Singers Want To Be Jocks - Could Jocks Be Singers?
March 20, 2012
It's A One Way Street That Leads To Success For Either One
All too often these days, local air talent is either discouraged, passed on for a bigger name or run out of the business due to continued downsizing. It's especially sad watching air talent who've been forced out of the business because of the trend in syndication, voicetracking or de-emphasizing local personality. They're still out there, with an enormous amount of talent they know they have and would love to use, but have no place to use it. They've been replaced by syndicated singers or comedians with no radio background, other than being an occasional guest. This is a current trend. Stations are imitating each other and jocks are dropping like flies.
To be fair, imitation is happening in all formats -- and occasionally it works. Although today's Urban radio is still a fragmented medium, the natural instinct in these troubled times for many companies that own multi-format stations in various size markets, is one of imitation. And the course of imitation that many of these companies are now following is to copy each other in an attempt to find a solution that will save money and still give them a ratings edge.
One of the solutions that has emerged in Urban and Urban inspirational formats is to find singers to replace the station's air talent. Even before the economy went sour, stations were already being forced to make budget cuts. Following the syndicated morning and afternoon shows, the next casualty was the live and local evening personality -- replaced by voicetracking imported from a sister station's jock, syndicated programming or in some cases, a totally jock-less presentation. We're talking primarily about companies and individual stations that feel the way to ensure strong ratings is to step outside the box and hire singers and comedians to replace seasoned broadcasters.
There are reasons for the sudden interest in singers, actors and comedians. The first thought management had was that these guys have recognizable names, which should be enough to attract an audience who wouldn't listen to a talented local DJ. Of course, the guys making these decisions are managers and bean counters -- salesmen who never sat in the "air-chair." And if their decision to replace their local air talent with a live or syndicated singer fails, they can and will always blame the PD.
It's tough when as PD, you're part of the corporation that says, "The night jock has to go." You try to defend your position by saying, "We have great night numbers. In fact, in some demos, we're #1. A strong local, live night jock with a fresh, hip approach, a little personality jamming the right tracks, can force some fickle fingers to our frequency. They can cause "cross-cuming." Why, our killer night jock could even recycle some audience back to the morning show." But your market manager says, "We're never going to be able to get our rate or sell them, regardless of the numbers. Home boy is out."
What a waste. Many of these are jocks are really into their craft. They not only prepare for each break and sound good; they also flawlessly deliver consistently great flow as well. Sometimes the only thing that is called for in the format is to blend the elements. That's when the great jocks shine. They mix and blend as well as the jocks at the clubs. Like great painters, they just use different brushes, tints and hues. But faced with the possibility of extending existing shifts or going jock-less, a syndicated night show hosted by a singer may make for a reluctant, better choice.
These days stations are forced to make do with fewer employees as economics cause widespread work force reductions. With fewer staffers onboard, each individual becomes that much more important. Because of the financial times as programmers, we have to do our best to be peerless in all aspects because those of us still working in radio have so many day-to-day responsibilities. So if you're the midday guy, music and program director, head blogger on your web page, involved in the creative engine, as well as being asked to knock out a couple of spots and run the board, it doesn't mean one thing is more important than the other. At the end of the day, they're all important and the one thing you forgot and/or didn't do well will come to haunt you. Forget that you did six things well.
Reframing The Business Equation
The best on-site managers know revenue streams, power ratios and the cost of the last station Christmas party (if they had one last year). But they may have little or no clue about talent. It has become the rule rather than the exception that all companies are looking for ways to cut costs, and the new business models for radio are no different than those for business in general.
Today's profit margins are razor-thin. The first priority is to reduce "cash burn" as much as possible. That means dramatically reducing head count. Some stations have had to completely transform themselves. For others, the change was more subtle. The problem is that it has become clear that the staff the company hired when it was initially building itself does not match what is now needed to continue to be successful and potentially build more value for the shareholders.
What is happening in some companies is that they have let some people go while at the same time they're recruiting. The new hires have to know more and do more. These companies had to look for and demand specific kinds of expertise and, in the case of syndication and voicetracking, a certain level of risk because you are giving away much of your control to third parties. It's all part of an array of concerns -- as they attempt to reframe the business equation. It's kind of like getting big by going small.
