The Robots Are Coming

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(Necessary disclaimer: opinions are my own and not my employer’s or anyone else’s, not now and not ever.)

Do I need to explain what radio voicetracking is? That’s when a jock records their talk bits hours or days ahead of when the bits will actually air. Hit the record button, listen to the last few seconds of whatever precedes our track, say what we’re going to say when the little light goes on, then hit another button when we’re done talking to trigger the next element. By not having to sit through the songs and the commercials, it is possible to track a show that’s several hours long in vastly less time. It is also possible for voicetrackers to be heard on stations in markets far distant from where they live.

A hill on which I would die is that doing a radio show is crafting, like building a birdhouse or throwing a pot. So I prepare a tracked show just like a live one. Whether it’s just one hour or several, I script everything in advance. I have recommended this approach to other jocks, but they tell me it would take them too much time. (I always wonder why a person would go into radio if not to spend time doing radio things, but I guess that’s none of my business.) A voicetracker can walk into a studio and bang out a five-hour show in a relatively few minutes, but it’s gonna be mostly rote DJ stuff, which does little to really command a listener’s attention. Like any other craft, the result you get out of your work is proportional to the time you put into it.

I am forever concerned that my tracked shows don’t sound the same as my live ones. Doing a show in real time means that my talk breaks have a more lively and positive energy than voicetracked breaks, which tend to be more sterile. I am not actor enough to fake that energy to my own satisfaction, although honesty compels me to report that I don’t know if my listeners perceive a difference.

People want to debate whether voicetracking is good, but that ship sailed years ago. What we ought to be debating right now is AI.

Last week, Fred Jacobs published a guest post at his site from veteran radio executive Tom Langmyer, talking about what artificial intelligence might mean for radio, especially as it relates to voicetrackers. One point I had not considered is the ability of an AI “voicetracker” to respond to events on the fly. Langmyer tells about one radio station group that pulled all of the Gordon Lightfoot songs it had scheduled on the weekend after his death because the voicetracking was already done, and it would sound weird to play a Lightfoot song without mentioning that he had died. (At least they cared enough to do that much.) An AI “voicetracker” could have accounted for this, and could certainly update other stuff in real time as well. Certainly this would be a vast improvement over the by-necessity-generic nature of conventional voicetracks.

Langmyer doesn’t mention the very first thing I thought of, however: if an AI “voicetracker” is good, why not replace all of the jocks with AI, which will work for free (after the initial expense), never take vacation or sick days, and won’t bitch about anything ever?

The promise of voicetracking was that a station in West Overshoe could sound like it had major-market talent, which did not turn out to be true everywhere. AI offers a similar promise, only at a more sophisticated level. Will it deliver? I don’t know. Will stations—especially the major chains, drowning in debt with worthless stock—embrace it regardless of whether it delivers what it promises, because of the cost savings?

Yeah, about five minutes after it becomes practical.

Afterword: I have watched the rise of ChatGPT and similar large language AI models with absolute horror. We are not remotely ready for the implications of them. Corporations and entrepreneurs alike are forging ahead with such applications in search of financial windfalls without giving a single microscopic damn about the havoc it is likely to cause. Even if you aren’t concerned about rogue AI exterminating humanity, you ought to have practical and ethical concerns: about the proliferation of deepfakes, about plagiarism, and about whether we really need to hear the Beatles doing Kanye West songs or some shit.

This stuff is world-changing technology on the scale of the wheel and the light bulb, and we’re treating it like it’s Candy Crush on our cell phones. 

7 thoughts on “The Robots Are Coming

  1. I have pretty much concluded that AI will eat my (predominantly) writing-based job at some point before I am old enough to retire out of it.
    Haven’t decided what to do about that yet; maybe it’s time to get the CDL and learn to drive the beer truck.

  2. Yah Shure

    Just have AI replace all of the human listeners. Problem solved, not to mention huge time spent listening figures.

  3. mikehagerty

    Bobby Ocean (KGB, KFRC, KHJ and others) once said “The thing about show business is if you want the business, you have to have a show.”

    Looks like they may have figured that out.

    Like kblumenau, my job depends on writing and so does my side job. I need to stay on the horse for another two years and ten months to get the maximum Social Security for the rest of my life. Fingers crossed.

  4. Leo Edelstein

    Old rule of thumb suggests DJs do one hour of prep for every hour on the air.
    So, if JB does a “Saturday at the 70s” 7p-midnight show on WMGN, he invests five hours preparing each show. Does he? Most likely. Can we tell the difference of prepared jocks vs not prepared jocks? If we’re listening, absolutely.

    1. The number of jocks who walk into the studio with nothing and expect to get by on their gift of gab (which was me for a long, long time) is a scandal. I don’t do an hour of prep for every hour on the air all week—it’s simply not necessary to spend that much time—although if you count the programming necessary in advance of the Saturday night show, it maybe gets close to five.

  5. Wesley

    The combination of AI in the hands of the leaders of iHeart Media ought to scare you if have half a brain, to paraphrase Rupert Holmes. Recently in my market they suddenly replaced the successful local morning team with the Chicago-based “The Fred Show,” the most lifeless, phony morning radio talk show I’ve ever heard. It seems to be paving the way for what jb is predicting here about AI drop-ins between songs, because that would sound more original and be cheaper than what they’re doing apparently nationwide right now.

    And as a writer, you’re damn sure that I’m afraid about what this could do to my job security. I’m hoping to retire in less than 7 years, but I’ll be eligible for Social Security in less than 4 years, and if I do get laid off due to AI during that time, I ain’t gonna fight to prove that I’m worthy of hiring between that and ageism. Doing my best to load up my savings and cut back on spending right now in preparation for the worst.

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