Radio needs to be a friend, not prey on the weak

Radio has become a medium of bullies and anti-heroes, argues former radio executive Chris Taylor.

Here’s a question. Is there still a place for an anti-social medium in the age of social media?

I know it’s tragically unhip of me to say so, but I used to love ‘the’ radio. Growing up, it was usually always on in my house. The advent of the Walkman and headphones made it even more personal and each engagement gave you something special; cool music, news, advice, or information.

But technology did as technology does, and before you could say troglodyte all those things became available elsewhere and the ‘non-rusted on’ listeners were enticed away. So old-faithful began a slow, painful reinvention. Everything got a little bit meaner; first the ratings, then the shareholders, then the budgets, now the presenters.

The tragedy from the weekend should have a lot of people in radioland questioning what they’re doing and where this old train is going. If it hasn’t, then it’s possibly already too late. But while there’s a pulse, those with a vested interest in its ongoing success, and fans alike, should all be hoping they use this as an opportunity to reassess radio’s place in today’s society.

In the UK, the transformation to digital radio was meant to be the dawn of a new era. It wasn’t. It was the same old stuff coming out, only you could hear it better. Plus, one of the product’s biggest strengths became its greatest problem: more channels equaled more choice and loyal listeners sought greener pastures.

Unfortunately, Australia didn’t learn from the UK’s experience. We too introduced a product into a troubled marketplace that further fragmented a diminishing audience.

Instead of preying on the weak with mindless pranks, radio stations might do well to play to their strengths again. Be there, be immediate, be intimate and personal, be a friend. In a fragmented social media landscape, commercial radio has resorted to becoming things that not only don’t suit the medium, but don’t suit the zeitgeist.

Social media is the medium of transparency and honesty. You can’t hide from your critics and you can’t hide from the truth. Broadcasters can embrace this mantra and get back to using radio’s inherent intimacy for good. It’s not about cash giveaways and free tickets to One Direction. It’s about community, knowledge and progress.

Radio can be as live and current as Twitter. Yet more and more stations are opting for prerecorded content to save money. Radio can be as personal as your Facebook timeline. It can involve you in a conversation as well as any online forum can. Yet, more and more presenters are talking at the audience, not to them. The issue isn’t the medium, it’s the way it’s being used.

Surely the opportunity exists to seduce a whole new generation with radio. The generation who grew up with 32bit computer games and more channels on TV than you can poke a stick at. After all, everything old is new again, isn’t it? Radio lets you wear big headphones. Radio lets you play vinyl. You can talk to strangers about topics you control and block them if they’re annoying you. It’s like the new MySpace and Facebook rolled into one. Maybe programmers can’t see the forest for the trees?

Look at the big names in commercial radio and you get the feeling it has become the anti-heroes medium, where bullies can hide behind a golden microphone. Well, right now, radio needs heroes.

Radio can rise again, for no other reason that it is just too good to die. It just needs brains, trust, time and a big injection of passion. Do stations need to rethink the format? Maybe take a lead from what’s working elsewhere. Call it Pint-ear-est, Insta-phonogram, Hearddit, and remember that Hamish and Andy can’t solve everything. The answers won’t be easy to find. But the wider industry needs to start asking questions if it’s not already too late.

Chris Taylor is the founder of Shabbadu, formerly a radio agency which relaunched as a copywriting service in April this year. He worked for three years as a creative consultant at UK commercial station Capital Radio


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