Live to air still best but…

Comment from Peter Saxon

Last week James Cridland posted a provocatively titled article: Live Radio is Lazy Radio.  

It drew considerable backlash from some of our readers, aghast at the suggestion.

TK says: Obviously this guy doesn’t understand live radio. Sure certain bits are better produced … interviews, comedy bits … but live radio is real radio. Voice-tracking is lazy. But it takes a real radio person to be able to do it live, consistently.

Lezman writes: For my money, it’s the other way around. Voice tracking and pre-recording is lazy radio. Presentation is all in the preparation. If you know what you are going to say, you can say it and still sound polished.

To be clear, James is not advocating that a whole show be pre-recorded and run on autopilot. He remains firmly committed to the presenter being live in the studio. “But I’m also encouraging you to think about how much really needs to be live,” he says. And think about how much could have been improved with some post production.

Of course, there are some elements of a program that can’t or should not be pre-recorded as Mix 106.3 in Canberra found out just last week when a traffic report informed listeners that traffic in the nation’s capital was heavy, as it usually is on a Monday morning, except that this was Easter Monday, a public holiday when, in fact, traffic was sparse.

In almost every field of creative endeavour there exists a solid core of purists who deplore the erosion of basic skill sets once deemed necessary to be a professional. Radio certainly has its fair share of purists, many of whom (and I am one) honed their craft in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s before voice-tracking and digital production was perfected. 

Things have changed since the 80’s. More quickly since 2000.

For example, although my wife Pauline and I are not into reality shows per se, we remain avid fans of vocal contests such as Idol and The Voice. While watching the born again American Idol on Foxtel the other night and marvelling at the quality of the talent, it occurred to us that no one seemed capable of hitting a bum note any more.

In seasons gone by the word “pitchy” entered our lexicon as judges berated contestant after contestant for singing off-key. But today it seems that every 16 year old who has only ever sung into a hair brush in front of their great aunt and her cat has perfect pitch. Either that or auto-tune technology has come of age.

Assuming the latter is true, purists would say, it’s a singing contest, contestants should demonstrate that they can sing. Good point. But a singer is really only as good as their ability to connect with an audience. If it was all about vocal ‘quality’ in the purest sense of the word then Pavarotti would beat Dylan every time.

Pavarotti himself was booed off stage at La Scala for hitting a clinker. Goes to show audiences don’t go to live shows to hear a flat note, it detracts from the reason they do go to live shows for… which is for the emotional bond they experience with the artist.

So why not use auto-tune to eliminate the prospect of such a distraction and leave the artist to concentrate on telling a story that connects with the audience?

No art form is more top heavy with purists than Opera. They will defend to the death (which, for many of them, is not that far away) traditions that have lasted hundreds of years. They’re in a constant battle with progressives who want to open Opera up to the younger masses rather than let it wither as a museum piece.

A triumph for the operatic progressives has been the Handa Opera on the Harbour series which has, for seven years now, lured tens of thousands to Mrs Macquarie’s Point come rain or (moon) shine to see and hear grand opera in a spectacular outdoor setting with the opera house itself and harbour bridge as its backdrop. This requires the performers and orchestra to be miked and amplified. Which drives the purists apoplectic. Traditionally it was incumbent upon the opera star to have a voice powerful enough to rise above an orchestra and fill a concert hall – originally because amplification equipment did not exist and later because it destroyed the delicate sonic qualities of the music.

But such has been the refinement of modern sound rigs that any degradation in sound quality is so minuscule that the benefits of amplification far outweigh the negatives. 

My point is, you don’t have to take away the microphone from Tom Jones or k.d. lang to appreciate they each have a powerful voice. And if modern sound equipment can faithfully reproduce that voice and all the pathos and drama that the artist has put into their performance, then why stick to tradition? Why make the artist strain to be heard and audiences struggle to hear when the whole issue can be taken out of the equation through technology?  

The purists might argue: it would mean that technically mediocre singers would get a free kick and compete on the same terms as those more accomplished.

True but so what? Almost anyone with a modicum of musicality can be taught to stay in tune. What can’t be taught is the X-factor which is what will always separate the real talent from the hacks.

For radio, the equation’s pretty much the same. It is all about the announcers’ ability to engage with an audience. What technological tricks they use to achieve that is immaterial. 

Yes, as a general rule, radio connects best with listeners when it is live and local. But that doesn’t mean that some elements of the show can’t be pre-recorded and tidied up before they hit the air. No chef starts cooking everything from scratch when an order comes into the kitchen. Every ingredient for each dish on the menu that can be prepared in advance is so that it can be quickly blended with the rest of the meal, thrown in the pan and served “fresh, live and local.”


 Peter Saxon

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