A few years ago a radio talent coach told me, “You sound like you have a purpose in mind every time you open the microphone,” which is one of the higher compliments I have ever received.
A lot of radio jocks talk because they have 11 seconds over the introduction of a song or because they’re supposed to read a promo before the commercial break, and not because they have something in particular that they want to accomplish. And there is a difference. You hear it up and down the dial: jock cracks the microphone, gives the call letters, and starts talking, but you hear the gears grinding as he gropes for the next thought, unsure of precisely where he’s going, hopeful that he’ll find his way to a logical end-point. Sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn’t, and as a listener, you get the same sick feeling you might get from watching a wobbly high-wire walker. Is he gonna make it? I don’t think he’s gonna make it!
(This isn’t just a small-market phenomenon. You hear it in the majors, too.)
If you’re gonna speak to people on the radio, it’s absolutely vital to know where you’re going, always, and how to make sure you get there—every time you speak.
When I started working for our company’s country station in 2010, it was programmed by John Sebastian. Before he left it all behind for a career in voice work, John was one of the radio industry’s great program directors, at legendary stations in major markets across the country, the kind of guy emulated by young programmers such as I used to be. Before I joined his station, all I heard from my colleagues in the building was how tough John was on his jocks. He told them to turn off the autopilot, which most radio stations use to play music and commercials even when a live jock is on the air, and pay attention to segues and transitions. He insisted they script every break and rehearse it before they did it on the air. He coached them on how to pronounce the call letters—something most jocks unthinkingly spit out at the start of a break. And he wasn’t shy about coming into the studio and talking to them about what they’d just done, or hadn’t done.
But I wanted to work for him anyway. Among the things I learned was that nobody cares about the craft of being a radio jock quite as much as John, and it scratched an itch I didn’t know I had.
(I have since become a big believer in scripting. It does more than just ensure you say the words right; it ensures that you say the right words.)
I surf the radio dial while I travel, and there’s a lot of poor craftsmanship out there. Jocks with no purpose other than to fill time, often with crutches, clichés, or meaningless bits. (Trust me: nobody cares about the weekend box office or whatever the Kardashians are up to.) Breaks that exist to massage egos—of jocks, of stations, of sponsors—without offering anything to the listener. People with beautiful voices who have nothing to say.
(Implicit in the rise of voicetracking was the promise that small-market stations could sound like they had major-market talent. What a lot of them end up with is the same meaningless blather they got from their hometown talent, delivered by better pipes.)
I am conscious of the fact that I, an insignificant part-time jock in a medium-sized city, can do very little to counteract these trends. Except to make sure that I continue to have a purpose in mind every time I turn on the microphone.
Plausibly Related: Even when a station runs jockless, it can still suffer from poor craftsmanship, or a hazy sense of purpose. Traveling in northern Minnesota, I listened to a station that positioned itself as “Adult Standards 930.” Right away there’s a problem: adult standards is a phrase that has a clear meaning to radio people but not to the audience. Then, the very first song I heard was “Those Shoes” by the Eagles, an album cut from The Long Run. Order was seemingly restored after that with songs by Bread, Tom Jones, and other identifiably “adult” acts and “standard” songs, going as far back as the pre-rock 50s with “Cross Over the Bridge” by Patti Page.
But that Eagles song stayed with me. What were they thinking? Also heard in the hour I listened: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Andy Williams. On an afternoon in March.
Craftsmanship. Attention to detail. They matter. People notice.