Programming : Where Ego Rules
Chris England looks at the world of personality DJs. From August 1987.
In the last Behind The Dial, we looked at how to 'program' disc jockeys with scripts or cards to ensure that the things they say remain the same regardless of who is actually on the air.
The resulting blanket 'overall sound' is deliberately fashioned by the majority of radio's programme controllers in an attempt to win the ever increasing ratings wars. The multi-choice American radio scene easily supports this concept and a society based on everything being on tap, 24 hours a day, positively demands it.
However, until recently there have only been a handful or stations in America that actually allow their disc jockeys to do any thing other than stick very rigidly to the script and style written for them. America, despite its hundreds of stations, has only half a dozen 'personality' DJs. Britain has about the same number, even though we've survived so far with only a handful of stations.
Britain has developed more 'personality' DJs because, until the last decade, the lack of competition meant that strict scripting was unnecessary. It also doesn't work so well in Britain, where listeners demand a bit more respect.
A quick glance over any British radio audience research figures will show DJs like Steve Wright (Radio One), Tony Blackburn (Radio London) or Rod Lucas (ex Radio Kent, now Invicta) figuring highly. In fact, Steve Wright doubled the afternoon audience for Radio One within six months or taking over the slot. Tony Blackburn actually brought Radio London into the ratings. And Charlie Wolf, whilst working on Laser, proved general evening audiences existed. He found masses of listeners for the times when most stations put out their minority rubbish.
All these broadcasters have genuine personality.
Take out all the timechecks, station IDs, what's on, deejay clichés and the info and announcements about the records, and personality is what's left.
Personality is natural and cannot be programmed, It manifests itself in two main ways: 'sex appeal' or 'rebellion'.
'Sex appeal' is usually targeted towards the older generation romantics, and a large proportion or young girls or housewives. For these consumers it's a gentle, well-mannered, softly spoken fellow, probably like John Dunn or Ray Moore on Radio Two, who isn't really a disc jockey. Instead, he's their knight in shining armour. What comes across is his natural 'warmth'. The listener feels that he is talking directly to them in person, rather than making announcements to several million others at the same time. 'Sex appeal' disc jockeys get the most disgusting fan mail, with Terry Wogan still holding the current record.
We don't have any 'sex appeal' disc jockeys turning up on Independent Radio. The nearest it gets to 'sex appeal' is to try to project the false 'macho' images of people like Greg Edwards (mainly on his soul shows on Capital) or John Sachs. Women don't take this form of 'sex appeal' too seriously in real life either. And sadly, nobody in this country has yet programmed 'sex appeal' aimed at men.
So, let's look at 'rebellion' personalities like Messrs Blackburn and Co. They put across a devil-may-care attitude, in a programme packed with controlled chaos. Their fans see them as rebel leaders, laughing at accepted values and authority. The original offshore pirates of the sixties cultured this almost natural image, and the best of the bunch brought this on to land. Since the sixties, a lot of rebels have grown old and boring (D.L.T. and Kenny Everett being the worst), with only the brilliant mind of Tonv Blackburn and Steve Wright surviving into the eighties. Sadly, no other real personalities have emerged in the last twenty years.
Now, one of the major problems that 'personality' jocks suffer from is that you either love them or hate them. The Sun newspaper has the same problem: largest circulation, most ridiculed. This 'Sun syndrome' frightens the Independent stations, who now program to be as safe as possible.
Capital started this trend many years ago by steering away from personalities, and moulding their on-air staff to sound like Roger Scott. This spread to most of the country's commercial stations, becoming known as the 'ILR Lisp'. About six years ago, the 'lisp' was replaced by 'street cred'. "Street cred' in London means sounding like a coarse cockney: Gary Crowley and Danny Baker do this best.
Indeed, in the eighties whilst British audiences are having to learn to put up with safe, non-personality broadcasting, American audiences are demanding more. In their struggle to compete, 'shock jocks' have emerged. A 'shock jock' doesn't use sex appeal or rebellion as such. He just insults his listeners. This can be a little dangerous... One listener took a wind-up the wrong way, stalked the disc jockey who insulted him and shot him dead.
Tony Blackburn's 'P.G. Rated' BBC Radio London programme is the nearest we have in this country to the 'shock jock; and is very mild in comparison. Mr Blackburn believes, quite rightly, that radio should be fun. There is a place for bland broadcasting, with public service announcements like news, weather, travel and factual information and chat. BUT, there's an even bigger place for fun radio. Laser proved this when during Charlie Wolf's time it provided no news service but pure fun interconnecting the discs. Laser had the biggest offshore radio cult following since the sixties. Its success was its well-controlled combination of strict musical formatting and personality disc jockeys.
Many would agree that it will be nice to see Mr Blackburn's fun radio dream come true in the future, but much nicer to see existing radio stations make a move in that direction today.
- Offshore 1987
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- Jamming the Box
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