Friday, February 16, 2007

Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

According to The New York Times of 2/14, "The nation's commercial radio stations have seen the future, and it is in, of all things, video". The article then goes on to describe the let's-hang-a-camcorder-in-the-studio phenomenon, and quotes an LA promotions director as saying "This is a visual medium now".

OK, LA. I'm not surprised. But here's a quote from NY: "People are either going to have to get with the program or get lost". Sounds like a pretty definitive statement to me.

But it's wrong.

Ironically, the article's author grabs what might be the most succinct rebuttal quote, and then misuses it in support of the lead. Marshall McLuhan did write "the effect of radio is visual". Let's emphasize: the effect of radio is visual. This is what gives radio its power. McCluhan did not say "radio is visual". It's not. Making radio visual will diminish it, turning it into television.

Why do I say diminish? Because radio, done right, is a mind-expanding medium. A listener hears sound, and his or her brain goes to work filling in the details. If I say "giant airplane dropping a four-ton cherry onto a mountain of whipped cream" (borrowing from a classic radio example), the listener has to imagine an airplane - is it a Sopwith Camel, or a B2? Then imagine a cherry. Bing or Maraschino? With or without stem? Then the mountain of whipped cream - or is it Cool Whip?

The beauty of radio is we don't know - the result is going to be a personal experience of the listener.

Television (the non-news part) is a mind-limiting medium. If we tried to to the same thing on TV, we would have to decide all of the open questions in advance. Our choices are just that, ours. The viewer has to accept the result, or not. We have to instantiate the visual ideas. Unless we spend a lot of money, the result on screen isn't going to look anything near as good as what a listener's head can conjure. (Note there is a medium where that kind of money is spent. It's called movies.)

The same holds for characters - "personalities" in radio-speak. In the old days of radio, everyone knew what Lamont Cranston looked like - he looked like every individual listener imagined him. This process of imagination was a cognitive investment, and that investment bred loyalty. But when Adam West did his campy Batman on television, the only investment a lot of former Batman fans made was to get up and change the channel - the creative choices made for television were at odds with a large chunk of viewer imagination.

TV show developers live or die on getting those choices right enough to attract an audience big enough to make a profit for a network. It costs a lot to get a television program (even a bad one) to air. Therefore, television tends to be a highly risk-averse medium. When risks are minimized, the results are, by definition, predictable. Hence the state of commercial television programming as we know it.

It doesn't cost a lot (beyond paying for good talent) to make great radio. This fact should encourage risk-taking (within the limits defined by station management and the FCC), because the cost of a failed attempt is not huge. Making radio more "television-like" will only add cost, and get radio on the glide slope to mediocrity-ville. Some folks might say we're there already, but that's fodder for another essay.

Another obvious fact: voices age more gracefully than faces. If radio devolves into television, careers will be shorter, plastic surgery bills will be higher, or both. Look at any major market news show to observe the pathetic sight of aging male news anchors trying to maintain a youthful look. It's not pretty, and HD is going to make it so much worse. There are several syndicated radio personalities who have begun simulcasting their radio shows on television. Can anyone reading this honestly say any of those video broadcasts adds to the radio content or your positive impression of the talent?

One last practical note: part of the appeal of a personal appearance by radio talent is for people to see someone they don't usually see. That gets lost if the talent is always in plain sight.

Many people are getting swept up in the cresting wave of Internet video, and jumping to the conclusion that using the Internet to augment radio programming means that radio must make broad use of video. The Internet can be a very powerful tool in radio's continued fight for relevance. Hosting music videos or network programming can help draw viewers to a radio station's website. The occasional video skit from a station's talent can be the spice in that programming stew.

But like any spice, use too much and it will make people queasy.

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