May 8, 2012
Part-Time Help ... Can Be A Full-Time Job
In the current economic climate, even the most successful stations are facing new and unexpected challenges. Companies whose stations rely on innovation for growth -- that view the development of new products and services as their métier -- may now have to learn to exist without live local talent. Many group-owned Urban stations fall into this category.
Business is, and always has been, a numbers game. It is no secret that cash is in tight supply. Programmers are directly affected because with these group owners, it usually comes down to higher profits and minimal investment in talent. Jobs get eliminated. Programming and new technologies aren't receiving the support needed to capture radio's evaporating audience. As a result, an entire generation has grown up without radio being a significant part of their lives.
For all the effort and resources put into developing fresh ideas, many stations are unlikely to achieve maximum potential because of a lack of part-time or weekend talent. Finding fill-ins continues to be a source of great frustration. There are no simple answers to what has become a complex problem, regardless of market size.
Economic realities have changed our world. The most popular talent-sharing systems offer dozens of pre-programmed, format-specific personalities to local programmers via the new Prophet Systems Nextgen digital automation system. Essentially what this means is that music decisions and talent for weekdays from 10p until 6a and several weekend slots will be either syndicated or voicetracked. There'll always be room for "liner jocks" who execute well and offer little character, but those gigs will dwindle significantly simply because it's more cost-effective to go satellite or syndicated.
Since syndication and voicetracking have eliminated lots of weekend and overnight positions -- the ones where we used to train new talent -- it's become harder to find good part-timers. Good part-time talent is especially difficult to find now because there are fewer places where they can develop, make their mistakes and be discovered. It's not because they're not out there; there are just fewer of them; so now we have to look harder and longer.
Developing A Farm System
Both our industry and our format lack strong training platforms. A deeper look into current talent challenges shows some interesting revelations. Every programmer has to crowd into their already overloaded schedule the development of a farm system. You can never have a big enough farm system so that when the need arises you can move deserving talent into better slots.
Most PDs we've spoken with, who have taken the time to develop a farm system, say that as a result, they've had people stay with them longer and there's more of a sense of loyalty. Unfortunately, there are ebbs and flows. Sometimes you get people coming out of college who have a spark you know can be cultivated. But then you'll go into a dry spell and you won't get anything from anybody that you think you can work with.
Also, younger people seeking a profession in radio today may be turned off because in many instances the money's not that great, the hours are long and the work isn't glamorous. I spoke with a small-market PD who said that in response to his ads for staffers, he got replies from jocks who were major-market material and he wondered why they were applying to his market. In the next package would be jocks that were so bad they sounded like they graduated from one of those schools on the back of a matchbook. Some were so bad they wouldn't be allowed to work in this or any market.
We spoke with several programmers in various size markets and they all said essentially the same things. They just don't have as many small-market part-timers or overnight people getting the experience and polish needed to make the move to a larger market or from part-time to full-time. Priorities and time pressures keep programmers from focusing on talent development as much as they would like.
As an industry, we have a hard time finding the time and resources to seek out and train those just entering the business. For as long as I can remember, Urban radio, like other formats, has never had a true farm system. We continue to look at smaller market stations or simply take talent from across the street, off the vans or from local colleges.
Since the program director is the first talent coach that part-timers have ... and many PDs are saddled with responsibilities for two or three stations ... there's another problem. For one thing, program directors are seldom trained in coaching talent, even if they had the time. In other cases, the part-time talent may be inherited or the programmer may have simply made an inappropriate hire.
Smart programmers always try to keep a file of available people, even when they're not looking. That way there are always at least a few names to go to. The file should include unemployed people, people who'd like to be in radio as well as those who used to be in radio, but got out for whatever reason. After a rest, some of these guys may want to do a shift or two just for the fun of it or to keep up their skills. One guy we know does just a couple shifts a week for exactly that reason.
Why is it so difficult to find truly great part-time talent? It's a problem that has been exacerbated by recent technological developments in music scheduling, syndication, voicetracking, reliance on audience research and a lack of managerial vision. Added to that flawed thinking is the fact that for the past few years we've been discouraging air talent from being too high-profile.
Prominent programmers who misinterpreted market research decided listeners weren't really interested in personality. What these guys misunderstood was that listeners were saying they weren't interested in long-winded, self-indulgent, boring jocks. Nonetheless, jocks were encouraged to suppress their individualism and acquire a homogenous quality - one that could be easily duplicated or replaced.
Finally, in some cases, even though live talent and interaction with the local audience are very important, depending on the level of talent available, stations might be better off with voicetracked or syndicated people who sound really good and understand the purpose of the station rather than operating as a training ground for inexperienced dee-jays.
Programmers must have the flexibility to choose in order to have better talent on-air. They need the options and ability to concentrate their resources on more important dayparts and the opportunity to have the strongest weekend lineup instead of the weakest. Finding fill-ins is tough, but necessary. It's another example of the job you never start that takes the longest to finish. And sometimes, it never does.