Did Radio Kill The Radio Star?
April 20, 2016
As if radio needed yet another proverbial punch in the gut, a recent Careercast.com survey of the top 10 worst possible jobs ranks broadcasting in general, and disc jockey specifically, at #3 and #4, respectively.
Worse than pest control worker (#6).
Worse than taxi driver (#9).
Apparently, terminating termites beats hitting the post, and collecting a fare is way better than emceeing AT the State Fair.
This can only mean the apocalypse is officially upon us.
Apparently we don’t totally suck, however. A career in logging still beats radio on the worst-job list, due to its high stress and dangerous work environment, and I totally buy that. While those in radio often claim to be juggling chainsaws, that’s a figurative term used to impress others with their own sense of importance. Conversely, the logger, while also not actually juggling one, works directly with the chainsaw most days. Side note: I’ve rented one on several occasions, and – like many power tools – chainsaws are a phenomenon, in that a man’s testosterone level is significantly increased once that baby is fired up and roaring like a wild animal. Who on earth is willing to mess with you when you’re wielding a two-stroke, internally combusted machine capable of reducing an oak into pulp? The simple answer: nobody. On the other hand, one wrong move, and you’ve amputated that other hand. Easily more perilous than radio.
But radio, and specifically air personalities, are in real danger mode here – and it’s not just about image, because we’ve been self-mutilating our talent pool for years now. As a result, where is the next generation of great radio talent in 2016? I regularly talk to several PDs who have been seeking a new morning show for months now, and they simply can’t find experienced, qualified, talented candidates. Candidates, even! Forget about finalists.
Our Own Worst Enemy?
About 15 months ago when interviewing radio talent coach Randy Lane in this space, he asserted that radio was facing a severe talent crisis. The problem is even worse now, and if we’re being honest, has been exacerbated by radio itself, in several ways. For starters, there are no real developmental dayparts anymore. The days of a young, aspiring, and promising radio personality sharpening his or her skills via the all-night or evening show are over. Those dayparts simply aren’t live anymore, for the most part.
Part of a PD’s job used to be coaching, air checking, and developing talent. But tell me what PD in 2016 actually has quality time for that? The majority of PDs are now stretched way too thin, barely able to get through essential tasks needed to keep a station on the air during a typical day – forget about doing them well. Another factor which cannot be ignored: many of today’s PDs haven’t been coached on how to BE a coach.
But perhaps most critically – and in the broader sense – what has radio done lately to make itself an aspirational, appealing, cool, or sexy career destination for our younger generation? I know the term is used a lot, but yes, I’m talking about Millennials. They’re beginning to dominate the workplace by sheer numbers alone. I won’t go into the analysis or discussion of what makes that generation unique – and sometimes challenging – because we’ve read piece after piece on that. But I’ve learned a few things from them: they’re smarter than us, can multi-task like a motherfucker, and – when inspired in the right way – kick serious ass and take names. They’re fascinated by all forms of media and drink them up by the gallon, often at the same time. And by the way, many ARE in the media already, with their own podcasts, YouTube Channels, and Snapchat accounts with content that generates a staggering number of followers. Some are so popular as influencers, they’re pulling down six-figures a year in their 20s because they know how to connect with their generation in a three-dimensional manner that can go viral at any moment. And they have creative freedom to make things up as they go along, screw up on the job, while coming across as human and real. They’re living and thriving in the wild west. Why would they give that up for a radio gig when, by comparison, we’re the staid, risk-aversive establishment? Radio people like using the phrase “Content is King,” but in many regards, we’ve ceded our throne in recent years.
“It’s A Two Way Street”
So what will it take for radio to make itself a career destination for more of these young, imaginative content creators? I have some thoughts, but preferred to hear first from someone who is a millennial currently in radio. I met Colton Bradford in 2015 when he was a Rusty Walker Scholarship recipient at CRS. At the time he was working at iHeartMedia Country WKSJ/Mobile, AL, where he started as a teen-aged intern. He has since gone on to the company’s WBWL/Boston where he is doing nights. Most recently, Bradford’s show has been expanded to iHeart Country sisters WTBU/Portsmouth, MA and WRNX/Springfield, MA. And he’s all of 23 years old. I consider Bradford one of radio’s most assertive, promising talents, regardless of format. He believes making radio more appealing to millennials is simple:
“Millennials are all about the brand. We want hip, we want sexy, and we want appealing in all aspects of our lives – yes, even career. So how do we as an industry appeal to my generation to recruit radio’s next rising stars? It's a two way street, I think. It starts with stations having strong local brands and extends even further with local personalities having an equally strong, hip, fun, appealing, and engaging brand.
