Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Radio Grouchiness

As an inherently grouchy person, I have accumulated a considerable number of tics and twitches through the years. It is especially easy to discover irritants when you live a lonely life of empty routine. And nothing says "empty routine" quite like 10 hours' windshield time per week. In this lifestyle, you tend to develop deep, personal (albeit one-sided) relationships with radio personalities. They provide you with more conversation than anyone else in your life, though they can't hear what you're saying back to them. And if they're not very good at radio work, those windshield hours can become painful.

So it happens that a large share of my collection of pet peeves is devoted to the radio business. If you're thinking about going into radio, you could do worse than to take my little list of radio dos and don'ts to heart. Learn them, love them, live them. Think of them as the Ten Commandments for Disc Jockeys. And bear in mind that they represent the point of view of someone who mainly listens to the radio while driving.

1. Thou shalt not let thy voice drop, in pitch or volume, at the end of most sentences. Some jocks specialize in purring sexily into the microphone at the bottom of the human audible range. This might be a turn-on for audiophiles who listen while lying in a bed with a huge built-in woofer, sort of an acoustic variant of the vibrating mattress. But it isn't fair to the rest of us. Think about us folks for whom radio is the only alternative to "siesta forever" during a long highway commute around 6:00 a.m. Even with the windows rolled up to cut down on the wind noise and a well-ordered engine that doesn't run too loudly, there is always the sound of one's tires on the road, which varies from a whisper to a roar depending on the type of paving. You have to speak very distinctly to be heard against that background. Lipreading is not an option, you know. And we can only turn the volume up so high before we risk ear pain and/or speaker damage.

Tip: when you lean in to murmur sweet nothings to the microphone, you've lost the highway segment of your audience. It's bad enough when the sentence descends to an inaudible low point on the one piece of information you really wanted to hear. For example, just last week I heard a KFUO-FM host say, in a steadily descending singsong voice, "This next piece is by the American composer William (mumble)..." That just made my day. All I really wanted to know was the composer's last name, and that's exactly what I couldn't hear. But at least I heard the rest of the sentence, so I had a clue to follow up online. I have heard other DJs massage their tonsils on the grille of the microphone for entire paragraphs at a time, lost minutes that I can never recover. It's tricky, guys. I know it from experience ranging from the dramatic stage (as an undergraduate actor) to the pulpit and, yes, even a bit of radio work. It doesn't come naturally. But there is a way to express yourself without letting 2 out of 3 sentences end "down." It's going to take some practice. But the commuter set will love you!

2. Thou shalt not sound unprepared. We're all human. I'm willing to overlook the odd blooper now and again. But a certain local DJ can hardly spit out a sentence without a stammer, a stutter, a pause to repeat or correct his last word or phrase, and even the dreaded "um" or "ah" sound. After a few minutes of his typical patter, I begin to lose patience. It simply irritates me that someone in his position, with his experience, would continue to sound so woefully under-prepared after all this time. Sometimes this guy's problem seems to be that he has trouble talking without a script, and every time his mouth runs ahead of his brain he has to pause to catch up. At other times he does have a script, but for whatever reason he can't read it without stumbling. Why? Dyslexia? Presbyopia? Maybe that same "mouth runs faster than the eye" syndrome? I don't know. What I do know is that other radio hosts have found ways to cover their mistakes with finesse. They can even turn the rare train-wreck into a joke. But this guy falls back on vocal artifacts that make him sound clueless and unprofessional.

Tip #1: Use your "down time" (like, during commercials and pieces of music) to rehearse what you're going to say next, whether it's scripted or not. Tip #2: When you're recording a spot for a local sponsor, don't save the first take. Keep starting over until you get it right. Or, get a sentence at a time in the can, then edit together the best take of each sentence. Otherwise you're just cheating your advertisers. Tip #3: Relax. Many of your mistakes happen because you're rushing yourself. It's not fun to listen to someone who sounds nervous.

3. Thou shalt not broadcast inappropriate mouth noises. I mean it, guy. If your mike is picking up anything except the sound of your voice, you might want to move over to the production side. Until you have spent several years listening all day to taped voice dictation, bookended by an hour of radio chatter going each way, you may never appreciate how extraordinarily annoying non-verbal mouth noises can be. These things don't just tick me off. They make my flesh crawl. At times they make me feel like being violently sick.

