A few weeks back, over on the CRM Message Board site, a person asked a question in response to people who keep asking to hear the same radio personalities again and again and not anybody new. The person, "regionear," had this to say:
Chicago radio is so "inbred"
Does it always have to be someone from another Chicago station?
I was going to post a short response, but decided to hold off and turn it into a blog posting, since it deserved more than a sentence or two.
Is Chicago radio "inbred," as he said? Does it recycle the same ol' people year after year? I think one could make a pretty easy argument that this is indeed so. Why is this so? That is the bigger question.
First of all, you have to realize that this is not exclusively a Chicago phenomenon. This is true of pretty much all major markets and often complained about in each of them.
Smaller markets tend to take whomever they can get that has some semblance of talent or they go with syndicated programming. Quite often, these people will stay in that market for many years and become well loved there, but there isn't that overwhelming sense of loyalty from the listener to the personality in the smaller markets. If a long-timer gets fired or moves on, there isn't a long-lasting outcry over the loss. Now in contrast, larger markets have larger & longer outcries. If a long-time or well-loved personality is missing from the airwaves, it makes news -- sometimes even national news. The loyalty factor is much larger & deeper in the bigger markets, too. It used to be that if you could develop a loyal following in a major market, you could be set for lifetime employment there. Used to be. (We'll come back to that point in a bit.)
It is odd that on message boards like CRM, there is often the complaining about recycling the same voices instead of bringing in fresh ones. Just as odd are the ones who complain about these fresh voices showing up and displacing the old ones. Odder still is that sometimes the same person takes both sides of the argument on different days. Again, this is not just a Chicago trait. New Yorkers often complain about hearing the same old voices coming back, but also get upset when "carpetbagger" personalities from San Francisco or Philadelphia get jobs there. LA radio fans want something new on the air, but go crazy if a voice that used to be in New York or Miami take over the airwaves. Down in Dallas? You better not sound like a Yankee, Mr. Newcomer! All big markets want it both ways, and yet they don't.
The exception to this rule is if the new voice is from the perceived region (ie: A Rockford or Madison jock moving to Chicago; a New Jersey jock moving to New York, etc.).
There are so very many reasons we want to "recycle" radio personalities. For the most part, major market audiences want familiarity. The voices of known radio personalities are the voices of an old friend. Who doesn’t want to ride in a car, listening to an old friend? It's the audio equivalent of comfort food.
When a show is not local, like most syndicated shows, it leaves the listener emotionally cold. We Chicagoans like it live & local. When a new radio personality IS live & local and still doesn't connect with an audience, it is even worse. I still remember when Rover was on WCKG and he mispronounced Chicago streets and his sidekick, Duji pronounced the silent "s" in Illinois. And they were born in the Chicago suburbs! Regardless, they came to our radios from out of the area and did not connect with the locals. Bringing back a past personality removes any fear of mishaps like this. It's the known versus the unknown. Given a choice, 9 out of 10 Americans will choose a known entity over an unknown.
Station managers like the fact that a returning personality brings with them a built-in audience. The listener likes being part of a shared community; part of that audience. It makes the show hit the ground running, instead of starting from scratch trying to build a fresh following.
Proven talent means usually means proven results. If they have a following and have already shown what their talents can do, why take a risk on an unproven act? That may sound like a Program Director's way of thinking, but it is also the audiences way of thinking. Time is valuable. Unless the sounds coming from their radio speakers grab them emotionally right away, a listener will not stick with an unknown for more than a few minutes. They will stick by a familiar voice for a very long time.
Many fans want to hear personalities not on the air return to the air out of a sense of "fairness." When a DJ is fired, which happens to all DJs regularly, fans often feel it is unfair that these "friends" lost their job in this way. It doesn't matter what the ratings were, what the billings were, what the behind-the-scenes relationships were. All the fans know was that the firing was unfair. A returning DJ is like a triumphant justice for them.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, there are the memories. Most everybody knows that songs can trigger memories. A song can take you back to a period of your life when you were happy, sad, innocent, in love, and so on. Music is the soundtrack of our lives. Up until very recently, radio almost exclusively delivered that soundtrack to us. Not just radio… DJs on the radio. Those DJs often are connected to the music memories and the emotions that go along with them. Hearing their voices on the radio is a way of feeling those innocent times once again -- even if the listener does not realize that at the time. Talk radio personalities, especially those with a sense of humor, can also trigger memories and past emotions of happiness and happy times. A funny segment, a popular "bit," a running gag, silly nicknames, silly voices, a famous bizarre incident. These are just like a hit single for a DJ. The audience has the same longing memories of these as they do a song from their Senior year of High School.
Sometimes, instead of bringing back a past radio star, a link to that star is brought in. In lieu of the well-known personality, a show could be given to a sidekick (or two), a family member, a producer, a popular call-in person, or a semi-regular guest star of the main show. Quite often this will work, but it usually doesn't last long. While it delivers some of the memories & emotions mentioned earlier, it doesn't quite feel the same as the feelings from before. It ends up making the longing for the main star of the past show even stronger.
This is why there is always going to be people asking for a DJs return here in Chicago. It's a natural reaction. It will not stop anytime soon. It probably is not even a bad thing. It is not done to the point of excluding new talent from coming to town. There are still plenty of spaces for new talent to shine through. They just have to realize that they are competing with legacies & legends. They also have to know that they need to build their own legends, so they too can have a long-lasting desire to be heard here. Once you build a loyal Chicago audience, you could possibly have job security here for years to come.
One problem with all this today is the current state of radio ownership. Instead of having dozens of stations in town owned by dozens of companies run by radio people, we now have dozens of radio stations owned by just a few national media corporations, run by shareholders & accountants, who can care less about radio. Bringing back a beloved personality may be a boon to the station, but they almost never comes as cheap as a kid fresh out of broadcasting school, a small market person looking to jump to the big city or a syndicated show out of New York. Instead of looking at the big picture and investing money in a proven personality, they only look at the small, immediate picture of a lower salary. This makes less availability for popular personalities of the past to return to the present. There is a too-long list of names of unemployed (at least in radio) personalities that have a loyal Chicago audience waiting and hoping for their return.
So are Chicago airwaves "inbred" and using recycled people? Yes, they are. It is done for good reason and for welcome reasons. As it now turns out, it isn't being done enough.