Has Radio Become a Commodity?

commoditiesBy definition, a commodity product lacks a unique selling point. Two examples of what I mean are lettuce and pencils. No one has a brand favorite of either. To the consumer of both, they’re all the same. Commodities are interchangeable with other products or services, widely available, and therefore undifferentiated except maybe by price.

How about Radio?

Recently, an administrator of a radio group that I’m a member of on Facebook posed this question to the group “Rick Sklar once said jocks are like spark plugs and can be replaced with another one. What do you think?”

Now for those readers that may not be familiar with the name Rick Sklar, he became program director of WABC – 770AM in New York City in 1963. With WABC’s clear channel signal, a tight playlist that targeted teenagers and air talent which included Dan Ingram, Ron Lundy, Harry Harrison, Cousin Brucie, Chuck Leonard and Charlie Greer, Sklar made Music Radio 77 into the most listened to radio station in North America from the mid 60s to the late 70s.

Needless to say, the comments by former air personalities in the group took issue with this “spark plug” analogy, me included.

Unique Air Talents

One-of-a-kind radio personalities built radio into the listener favorite that it’s enjoyed for nearly a century. More recently, there’s Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern (who said he was influenced by Arthur Godfrey), Paul Harvey, Super Jock Larry Lujack, Robert W. Morgan, The Real Don Steele, Dave Maynard, Joel Cash, Dale Dorman, Larry Justice, Jackson Armstrong, Salty Brine, Bob Steele, Dickie Robinson, Danny Neaverth, John Records Landecker, J.J. Jeffrey, Bill Bailey, Big Ron O’Brien, Don Imus, Bob Dearborn and so many more. Those are just some of the names that inspired me to pursue a 50-year radio career.

Each of these radio personalities is unique and the shows they presented attracted an audience that was loyal to their style of broadcasting. They were anything but, a commodity.

Computer Automation

With the advent of computer automation, the concept of voice-tracking was born. Now a few disc jockeys could be heard on-the-air over a multitude of radio stations across America. Unfortunately, this meant that customizing their radio shows to a particular radio market had to be eliminated and the DJ patter had to be appropriate for all markets the program was airing in. It became watered down and because all big box radio operators were employing the same “Best Practices,” the ownership of the station really didn’t matter as everything began to sound the same.

Contests became nationally oriented, jingles (if there were any) all sounded the same, and playlists, which once reflected regional differences and artists, were now homogenized.

On Air production, which was once an art form in and of itself, was now also computerized. The result being a disjointed, sloppy and anything but smooth radio experience.

The result of all of this was radio being turned into a commodity.

Culture Shock

“Technology is enabling great gains in convenience and diversity,” says Tyler Cowen, professor of economics at George Mason University. “What is being lost is a sense of magnificence.”

He goes on to say

“It is possible we will look back on the present day as a special time when both patterns of cultural consumption could be enjoyed in tandem and enriched (by) each other. But I suspect not. As today’s over-50 crowd slowly passes away, and our experiences fade from collective memory, I wonder if the world might be in for a bigger cultural shock than we currently realize.”

 

23 Comments

Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio, Sales

23 responses to “Has Radio Become a Commodity?

  1. Gregg Cassidy

    I really like the “spark plug” analogy. It clearly defines the air talent and it reveals the deep thought process of Rick Sklar. This also exposes another area of radio that has become a problem. Many companies make very few attempts to build a great stable of air talents. When it becomes time to replace an air talent, they just look to see who is unemployed in the area and plug them into their lineup. In many cases this “spark plug” has already been used in a few other engines and are way past their prime.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I know that’s the way Rick thought, but his idea really didn’t sit well with the on the air guys at WABC. For a number of years, he had Johnny Donovan do a one hour show between Lundy and Ingram every day. The caveat was that Johnny couldn’t say his name (not easy for a dj to do). Nobody really knew if this was because he wanted Ron and Dan separated, or if he was testing his “spark plug” analogy.

    I was lucky enough to live and work in the Golden Age of DJs, and to actually work with a number of them from the WMCA Good Guys to great FM DJs at WPLJ, to of course, the best of the best at WABC like Dan Ingram and George Michael. There are a lot of very good DJs still around, but I wonder if there will ever be the kind of minor league setup anymore that grew these great DJs from our past. Days when every station in the market wasn’t owned by 2 companies…the days of the Mom and Pop stations. Radio has changed, and has been joined by so many ways to get music today, that I wonder if it can ever again be anything but a commodity?

    Frank

    Liked by 2 people

    • Frank, you indeed worked with some of the very best air talent during “The Golden Age of DJs.” (I like that description. It really says what kind of radio many of us grew up during and participated in.)

      I never knew about the one-hour Johnny Donovan period, between Ingram & Lundy. I would have hated it though, as I always loved the hand-off from Ron to Dan in that half-hour period before the Dan Ingram Electric Radio Theater hit the air.

      Another great hand-off was when Dave Maynard turned over WBZ to Larry Justice. To me, those were some of the really golden moments of LIVE radio.

