promo or commercial, you might laugh. Your boss might not, especially if it’s something that is supposed to go on the air immediately. However, in most cases, it will be better to go home. Bottom line: Your work will improve in both speed and quality. Don’t go home and spend hours doing something by yourself; that would be just as bad as staying late at work. Take your spouse or significant other and go for a walk in the park. Go see a movie. Do something SOCIAL with other people and don’t talk about radio. Work at becoming just like your audience. Do what they do. Go where they go. Become one of the people you’re trying to reach when you’re at work.
For my sound this month, a promo I did in support of our “Commercial Free Zee Free Money Song.” (At Z100 we like alliteration… even if the rhyming words are the same words. LOL) Listen to how incredibly relatable our afternoon drive host J.J. McKay is as he delivers the main read. As nonsensical as the last line is (one of his trademarks), even if the listener never did go through what J.J. describes, they knew someone who did. It becomes relatable vicariously. J.J, and by association, Z100, become just like the audience.
I sincerely hope this proves helpful to you. I hope you (and your boss) see a big improvement in your sincerity level and that it results in bigger audience numbers, bigger sales numbers and much more importantly, how well your advertising/promo work actually drives the audience. I predict that if you take this lesson to heart, you will become wildly successful and I just might have to step my game up a notch to keep you from getting my job.