Tip #1: Don't ever, ever yawn when your mike is hot... especially while you're talking! Do you think I'm kidding, radio dude? I've heard you do this, and it's impossible to understand what you're saying. More to the point, it makes me want to pound my head against the steering wheel! Tip #2: If you can't go for a minute or two without making a habitual smacking noise, or clicking, clucking, popping, or otherwise fooling around with your lips, tongue, or palate, please stay off the air. Tip #3: If you have a sniffle, take a sick day. My sanity can only endure so much of a voice that sounds like it needs to blow its nose. Tip #4: If you have chronic asthma or emphysema, such that every wheezing breath you take becomes a major feature of your radio patter, you may be eligible for disability benefits. I pray that you are, because listening to you makes me feel short of breath. Tip #5: What's that thing rolling around in your mouth? Are you sucking on an ice cube? Or has your upper dental plate come loose? For pity's sake, stop playing with it and spit it out! You're hard enough to understand when you're not talking around whatever object you're sucking. Plus, that clicking sound is making me physically ill. If it is your false teeth, I also don't want to listen to you trying to speak without them. Be a professional, then, and use a denture adhesive! Tip #6: For the love of all that is holy, do NOT talk while eating! That really makes me want to spew!

4. Know when (and when not) to use a script. Some radio jocks are naturals at improvising, even when it comes to flogging a sponsor's product on air. Others in the same situation ramble on and on, repeating themselves needlessly. The really bad ones speak in run-on sentences, forcing their way past commas and full-stops and breathing in the middle of a phrase. They could really help themselves (and their clients) by writing a script and practicing it a few times before recording the spot. Other jocks, however, come over so wooden when they read aloud that it sounds like a mish-mash of words snipped out of another speech and spliced together in the editing room. A smart producer could help such a guy by asking him to explain, in his own words, the spot he is about to record... and then, on the sly, record this "off the record" summary. Dollars to donuts, it would sound much more natural and unforced!

5. Say something between commercial breaks! There are certain popular talk hosts (you'll notice, by the way, that I've moved way beyond KFUO by now) who spend most of their time hyping themselves, rehashing what they said earlier, or tantalizing you with a preview of coming attractions, while delivering little to no quality content between any given pair of commercial breaks. I can't listen to much of this. A relentlessly self-referential talk-jock can be fun on occasion, but most such occasions happen when he or she steps away from self-promotion long enough to make a stimulating point about a real-world topic. Many TV programs are structured this way, too. You watch the whole 90-minute program waiting to see one 30-second feature that the presenter has avowed to be "coming up" every time they went to a commercial break, and then you find out it's not nearly worth the wait.

This is "how to succeed in the business without really trying"--you hook your viewers or listeners with a minimum of content and keep them hooked, somehow or other, through a lot of advertisements (which are the real program) and a few pieces of flaccid fluff (which exists only to keep you tuned in). What I would like to see and hear is a program packed solid with really interesting material. On the rare occasion I run across such a program, it's a wonderful experience that makes the time pass a bit less like the living hell that (for me) boredom tends to be.

6. Know what you're talking about. The radio jocks I admire the most are the ones who talk about whatever they are presenting as though they really know their subject. TV talk show hosts, ditto. I can't stand, for example, David Letterman. Every week, he gets a shot at interviewing 5 or 10 people trying to break into the big-time, if they aren't already there. When he lets them talk at all, he turns everything they try to say into a ribald joke before they're halfway done speaking. He makes no attempt to conceal that he hasn't read the authors' books, heard the singers' songs, watched the actor's films, etc. And he treats them with a contempt commensurate with his ignorance. It's depressing. If I was about to get published and my agent told me I would have it made if only I went on Letterman, I think I would have to make a quick reservation at a rehab clinic for my own safety.

Dick Cavett, at the other end of the spectrum, can make intelligent conversation with anyone he has on his show. I was very impressed when I listened to the radio broadcasts of the Detroit Symphony which he hosted. And certain of the local classical-radio hosts are heroes of the same kind. At least, by reading the liner notes during an on-air symphony, they can make a credible show of being knowledgeable about their field. The little tid-bits that they share may not be particularly original or scholarly, but at least they make the host sound intelligent. And their apparent interest in the topic can be infectious. On the other hand, it's hard to enjoy listening to a presenter who doesn't know the correct pronunciation of terms and proper names in the topic area under discussion. You have to wonder how important the program is, really, if the producers couldn't be bothered to give it to a better-informed host.

