Talking Long And Saying Nothing: Wasted Breaks

Guest Blog by Sean Ross @rossonradio

Recently, I was asked by a client to talk to the airstaff. The GM had seen my column “Radio’s Best & Worst,” which has appeared most recently as a series of Tweets about what I like and don’t like on the radio. Talk about what you like and don’t like hearing from announcers, I was asked.

A number of readers have noticed that there’s not a lot of “worst” in “Radio’s Best & Worst.” Mostly, I prefer to praise in public and critique in private. Radio’s detractors and fans can both be cynical—sometimes the latter are even more brutal, comparing what’s available now to their memories. When I find something to like, it’s not just boosterism. It’s beating the odds, and I’m truly delighted that I find so much to like.

That doesn’t mean I don’t hear certain pet peeves with regularity, among them:

  • “I hope you’re enjoying your three-day weekend. I have to work.” I don’t just hear this on holiday Mondays; it often starts with the final break of Friday’s show. And I hear it occasionally about non-holiday Saturdays as well.
  • “Wow, everybody’s talking about this week’s episode of ‘This Is Us.’ I’ve never seen that show, personally.”
  • “Wow, ‘Stayin’ Alive” is from 40 years ago! That makes you feel really old, right?”
  • Another common snag heard on Classic Rock and Classic Hits stations that is often a companion piece to the aforementioned—“Here’s some artist trivia that I looked up on Wikipedia and would like to share with you in a way that makes it clear that I am reading it, perhaps for the first time.”

Mostly, though, what I hear in bad jock breaks is the execution of a lot of mundane station business at slightly gratuitous length.

Over an intro, this plays itself out as too many items jammed in a break—backsell; call letters; station positioner; “Sean Ross with you . . .  on a Thursday morning . . . Friday’s right around the corner”; a teaser for multiple upcoming artists; the frontsell of the current song; maybe the calls and positioner again. And now there’s no time for anything else.

Going into a stopset, you usually hear all of the above, and then whatever other station business may take place. Sometimes that’s a live read promo about the same station event for which we’re just about to hear a produced sales promo.

In such breaks, there is a lot of verbiage—sometimes, as the personality goes through the checklist, there’s a little extra verbiage for each item: one break, but four thoughts, sometimes punctuated by four asides. But there is not a lot of content.

There is no storytelling.

There is no attempt to make you hear “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” or “Livin’ On A Prayer” or “Can’t Stop the Feeling” again for the first time.

There is nothing that tethers the break to the community where it is being heard, unless that positioner is “(Market)’s Number One Music Station” or “(Market)’s Greatest Hits.”

There are no shared laughs. One of the surprises of my recent “virtual road trip”–in which I streamed radio from Florida to New York City in sequence—was the realization of how little humor I had encountered. Hearing WHTZ (Z100) New York’s Brady goofing on his callers made me realize that those sort of phone bits had gone away as a result of PPM measurement in major North American markets to be replaced by, well, nothing.

There is no creative writing that makes the jock seem possessed of some talent to entertain that the listener doesn’t have. There is no one-to-one communication of the sort that establishes the host as “one of us.” There’s something instead that lands in between.

A while ago, I asked if radio is mired in too many bad, “radiospeak” positioners. Can we not bond with listeners over anything better than “more music, better variety”? Because we certainly can’t bond with listeners over “more music, better variety.” A few years ago, one of my PDs forbade his air talent to use the positioning statement—leaving it to the imaging voice—so that they use save the breaks for what they do well. It seemed like the classic advice of another era, but I somehow hadn’t encountered it before, or since.

Voice tracking offers both an explanation for some of what I hear, and a potential remedy, although both talent and programmers are part of its execution. The upside of voice tracking is access to talent who have the ability to do all the things that make radio “radio.” Plus, there’s the ability to edit yourself from a remove, (because few people are their own best editor in real time), and time to synthesize that Wikipedia nugget you’ve researched with your own insights.

But careless voice tracking often leads to a lot of “breaks from nowhere.” There are live promos for ongoing station promotions that don’t necessarily sound any different from the one heard a few months ago. Or it’s the above litany of jock-isms but inserted between songs in a way that stops the momentum unnecessarily and makes the bit sound canned. Voice-tracking was heralded for its ability to bring the precision of old back to radio. When it doesn’t, that’s often the PD’s fault (or the fault of whoever inserts the tracks).

This is a time when every on-air break should count. Broadcasters hope smart speakers will facilitate more radio listening, but they also bring competing media into the living room. Alexa is already regarded by some as a companion; if she doesn’t already do birthday shout-outs, you know they’re coming. Moving perfunctorily through a rapid-fire litany of station business is not the same as advocating for the radio station. Or for radio.

Sometimes what separates a litany of station business and extra verbiage from a good break is just a little flourish. Last Friday night, WMXJ (the Beach)’s Todd Allen was cross-plugging the mix show that would follow him in a half-hour or so. Then he threw in the front-sell and it was “Baaaad! To the bone! It’s Michael.” And Allen’s energy built throughout the break. If he had just said, “Here’s Michael Jackson, ‘Bad,’ it would have been the generic break I don’t like. In this case, the three words weren’t gratuitous.

I went back to look at some of the “Best Jock Lines” I had heralded over the last year or so. I wondered if I was going to find a handful of corny one-liners. Instead I found Nash-FM Des Moines’ Kim Chase backselling Luke Bryan’s “Move” with, “Even the people in the office who don’t like Country are going to tap their feet to that one.” That is advocating for the radio station.

Then I saw CHLG (LG104.3) Vancouver’s Graham Hatch declaring that “the Buggles were wrong. The ‘Radio Star’ is doing just fine. It’s the videos we don’t see much of anymore.” That was advocating for radio.

“I can’t wait to talk to Doug MacDonald and thank him for that album,” said K-Jazz Long Beach, Calif.’s Bubba Jackson. And he had called my attention to the music, in a genre I don’t often listen to, in a way that was more than “that was, this is.”

“It was perfect wasn’t it? It was exactly what we needed,” said Key 103 Manchester’s Debbie Mac, the morning after Ariana Grande returned for the One Love Manchester concert. Mac is heard throughout the U.K. on Bauer “City Network” CHRs. But at that moment, she knew exactly what that particular market needed as well. She advocated for the listener.

Sean Ross is Vice President of Music and Programming for Edison Research. He works with radio and music industry clients in all formats and on multiple continents on format strategy and musical tactics.

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