What's Right With Our Business?

by Mark Margulies

It's too explicit. It's too segmented. It's not creative enough. It's too creative. The advertising doesn't work. The personalities aren't funny. We're underpaid. We're overpaid. We don't reach a large enough audience. We reach too large an audience. The music is too new. The music isn't cutting edge enough. Talk is out of control. There needs to be more dialogue on the air.

There's an old saying, "you can't please everyone." But heck, the more I talk to people in this business, the more I speak to people ABOUT this business, it sometimes looks like we can't please ANYONE. Have you taken the time to notice how much negativism there is in regards to radio these days, both directed at us personally, at our jobs, and at the medium in general? Clients are unhappy, listeners are unhappy, industry people are unhappy, air talent is unhappy, management is unhappy. It's enough to want to make you jump in the bathtub with a live microphone in your hands.

But you want to know something? The fact is, radio is a pretty darned wonderful industry. And if you can look past all the naysayers and all the negativism, we in radio have a pretty good thing going. So much so that I want to take a few minutes and explore what's GOOD about radio.

Let's start with ADVERTISING. Clients are forever complaining about radio--"Too much this, not enough that...." And that boils down to personal preferences. But the bottom line on the industry is this: no one, not one other medium, has the power, the effect, the draw and the immediacy of radio. That's a fact.

Radio is there when a client needs us, not in two or three days, not when we can fit them in--now, immediately. Radio can bring people instant news about a client--a sale, an offer, a special. It has a power of evoking immediate and emotional responses that no one other medium has, because radio is where the people are. It's in offices, in cars and trucks, and at home. You don't have to intently concentrate on every word, yet, with a simple sound effect or voice, it can rivet your attention. That makes radio a pretty strong advertising tool.

Still, there are those who roundly criticize radio as an inferior form of advertising to television and print. But look at the reality.

Radio can never beat television again for sheer numbers or mass viewer appeal. But which medium works better for an advertiser? Well, national products and producers might tell you TV is the way to reach millions at one time. And they'd be right. But national advertisers don't depend on radio for their bread and butter; small business people do--mom and pop stores, entrepreneurs, regional stores with regional impact. The fact is, these small business owners, in most cases, can't afford mass market television. But, they can make a strong impact in their market with radio because radio is cost effective and takes their advertising dollar a long way. Dollar for dollar, comparatively, they get the same effect on a local level from radio that a national advertiser gets from one of their national TV ads.

So, the critics scream, what about cable TV? It's cost effective. It has impact. Okay, what about it? Though cable TV has the power of sight, how often is it used to their advantage? How many times have you been tempted by what you see on the air? The answer is, not often. Because, in most cases, cable TV producers make an elementary advertising mistake: they try to pack too much information into an ad. And sure, cable is cost effective, but its reach and power is nowhere near that of radio's. Put the same amount of media coverage into both mediums, offer people $100 bills free at two separate locations, and the radio line will be longer than the other line EVERY SINGLE TIME. That's the power of our business to affect people immediately.

Here's another ironic thing about television. Just listen to television commercials. Is it just me, or do you notice that in most cases all their spots tend to be is radio copy with pictures? There's so much verbiage, it takes away from the effect and power of the medium's main advantage...sight.

And what about that sight, that ability to transmit pictures for the viewer to see? Radio has always been chided for what you "can't see." But what about what you CAN see? A herd of elephants being marched through a supermarket, F-14 fighters screaming through a living room, a Biblical flood, a talking dog, cat or cow. The imagination radio allows for is the most powerful tool radio has. And the fact is, radio can produce a creative ad that defies logic quicker and easier than any film company. Even when TV advertisers use cartoons to suspend your sense of wonder and reality, their budgets are grossly higher than any local direct retailer can afford. But a retailer can get that same effect on radio for thousands less.

How does radio stack up against print? A hands down winner, that's how. Sure, people can read about a sale, but what if you run out of a particular sale item or something needs to be changed. In radio, your spot can be altered and running within the hour. In print it's, "wait until our next edition"--sometimes tomorrow, sometimes next week. Radio's power, again, is its immediacy, its ability to draw a personal one-on-one relationship with its listener. When did anyone ever speak warmly about their newspaper? When did anyone ever slip a newspaper under the sheets at night to listen to (read about) a ball game, a deejay, or a talk show? Radio is human. It's a you-and-me-against-the-world (pardon the flashback to that atrocious Helen Reddy song of the same name) relationship that no other medium can hope to touch.

Which brings us to questions like how does radio influence us in our CULTURE and STYLE? Well, radio is always on the cutting edge. Take music for example. Music always makes radio a leader. The latest sounds, the latest groups, everything comes filtering through radio. It's the ultimate testing ground. People listen to their radio to find out who's hot and who's not. Sure, there's MTV, but how many Watchmans compared to Walkmans do you see on the streets? How many TVs do you find in cars and trucks, on bicycles and skateboards? Radio is a culture icon. It's where America takes its pulse.

And what about news. When something's happening, do you race to find the closest TV, or do you turn on a radio? Can any other form of communication bring you as close to a story as radio can? Not immediately. Radio's power rivets people, especially in times of crisis. Where did you hear about the Reagan assassination attempt, the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Challenger disaster? Radio brought it home to you immediately. You get events as they happen, instantaneously.

So, radio is right there, interwoven into the fabric of society. Just ask people who listen to Rush Limbaugh or their favorite morning hosts. Just ask people who listen for news, weather, sports, or music. Radio reflects who we are and where we're going. All you need to know about society is to look at a local Arbitron book. See who's listening, what are they listening to, and how often are they listening; and you know more about a culture than you can learn with any other medium. Drive around and hear what people are tuned to. Radio is the pulse of America.

Sure we have our problems. And the fact is, in forums like Radio And Production, we try to work together and share ideas to fix it all, because when it comes right down to it, we love radio, too. Radio is an intensely personal business with us as well. It's probably why we tolerate what we do to stay as involved as we are. Constructive criticism is good. But every now and then, we have to remember what's so good about radio and why we love it so much. Only radio brings you personalities as diverse as Howard Stern and Paul Harvey, each with a huge listening audience and each with an impact all their own. Only radio can bring you opera and rap, when you want it, where you want it. Only radio can bring you dancing zucchinis, Humphrey Bogart sound-alikes, or a baseball stadium in your living room through the wonders of sound effects and voice talent. Radio is a wonderful playpen that people of all kinds can inhabit and enjoy at the same time. I, for one, love being a part of it. I hope you do, too.

We are very much a powerful and dominant medium. Just listen to how many people criticize us, inside the industry and out. People take it to heart, treat it as their own, and want it to be custom tailored to fit their needs. That's why they argue, yell, and scream about it. But always keep in mind, they only speak out because they care. Radio breeds passionate loyalties. Remember that the next time a "civilian" or a colleague complains about it. Smile, and let them know, yeah, you think radio is pretty cool, too.

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