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Radio is losing its intelligence (part I)

Next week I start listening to entrants in the MTN Radio Awards for the third year*. The awards themselves have vastly improved but I doubt if the content quality will indicate the same. This is not necessarily the fault of the entrants themselves but a more fundamental reason in that there is a general dearth of quality management to develop the talent pool.
In my circles, the jury is in... The verdict? "Radio has lost its intelligence." Commercial music radio is the main culprit but it is rarely seen anywhere.

Call me old school

Call me old school if you will, but I remember a time when I felt as if I were the only one listening. In fact, that is what I had reaffirmed at the London School of Broadcasting in 1984. We're not talking to "all you people out there in radioland... we're talking to just you because you are the most important person in the world!"

It was called one-to-one radio and it worked.

Now pretend I am a listener to 5FM and one afternoon I decide to listen in to the Drive Show. I feel like an intruder. There is a conversation going on in the studio but it certainly isn't with me.

A while ago, I felt that if I asked to be included, I would get a begrudging "... If you must". Now I feel as if the answer would be "Puhleeze...we're busy here"! My tutor at the broadcast school called them "Discy Jokeys" but what I wouldn't do to have one or two of them back!

Programme managers haven't got a clue

In consultation work I meet programme managers who will espouse the direct rules of engagement but they haven't got a clue what it means and how to instil it in their protégé presenters. They have heard it mentioned but don't know where it came from or what it was based upon.

These days, when presenters/DJs are talking, I have to wade through a myriad of crap such as a sponsor's web address, station's web address, gig guide address, mobi address, numerous telephone numbers, name of the song, artist, the old standby - the time check described in Shakespearean prose - a whole lot of "umms", "ahs", "errs", "of course" and "coming your way" or similar DJ speak.

At no time do I feel as I have a mutual companionship with the individual or do I hear something that actually makes me think. Excepting, of course, to think that we have a bunch of tw*ts on air. The ingenuity of some of the radio luminaries of history is absolutely nowhere to be found amongst the pretenders of today. There are exceptions but I don't need two hands to count them.

Because of the dreaded SMS I have to hear what Karen in Kloof or Henry in Hatfield has on their minds, not what is on the presenter's. Original thought is banished and appears to have gotten lost among the glamour, the aaawesum celeb gossip, anything arb that is available from the 'net or where the presenter is gigging this weekend. Or, if the presenter still has nothing to say, he or she will revert to.... aaaggghhh... radio clichés!

Radio invented a million clichés more

All of us use clichés but radio invented a million more. "Welcome to the show", "between now and...", "don't go away", "don't touch that dial", "coming up after this", "coming your way right now", "a little bit later", "but anyway", "send a shout out", "how ya doin?" [as if I really care], "thank you for joining me" [because I'm coming apart]. If all this fails, the presenter will just repeat everything said last time and read from the cover notes.

The spectrum is public domain, folks. It is a privilege for you to use it, not a right. And, if you are the lucky ones with a licence, please don't insult my intelligence with your lack of it.

My grumble is about the fact that one of the main causes is the lack of the same knowledge in management at radio stations. People who have arrived at the top for every reason except being competent programmers. Indeed, station and programme managers are being appointed who come from marketing or sales but not with any substantial experience at the heart of the radio business.

It follows that those appointed to programming have not got a role model to glean information from, look up to, admire and become the best at their craft. Instead, they become complacent that everything is ok and long lunches are a way of ignoring the problem. If they even recognise for a moment that there is one!

Easy meat

Ever seen the dread, anxiety, horror and apprehension when the inexperienced station and programme manager has to sit down and do a critique with a popular heavyweight from the breakfast or drive show? They are easy meat and the quickest route to the end of a distressing meeting is to agree with the superstar. Phew!

Witness also the fear or panic at what the latest research says every two months and the truth is, by the time any thought is given to remedial action, never mind implementation thereof, the next RAMS wave is published. The last one goes into file 13.

I've written and taught a lot on some of the finer aspects of engaging the listener so, in part II, indulge me as I mention a few.

Link to part II added at 12.19pm on 26 March 2012.
*Update at 1.43pm on 19 April 2012: Anthony Duke withdrew from judging the 2012 MTN Radio Awards after he decided to mention 5FM by name in this contributor piece. He only informed of this on 17 April 2012.

