Who really killed the radio stars?

Abstract: Something that fits in your pocket did, and something else in your pocket might bring them back…

For some reason the original title was abandoned in favour of Networks killed the radio star, iPods might bring them back. For me this is like going to see The Empire Strikes Back and the guy in front of you telling you that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.

Quick…name me ten top stars of South African radio.

I’m not surprised if you’re battling a bit, although I should be. Johannesburg has more radio stations with more money being thrown at them than any other city in this country. Most of the so-called big name radio personalities are on Johannesburg-based radio stations. So we should all know who they are. But we don’t, and the reason why we don’t fits into your pocket.

It’s money. Over the past ten years, radio in South Africa, as in other parts of the world, has become increasingly homogenised with different radio stations being snatched up by media networks and then re-formatted within the style and structure of those particular networks. With a calculating eye on the bottom line, these networks then embark on a process of programming ‘realignment’ to cut costs. In places like the US, the UK, Canada and Australia, many programmes are syndicated across an entire network of stations, thereby cutting out the need for hosts on those individual radio stations.

Some programmes, especially those broadcast overnight have no hosts at all; well, ‘live’ hosts, anyway. Voiced ‘links’ are recorded and slotted in between the music that is programmed and controlled by computers. This way networks don’t have to pay someone to be on air for three or four hours if they can record the necessary links in a matter of minutes. If in doubt, listen out for time checks – if there are no time checks, the host is in bed sleeping.

Not so long ago it was decided that it was the music, not the host, that mattered the most. The new breed of radio ‘presenters’ was selected from club DJs. The idea was that people wanted to listen to music and not to someone talking. Established radio hosts were told to cut the chatter down to an absolute minimum and ‘get back to the music’. Some were even given cue cards to stick to. This was very much like saying to an artist “by all means be creative, but paint by the numbers.”

So the networks were happy. They knew people wanted music and they were providing the music with little interference from those pesky radio presenters that cost money. Video didn’t kill the radio star; the networks did.

But then something really small turned it all upside down. Something else that can fit into your pocket: the iPod. With increasing connectivity, today’s music users are no longer passive consumers. They prefer to determine their own rate of consumption and with the upper-end range of MP3 players, they can do just that. They don’t need a radio for music anymore.

Most music radio stations rely on a playlist rotation of between 1 500 to 3 000 songs. That’s all. These are carefully selected and researched songs that most of their audience apparently likes. Stations then play on the fact that you’ll remain ‘locked on’ because as each song comes up you should like it. I can now buy an iPod that stores ten times that number of songs and which can produce an unpredictable stream of songs that I know I’m going to like.

“Wait”, argue radio executives, “we have things you can’t get on an iPod”. Yes, adverts. Suddenly adverts have gone from tolerable intrusions that are necessary to provide a flow of music that is free, to nothing more than interruptions in the free flow of music.

So what do these radio executives have left to offer added value to you, the consumer? What have they got to challenge the iPod? They have presenters – the very same people whose creativity has been suppressed over the years and the same bank of former club DJs. Noticed a little more talk on the radio recently? The networks are currently scrambling to find the necessary talent to develop into today’s radio stars.

And that’s why you can’t think of ten top stars of South African radio. Yet.

Originally published in the Saturday Star, 15 July 2006