9 minute read

I was invited to speak at Sean Craig Murphy’s radio school in Adelaide a couple of weeks back and like I have done for the last few years I jumped at the chance. It’s always fun to get in front of young people at the start of their radio careers.

This was my first presentation having left SCA in August. I had been with Austereo all of my adult life so the last few months have given me a chance to gain some perspective on the radio industry-in terms of what we do and where we sit in the greater scheme of things.

The first thing I’ve now realised is that I was living and working in a bubble, the commercial radio bubble, blissfully unaware of how little the rest of the world cared about the thing I’ve been most passionate about in my life.

I intuitively knew this to be the case when I was in the job, but stepping away from the industry has certainly reinforced this fact.

It’s no big deal though-because unless you’re a rock star, an AFL player or part of the royal family, no one really cares about the work you do. Sure, it’s a great ice-breaker at a party, ”so, what do you do for a living?” but very few people are really interested in the answer.

The point is, you need to find the meaning within yourself.  It might be your love of music, your love of story-telling, your ability to make people laugh or your love of creativity that has drawn you to a career on the radio. Whatever it is that drives your passion for radio, understand that it will be matched only by a tiny portion of the people you’ll work with in your career-these will be your work mates and industry friends who are also well and truly inside the bubble.

So why the lack of care factor? Radio is the great lean back medium-there’s no other type of media that allows you to do other things whilst engaging with it. Which is it’s great strength, particularly for in-car listening, but it’s also an inherent weakness.

Here’s the truth as I see it now from outside the bubble.

If you’re on the air-No one is listening to you.

Ouch.

Yep, no one is listening to you like you’d hope they’d be listening to you. So however much attention you manage to squeeze from your listeners will be well and truly deserved.

So what does this mean for you as you make your first steps towards a career on the air?

As I see it now, if you’re on the air it’s really important to understand the playing field.

Here’s what it looks like from outside the bubble.

You’re in the background.

You’re a disruption to the one thing your audience is waiting for, which is their favourite song.

And almost without exception the audience is listening to you in the car, so they are just one button away from voting you off the island and finding something better.

It’s never personal-the audience doesn’t care. They haven’t paid to listen to you. There is no intrinsic value attached to what you do. You don’t get to charge a fee for every talk break and you don’t get to add a surcharge for every vocal post you manage to talk up to, (if that was the case I’d be a millionaire…).

I’m not trying to make this sound harder than it already is. This is just the reality of radio, from outside of the bubble.

When you step into the bubble and get your first job on the air, you will feel differently about your level of impact-but if you can keep this in mind, that you’re fighting against a natural attention deficit imposed by the audience it might help you prepare better for your next break and your next shift.

So how do you get better at what you’re doing?

Here are some practical steps from my experience.

I would read the paper out aloud…at least the first 6-7 pages every morning. It helped me gain a level of control over my speech. Yes, I know, no one under 35 reads newspapers anymore-I’m sure news.com will do just fine for the sake of this exercise.

I worked with drama and speech coach in the very early days of my on-air career. We would practice reading different Shakespearean plays,(to be or not to B105…) I learnt various vocal exercises, I learnt how to breathe properly, I learnt how to control my nerves. And in the process my closed, stuck-in-the-bubble radio mind was opened just a little.

I would listen back to every shift and would look for opportunities to improve. My ability to analyse objectively was critical to my longevity on the air.

And finally I would listen to the announcers who inspired me, but would always try to appreciate and understand their technique rather than copy their unique style and delivery.

I would take every single on air shift that I could get, back in the day when there were mid dawn shifts and before we had HR departments I would do 3-4 weeks in a row of mid dawn shifts without a day off.
I just knew that every shift was making me better.

I read an article a few years ago that said when you practice a sport a lot, particularly if you’re a professional sports person, you literally become a broadband-the nerve pathway in your brain eventually contains a lot more information. As soon as you stop practicing, the pathway begins shrinking back down.

Jerry Seinfeld knows this to be true. At the age of 60 and with absolutely nothing left to prove he still does unannounced mid week routines in his hometown of New York, here’s what he said  “Why am I doing these sets, getting on a stage? Don’t I know how to do this already? The answer is no. You must keep doing it. The broadband starts to narrow the moment you stop.”

The fastest way to get better at what you do is practise. Practise with purpose. Knowing that what you’re doing right now is going to make you better in the long run.

Jerry Seinfeld is a great case study for anyone wanting to master any particular skill. From his first standup shows to stardom, he forced himself to work by marking a cross on a calendar for every day he wrote material; soon enough, he had a long chain of crosses, and kept going partly because he didn’t want to break the chain. Since he revealed this trick to a would-be comedian years ago, “Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret” has achieved cult status online: there are at least three apps and one website dedicated to helping people emulate it. This amuses its inventor no end. “It’s so dumb it doesn’t even seem to be worth talking about,” he says. “If you’re a runner and you want to be a better runner, you say, well, I’ll run every day and mark an X on the calendar every day I run. I can’t believe this was useful information to anybody!” He spreads his palms, a gesture conveying the sheer obviousness of the insight. “Really? There are people who think, ‘I’ll just sit around and do absolutely nothing, and somehow the work will get done’?”

I better wrap this up.

Let me finish with the question that people inside the bubble often talk about- “the future of radio”-does it actually have a future?

What happens when we’re sharing the dashboard in every new car with Spotify, Pandora, Apple and Google?

What happens to radio when there’s driverless cars and you can do whatever the hell want when it’s driving you from place to place?

I’m afraid this will be your problem to solve, and whilst an old radio guy like me might have some thoughts, it’s going to take some genuinely different thinking and some real creative leadership for us to stay relevant.

But fear not, a very good friend of mine recently told me about the horseshit crisis of the late 1800’s.

Stay with me, it has a moral to the story.

In the late 1890’s, major cities around the world like New York, London and even Sydney were struggling with a huge problem. Horse-drawn transport was really the only form of transportation back then.

In New York alone there were more than 150,000 horses and each and every one of them was creating about 20 pounds of horse manure a day.

That’s 45,000 tonnes a month.

So what do you do with 45,000 tonnes of horse shit?

They would sell as much as they could to local farmers who needed cheap fertiliser, but what do you do with the rest of it?

It was a problem seemingly without a solution, entire city blocks were levelled specifically to dump the manure, but that didn’t really fix anything.

Think for a moment about the smell and the hygiene issues. Think about the horseshit all over the street on a wet day or turning to a putrid dust after a hot summer’s day.

The forecasts were dire. They predicted that by the mid 1930’s New york would have piles of horse manure 3 stories high.

Something had to be done. A conference was organised in 1898 with “experts” from all over the world converging in New York, and by hook or by crook they were going to somehow fix the problem.

The organisers had set aside 9 days to crack the case and find a solution but tragically it ended in just 3 days because despite the collective brainpower and the desperation from all concerned there simply was no way to fix the problem.

And finally the point of this story-the reason there was no solution was the people who were trying to fix the horse shit problem were only thinking about what to do with the horse shit and the horses.

No one at the conference was thinking about replacing the horse with a machine that had an internal combustion engine which would ultimately replace all horse drawn transport.

Radio will not be saved by another cash contest with “now even more chances to win”

It will need a leap into something new and relevant for these times.

Good luck working that out and if you need a hand, you’ll find me on the outside of the bubble.