by John Pellegrini
There is a tendency in both advertising and programming in radio and television to simplify messages, the idea being that making statements that are easy to understand will allow everyone to know exactly what you are talking about. On paper, and in theory, this makes perfect sense. The problem comes when we get down to the actual practice. Are we oversimplifying to the point of being a major contributing factor in the increasing illiteracy problem?
Now, understand that I am not trying to lay the blame of "Why Johnny can't read" (a phrase that I hate, incidently) on the feet of the media. However, there are some valid questions that should be raised, and naturally, I think I'm just the snotty jerk to raise them.
First, why must we assume automatically that our audience isn't smart enough to understand certain concepts? We've all heard, and perhaps repeated, the old "Lowest Common Denominator" principle. But does it really work? Or are we instead turning off the listening audience by talking down to a level that insults their intelligence? I can always tell when I see or hear a spot or program that was written by someone who believes in LCD. I guarantee you it's a show or a commercial that I hate, and ratings usually prove other viewers or listeners agree.
We can easily give the reason for the LCD tactic. We have no audience to give us immediate feedback. There's no way to gauge how something went over because ninety percent of what we do goes out over the air and disappears. Because there's no response, the more cautious side of our nature tells us, "Gee, maybe the audience didn't get it. I'd better stick to simpler stuff." That is the mistake.
Just because you didn't get a response doesn't mean the audience doesn't get it. Comedians and actors know that audiences are very smart. They see it every time they perform. One of the things they teach you at Second City is no matter what subject you're talking about, there are people in the audience who know a hell of a lot more about it than you do. If you try to talk down to these people, you'll ruin your show. It's only a small minority of people who won't get it...which brings up another point about radio. Many times you'll hear the air staff complaining about the "idiots" who call the station request lines. You've probably talked to a few yourself. I know I have. But there is a danger when you start believing that everyone in your entire listening audience is this type. I can't remember where I read this, either in some trade publication or something, but the point was, less than ten percent of a radio station's listening audience ever actually calls the station. And the ones that call do so because they really "have nothing better to do." Now, are these the people you want to gauge your impact by? Geeks? Is this where we are?
One of my favorite shows currently on the tube is Mystery Science Theatre 3000. It's on Comedy Central. (Sorry for those of you who don't get it.) If you've never seen it, this is the only way I can describe what happens: this guy and two puppets are forced to watch really stupid movies, and they make bizarre, off the wall commentary on the movies, including some really obscure references that most people in advertising would think go way over the audience's heads. Yet, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 has one of the biggest and most diverse audiences of any show on television. They have fans in all walks of life, from TV critics and people in the "biz," to college professors, to just ordinary folks. Recently, Comedy Central ran a documentary, behind the scenes look at Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and asked the show's creators if they were worried that much of the humor may be hard to understand. The writers didn't care. They figured that "the right people will get it." And, as proven by the show's ratings, there are a lot more of the "right people" than most of us think.
Virtually every single one of us at one time or another said, "Don't treat me like a kid!" So, why do we think that our audience should be treated like a kid in terms of their intelligence level? If radio audiences aren't very smart, then why are issue shows like Larry King, Rush Limbaugh, and even Howard Stern so popular? I can already imagine the responses to that one.
"Well, I work at a music station, and we don't have issue shows." So what? Does that make your audience dumber? Just because they don't listen to talk radio (and incidentally, how do you know they don't?) doesn't mean they're less intelligent. Perhaps they don't listen because they don't agree with the views expressed. Yet, you'd be surprised at how many people in your audience read The New York Times. It's not without reason that the Times is available in nearly all the top two hundred markets. The same goes for The Wall Street Journal and other news and business magazines. Call the local periodical distributer sometime and ask him what his distribution numbers are for those magazines. The figure may startle you. Then, ask yourself if you are really communicating with those people.
Most importantly, if you truly believe that your audience has a low comprehension level, then ask yourself if this is a reflection of why your ratings are where they are. I don't need to be a communications expert to know that if you offer nothing interesting to your audience, you won't have much of an audience. Commercials that are written as simply as possible cause listener tune-out. We all have the ability to flick the button to another station when something annoys us. Try keeping track of how many times you tune out your station or other stations when you don't want to hear something. Then ask yourself, "Isn't there something I should be doing about this?"
Lowest Common Denominator is a term that I think has outlived its usefulness. It has grown past its original and perhaps good intention and has been blown to an extreme that, while perhaps not causing the illiteracy problem, certainly isn't doing anything to encourage better work. We conduct ourselves by the examples of others, whether it's our parents' or some other individual's examples we admire. All of us live by the standards that are set in certain situations. If the people you turn to for influence aren't interested in presenting themselves as educated, then you begin to take on those characteristics as well. It's natural progression.
It certainly is not our responsibility to educate the general public and aid them in overcoming any difficulties they may have had in their schooling. Neither, however, is it our responsibility to lower our standards for their benefit. Last time I checked, a high school education was still available for free in most of the Yoo Ess Of Aey. Perhaps that's a bit arrogant of me, but hey, let's approach this realistically. An audience is only as smart as you think they are. If you truly believe your audience isn't very smart, then isn't that a reflection on your ability to communicate to a smart audience? The audience you talk to is the audience you get. Besides, it does take some intelligence to fill out one of those ratings books -- at least you'd think it would. Isn't that what matters most?
Although it sounds like I'm mostly talking about programming, I really do mean this for commercial and promotional stuff as well. The spots on your station are the biggest place where you're gonna lose your audience. They are an extremely important part of programming. Many stations have such large commercial inventories that the prod people get twice the air time as the jocks. Don't fool yourself into thinking that those commercials don't matter. It is time for us all to invest heavily in dictionaries, thesauruses, and vocabulary books. We've got too many threats of losing our listeners, and not just to other stations, either. I speak of DMX, digital music available soon, if not right now, on your cable system. The only way for radio to compete is to increase the amount of intelligent programming and production and turn off the idea of playing down to a certain intelligence level. I assure you, your audience is already making those choices for you. Who knows, maybe by the turn of the century, brain dead copy and endless repetition of the same five or six liner cards will be eliminated! And as long as I'm dreaming, I'd like a million dollars....