About Anthony Duke

Anthony Duke co-founded Capital Radio in 1979, managed 5FM, Good Hope FM and did strategies for all SABC Radio stations as manager of radio training at the corporation. Today he is retired but still consults. Email him at and connect on LinkedIn.
sasha martinengo
spot on.
Posted on 22 Mar 2012 14:46
Donald Mokgale
Very astute views, ones I am in total agreement with. I remember having this exact conversation with a few friends while I was in varsity studying radio and it was at that very time was where I was most aware of radio and its techinicalities particularly regarding how a presenter should conduct themself and address the listeners; what we hear today from the various stations is totally the opposite of what good radio should be. Looking forward to part 2. Bravo Anthony.
Posted on 22 Mar 2012 15:21
Tony Mallam
To the point as usual Ant!
Posted on 22 Mar 2012 15:25
Amod Munga
And that's exactly the point. Well said, Anthony.Traditional radio is suffering from a severe lack of intelligence, relevance and personality. Digital radio fares just a little better with the real-time interaction element as a crutch but even there the on-air voices are not much more than the platitudinous disembodied entities that are their traditional medium cousins. Radio (especially in this country) is due for an enema, and one that's best administered swiftly and with extreme prejudice.
Posted on 22 Mar 2012 16:32
Patricia Clay
Go for it Ant. Make them get their brains into gear. Bad habits are continually being copied. No one bothers to stop and say why are we doing this, what is the purpose of this - and what will the listener get out of it. It's supposed to be all about the listener (note use of singular - as taught by learned from the Master Bukht)
Posted on 22 Mar 2012 16:35
Paul Rotherham
It's no secret that Radio has moved from being a space where passionate broadcasters create theatre of the mind to an office where big business happens. Across the dial, many so-called presenters have become little more than talking billboards for the corporate money making machine. The pressure is on programming managers to "deliver the goods" and they, in turn, do what they have to in order to keep the bean counters happy. I often wonder whether the Bean counters actually listen to the stations they manage? Basic radio skills are non existent and seemingly unimportant is the ability to speak without a hundred ummms and uhhhs. Don't worry if your voice isn't suitable for Radio either, we'll find you a replacement mic and some sort of processor will sort it out. Perhaps that's the theatre of the mind part? Times have changed, as has Radio. Thankfully I believe there are still some folk who haven't lost sight of what radio is supposed to be all about. I'd like to think i'm lucky enough to be working for one of them...
Posted on 22 Mar 2012 17:43
Brendan Ficks
Well said Ant. I miss radio DJ's who are normal people you can relate to, talking about things that actually interest me. Many radio DJ's have become mega celebrities and expect to be worshipped on-air. All they talk about are their VIP lifestyles, bragging about their goodie bags and sponsored vehicles. Many radio DJ's can't handle listeners who call in and disagree with them. After-all you are not regarded as an intelligent listener anymore, you are suppose to worship them.,,,
Posted on 22 Mar 2012 19:19
Adrian Galley
What a refreshing dose of truth. I can't wait for the second installment.
Posted on 22 Mar 2012 23:27
Eric Alan
Interesting read and should be vital reading for all programmers and station managers from both the community and commercial sector. It has been going on for far too long. All radio in SA today is just concerned about, "showing the money" instead of communicating with the listener and chasing the next competitor. All stations play the same music where popularity is the norm rather than creative, with little or no input from those on the frontline, it is time for the radio presenter to be reborn. I'm looking forward to part 2.
Posted on 23 Mar 2012 06:21
Ashley Dowds
One caveat here may be that the median age range on this thread is above that of the average consumer of the vocal cellulite under discussion. I've gone online to source decent content from the likes of BBC3's 'Nightwaves' because there's not much local appeal for me, but then I'm in my forties. So I'm in Antony's camp. But isn't the scrambled, social media chaos of the new world encompassed by radio anyway?
Posted on 27 Mar 2012 10:08
Mel Massyn
Probably not fair to go back in time, but who can forget the magic of John Berks and Stan Katz? Pure theatre of the mind. Take a leaf out of their respective books and problem solved.
Posted on 27 Mar 2012 16:12
Ian Ward
Well written Anthony. Although you write about nothing new, you write about simple basic principles of radio, which is what made radio (in the past) great. Sadly these radio fundamentals aren't being passed down or taught to the 'new' on air talent.
Posted on 1 Apr 2012 14:21
bobby shabangu
So true!
Posted on 17 Oct 2015 17:42
bobby shabangu
The issues you are raising are pertinent. I have worked at the SABC as a producer myself and I concur with your narrative. Considering the calibre of people commenting here and your experience I can only conclude that you know what you are talking about. I have one issue though, you seems to critisize only, you go on to details pointing out what is not right, what is not supposed to be done. You even give example, but you never say what is right (according to you), you also don't give a single example of what's suppose to be done! which begs the question from me, What's wrong? why are you angry? I feel as if though you are addressing important issues many of which I totally agree with but you are angry, angry at a particular media organisation. Something tells me you might have disagreed with the direction they wanted to take ( this is only a guess). Having said this, I think embracing change is important, let's all remember that thinking out of the box is coming up with something completely different from the status quo. A good example of this would be YFM.Phat Joe runs the station's morning drive and he takes leave to the U.S for a month, then a taxi driver with standard 8 who's can't even speak the English language is brought to stand in for Joe, in a span of a month RAMS almonst tripple! What I'm saying is perhaps we don't even need the old school type of radio. But we need an overhaul, a new format and a breed of completely different DJ's with more wit, foresight and intelligence than the past radio presenters!
Posted on 17 Oct 2015 18:38