Radio listeners deserve a little respect

Radio Tomorrow with James Cridland

One item of debate in the US radio industry is a fake regular caller – Dwayne from Swedesboro, who used to call into a radio station almost every day. Dwayne didn’t exist. He was a character dreamt up and played by a producer of the show, though the presenter never knew.

While there are more issues around this specific story, I must confess that I didn’t see this as being particularly shocking. Radio isn’t always entirely “real”, and audiences probably shouldn’t expect it to be. The Friends cast were scripted to always be that funny. They were played by actors. Radio probably needn’t be too different.

One of my favourite call-in shows, Iain Lee on UK radio station talkRADIO, has a bunch of characters that are obviously acts. Barry from Watford is an old man who’s never short of an opinion. The audience is left to work out for themselves that “Barry” doesn’t really exist – he’s a 48-year-old actor called Alex Lowe, who’s taken the character onto television and a stage show.

The English comedian Peter Cook used to call into London’s LBC radio station, playing a character called Sven from Norway. Once more, the audience was never told “this is Peter Cook playing a character!” – they were credited with the intelligence to make that discovery for themselves.

Absolute Radio’s Geoff Lloyd spoke at the Next Radio conference a few years ago, in a talk entitled “People Are Idiots”. In it, he argued strongly that people aren’t. “Treat your audience like idiots, and they’ll behave like idiots.” He mentions – and it’s a great watch if you haven’t done so – that Frasier’s writers used to put in jokes that only 5% of the audience would ‘get’.

The TV Tropes website has recognised that many television executives think viewers are morons. Indeed, the BBC has been accused by many of “dumbing down”, deliberately putting programs on-air that don’t require much intelligence. “The fear and hatred of intelligence [is] so all-pervading,” complained one BBC employee, adding “One is constantly putting sheer rubbish on the air because of having talks which sounded too intelligent cancelled at the last moment.” The employee in question – author George Orwell, writing in 1942. Times may change, but the complaints don’t.

It’s not just broadcasting which treats our audience as if they’re dumb. Journalism, particularly newspapers, is also full of it. In a Medium post, Jennifer Brandel quotes some of the attitudes she’s had from newsrooms and their bosses: “If we gave the audience what they wanted, they’d ask for crap!”, or worse, “Our audience is a bunch of idiots and assholes. Why exactly would we want to hear more from them than we already do?”

And don’t even start on the way we treat people on websites, with pop-ups and punch-the-monkey ad-banners.

So it’s interesting to consider, as a Facebook commenter of mine did a few months ago, that the “public service” tradition of broadcasters in Europe and Australia mainly tend to treat audiences as intelligent human beings with things to say and views to respect. The commercial broadcasters of the same countries are significantly less engaged with their audiences, treating them more as numbers on a demographic sheet than individual people. The audience figures appear to point to a success for the former approach, rather than the latter.

So when it comes to the intelligence of our audience, all I’m asking is for a little respect. Just a little bit. Sock it to me?


About The Author

James Cridland is a radio futurologist: a writer, speaker and consultant on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business across the world.

A former radio presenter, James has worked for stations and companies across the world, including the original Virgin Radio in London, the BBC, Futuri Media, Imagination Technologies and Seven Network. He has judged many industry awards, including the CBAA, ABC Local Radio, RAIN and the UK’s ARIAS.

He writes for publications across the world, and runs the worldwide media information website. He also runs a free weekly newsletter with news of radio’s future.  

British by birth, James lives in Brisbane, QLD and is a fan of craft beer.