Radio is Going to HAL

22You remember HAL? The HAL 9000 is a fictional character from Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey series. HAL’s name stood for Heuristically programmed Algorithmic computer. HAL was the future of artificial intelligence. HAL always spoke in a soft, calm voice and in a conversational manner. HAL was born in the 90s according to Clarke.

I remember computerizing my radio station’s traffic and billing system around that same time. Computers would quickly invade every part of my radio station operations. It was scary. I remember looking at that computer box and thinking, if that darn thing “dies” there goes the whole enchilada. It wasn’t like losing a phonograph needle or a cart machine or a CD player. Computers changed the game to an all or nothing model. Computers also introduced another concept foreign to radio broadcasters, planned replacement schedules while they were still fully operational. Radio always used to run every piece of equipment until it could run no more. But you couldn’t play that game with computers.

More Dead Air

Programming great, George Johns, recently posted this thought on his blog: “Is it just me or are there a lot more pauses on the radio now than there was when we were using carts.”   And I wrote back to Geo that I noticed the same thing. I figured it was because today, the people charged with running radio stations are not listening to them. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. They are busy – very busy – multi-tasking.

When computers were introduced into radio, I thought it would be great because it would allow air talent to spend more time working on show prep, interacting with the listeners and being focused on their show and not about cuing up records, pulling carts etc. For small market radio stations, it meant that air talent would have an engineer just like the big city radio stations had always had for their air talent. But that’s not what happened.

The radio industry had a different idea in mind. Computers would allow air talent to do more.

After the Telcom Act of 1996, the radio industry began to rapidly consolidate. General Managers became Market Managers. (GMs usually were charged with overseeing an AM/FM broadcast property. MMs would oversee multiple AMs, FMs and in many cases, multiple markets of AMs & FMs.) Computers were quickly seen as a way to do more with less. More work with less people that is.

Multi-tasking Kills Your Brain

Air personalities now could be on multiple radio stations at the same time. They could multi-task. The unfortunate part of this is research now shows that multi-tasking will kill your brain. Turns out our brains were not built to multi-task.

MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller quoted in Inc. magazine says that our brains are “not wired to multi-task well and when people think they are multi-tasking, they are actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.” This constant switching actually produces bad brain habits. Worse, multi-tasking actually lowers your work quality and your efficiency. It actually lowers a person’s IQ like if you were to skip sleeping or use drugs. So if you wonder why today’s air talent isn’t connecting with listeners like they used to, it really isn’t their fault. The deck has been stacked against them by an industry that is using computers and voice tracking to enable their air talent to multi-task. Multi-tasking is not a skill to add to resume. It’s a bad habit to quit doing.

Computers Change College Radio

Erik O’Brien wrote in an article in Radio Survivor about how automation was introduced into his college radio station and how it changed the way college radio was now done and not for the better in his opinion.

KUTE adopted the ENCO DAD radio automation software. What had been a college radio station comprised of student radio enthusiasts, experimenting, having fun – sometimes producing radio greatness and sometimes not – would turn into a more “professional” operation through the use of computerized software. A radio station that had live radio personalities around the clock could now operate without any DJs.

Everything that goes on the air goes through DAD (Digital Audio Delivery). If it’s not in the computer, it won’t go on-the-air. This standardization now allowed for KUTE to begin monetizing their programming. KUTE had an AM signal, licensed by the FCC, but when the transmitter broke down and there was no money to repair it, it became an online only station. Now it was not subject to FCC rules that embraced a community-driven model of radio. It also could now support advertising that could be scheduled and aired that its non-commercial FCC license did not allow.

The new computerized system meant the station was now stable and standardized and predictable. Except when the computer loaded programs didn’t air and other operator errors would plague the station’s on-air sound. What used to be a fun college experience now was a stressful chore.

The Bottom Line

What it all comes down to, whether we’re talking about college radio or commercial radio, is what value are we offering to our listeners by the technology we employ? What do we want the listener experience to be? If we use technology to allow our air talent to be more focused on the station’s mission, radio will be great but if we use it in other ways, probably not.


Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio, Sales, Uncategorized

9 responses to “Radio is Going to HAL

  1. In many ways, computers didn’t smarten up radio, they dumbed it down. They gave more people easy access (many times from their desk top) to tasks that suddenly they were now doing. In many stations, rather than have an Engineer digitize commercials into a system, now someone in Traffic would do it, often times by just dragging an MP3 into a data base. At the same time, as spot distribution became easier, a whole level of people disappeared and now an MP3 could be emailed, or placed on a web site to be retrieved. There was no longer a need for tape duplication or the like and since it was just a computer file, heck even a secretary could send it out. The result is that sometimes spots are never listened to until they air, leaving the poor listener wondering why some are louder than others, why some are dated, and why there are often holes in the programing. Take the professionals out of the mix and you get what you pay for. Just because someone CAN do something, it doesn’t mean they SHOULD.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. jamescridland

    As you say here, the issue isn’t the technology: it’s how people use it… filling a playout system with songs and hitting “play” is not the same as carefully listening to every segue, every station ID, and polishing the sound of the output.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Curt Krafft

    I agree completely. A machine cannot relate to people just as people cannot relate to a soulless machine. The human touch is what separates us from the Neanderthals. It is also what separates us from marginal, if any profits and laughing all the way to the bank. So long as one continues to focus on just saving money one will never “make” money.


  4. Hal Widsten

    The computerized systems saved a lot of very good community oriented, locally programmed smaller market stations that probably would not exist today without them. As has already been shared, it isn’t the machines……it is what we do with them. Hal W. ( no relation to the 9000). 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Technology has kept many small market stations on the air (and sounding better). The reality: If you care about your station, you CAN make it sound great with the technology. Dead air? I can count several times talent went home at night (quit) or didn’t show up at all (on weekends). Truth: “Listening to every segue, every station ID, and polishing the sound of the output” will produce a superior product. Getting generic tracks from a FTP download wont. My station can’t afford a full time staff (our town doesn’t have a car dealership, furniture store and just got a McDonalds). Without today’s technology, we would be on a Satellite driven format with “magic calls” (remember those). Yuck! That was sloppy programming!. With voice tracking, I have folks that can be on the air, but have jobs that can make way more than radio could pay them, but they still love the business and produce great local content (and yes.. occasionally will do a live shift if their schedule allows.) They usually track a few hours before their shift to get the latest information, and have immediate access to change tracks if needed, they have a laptop and a EV RE-20 with them). For example we had severe weather the other night. Our night guy recut tracks to reflect those changes. I was standing by if the weather went South. Our city administrators know they have full control of the station if the event of any major emergency. All of our announcers are familiar with our market. Know the names of the towns, the people, and yes we talk frequently about programming. That makes the difference between VT’d programming and voice tracking that works. Automation has always been part of radio. Does anyone remember Scullys and Carosuels.


  6. Some of that “dead air” is caused by the fact that with commercial insertion software on webstreams, commercials MUST be exact length for everything to time out right. What amazes me is that even with the technology today to time squeeze, etc, stations STILL refuse to produce exact length spots. (Yes, I’m calling you out, i-Heart. You are one of the worst offenders in some of your markets.) And I still see agency spots coming to my in box which are :58 and even :61 seconds.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: CES 2019 | DickTaylorBlog

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