7. Always have a backup plan. I've listened to enough radio to know that not everything goes as planned. Some mornings, the scheduled Wall Street Journal update (via live satellite feed) doesn't materialize. Or the line to CNN is stone dead. Or the computer in the studio is on the fritz, so they can't give you a weather update. These things happen and often can't be anticipated. The trick is to be on one's toes enough to minimize the dead air, and to have something in reserve - a commercial break, a brief piece of music, maybe a news roundup off the internet - to cover for whatever is lacking. When nothing happens for minutes at a time, or when two or more things happen at the same time (like one commercial on top of another, or a news report on top of a piece of music), this is a sign that somebody is a big-time klutz.

Having any kind of plan is essential in a linear medium like radio. Knowing down to the second how long each piece of music is and when each scheduled feature is supposed to begin can go a long way toward preventing embarrassment, such as when a piece of music has to be cut short for a news update. But again, because the unexpected does happen, sometimes those unanticipated overlaps can happen. That's when a radio host shows what he's made of. If he can cover the awkwardness with grace and make it seem like it might have been planned that way, he'll go far in the business!

8. Be mindful of what the listener really needs to know. It's kind of annoying when the DJ deluges you with relatively useless information, like the label under which the recording was distributed, the location where it was recorded, who engineered it, what a big deal it was, and how it's been remastered for its current release, but neglects to mention the title of the piece or the name of the composer or performer. It happens. Regularly. It should happen less often.

Sometimes it's only a matter of the host being in a rush. He's got to recap what you've just heard and make way for the update, or commercial, or whatever is scheduled to happen in 15 seconds, and he can only fit in so much. Such times bring the best out of a radio host who has journalistic training. Ever heard of the "inverted triangle"? A news writer develops a certain habit of mind in which the most important facts gravitate toward the front end of a story. It's sort of like a mental brazilnut effect. It's something to work on, again requiring regular practice over a long period of time, and maybe mentally rehearsing what you're going to say on the short-term level. This way what your listener really wants to know comes out first, then any other information you can give them is handed out in order of importance, as time permits. Just a thought.

9. Less pianissimo, more forte. One of my friends in high school - a really bright, well-educated guy - once confessed to me that he didn't like classical music because it had too many extremes of loud and soft. I have to admit that it isn't as well suited to car-radio listening as, say, rock & roll or country music. When you're at the wheel of a car doing 70 across a steel-girder bridge with crowded, narrow lanes, you don't want to have to crank the volume up to hear a soft passage, or down to protect your eardrums from a sudden loud bit. The risk classical radio takes, and I applaud them for it, is partly a result of this wide dynamic range. But with experience, a classical DJ might be able to select pieces, or specific recordings of a piece, that err on the side of less extreme interpretations of pp and ff markings. Heck, some recording artists carry their interpretations to such extremes that I've had trouble hearing them in a quiet, stationary room!

One implication, specifically for classical programming (very soon to be a moot point in St. Louis), is that brisk, upbeat pieces will tend to play better than haunting, delicate elegies, etc. Where this becomes extra challenging is the apparent contradiction between this "commandment" and...

10. More variety! I don't care what genre of music a radio station specializes in. I've been through this with classical stations, country, contemporary rock, and classic rock. In spite of having all but countless songs to choose from, they tend to come back to the same ones over and over! If you listen to a steady diet of any of these stations for even a few weeks, you will soon get a feel for each DJ's handful of favorites. Give it months or years, and you'll feel the crushing monotony of hearing the same relatively small repertoire endlessly repeated during a given time slot. I would like, just once, to hear a truly creative DJ devoted to airing the widest possible variety of top-quality music in his or her field.

Maybe it's just me, but I find that it doesn't take very many reps to turn a golden oldie, or a hot new hit, into a sickening bore. Maybe it has to do with how I grew up. My brother had a way of latching onto a song or an album and playing it until he had wrung every molecule of musical and emotional interest out of it - a process that, for him, took ages longer than for me. I'm not claiming to have an eidetic memory. But sometimes I thought the way my brother's listening habits (carried out in close proximity to where I laid my head) constituted a form of mental and spiritual torture. His songs became so deeply impressed on my mind that, like them or not, I could not pass a quiet moment without feeling an urge to hum them or move my feet to a beat only I could hear. It didn't help that, at the same time, I saw right through these songs and hated them more every day. In this way I came to know practically every song recorded by (ugh!) Richard Marx by heart. Deliver me! And perhaps that is why I want to admonish every radio DJ, classical or otherwise, to err on the side of variety. I don't want to end up hating the good stuff!

1 comment:

Cuda said...

Cranky, cranky, cranky! ;-)