Radio -- Inaction Jackson

Michael Jackson is still dead and radio is still voice tracking.

Back to reality this morning.

Late last week when Michael Jackson died suddenly at his Los Angeles home, the radio industry was caught with its pants down and voice tracking up.

This is not to say that some stations did not respond -- the ones programmed by real live individuals and/or those who actually had control of their company's voice tracking did the right thing for their listeners.

For too many, radio was caught sleeping while new media was feeding the need of the public to know, mourn publicly and appreciate the talents of this great iconic performer.

TMZ broke the news and owned the story from start to finish.

That's TMZ like in gossip website -- no matter that it is owned by Time Warner.

CNN, New York Times, LA Times and other more "legitimate" news publications hedged in the name of caution (which is not on its face a bad thing) but then dropped the bomb on a public that had already been able to do what they couldn't do -- confirm a breaking story.

Thank you cell phones, Blackberries, iPhones, the Internet, social networking and the services that are growing up in or around them.

Radio stations really didn't see this type of thing coming.

When John Slogan Hogan, Lew Tricky Dickey and Fagreed Suleman embraced voice tracking and syndicated programming to help them save money, they apparently gave little thought to what happens in an emergency. I mean -- this was the death of a major performer.

What happens, God forbid, if a world leader dies or if North Korea actually fires a missile at Hawaii or if Iran attacks Israel?

I know... I know -- everyone goes to ABC (or is that Citadel? Whatever).

AP and Metro for everyone!

The good news is that the remaining employees left standing at radio stations saved the bacon for these and other consolidators by eventually regaining control of their voice tracking (however temporarily) so they could do the right thing.

I know of program directors who put in plenty of free overtime to do the best they could. And some of the programming turned out to be damn good. I heard from market after market that someone in radio eventually took the challenge.


I also talked with many frustrated program directors who were embarrassed that they were hog tied by corporate bean counters. As I have said many times, radio people know what to do. It's their bosses who seem to have forgotten.

Maybe they are shell shocked by the prospect of bankruptcy.

And by the way, your monthly paid radio service known as Sirius XM that just raised its rates did an awful job of responding to Michael Jackson's death. If you wanted news and tributes, you wasted your money for a satellite radio subscription. You got the minimal Jackson programming for the maximum price -- late.

It is nothing new that consolidators are stripping radio stations down to the basics and turning them into transmitters that broadcast cheap national programming or cheap voice tracking in an attempt to "fool" listeners into believing that it is, in fact, as good as local.

The keyword here is "cheap".

As the weekend started, PDs who could, negating the voice tracking as much as possible. However, some were stymied. Their stations actually sounded on Sunday like they did last Sunday -- as if Michael Jackson had never died. Of course, I am talking about stations that lived in the general genre of Michael Jackson's music.

Could you imagine that happening when Elvis died?

Or when John Lennon died?

Or what if Sinatra had died in his prime? I'd like to think radio would have gone into national mourning.

One of my readers told me she was in The Bahamas when Michael passed away. That locals were gathered around their radios (remember that image?) to get the latest, hear the music and try to believe that this super star was actually gone.

Back in the U.S. endless numbers of people got the first news from their phones or the Internet. Word passed through social networking and although traditional media doesn't want to hear this, some excellent tributes have been taking place in social spaces without them.

As far as TV, BET did a clunker of an awards show that was supposed to be a tribute.

VH1 rose to the occasion but listeners remember MTV as being the place they first saw Michael Jackson's music videos.

But the Internet buzzed and those who carried smart phones got smarter.

For radio, it was Inaction Jackson.

But for new media, it was Thriller.

I want to say this a second time so as to be clear about my point. It isn't that radio people lost the skills to be the first source for news and special programming. It is the skimping on talent by consolidators. Nonetheless, many stations managed to snooker their bosses by working around voice tracking.

Some stations were stuck in Ryan Seacrest hell or lulled to sleep with John Tesh when at least some news coverage would be appropriate.

When I taught at USC my students were not given enough credit for being smart.

So what? They didn't read newspapers. Neither do we.

They get their news from the Internet. More and more people do.

And they didn't like to read textbooks.

They hated PowerPoint (don't we all?).

And they always challenged their professor (isn't that why we send them to school -- to learn how to think?).

These young people could process information at the speed of light. I welcomed when they had their laptops on in class and phones actively engaged because they could shout out breaking news or pinpoint info critical to a class discussion.

If schools everywhere had been in session Thursday, don't think for one minute that the place to learn the most about the Michael Jackson story would have been right in the classroom where students are in touch with sources they trust to keep them abreast of their world.

Radio is not one of them.


With each passing day, radio CEOs are working toward the early demise of an industry that need not die at all -- except for the unfortunate circumstance that radio CEOs are caught in their own time warp.

Somehow they know when Standard & Poor's issues their stock ratings, but they've lost that lovin' feeling for their audiences.

A friend of mine -- an outstanding major and medium market PD -- reminded me that voice tracking in and of itself is not the problem.

Listen to this:

"I envisioned voice tracking as a tool for stations to increase the productivity of their talent by allowing them to record their airshift in “microtime,” eliminating the many minutes spent waiting for each song to be over before doing their next on-mic appearance. I saw air talent being able to record a four or five hour airshift in about an hour, enabling them to work in the building doing commercial or even imaging production for the station or cluster while their airshift played back.

This would also allow the talent to go on the air live for contests and to record and air phone calls from listeners during their airshift, by simply walking into the air studio at the appropriate time, or by switching the automation to directly feed the transmitter while using the board for production, then switching back to go on live as needed, eliminating the expense of building additional studios for the additional production work that could be accomplished.
I saw the talent nearby and in the building while their ‘show’ was on the air.

Had Michael Jackson died unexpectedly under my proposed scenario, the talent who was already on the air would have seamlessly gone live to report the details, discarding the voice track recordings made earlier, in the same way they would have done a live weather forecast or a contest".

Spoken like the outstanding program director he is.

Technology to enhance human commitment to the audience.

Consolidators will have none of it.

That's why this morning, it's "back to life, back to reality" for consolidated radio and the words of the Soul II Soul song by the same title echo the spirit of radio programmers who want to end the foolish game of voice tracking:

Back to life, back to the day we have
Let's end this foolish game
Hear me out, don't let me waste away
Make up your mind so I know where I stand

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