Teri Silver is a journalist, commercial copywriter, editor, broadcast anchor, and public relations specialist.
Broadcast radio is a powerful source of entertainment and information. With stations now partially (or fully) automated—and the fact that so many corporations are dictating the day-to-day decisions of programming and sound delivery—the business of radio is vastly different from years past. Radio station operators know that sound quality is part of everyday management, but what is the audience actually hearing? Poor sound and the way it's produced can lead to messages that are partially or completely lost. Radio employees (past and present) offer some “sound” advice on ways to improve the overall package.
Want to determine how well your radio station is disseminating its message? The best way to do this is to listen. Listen to the station, to your employees, and, most importantly, to the audience. Start right now! Take a few moments to look past the corporate guidelines and listen to what industry personnel (people who know and LOVE radio) have to say on the subject.
The business of radio has definitely evolved but the main focus for any single station is its effectiveness at serving the community.
“Radio’s final ace in the hole is being local. Once it forgets that—game over.”
What does that mean?
"One-size-fits-all" playlists have no local or regional feel and that is definitely noticeable; especially to those who listen to multiple stations in various cities. But mostly, local personalities are great station brand ambassadors. Audiences want to “connect” with the voices they hear every day and meet these "celebrities” at community events and promotions. Certainly, it may not be financially possible to operate with in-house talent 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, keeping satellite (out of town) contributions to a bare minimum is ideal for the overall sound of your local radio station.
Bringing hometown radio stations back to their roots—highlighting the “local” aspect— is certainly a challenge in today’s corporate climate. Arguably, in their efforts to increase profits and cut expenses, ownership groups, consultants, and accountants have created many of the sound and personnel issues that stations face today. The key is to work together—talent and ownership—to create cost-effective solutions that don’t destroy the important concept of service-oriented and community-centered radio. Corporate entities must work harder to put that hometown flavor back into the stations they bought (solely) for profit. Can it be done? Yes. Local news and programming go a long way to lure listeners.
News and Information
Radio stations cry out for local news, public affairs programming, and information. Airing national and international news is a plus, but your listeners want to know what’s going on in their backyard—not some city hundreds or thousands of miles away. Hire news reporters to cover your local government and community events. Present newscasts and public affairs programming that center around your listenership.
Corporate ownership groups have nearly destroyed the concept of local news and information; they think that one station can produce newscasts for all cities within the conglomerate. Not true! Don’t expect one news team in a location 100 miles away (or more) to effectively cover areas beyond the surrounding counties that your station’s signal reaches.
In the last couple of decades and under the guise of “saving money,” corporate radio ownerships reduced staff by creating a “one-size-fits-all” concept of processed news. These newscasts offer very few—if any at all—stories that affect the people who matter most; local listeners. The result is a bland-sounding station and dissatisfied listeners who want more than just the same playlist of music they heard the day before.
Always put the community (city of license) first in your focus.
The key to quality sound is monitoring the sound’s quality. Yes, it's a simple concept so let's review the basics:
(These comments come from professionals who work (or have worked) in central Ohio radio but the concepts are for all stations -- everywhere).
- No dead air. Glitches in computer and automated software do happen but fewer issues are—or should be—likely during live shows (and the problem would be fixed immediately). This is especially important for stations that carry sports networks.
Speaking of sportscasts, make sure that station ID breaks are filled. When the play-by-play announcers call for an ID, do not let your station go to dead air—not even for 10 to 15 seconds! Whether your station is set up to receive automated cues or your board operators get them directly from the game announcer, be ready to keep the airwaves filled. Dead air during station ID breaks is sloppy broadcasting—and your audience knows it.
When the game is over, get back to your station’s content! (Automated board operations are susceptible to missed cues; live board operators are more effective, here). Daily monitoring of satellite components is recommended.
- No outdated spots or promos. Ever.
- No station promos before commercials.
- Stopsets should be limited to three within one hour.
- Commercial and promotional stopsets must contain different voices per rotating spots. Stations that use the same air talent for back-to-back ads are not getting messages across effectively. If one voice does consecutive commercials (and listeners don’t hear the difference in the sound or advertising content), it can be well into the second spot before the audience realizes that the information has changed. In the second commercial (once listeners recognize that the product or service is different), the ideas and words presented in the beginning of that advertisement are already lost. This production is not beneficial to the client.
- Produce more than one or two versions of a commercial—especially when airing them during ballgames or athletic events. It is rather mind-numbing to hear the same spot over and over, again and again. Listeners tune out the message; wouldn’t you? Convince local and regional clients that creating ad campaigns which offer a variety of commercials helps their audience keep its attention span on the product being sold.
- Advise Clients NOT to record their own voices on commercials; give these important tasks to professional orators and broadcasters. Often, client-voiced commercials result in fast, muddied, slurring or mumbled words and phrases that do not grab the listener. Clients may stumble through written copy or cue cards but do not know how to “voice and deliver” the content. Of course, there are some people who really can do their businesses proud with the owner’s voice. However, when the client’s vocal input is more of a negative than a positive, the distracting sound results in a lost message.
