The 1979 hit record by Charlie Dore called Pilot of the Airwaves perfectly captured a listener’s sentiment in the lyric:
“I’ve been listening to your show on the radio
and you seem like a friend to me.”
The two most important features radio broadcasting can provide for its listeners are a sense of community, and companionship.
While the pandemic exacerbated the situation, it’s been decades in the making.
In 1995, Robert D. Putnam wrote an essay entitled “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”; the essay chronicled the decline in all forms of in-person social interchange. What Putnam saw in his research was that the very foundation Americans had used to establish, educate and enrich the fabric of their social lives was eroding. People were now less likely to participate in their community, social organizations, churches, and even their democracy.
This trend has only been accelerated by social media and the internet with the unintended consequences of the internet being, that it has isolated each of us to a web of one. Algorithms have taken what Putnam saw happening in the last century and put it on steroids in this century, all in the name of driving more efficiency.
The term “efficiency bubble” means that efficiency is valued over effectiveness in today’s world, it was coined by Will Lion of BBH advertising.
Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy in the UK, shared this personal experience that demonstrated the efficiency bubble.
“The absurdity of the efficiency bubble was brought home to me in a recent meeting with an online travel company. The conversation repeatedly included the mantra ‘the need to maximize online conversion.’ Everyone nodded along. Clearly, it is much more efficient for people to book travel through the website than over the telephone, since it reduces transaction costs. But then someone – not me, I’m ashamed to say – said something revelatory: ‘Ah, but here’s the thing. Online visitors to the site convert at about 0.3%. People who telephone convert at 33%. Maybe the website should have a phone number on every page.”
“Perhaps the most efficient way to sell travel is not the most effective way to sell travel. What, in short, is the opportunity cost of being efficient?”
“Nobody ever asks this question. Opportunity costs are invisible; short-term savings earn you a bonus. That’s the efficiency bubble at work again.”
Consolidation is Just Another Word for “Efficiency”
During radio’s massive consolidation, Excel spreadsheets produced by new minted MBAs screamed a multitude of ways to have radio stations become more efficient. Unfortunately, the fast-lane involved the elimination of tens of thousands of radio jobs.
And this is still going on as I write this article; not just in radio, but in television and social media as well.
I don’t ever remember anyone asking about “opportunity costs” being sacrificed in the process.
In the last radio property, I managed, my days would be spent going to corporate meetings about Reductions In Force (RIFs) and coming home with a thumb drive that had dates to open new pages in an Excel spreadsheet, that listed what people and departments were to be eliminated next.
Efficient radio chases away listeners,
effective radio creates them.
Blame It on Competition
When all radio companies chase the same efficiency metrics, they all end up sounding the same, their websites end up looking the same, and in essence, they’ve turned the creative medium of radio into a commodity.
As I wrote about in the article The Birth of Radio in America, deregulation of broadcast now has virtually all of the radio stations in a radio market owned by one or two companies.
Radio always stole great ideas from other radio stations around the country, but most often those stolen ideas were massaged and improved upon in the process. Everyone was upping the game through their own creativity lens, and each radio station had its own unique sound.
Unfortunately, along with corporation radio came the concept of “Best Practices”. This would be yet another contributor to the end of personal creativity at radio stations, all in the name of more efficiency.
The pursuit of efficiency is a rational answer to an emotional problem.
The radio business was never built on Excel spreadsheets and doing what was most efficient, it was built by creative people who touched others emotionally. Be it station imaging, air personalities, promotions, contests, community events, advertising or marketing, radio always went for people’s hearts.
I was reminded all of this when I was listening to Music & Jingles LIVE with Jon Wolfert on Rewound Radio. The show featured the creators of the famous 1974 Nine Tape created by Howard Hoffman, Randy West, Russ DiBello and Pete Salant. Listen to this five minute and thirty-seven seconds of audio HERE and you will understand…
7 responses to “Community & Companionship Isn’t Built on Efficiency”
The obits of the golden era of radio were written when Jack Welch evangelized shareholder value over continuous improvement of products and services. We now have the data to evaluate the damage done to many industries.
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So true Victor.
This is the most concise and to the point description of what is continuing to happen in radio today. You are so correct; before all the radio conglomerates took over, good healthy competition inspired stations everywhere to constantly improve on what was working at others. I think one of the best examples is the “Morning Zoo” phenomenon that Scott Shannon picked up on in the early 80’s in Tampa, FL and moved it and honed it in NYC. In most markets you frequently had multiple stations with the same formats that were very aggressive and creative in attempting to beat out the competition. Even the commercials in many cases were entertaining and creative as well
Today, this is all gone. Terrestrial radio is so boring it’s hard to believe it. Even most private streams that claim to be bringing back the old days of Top 40 or other radio formats don’t cut it for me. There’s nothing like real radio done the right way. In fact, back in the 80’s, radio was so good, I actually had a feeling that it was too good to last, which is why I devoted so much time and money to recording long form unscoped airchecks. Too bad, the technology to do this did not exist in the heydays of WABC, WMCA and other early great NYC stations. We can be thankful, though, for what has been preserved – I’m quite certain this kind of great radio is gone forever.
I should mention there are a couple of local and medium market stations which are trying to rectify this mess like Robby Bridges, the PD at WWZY (The Boss 107.1) in central NJ – thankfully owned by a company that supports this. But, I think it’s going to be an uphill battle to change the big radio corporations, where the only thing that matters is money and paying off huge amounts of debt.
Always, great to wake up on a Sunday morning and read your articles, Dick.
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Thank You Charlie for all you hard work and all the wonderful recordings you’ve made or restored for others to hear the Great Radio we grew up with.
And Thank You for sharing your perspective about this topic.
Effectiveness is REAL efficiency — how can it not be? Attracting more listeners (and hence, advertisers) beats cost-cutting every time.
I’m not saying radio stations need to waste money, but airstaff are people who can combine entertaining and informing; the best ones aren’t cheap, and the cheap ones usually aren’t good at their dual-priority roles. Guide and coach them, yes; but encourage their creativity and reap the rewards as an owner or manager. The sales staff will have a much easier time in their jobs and make more money by selling at higher advertising rates.
Conglomerate radio exists to milk the last remaining profits from stations acquired by leveraged buyouts. These are financed with loans secured only by the individual station, not the conglomerate owner, who have no risk when the station goes belly-up at the bank’s expense. It’s only “business,;” nothing to do with public “community and companionship.”
I’m reminded of the “thrifty” issues of today’s broadcasters by watching a TV broadcast out of Buffalo. The Bills had just eked out a last second snowy win to make the playoffs for the 4th straight year. The NFL network covered the game but the local station I was watching (owned by a large TV conglomerate which is rumored to be for sale) apparently didn’t send a videographer to the game. They used AP PICTURES. Not video. Efficient? Yup. Exciting? Nah. It’s just a prime example of what’s in this post. I shake my head.