Today, a gift from one of Radio’s great minds. A former programmer and General Manager. I’ll reveal his identity and contact information at the end of this post.
“While I was in the living room, my mother was in the kitchen, putting the chicken through the de-flavoring machine.”
– Woody Allen (circa 1966)
The de-flavoring machine. Turned out Woody’s mother wasn’t the only person who used one. Within 10 years of Woody Allen delivering that line, a new kind of business arrived: the radio research consultancy. Soon, some (probably most, really) consultants were preaching a new gospel to program directors of music stations: “Get rid of anything on the air that could be a tune-out.” And what did those program directors use to implement that dictate? Right. A radio version of the de-flavoring machine.
It wasn’t long before virtually every element of the on-air product had to be “tested.” The methods varied. Galvanic skin responses. Focus groups. Telephone interviews. And program directors often interpreted every “finding” as rock-solid fact. For better or worse, I never did. But the result of all this was ultra-“safe,” homogenized, soulless programming.
This isn’t intended to be a hagiographic testament to my brilliance – I’m no George Santos, I guess. What I hope to do in this space that Doug has offered me is to show that the arrival of the de-flavoring machine was the beginning of the decline of creative programming. And the emergence of the technocrat-as-program director. There was less and less appreciation for the value of creating thinking by those who hire programmers,
The research turned out by some of radio’s early consultants offered their clients 2 major but “hidden” benefits . . .
Protection . . . the CYA-factor. “We’re just following the research.” And follow it many did. Ignore or tinker with the “findings” and you were vulnerable once the ratings came in. And . . .
A feeling of (unjustified) confidence. If you accepted each research finding as empirical, it was easy to program your station accordingly. Despite the fact that it’s impossible to quantify and codify every (any?) element of programming in absolute terms, more and more stations were programmed as if it were possible. “We know this works because research told us it does.” For many, research “findings” were like a diet of comfort food. Except there was zero flavor. (And you could find the same “menu” on stations in just about every market.) Still can after all these years.
(I remember having a heated discussion with a consultant when I was choosing video clips to use in a music-centric TV spot. The consultant insisted we use a video clip of a song that had tested at 4.11, rather than use a much-better, much more visually compelling clip of a song that tested 3.98. The GM supported my choice.)
The main point here is that this data-driven programming ignored what was and is most important: the human factor. The very thing that Doug Erickson has implored program directors, managers and group heads to recognize as the life blood of their stations. When it’s there, listeners can feel it and feel like part of it. But the human, emotional connection your air talent makes with listeners isn’t something that’ll evolve, no matter how much data you have at your fingertips.
Very early in my career, when I was music director at WIP, my boss said, “Any station can be three minutes behind us with music. They can play the same songs in the same order. So, it’s what’s between the records (they were records then) that matters.” True then. True now.
When Doug asked me to write something for this space, he put no conditions on what I could say. My praise for him comes from my heart. And from my experience. I’ve always believed – and I believe more fervently than ever (albeit from the sidelines) – that without touching, inspiring and challenging listeners a radio station can’t be great.
Program directors need to be able to conceptualize, to think freely, even to make some mistakes as they nurture a creative climate that is the sine qua non of great radio. One more thing: If I could have one wish granted on this subject, it would be to ban “creativity-by-committee.” Can’t tell you the number of times I heard ideas shot down in so-called “creative meetings” with “Where has it worked!?!” Yeah, that gets those creative juices going.
Wish I could say that formulaic radio has disappeared. I don’t actively listen to music stations anymore. But when I hear one playing as I ride with Uber or shop in a store, I’m reminded that it sure hasn’t. But it can. Just unplug the de-flavoring machine. And plug in your instincts, your imagination and your soul.