Telling clients the truth—that their recorded commercials don’t bring the goods to the table—must be handled in a very sensitive way; it can be hard to convince people (who are footing the bill) to forego their moment in the spotlight and allow professional talent to make the pitch. Consider each angle and then decide on the best way to go but remember, the bottom line is to sell products/services to consumers. Radio listeners who can’t easily comprehend the words thrown at them will get bored or, worse, change the channel.
- Synchronize all temperature gauges. When your news person says it’s 82 degrees, just a few minutes after your DJ says it’s 89 degrees … listeners end up saying, “huh?” These errors do NOT go unnoticed.
- Require airchecks for air talent. Have coworkers and supervisors listen, too. It is easy to develop habits and phrases that get overused. Keep your content fresh and clear by reviewing what you say and how you say it. Airchecks will help the station develop the sound it wants.
- Allow your DJs to showcase their personality and connect with the audience. The result is a positive reflection on the station’s branding.
Radio station branding relies on a broadcaster's clear annunciation of frequency numbers and call letters. How well do your announcers say the words they are sending through the airwaves? Professional air talent must pronounce words and phrases properly.
Case in point: Let’s look at the word, “seven.” Does the broadcaster say “seh-vin” or does the word come out as “sih-vin.” Similarly, when a word like “center” comes out sounding like “sinter,” or “veteran” is spoken as “vitrin,” the listener ends up wondering ... what did he say? Add this poor annunciation to the electronic processing from broadcast studio microphone to audience listening receiver; the sound can be quite muddied.
Another vocal sound quality concern is the use of putting an “h” in with words that don’t have one. These words straight, strive, strip, street and strawberry, for example, are not shtrait, shtrive, shtrip, shtreet and shtrawberry. While this enunciation might be common for many people (who are talking in everyday life), broadcasters are professionals who disseminate information to the masses; elocution is important to the job! Mushy-sounding words are distracting at best, but they mostly result in difficulty for the ear to process. Announcers who don’t know how to use that professional “radio voice” may benefit from speech therapy and communication classes. Your voice is your bread and butter!
Voice Tracking is part of today’s radio world—it won’t be going away. But stations must know how to use this technology to its fullest potential. For radio newcomers and seasoned pros alike, teach your air talent the best ways to bring out their personalities and make each track come alive. Be creative! Voice tracking is effective when DJs use their natural abilities—to act and react—as if they are actually in the same moment of time as the listener.
“Voice tracking is very useful for small radio stations, especially,” says Mark Bohach, owner/operator of WLOH in Lancaster, Ohio. “When one does many hours (live) on the air every week and still must attend community meetings and make sales calls, voice tracking can be very helpful. If a radio person cannot tell the difference, the average listener can’t either. But the key is to create voice tracks and use the technology so that it sounds absolutely, undoubtedly live,” advises Bohach. “Used properly, voice tracking is a valuable time management tool. I understand that the large corporations have perverted it to create generic bland content running on many stations. But to condemn the technology and methodology of local voice tracking is just as misguided.”
The early software programs that run the automation for today’s radio stations are, thankfully, long gone. “We’ve come a long way since Audisk,” says Jason Roberts of Cox Media Group in Dayton, Ohio. “We can’t blame the computers now. I remember one time talking to an engineer about those early software programs and how ‘glitchy’ they were. But the business has moved forward and automation isn’t going away. I don't ever think we will see 24/7 live and local again—the numbers don't justify it. Everything is computer-based and the glitches are getting fewer and fewer, as long as you have someone in charge of making sure that outdated spots are removed ... or remove themselves ... on time. Someone has to be in charge and you can't trust the software to work 100 percent of the time,” Roberts added.
Today’s radio components have come a long way, notes Mark Bohach, who’s built (and reconfigured) a number of stations over the last several decades. “Glitches should not be happening with today's equipment and software. Enco hardware typically goes 90 days between reboots. I also use Adobe Audition to make better spots faster than ever before -- it is another application of technology to creative ends.
“One big problem, however, is that radio stations have cut back on hiring competent engineering support. This is especially true in small market operations where these station managers think that they don’t need staff engineers, or even a contractor to come in on a regular basis, because ‘things don't break that often.’ Yet," says Bohach, "stations such as these may have (major) issues at their transmitter sites that only engineers can spot and remedy. Basically, radio operations that are not monitored consistently may sound awful when audio processing sounds like it's coming out of a soup can. When RDS is showing incorrect information, it can lead to very pour sound, especially when stations are coming from satellite,” Bohach pointed out.
Is this true for all radio stations? How about yours?
Win With People!
No matter what the financial numbers say, the best asset that any company has is its workforce. Employees who are respected, appreciated, and fairly compensated are motivated to show off the business in its most positive light.
“Here are the keys to a great local radio station; there are five of them,” maintains Mark Bohach. “One is to hire great local people. Two; get the best technical sound and set up you can afford and take full advantage of what changes the FCC allows. Three, again, hire great local people. Number four is to put your community first in all business dealings. Five, yes, here it is again; bring great local people into the fold. You will notice that ‘great local people’ are the beginning, middle, and the end of everything you do. Hire professional and passionate folks who care about their community and about what they do on the air. And give them the range and freedom to be great.”