On the flip-side, I also believe that radio has kind of failed in creating opportunity for my generation. To many millennials, the opportunity to get a foot in the door of a radio station is a challenge in itself, outside of the traditional internship. We need to see opportunity, or we'll make our own, which is why we've seen a rise in social media personalities. We live in world of overnight Snapchat celebrities, Instagram fame, and YouTube stars that create their own overnight success. Millennials will follow an appealing brand, and they'll follow it quickly. It falls back on creating that hip, sexy, appealing brand to millennials that enjoy living their lives online; anyone can do it these days.
Speaking specifically for Country radio, I believe there’s been a disconnect over the last few years. The music has continually shifted younger, while our format’s best personalities have gotten older and haven't exactly embraced much of the social media generation – or know how to use it to their appeal. Today, we cannot just be an ‘on air personality.’ We have to be MUCH more than that. We have to embrace social media and use it to extend our shows, lives, and brands; we have to stay ‘hip.’
Looking at the most successful brands in radio today, regardless of format – like Seacrest, Bobby Bones, Steve Harvey, or Elvis Duran – there's a common thread of appeal in their content on air, and it's reflected even more so online. And each of those shows have some sort of millennial contribution on the air, which helps keep younger listeners engaged.
For today's millennials in who are currently radio, regardless of what market you're in or how big your show is, I've noticed a similar common thread. Whether it's me or Erik Z in Chicago, Morgan Taylor in Columbus, GA, or even Zach Sang, we recognize that radio is our foundation. We treat radio as the home base and build our own brands on top of that idea. We each use social media to extend our brands and lives across to appeal to our listeners, and ultimately we are an extension of our stations’ brands.
How do we attract more millennials to the talent pool? Two things: First, as an industry we must keep our stations and personality brands hip, fun, appealing, and engaging. Second: we need to create opportunity.
We need to hire millennials now. Use them. Put them on the air. Let them create your web content. Let them write the headlines that grab the attention of your listeners on Facebook, but let them speak to our generation. You want your station or show to look hipper? Sound hipper? Be hipper? Hire a millennial. Let them engage your audiences. The more opportunity radio can create, the more we'll see a shift in young people wanting to pursue a career in radio or broadcasting.”
Convergence, Not Contempt
For the sake of balance, I also asked a longtime radio vet for his opinion. Steve Reynolds of The Reynolds Group has been a talent coach for years, following a successful career of his own as an air personality. Reynolds has worked with both established and green air talent in all market sizes. I asked him and Bradford separately, and yet, their answers are suspiciously familiar. “In order to make radio a great career choice for younger people, we need to make this fun and rewarding,” said Reynolds. “We also need to prove how radio can positively influence those other elements which contribute to the success of their life: more followers on social media platforms, higher popularity in those areas which are relevant to their peers, and then teach them how to parlay that into a deeper personal brand that brings them influence, money, and acclaim.”
I know some will read Bradford’s comments and say, “Typical entitled millennial. Wants the keys to a multi-million-dollar franchise before gaining the proper experience and putting in his time.” I don’t read it that way. I think we’re in a potentially magical – no, make that critical – period where both younger radio professionals and seasoned vets can both teach and learn simultaneously.
Get them in the building and expose them to being on the air, but work with them to build their skills in the control room. Set them up with their own podcast, too, so they can work in a laboratory and work out the kinks. Think of that podcast as the all-night or evening show of the past, where future stars experimented, screwed up, and gradually got better in a risk-free environment. They may not be 100% passionate about being just a radio star like you once were, and you’ll have to let go of that notion, because your autobiography isn’t theirs. As a result, they’ll need other outlets, too, or they’ll get bored. So if possible, set them up with a blog, YouTube channel, or have them create Snapchat content – all of the social media things, and all focused on station, format, artist, and song content under your direction. Have them involve the established air staff in those off-air outlets, so at the very least, the vets can learn to understand these platforms better. It’s a two-way street, as Bradford said. And I also agree with him on this: give them responsibilities for station social media and let them run with it – always mindful of the station’s marketing/branding strategy.
Here’s the thing: incorporating and encouraging a younger generation of radio broadcasters should not mean an environment of competition or contempt between them and the established one, but rather, one of convergence.
Here’s another thing: radio is capable of doing this, and radio must do it. We’re the only ones who care enough about our industry to get it done right, because the rest of the world doesn’t. And that ever-growing bandwagon of naysayers are perfectly fine watching us fall apart from the sidelines. They want us to fail, if only to proclaim, “I told you so.” Radio: we need to take control of our own destiny and say to those cynics, “I don’t think so.”