Radio's False Dilemma
by Alex Cosper (9/10/07)
Radio has created a pile of problems for itself that won't
be solved anytime soon if the industry keeps sticking with the same old ideas
that may have worked at one time, but certainly not anymore. The common thread that ties
all of today's sinking stations together is, just like the title says, a false dilemma
When I say false dilemma I assume you agree with me that there are more than two ways to
make a presentation. But today's big radio companies - with the exception of a few - have it dead set
in their programming philosophies to just keep on grinding two basic mediocre formulas
that don't work that well anymore. Those two formulas are the extreme jerk format and
the extreme cream-puff format. Occasionally you'll get a station like KPIG in Monterey that
just blows everyone away by being unique and community-spirited. But for the most part, 2000s radio
is all about being super-obnoxious or super-bland with not much in between to choose from.
Let's start with the extreme jerk format, which is the younger and less "popular" of the two formats.
The jerk format is something that either jerks you around by talking down to you or it just
sounds like all the DJs are jerks because they think they're cool playing the latest hits aimed at
the 12-24 age group (as if the DJs really had anything to do with picking the music). I am not saying
people in this 12-24 audience are jerks. To be clear, I am saying that the radio executives who call
the shots at these stations still must think they are programming to a mass of idiots that require
dumbed down content. They do a lot of stupid contests that merely project audio illusions on the
"stupid listeners" who can't win, but it's supposed to sound exciting anyway. Basically, jerk
stations jerk people around.
Not all stations that cater to young people are
jerk stations, but most of them are whether it's active rock, alternative, hip hop, top 40 or any
other station that pretends that if you don't keep up with their lingo and their quirks, then you
must not be very cool. Only an arrogant pig-headed jerk would ever think such a thing. No wonder so
many listeners are moving away from the jerk format. There is absolutely nothing about it that invites
new listeners to check it out. Some of the jerk stations, particularly alternative/rock stations
that play a lot of fake disposable corporate rap/metal for grumpy middle class suburban white kids,
pretend they are the leaders of a revolution that doesn't really exist except in the minds of
dreamers who have been jerked around again and again.
Now let's move on to the more widely "popular" cream-puff format. Alright, I lied, it's not popular
at all. In fact, most people hate cream-puff radio, but the way ratings are done, it's never surprising
when the cream-puff stations come out on top. You see, Arbitron,
the radio industry's one and only monopolistic ratings service, bases its data on...(drum roll)...
the memories of what diary-keepers thought they may have listened to the past week - if they can
remember. So, in order to get mentioned a lot of times by the diary-keepers, cream-puff stations want
to make sure they never give bland people a reason to disagree with the bland programming. That way, the
listener will never change the dial and only think of one station when asked to write it down,
even if it's not their favorite station, but maybe even a station they are forced to listen to at
work all day because bosses prefer background music during business hours.
Cream-puff radio is all about nothingness. It plays nothing but mindless songs that have no meaning.
The air personalities are like generic wind-up toy robots who spew out happy forgetable liner cards that
a lot of times are paid commercials disguised as regular chatter. Cream-puff radio presumes that the
slightest shift away from blandness will rock the boat upside down. The presentation is usually upbeat
yet full of nothingness. There is nothing to learn from this type of radio except that listening to
this type of radio is a major waste of time if you're trying to stay on top of music that will
be relevant in the long run. Cream-puff radio tries to be cute, whereas jerk radio tries to be mean.
The cream-puff format includes adult contemporary and all of its lightweight hybrids, bubble gum oldies
and anything that sounds like it should be played in a doctor's office. For the most part cream-puff
radio is a background format, which explains why these stations usually do better than jerk stations.
When it's just background, no one has to pay attention to the content, so the content can be almost
anything that does not call attention to itself...as long as it's validated by typical unscientific
industry research that radio execs still take as gospel and pay large chunks of cash for. Back when
radio didn't have to compete with other technology, this scheme worked well. What happens is these
execs program a tight list of songs that test well with a small sample of people until they burn the
songs out and slowly try to replace them with fresher bland material.
As for talk radio, most of it is jerk radio. Ever since the first few
shock jocks proved they could attract an army of insecure time-wasters who fall for the persuasive
lure of insults against either modern thinkers or the old guard (there's
hardly any talk radio for moderates), talk radio has narrowed its portfolio of personalities to
mostly jerks. After about a week of listening to these jerks, whether it's Rush Limbaugh or
Air America, you can become a talk show jerk yourself since you've been pounded with the same rants
over and over again, as if it were high-rotation top 40, except with rotating issues instead of songs.
When all is said and done, all you've learned from this experience is the jerk's personal opinion
and how you will be ridiculed and hung up on if you phone in and disagree.
So, let's review. There are two formats that dominate today's declining radio: jerk and cream-puff.
Which do you prefer? If you're like me, you can't stand either, because they both insult an average
person's intelligence to the point where you just need to get away from that kind of intellectually-
bankrupt audio vomit. The reason you want to stay away from either jerk or cream-puff radio is that
life is already too short to waste away precious minutes on meaningless nothingness or the caveman
complex of acting like a jerk for no reason. You get more mileage out of experiences that generate
new ideas and inspiration.
Why is radio stuck on two extreme opposite formats? Because radio doesn't know what else to do.
Offering something with an ounce of intelligence is out of the question, because that might make
listeners think too much. And if they think too much, that might be a wake-up call that there are
better things to do to improve your life than listen to the radio. So as much as I'd like to think
radio will improve with time, I believe that as long as the good ol' boys who - for whatever reason -
are allowed to control the airwaves remain in place despite declining numbers, radio will continue
to get its face smashed by smarter technology that presumes listeners really are smart and can make
their own choices.