The Advance That Has Led Us Backwards
     


The 2010 NAB Show has come and gone. By most accounts, this year was a significant improvement over the past several conventions. Traffic was up, buyers were serious and vendors were busier. The industry appears to be turning around with renewed hope of better things yet to come.

I usually do an NAB recap piece after the show each year, citing all the Cool Stuff and promising new products and technologies that caught my eye. My colleagues at Radio World have already handled that pretty well. After leaving NAB this year, I kept thinking about one particular paper given during Monday’s afternoon radio tech session that exposed a largely unacknowledged reality, one that has literally crippled the product of radio and our business.

RADIO’S MALAISE

Pat Campion, director of product development for ENCO Systems, presented a discussion titled “Beyond Automation: Intelligent Software Design for Live-Assist Applications.” He started by warning the audience he was taking great risk that he might not have a job after saying what he wanted to say about radio automation systems. Not just about his own company’s products, but about those of all his competitors. That quickly got everyone’s undivided attention.

Campion asserted that computer-based automation systems should be blamed for a part of what is wrong with radio today. Without reservation, I totally agree.

Twenty or thirty years ago — before consolidation, computers and the Internet changed our business forever — only the background music stations dared to use clunky automation systems. They all featured various kinds of Rube Goldberg-inspired tape rotation and play-out systems. Virtually every popular station with live announcers used carts and CDs to deliver their recorded content.

Automation is a cost-saver, in radio and most businesses. That’s great if the goal is to produce a homogenized product in large quantities, but Guy Wire says automated and live-assist technology has had unintended consequences. © iStockphoto/zoran mircetic
I can remember many top-rated jocks and morning shows of that era having huge walls and carousels filled with carts, carefully categorized and labeled. When they wanted a special bit or effect, they knew right where to grab and load it for quick execution. Dead air was practically nonexistent. Real live jocks knew how to fill and buy time cleverly without liner cards when they had to. Radio still had a sense of fun, impulsive creativity and unpredictability back then.

GIVE WAY TO THE ‘BETTER WAY’

Then came the big technology advancement. PCs and networks brought a promising and seductive amount of flexibility and efficiency to both production and on-air execution. As user interfaces, digital audio platforms and drive storage capacity all improved, loading everything destined for the airchain became easy if not preferable.

Fewer people could now do more of the work. Shows could be fully automated with voice-tracked announcers making it all sound “live.” The game became how well we could fool the audience.

Consolidated owners and managers figured out the financial advantages of this marvelous new way of doing radio even faster than programmers. Except for drive times, live announcers were jettisoned. Radio quickly became more sterile, homogenized and predictable. I don’t have to belabor the fine points of that ugly little truth.

Today’s radio automation systems admittedly do a lot of things pretty well. But they also inflict a lot of unintended consequences.

Playing a log of events in sequence and reliably stopping and restarting on command is not too hard. Implementing a good search and change function for live-assist operators to quickly find and swap or add elements on the fly is more challenging.

Some do this chore better than others. Those that don’t measure up frustrate the jock and degrade his performance. It’s probably why we see many stations still hanging onto Instant Replays and similar external devices to handle quickly-needed audio clips.

Every system out there has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. If operators don’t learn how to properly use all of the features and also how to overcome all of the foibles of their system, the air sound suffers.

TECHNOLOGY SEDUCTION

Automated live-assist radio has lulled a lot of jocks out of being creative and compelling, into a less effective frame of mind. Either they become lazy and inattentive, letting the machine do most of the work as programmed, or they spend most of their mental energy just feeding the monster and tracking the system, making sure all the spots play and the songs and sweepers segue properly.

Shouldn’t they really be concentrating on making their next live break the best and most engaging it can possibly be for their listeners?

Too many programmers have been seduced by the power of automation giving them “more control and consistency.” Too many capable and creative jocks have been largely muzzled into liner card readers and generic voice-trackers. Programmers using the smothering control of automated air content have squeezed the life out of the people who talk to us over the radio every day. Most have no real choices of what to air or even what to say. The PPM imperative to play the tunes and shut up is only making it worse.

There is no honest way to spin this into something positive. It’s been literally devastating to the radio music industry. Air talent that doesn’t cooperate can be easily replaced with a voice-tracked box. The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of control and away from creativity. We’ve lost perhaps an entire generation of great live jocks who might have been, save for the damage inflicted by automation systems.

A sage and venerable icon jock recently told me his show would immediately improve if we got rid of the automation and brought back only carts and CDs. If only we could resurrect those triple-stack cart decks tossed into a dumpster years ago. But I digress.

REGAINING CONTROL

Campion’s paper takes on the inadequacies of radio automation headfirst, identifying unexploited opportunities and areas needing improvement. His current focus at ENCO is developing enhancements that make the job of the live-assist jock easier and more efficient, so that person can concentrate on doing a better show. That means spending a minimum amount of time and effort finding and preparing his chosen content. It also means harnessing the resources of the Internet to enrich that content.

Good live-assist automation performance depends not only on flexible, well-written and resilient programming but also on smart execution by the operators. Any system can only do what those who design it, set it up, program it and run it, expect it to do. An expensive, fully developed feature-rich system that is misused will sound just as clunky or defective as a more limited, less developed or buggy system.

Pat ended his presentation by challenging every station programmer and engineer to evaluate how well their automation company is delivering everything they need to achieve the air sound they want. If it’s missing key ingredients or not executing their needs reliably, they should be all over that automation company to correct the flaws and make it acceptable. If that doesn’t happen, fire that company (even if it’s ENCO) and find one that can and will deliver.

Congratulations, Pat Campion. That’s refreshing and courageous. If we ever needed something to jump-start better programming and air sound execution in radio today, this is it. We’ve become slaves to our automation system technology in too many ways, letting it dictate what we can and cannot do in an increasingly demanding and competitive media space. It’s time we retake full control and insist that it deliver the results we truly want and deserve.

As an engineer, I do admire the engineering genius and beauty of these machines and realize that computer-based digital audio playout systems have been one of the most important technical innovations for our business in my lifetime. They have made radio technically more reliable and higher quality in many ways that were impossible before.

But in my heart, I worry that when I install one of these systems to automate a station, I am cutting out another piece of the soul of our industry and throwing it in the trash. We could end up like Neo in the Matrix. The dark side of this technology is that the patient dies in the real world. We might just need an Oracle to save us.

Guy Wire is the pseudonym for a veteran broadcast radio engineer.


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