Since most of us first entered the radio business, Rule #1 was “No Dead Air.”
We were taught that silence was anything but golden. And if there was some sort of equipment fail or mental error, the urgent goal was to get something – ANYTHING! – on the air. Dead air was death.
In fact, we've blogged before about the dreaded “Dead Air Dream” that most everyone in radio has in one form or another if you've ever worked on the air. Or perhaps we should call it a nightmare because its an unsettling experience until you wake up only to realize that jocking at that Top 40 station in Louisville back in 1981 is still somehow embedded in your brain cells.
So, at last weekend's March For Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C., I was thinking about dead air – but in a very different context. If you saw the speeches from the Marjory Stoneham Douglas kids, you were reminded of the power of silence – the brilliance of the pause. It was turned into an art form by teen Emma Gonzalez, who has emerged as one of the most eloquent, self-aware students to come out of this Parkland tragedy.
In case you didn't see it, watch how she says more with her silence than a speech filled with rants, invectives, and raves:
On the radio, a pause – even a momentary one – can spell instant trouble – especially in PPM markets. We know that that long silences are deadly – the meter just ceases to measure.
A well-placed, well-timed pregnant pause can speak volumes on any number of topics. Oddly enough (among other things), I thought about Steve Dahl when I watched Emma Gonzalez use her silence so well. In his heyday, Dahl never went silent for long periods of time. But he used pregnant pauses deftly to get you to think, to take in what he was saying, to respond in your mind to a point he was making. He was a great practitioner of those momentary pauses. His show always had a unique rhythm and cadence.
When PPM came to Chicago, Dahl was one of the casualties. Some thought it had to do with the way in which meters can punish purveyors of spoken word radio. And in fact, Dahl wrote an opinion piece for the Chicago Tribune back in 2009, lamenting the new ratings methodology.
Perhaps it wasn't Dahl's content that cost him his influential place on Chicago FM radio. Maybe it was more of a style thing. Steve's manner of speaking was never rushed. And his frequent and clever use of silence became a signature. As a friend of mine in the business frequently notes, “The meters don't like that.”
It should be noted that Steve departed from the FM airwaves long before Voltair emerged as a tool to fill in the “encoding blanks.” Later, Nielsen upgraded its technology with its CBET enabled encoders. Dahl missed all that, leaving terrestrial radio to launch a podcasting network.
Would those enhancements have produced an outcome closer to his diary performance? We may never know. But he's now back on the air on WLS-AM in afternoons.
Certainly, pauses are often standard fare in public radio – and their ratings, particularly of late, have not suffered. One of the best purveyors of the pause was recently retired “All Things Considered” maestro, Robert Siegel. He had the ability to turn the phrase, but also use moments of silence as a tool to keep your attention riveted on the important topics and issues of the day on the drive home.
When you see a great standup comic or a brilliant orator in person, those calculated moments of silence provide time for the audience to react. Great personality radio often amounts to compelling storytelling. And stories that draw you in need to be delivered in ways that give you pause – that makes you think, respond, and emote.
Maybe that's also why podcasts often sound more conversational and even more whimsical than over the air radio. Storytelling requires “rests” and reaction time from the audience – whether they're with you in an auditorium or driving along listening during their commutes.
A little dead air isn't always a bad thing – just don't let it haunt your dreams.
Jacobs Media has consistently walked the walk in the digital space, providing insights and guidance through its well-read national Techsurveys.
In 2008, jacapps was launched - a mobile apps company that has designed and built more than 1,200 apps for both the Apple and Android platforms. In 2013, the DASH Conference was created - a mashup of radio and automotive, designed to foster better understanding of the "connected car" and its impact.
Along with providing the creative and intellectual direction for the company, Fred consults many of Jacobs Media's commercial and public radio clients, in addition to media brands looking to thrive in the rapidly changing tech environment.
Fred was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2018.