Operations strategy fundamentally demands trade-offs. Accordingly, equations of one sort or another often come to dominate the thinking of managers seeking to optimize the resources at their disposal to achieve the best bottom-line results. Sometimes these equations are formalized and reflect explicit trade-off decisions, as is the case with how programming costs are being reduced.
But more often than not, managers operate with an implicit set of formulas that may be derived loosely from formal thinking but are in practice based more on trial and error. These heuristics often go unchallenged as they shape the managerial decisions that drive entire industries down a common path. Staffs are so thin now that programmers almost welcome syndication. That's four or five hours that they don't have to schedule music.
The other downside is that radio isn't attracting enough creative young people interested in a broadcasting career. Radio needs them. But where are they going to go to get their start? Radio isn't sexy anymore, so they go to other mediums, where they can get paid. Where is the next tier of talent going to have to go to get some overnight experience? And are they going to be subjected to "no after no" in every market? We are drying up the future talent for our business.
It used to be frightening to find that your live local morning or afternoon show is bailing for bigger bucks. But now when that happens, the bad news is compounded. Their replacement could be a has-been singer with no experience and a lisp.
Maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea for the radio air personalities and singers to switch up so each could see how the other really lives. For the first time, the midday person would feel the pain that comes when your lead single fizzles in the middle of the charts because someone at the label made the decision to walk away from it. Somebody on top said they had spent enough money on the project. So now what? You wait and you hope. You wait for some middle-line executive to decide what the new single will be and the release date, if any. And you hope they don't forget that you're waiting.
And it might be good for some of these singers with less-than-ordinary songs to feel some of our pain ... the pain of insecurity. The pain of finally scraping together enough money to put a down payment on a house only to be told the station is going in another direction. Can't we come up with a better line than that? Or when you're told by management that in the best interests of the company, they decided to voicetrack your show or replace it with a syndicated show.
In the case of the latter, sometimes they give you the option of staying on and running the board for eight dollars an hour. I know a couple of guys who took them up on the offer. They had nothing else going and they figured the station really cared about them and would put in a good word with the PDs at their sister stations. They were dreaming, of course. That just doesn't happen.
I guess what is most bothersome is that some of us still hold our profession in high esteem. We worked hard and paid of lot of dues to get something going in radio. And now not only do we have to compete against every other qualified broadcaster, we have to compete against singers who do daytime shifts. And sometimes these singers and/or comedians get syndicated shows without paying any real dues.
In many ways our business is as mercurial as show business itself. Singers and comedians have always been a part of show business. And as such, the whims of the public often determine not only who the next superstar will be, but often how long their superstardom will last. Sometimes the careers of air personalities and singers happen overnight and dissolve just as quickly. For example, an artist who had one super crossover smash this year could be cold as ice next summer. And just like "when you're hot, you're hot" with lots of perks, "when you're cold, you're cold."
In the case of syndication, often major radio companies and agencies make long-term commitments in advance and even bid for singers and comedians who are looking to make a move into syndicated Urban radio. They want to take full advantage of what they perceive as the star's image, appeal and familiarity. It's interesting that companies will suddenly find a budget that was once thought to be non-existent to take advantage of what they hope will be the instant success tied to a singer's appeal. That, in and of itself, could be called an achievement.
Someone once said of achievement that it often does not come without commitment and that it seemingly grants you the right of possession or at most, the privilege of access. But there usually comes a time when the brief and casual will not satisfy and, like most forms of status, they cannot be achieved without a certain risk. A risk many companies' managers seem willing to take. That's because if it fails, they have someone to blame.
Failure becomes the PD's fault, even if he or she didn't participate in the decision. We're facing more competitive pressures than ever before. That's the brave new world we live in. It's become a world where talented, experienced broadcasters are being replaced by singers, comedians and actors and usually paid much more than those they replace.
Finally, don't you think at the very least these singers should practice on the overnight shows and then move on to daytime? After all, isn't that what most of us had to do? And now, just because you're a singer, you get to skip a few grades? And how about the singers who overplay their own records? Shouldn't air personalities then be allowed to wander into a recording studio and try out a few ideas?