The big debate sweeping the country this week is whether schools will reopen in the fall. And in what form will American education take? Traditional in-person classrooms, online learning, home schooling – or hybrids of those teaching disciplines. It is understandably a huge topic because our future depends on no small part on how our children will be educated in 2020 – and beyond.
And so it is in radio, an industry that has always had a checkered record when it comes to teaching and training. Many universities have offered media majors and radio curricula. But training for the “real world” of radio often has limitations at the university level. So-called broadcast schools have their place, typically doing a good job at teaching the mechanics of the industry.
For those who jumped into radio while circumventing college, the experience was likely akin to getting thrown into the deep end of the pool. You learned by doing, gaining experience the hard way. “Teaching” often happened in real time, often with the commentary of a grizzled radio vet.
And so here we are in 2020, and broadcast radio is most definitely at a fork in the road. The digital wave has washed over the industry, but many companies, stations, and broadcasters have either been left behind or have struggled to stay even.
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It's never been more important for radio companies to stay competitive by hiring bright, knowledgeable, and energetic young people. But given the state of the industry where staffs and dollars are being stretched to the max, training, airchecking, and the other teaching tools are often missing in action.
I got a sense of this over this past weekend. Don Anthony – better known as the Morning Show Boot Camp maven – threw out one of those whiny questions on Facebook. And as often happens, a simple “WTF” question exploded, generating close to 100 comments, and nearly as many “likes” (and other reactions):
Simple enough, right?
But this post triggered a torrent of response, much of it predictable. There were the usual diatribes about how radio has gone to hell in a hand basket (whatever that is), how top-down corporations have opted for syndicated and/or voicetrack talent, and the usual brouhaha.
Yet, most of the vitriol didn't address Don's basic question – why do so many station websites neglect to list, much less highlight, their on-air personalities? At a time when broadcast radio is strangely reproving its concept – nearly a century after it became America's medium – you'd think broadcasters would go out of their way to showcase their talent.
After all, this is what differentiates stations from “the other guys in town,” as well as Spotify, Pandora, and so many other services where personalities aren't part of the program. And given how many station sales departments continue to be dependent on endorsements and live reads, you'd think radio operators would go out of their way to highlight talent.
And the comments that addressed Don's query demonstrated the answer isn't necessarily obvious. Here is one of the more thoughtful responses from Christal Blue, on-air talent at WGRQ in Fredericksburg, VA:
And what followed was an interesting conversation addressing Christal's question from many different radio people – all constructive, but all over the radio map. So, Don's question became something of a online forum.
But it raises the question of why something as basic as personality listings on a website is even a debatable issue in 2020. True, that not every station has personalities – or even locally based ones. But by and large on the average music or talk station, who is on the air is information and content that describes the character of the place. They are what differentiates stations from one another. And when there are two similar formats in a market, listeners don't form loyalties to who's playing a Jason Aldean, Aerosmith, or Adele song at a moment in time. It's personality that creates connection.
I ended up jumping into the conversation, along with Lex Staley, Ron Roberts, John Shomby, Bob Lawrence, Jay Philpott, Al Peterson, Ron Valeri, and many others who know their way around a radio station. And Christal was truly appreciative of hearing from those who have been in the business their entire professional careers.
It was a healthy process, but it made me wonder, “Why is Radio 101 being taught on Facebook?”
These are basic “rules of the road” that many of us were fortunate to learn in our formative years – before we found ourselves in positions where we could screw up a multi-million dollar radio station or lose a broadcast license.
Like most of you reading this blog, that young screw-up was me.
A long time ago at a university just up 1-96, I was that student. In the #TBT photo at right, you can see me stumbling to learn the craft of being on the air at our campus radio station. And later, I had the opportunity to be a graduate assistant for that intro class to radio at Michigan State. And from there I went onto teach the class, actually called TR 201.
I had the benefit of great teachers, even better mentors, great camaraderie, and the opportunity to take the time to learn the in's and out's of radio from some of the best in the business. Sadly, that level of training is in short supply in today's radio business.
We owe it to the next generation of radio professionals still in school or dreaming of a career in radio, as well as those new to the business, to do everything we can to help them get a firm foundation on what it takes to create entertaining and informative on-air and online content, market it, socialize it, and share it.
There are educational outlets in radio, particularly conferences, state broadcaster associations, and the NAB that do just that.
Don's Morning Show Boot Camp, along with Conclave, and the Worldwide Radio Summit that support up and comers, as well as Dan Vallie's National Radio Talent System, focused on young students pursuing careers in radio from around the country are just a few of these examples.
— Kaytie (@KTRGRocks) June 19, 2019
Along with most state association events, it remains to be seen whether any of these gatherings will actually take place in 2020. (Morning Show Boot Camp 2020 is scheduled in Chicago in September.) If the virus has its way, these opportunities to learn from and connect with each other, and to network (and socialize) will be curtailed or cancelled. On many levels, that's too bad. When it comes to training, mentoring, and encouraging young people to pursue that career in radio, it's a lost opportunity.
But it doesn't have to be that way. PRPD – the association of Public Radio Program Directors has flipped their conference from a get-together in New Orleans to a virtual meet-up in September, rebranded as “Let's Go Live,” in partnership with the Public Media Journalists Association.
Others may end up following suit. And while online learning may not be as fun, exciting, or personal as having drinks in the lobby bar or hanging out in the French Quarter, it's a great chance for those of us who have succeeded in the business to give back, and share our knowledge and experience.
No one has all the answers – whether you've been in radio for decades or just a cup of coffee or two. But teaching the A,B,C's of radio to fledgling radio stars is not just an opportunity. It's our responsibility. It's how we ensure the health of the business during these toughest of times.
And as many of us have experienced along the way, we have a lot to learn from them, too.
(BTW a lot of those radio station websites could use some work. Thanks to Don and Christal for the forum.)