The Digital Dude’s Diagnosis of DJs

| February 4, 2013

By Chris Miller
Chris Miller Digital

SHAKER HEIGHTS, OH — RadioInfo ran an excellent five-day series last week on “The State of the Disc Jockey.”  I’ve been a jock and I’ve been a programmer, and now I see radio from a different, digital perspective that I’d like to share with you.

Constant Reinvention

Radio, at its best, has always offered instant gratification with the best entertainment value.  We’ve been forced to be flexible.  We were the “old medium” when TV came on the scene, but we adapted.  Radio in 1960 was very different than it was in 1950.

When a large array of cable channels showed up in homes in the early 80s, including MTV, we adapted once again.  Peoples’ attitudes about media changed, and we changed along with them.  Radio in 1985 was pretty different than it had been in 1975.

Now, with the digital revolution, radio has not kept up.  The air talent we hear in 2013 have not grown and adapted on the scale called for.  Many, many jocks do not sound dramatically different than they did in 2003 or even 1993. Budget cuts, corporate radio, and voice tracking may all share some of the blame.  However, I’m actually more worried about our own hardening of the creative arteries.  I hear my radio brethren talking about DJs in an either/or way, where our choice is either how we used to perform in the good old days, or the unsatisfying way we go about it now.

Fitting the New Media World

To me, the music-vs.-personality struggle is a false duality, and a sign that we’re not paying attention to what people want from us.  From my seat over here in the digital world, where so much changes all the time, radio’s ideas about what a DJ does seem quaint.

If I suddenly found myself running a large radio group and wanted to make my stations as good as they could be, I’d take a few stations and just try new stuff.  In what new ways could we bond with our community as radio has done over the years?  Where do we find talent that’s not limited by the Radio Rule Book of what a DJ says on the air? Which of our assumptions still hold, and which ones are about to slap us upside the head?

If our strategy is to blend music and talent in a way that feels as current and compelling as a hot new development in the digital world, what are the tactics that get us there?

The Listener Experience

Our listeners don’t experience us as music-vs.-personality unless we start saying stuff that bores them.  We can bore them in seven seconds over an intro, or in 70 seconds talking about a promotion that wasn’t designed with the listener in mind.  One big advantage that most digital media has that radio doesn’t is instant feedback.  You can tell from people’s clicking behavior what’s working almost immediately.  That’s really not the case with radio.  It’s too easy for us to spend time with our current feedback loops, instead of hearing bracing truths about what our fans truly want and will respond to.

This is not a question you can solve with research.  I’ve used a ton of research in my career, but you can’t describe to people what radio could be instead of what it is now.  Even if Cox researched the recent move they made on Tampa’s 97X, there was no telling what the reaction would be … until they flipped the switch and left their playlist up to the listeners.

To me, the question is whether we are bold and gutsy and visionary, and find ways to fit the expectations of what a great country station or a great hip-hop station or a great news/talk station could be in 2013.  My money’s on reinventing what we know about personality, not just tweaking what we’ve done for the last quarter-century.

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Chris Miller, owner of Chris Miller Digital, is a leading radio consultant specializing in research-based strategic planning and smart use of digital media. He can be phoned at 216-236-3955 or e-mailed at chris@chrismillerdigital.com.

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Category: Digital, Opinions