There, I've said it. Two simple words that could change our business for the better. Of all the cost-savings gleaned from consolidation, this is the most insidious, damaging, and short-sighted policy that has strangled our industry over the past decade.
The political landscape has taught us a great deal about words and phrases that influence – and distort. So, let's call it what it is. Voicetracking is a slick, modern-day term for automation. When we think about automation in radio, we remember the old Schulke and Bonneville "Beautiful Music" formats that were run on clunky systems using cart machines and big 10" reel-to-reel tape decks. Automation became an industry joke.
Voicetracking, however, has become associated with fiscal savings, efficiency, and multi-tasking – all good things in radio today. Yet, what has been the true benefit of voicetracking, as radio staffs around the country have been pared back, and infrastructure has been shrunk? Many stations are running out of bodies to do tire store remotes.
At a time when Rock stations all around the country are scrambling to replace Howard Stern, the lack of talent development in our business is an escapable truth. Many stations that haven't been involved with Stern are very likely sitting back and enjoying watching this madness from the sidelines, confident that the new three-year deal with their morning show will be their station's salvation.
But the truth is, talent development in radio is an oxymoron. It isn't happening. With the exception of a Rover here and there, it's the same syndicated shows again and again. There are no great new morning shows out there – at least, not enough to make a difference. Meanwhile, toned-down "shock jocks" are now solidly in their 50's, while ownership assumes they'll go on forever.
Guess what? They won't. Case in point is right here in Detroit, where the late, great J.P. McCarthy ruled the morning airwaves for decades. Still a young man (62) in 1995, he contracted a rare blood disease and suddenly passed away. WJR, despite having a guy on staff who did fill-in for J.P., has never been the same. There really wasn't a Plan B.
Yet, in TV Land, they do things differently. They believe in talent development (OK, except for CBS). The big networks don't waste their late night hours. They use these lower-rated time slots to develop new hosts, hence the relatively smooth transition that occurred when Leno replaced Carson, and when O'Brien replaces Leno. That's how NBC News dealt with Tom Brokaw's retirement, having a ready-to-go Brian Williams in the wings. That's why Jimmy Kimmel has to be smiling right now. If he plies his craft and stays focused, he's the next in line for a great TV gig.
Back in radio, our developmental dayparts – nights and overnights – aren't used for growing new talent. They're used for saving money. That's why they're populated with disembodied voices whose claim to fame is that they can lay down voicetracks for a four hour show in under 20 minutes. If you ask Mancow, Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and Jeff & Jer where they first got their starts in radio, the odds are good they spent time working overnights (or weekends) – hours that are now dribbled away to automation.
Clear Channel popularized voicetracking in radio, and our industry hasn't been the same since. Looking back over the past 10 years, the decisions they've made, and the influences they've had, have become clearer. In this case, voicetracking has been a colossal mistake.
It's time to re-examine this model, and begin to rethink how we're using nights, overnights, and weekends. Instead of throwing them away to voicetracked jocks, the same station format experimentation that has spawned Jack, podcasting, and other innovations should be applied to talent development. This is where we should start taking chances with up-and-coming jocks who sound different, who take chances, and who aren't afraid to fail.
Radio continues to mortgage its future. We are deep into the process of giving away the youth market to other media. But at our root, the key element that separates us from iPods and AOL Radio is our talent. Sirius and XM have figured that out, which is why both services have gone well beyond music formats in recent years. Consumers are loyal to talented entertainers, not songs that test good. Talent development has been a cornerstone of radio since its invention.
If we don't remember what got us to this dance, we are not going to be around to enjoy its future.
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