Call them cliches or just hackneyed “radiospeak.” Or maybe they're just crutch phrases. We hear them all the time on the radio, especially when air talent get a little stuck. A “go-to” phrase can be an easy way out.
It can also be annoying to listeners, while doing nothing to create an interesting, attention-getting environment.
It turns out this is part of a bigger syndrome in corporate world, with an apropos name:
That phrase was coined by author Anna Weiner. And it is synonymous with a form of empty language you often hear in boardrooms, often accompanied by more talk and less action.
“Put in a pin in that one.”
“This is a tough one to unpack.”
“What are the deliverables for this project?”
“Let's discuss this off-line.”
It goes on and on. In fact, garbage language keeps being invented. As Molly Young points out in a great piece in Vulture, once we hear a new catch-phrase, it's in us.
She points out these empty cliches end up impeding communication. And more and more, we just tune them out. They are roundabout ways of communicating things that are unproductive and vacuous.
And that's true on the radio as well. Most of the time, talent isn't even aware of the frequent “isms” they use. That what PD's are supposed to do – point them out and eradicate them. Because whether we're listening to a talk host or music jocks, chances are good we're hearing the same crutch language again and again.
On the air (and in normal speech), there are natural crutch words – like “like,” “you know,” and even “uh.” They slip out when we momentarily forget where we're going.
And then there are the phrases used again and again, like the ones in the illustration at the top of this post. It's not that they're harmful – they're simply ignored, tuned out, and fall on deaf ears. They also don't sound like how real people talk:
Radio folks: When you say things like “at the top of the seven o'clock hour” you literally sound like you're speaking in tongues.
Just say “at seven o'clock.” Speak like a normal person speaks.
— DJ Chris Cruise (@ChrisCruise) March 3, 2020
Like “Action News” or “Eyewitness News” – the way so many news teams describe their product – they become invisible after a while. And the ubiquity of “Breaking News” often causes us to question whether stories are truly fresh or hyped us to make us think so.
You hear them and see them so much, they lose whatever impact they might have had. That's what cliches do, and why we subconsciously tune out when athletes are interviewed and say things like “We're taking it one game at a time” or “As long as we play our game” or “I'm giving 110%.” The oft-repeated phrases become “garbage language.”
I've even noticed while watching “Jeopardy” how the unflappable Alex Trebek often concludes his contestant interviews with “Good for you,” a crutch line he uses frequently as an exit ramp for these short tête-à-têtes.
That's why its important for air talent to self-police their breaks and talk segments – or better yet, ask for trained outside ears to help them identify these annoying potholes that make their content sound artificial or forced. When you think of some of the best personalities you've heard over the years, chances are good they don't crutch out – instead, they always sound fresh and relevant.
If it'll make radio people feel better, rest assured it's just as bad in podcasting. Our dear friend, Eric Nuzum, is now attending a podcasting conference where he's steeling himself to face the barrage of cliches and overused buzzwords.
Aside from providing podcasters, would-be podcasters, and especially those seeking to cash in on this still-fledgling medium great ideas, Eric offers up some great advice. Here's my favorite quote from his story that recently appeared in Medium:
While you can derive much knowledge about the podcasting arena from Eric's wisdom and experience at NPR, Audible, and other trial-by-fire situations, his suggesting about how to pass the time at this conference says it all about our world of occupational cliches.
Yes, it's his version of “Podcasting Bingo” – and he's compiled a likely list of trigger words that will lead you to a big win. Among them:
And yes, it's not just possible but ever-so-likely multiple terms will end up in the same comment.
At last summer's “Portland Pop-Up” put on by Phil Becker's capable team from Alpha Media strategically placed air horns blared any time a guest speaker uttered one of these frequent radio, media, or tech-isms. It brought attention to the syndrome, forcing speakers and presenters (yes, myself included) to speak in clear terms. Like the way people talk.
Every industry needs its own shorthand and acronyms – a customized language in which a word or two summarizes a situation or condition. But whether it's that DJ crutching out on meaningless time checks, a CEO playing shell games on investor calls, or podcasters bloviating about whatever is this year's next big things.
Maybe we should take some inspiration from Eric Nuzum and turn some of these radio crutch phrases into a drinking game. It might help set occasions, encourage time spent listening, and actually be fun.
But it sure wouldn't make for great radio.
The problem with “garbage language” is that it can become habitual. How often have you heard a friend or someone on TV use a phrase, and you begin to hear yourself incorporating it in your own speech?
As Vulture writer Molly Young tells us, “Once you hear a word, it's ‘in' you. It has penetrated your ears and entered your brain, from which it can't be selectively removed.”
The good news, I suppose, is that these cliches aren't a radio thing – they're everywhere. But the less we use them and the more we talk like real people, we make meaningful connections with fans.