The concept of ‘great people’ is only one step to a quality, top-producing enterprise, say members of Central Ohio Radio Connection (CORC), a group of radio professionals who work—or have worked—for stations in the Buckeye State. Here are some of their suggestions:
- “Don’t ignore on-air talent in your radio station while rewarding others with special perks (sales). You won't keep good talent around very long with this attitude. Reward ALL talent, sales and traffic people and even your office staff. Remember, your station content is only as good as the folks who deliver it; not just the people who sell the advertising.”
- “Pay for good talent. You cannot have a staff of rookies paid minimum wage just to save on costs. One pro in the right areas can make a world of difference.”
- “Drop the ‘no compete’ in contracts. If a disc jockey or newscaster is really popular, and you (management) can't or won't pay the price, allow him or her to go where the grass might be greener. Life can be rather short in radio. Management -- play fair so that the great talent you draw might be more willing to take a chance on you.”
- “Research local pronunciations. This is extremely important for DJ commentary and news presentations. Listeners may change the station when hearing their town, road, or landmark mispronounced. People are pretty territorial when it comes to their home towns.”
- “Voice Tracking; make sure you know the song list and what tune is coming up. Jocks who preview a song must be sure it’s up next, not somewhere down in middle somewhere.”
- “Do not count on computers removing outdated spots. Real people must review everything, especially over the weekend. I hear outdated commercials or old traffic clips all the time. Stations that carry football or baseball always seem to have outdated promos. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that listeners don’t notice, they really do!!! Avoid the rolling-of-the-eyes moments by listening to your station and making sure that things that can be fixed, actually do get fixed. Someone should always be charged with listening to the station, at least during daylight hours, 7 days a week. Mistakes happen, but they should not happen often, especially when you want to make listeners think you are live and local.”
- “Teach your on-air staff the nature of their role in the sales process. When DJs sound ‘too preachy’ about a product that the sales team or continuity director produces, the problem is usually in the copy. Listeners know, or they think they know, that the guy whose selling product X doesn’t actually use it.”
Play Fair ...
Radio personalities must be able to make a living wage, adds Roberts. “As far as the salary and perks thing goes, sales will always make more than your average journeyman jock. That being said, though, a jock should be able to make a living wage commensurate for the market. A bonus structure can also be implemented as a performance perk, whether the jock is contracted or not, if you are a ratings subscriber. And yes, decent talent fees for remotes are also a smart thing to have,” he added. “Entertaining listeners doesn’t stop when the microphone is off.”
Creating a strong, recognizable station brand is critical in today’s internet world -- now more than ever for broadcast radio. AM and FM stations are challenged by car manufacturers with installed satellite and internet radio components. The number of internet radio stations increases every year; popular ones are Google Play, Spotify, Pandora, Maestro, 8Tracks, and Pirate Radio Network. In today's market, broadcast radio success includes unique branding, online streaming, website and internet presence, social media, marketing, promotions and air talent appearances. BRAND is larger than your radio station.
“Pick a position. Brand your position. Promote your brand. Stay true to your brand and deliver on it consistently. Hire well. Pay well. Let employees do their job,” says DJ and producer Victor Scott, a member of CORC.
Improve the Sound and Stay Profitable!
True or false -- in many markets, small station owners and large business conglomerates just don’t seem to want to spend the money toward creating good sound. But with digital frequencies, powerful components, and technologically-advanced receivers and headphones, audiences can tell the difference -- it is not merely obvious to “radio people.” Your listeners know poor sound; it's coming through loud and not-so-clear!
With the struggle for broadcast radio to stay pertinent in today’s internet world, station operators must do everything possible to draw in (and retain) audience loyalty. Staff engineers are worth the money -- not only to keep the station on the air and make its content (music or talk, etc.) sound crisp and clear, but to improve the stability of your revenue stream. Fuzzy or distorted commercials can lead audiences to changing the channel -- or -- those who cannot determine the subject matter of an advertisement will not recognize the sales pitch. This is a huge loss for your clients because they won't get a good Return on Investment (ROI) for the ads they buy. Without adequate ROI, these important patrons may advertise their products and services elsewhere; there is a lot of competition for the advertising dollar! Without ads, your for-profit radio station will have trouble making payroll and paying its bills. Thus the domino effect in radio starts with a poorly-maintained station that can lead to a failing business.
Ask the Audience
Let’s open up this forum to the audiences we serve.
Hey, radio listeners, what would you like to “hear” within the radio station(s) you prefer? Let the professionals know how they can better serve your needs. We are listening!
© 2016 Teri Silver
Teri Silver (author) from The Buckeye State on April 06, 2017:
Marc, thank you! Radio is (still) such a valuable public asset; it's important for ownership to know and understand that the public counts on this medium for so many things. Thus, management should, in our collective opinion, put in a little more and take out a little less.
Marc Lee from Durham, NC on April 05, 2017:
Great article, and you bring up great points. I really do miss the hey day of radio when the radio personality was really plugged into their community. Now even non profit radii has gotten away from personalities. Thank goodness for community radio stations, many of which are low powered but able to still reach a lot through their internet side....