      Thanks for sharing your wonderful radio life with the readers of this blog Frank.
      -DT

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thom Whetston

    When the owners cared, Sklar was right. When they lost someone with magic they’d find a way to add new value. They don’t do that now.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. If Rick Sklar was right then radio has ALWAYS been a commodity. Like Frank, I worked with some of the best in the business in the many markets I worked in. While I wish their talent and notoriety had rubbed off on me (it didn’t), I admired the presence each and every one had. I saw some make moves that should have bolstered their presence in their respective markets -and they failed because the “new” station didn’t match up to the listener’s expectations. I’ve seen other cases where the jock’s movement changed the fate of the “new” station for the better. Rick Dees went to KHJ because of his success in Memphis. It didn’t work. Not Dees’ fault, ’cause AM was losing to FM by then. When he went to KIIS -it was his time to shine. He subsequently went to KMVN-failure. Then KHHT – failure. It’s all a part of the recipe. KFC has “11 herbs and spices”- -not 8 or 9. I believe in 2020 there IS a pretty good recipe for pretty good radio. The focus of industry has to return to making the listeners happy. Isn’t the #1 rule of success to find a niche and fill it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the days that I was growing up, radio was certainly NOT a commodity. There were few radio stations on-the-air and each one served its community of license in its own way. There was a lot of variety and creativity.

      Musically, we had local & regional hits in addition to national ones.

      I do agree that air personalities often didn’t do well when they moved to different markets or stations. Robert W. Morgan wasn’t fit for Chicago and the Wolfman didn’t exactly light up NYC.

      But then there were people like Larry Lujack that moved between WLS and WCFL and brought his audience right along with him.

      I sure hope radio in 2020 follows your #1 rule of success. That will never go out of style.

      Thanks Dave for giving us all more to think about.
      -DT

      Like

  5. Johnny Holliday

    Enjoyed the column.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. ds52

    From a strictly consumer viewpoint I totally agree with what is happening to radio. Too sad as I have a small group of DJ’s I actively look for/follow as we travel. In a search for “Best Local Radio Shows” invariably they all sound similar.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As a couple who’s constantly traversing America in your motor home, you provide valuable insights to this subject.

      Sad to have you confirm that today’s radio isn’t fooling anyone and that people can hear the difference between great radio and stations that just keep a modulated signal on-the-air.

      Appreciate you sharing that perspective.
      -DT

      Like

  7. Don Beno

    I think radio is being used as more of a utility. If you want traffic or weather information, you can tune in while driving to work in the morning. But you also have utility in your pocket that will give you that same information.
    You can use that radio utility for music too. But again, you have another utility in your pocket that will provide that same exact service….only you get to pick the songs.
    So basically, the smart phone has become the preferred utility for providing music.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. That’s a good analogy, Dick. But, with differentiates a “local” station from one of those “voice tracked cuties” with the voices that are just giving song titles and artists are the ones that do local news, local traffic and local weather. It becomes timely and up to the minute.

    We were always preached to by consultants for many years that “the music is the star”. While true to an extent, I wonder if these days, the REAL star for local radio today is the information that we can provide. That is what you can’t get from Spotify, Pandora, XM/Sirius and the like.

    Another aspect that is also true about voice tracking…real time correct time, along with temperatures on weather forecasts is possible on a voice tracked station. And even most internet radio software is capable of doing this. The rub, though: it is extremely time consuming to set up in your music logs, which is why most companies do NOT mess with it. Sad. Because if they took the time to do this, radio would sound a lot more local and “live sounding”.

    Like

    • I hear you Kevin, but you nailed when you said that to do automated radio, with time, temp etc all current, takes a lot of time and most stations don’t spend the time as a result. People are responsible for multiple stations these days and are simply are over-burdened and their attention to detail is nil.

      I would say that many of us who grew up during “The Golden Age of DJs” found the air talent and stationality were powerful draws for our radio listening.

      If music, by itself were all people wanted, why are dance clubs hosted by DJs? I know every dance club in Atlantic City has popular DJs to attract patrons. You can see their names in lights and on the many billboard on the roads coming into the seashore resort.

      Club DJs today often far out-earn radio station DJs. And great club DJs are certainly NOT a commodity!

      Thanks for giving us all more to think about and contributing to the blog Kevin.
      -DT

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Walter L Luffman

    I like the automotive analogy, but the very best air personalities were never mere spark plugs — they were entire cylinders that powered the station’s engine. They had plenty of spark, but also compression and perfect timing; the program director was the camshaft that kept them working together in harmony.

    But even the best engine still needs the rest of the car (sales, promotion, production, engineering, _everyone_) working properly or you’d might as well stay in the garage.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Darryl Parks

    Great blog as usual. I will take issue with one thing, however. Voice tracking technology did not cause content to become homogenized. It was the cheap talent employed to voice track. The technology allows for easy customization, but if that technology is not used properly you get this watered down version of radio we hear today – Burger King radio. You mentioned some great radio personalities of the past. Would their talents have taken voice tracking to a highly customized level? We’ll never know, but probably, because they were “talented,” knew how to relate to a target audience, did show prep, and were not liner card readers that were hired on the cheap to VT. Of course the other issue is the consolidators and its corporate programmers want liner card readers because that’s what the audience has been trained to want for decades. And honestly there are few corporate programmers who would even know how to produce anything entertaining, compelling, and personality driven using the great technology available today. And that’s the sad truth.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: What Is The Value Of A Radio Listener?

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