By Andy Capp
“It’s not the thing you fling, it’s the fling itself.”
--Chris, from Northern Exposure
“I don’t know about this,” I reminded my friend again as he hustled me toward the stage. “I don’t think they’re going to get this skit!”
“Come on, they’re gonna love it! They’ve loved everything we’ve done for them before!”
“But this one is REALLY different!”
“Don’t be stupid, it’s too late for anything else! We’re on!”
A teacher had first talked us into performing at the Senior Citizens Center. For nearly a year my friend and I had been part of their monthly “Talent Show,” singing songs, acting in skits, or doing readings of one classic or another. It wasn’t the most exciting way to spend a Thursday evening, but the Activities Director was a 70-something ball of fire who would never take no for an answer, and she kept talking us into coming back. At first we only did the material they gave us, but as we all got used to each other, we were allowed to come up with our own act. That was about to be a bad idea.
Imagine that you are in you’re 80s. You’ve come to the Seniors Center for a little potluck dinner, companionship with people your own age, and a nice little show with some music from your era. Now imagine that two brats that are younger than your Great Grandkids stomp onto the stage and start bellowing in bad British accents, some nonsense about being out of cheese. They babble on and on and on and on and on…and just when you’re ready to go see if there’s a Bridge game going on in the card room, one of the children takes out a gun and shoots the other one!
We were lucky. Our interpretation of Monty Python’s Cheese Shop bit did not send any of the elderly people there that night to the hospital, although we did fear for our own lives when an angry contingent of the crowd descended on us, canes in hand, prepared to scold us within an inch of our lives for scaring them like that. To them the bit was not funny; it was stupid. At least we got our Thursday evenings back again.
Since then I’ve been very sensitive to playing the right material to the right audience. When I started doing radio, I was always asking who we were talking to, not out of some natural gift at understanding that you need to play to your target demo, but out of fear of getting whacked in the head by a walker.
There are some very well pro-grammed stations out there who understand the target; and the music, the announcers, and the imaging of the station all sound like they are begging for the target audience to listen. All is well, until the commercial break. I heard one of these train wrecks the other day. Coming out of a song by Smash Mouth, the DJ talked about joining the last party before school, more music on the way, followed by a big zap-filled sweeper, and a voice only commercial for an Italian place where the announcer went on for what seemed like 2 hours about how long it takes the place to make their pasta. The words weren’t funny. In fact, I wouldn’t even say they were well written, and the announcer sounded bored. If you were 16 years old, listening to your favorite station and something like that came on, what would you do? Hopefully, the other kids’ station in town is playing something equally feeble so the kid dials back in a few moments. My prayer is that the kid keeps listening at all.
The Coca Cola Corporation gets it. Every year they send out a tape with many versions of their latest jingle, from country to rap to alternative--you’ve gotten them. Every style of music for every type of station they might advertise with is generally covered. The idea is that if you are a country station, you play the country jingle. If you play rap, you use the rap jingle. Duh. It really is a no-brainer. Because the target audience for Coke is huge and diverse, they want to make sure that they are singing the praises of their product to all of them, in their own language. Of course, then some bonehead plays the Rap tune on the Country outlet.
I’m not beating up on producers here, Lord knows they already have too much to deal with. That’s the problem: too many stations, too little staff. There are some production folk out there (maybe you) who deal with the commercials and imaging of 5 or more stations. It’s a five or more person job, and it’s more or less being done by one person. Of course the boring pasta ad that was originally produced for the talk station down the hall was never re-done when the buy came in for the CHR down the other side of the hall! There just isn’t enough staff to do things right any more.
We have to start thinking long term about this business. Trimming the fat has turned to cutting to the bone. There are not enough hours in the day for the few staff people that are left to pay attention to the details that will eventually make the audience go away.
Owners, managers, I’m talking to you. If you really believe in this business, if you aren’t just in it to make a quick buck before the industry takes one final dying gasp, turn it around. Hire a producer per station. Give them the tools they need to make every piece of production that hits your station relate to your audience. Explain to your sales force that each station has its own identity and that the advertising that works on one station may not work on another. Set-up realistic deadlines so that everything is really finished before it goes on the air.
These aren’t new battle cries, but in the age of consolidation, it’s clear that they need to be heard and addressed. If we want the audience to be here for us tomorrow, we damn well better be talking to them today.