I’ve written a number of times here about the many things I’ve learned from Dan O’Day. Just yesterday, one of Dan’s free email newsletters arrived that had such a powerful commentary in it that, even though it doesn’t speak directly to the world of voiceover, I thought it was something you should get a chance to read. So I wrote and asked Dan for permission to republish his commentary here. He has graciously agreed. What follows is Dan’s commentary, complete.
*THE INEVITABLE RESULT OF THE “LET’S DEBASE OUR LISTENERS” RADIO PROMOTION MENTALITY*
I was not planning to write about the recent tragic result of a radio station promotion in Sacramento. (If you are not familiar with it — which must mean you are outside the U.S. — do a Google search for “sacramento radio contest” — without the quotation marks.)
My personal response to it is very strong, and this Letter is meant to offer constructive approaches to creating and delivering good radio. It is not intended to be a soapbox from which I declare my values and beliefs.
But as I contemplated what transpired, I realized that at its core is an issue that long has bothered me about the promotional mindset of many commercial radio programmers. In fact, I wrote about this at some length as far back as 10 or 15 years ago.
It’s an approach to station and program promotion which, at its core, is fundamentally and fatally flawed.
I’m referring to all the stations that conduct “What would you do for _____” contests.
The stations that dangle a prize in front of their listeners, offering it to the person who is most willing to suffer humiliation for the sake of “winning” it.
What other profession thinks it’s good business to subject its most enthusiastic customers to discomfort and ridicule?
What other profession gleefully engages in such foolish, juvenile, and sadistic behaviors toward its customers?
Whenever a radio station or program offers a prize to listeners who agree to embarrass or degrade themselves, the unmistakable message is:
“We are big and powerful. You are nothing. If you want to win our favor, you must demonstrate how powerful we are by humiliating yourself.”
That type of radio station is nothing more than a petty dictator, constantly needing to be reassured of its own importance by belittling its “subjects.”
Think of the western movie cliche of the town drunk being forced to dance or sing a song or crawl along the barroom floor before being tossed a coin to fuel his alcoholism. Guess what? It’s never the good guys who exploit the town drunk for their own amusement; it’s the bad guys!
What would you say if your small child came home from school one day and told you a bigger classmate had declared that any child who wants to play in the sandbox first has to drink so much water that he wets his pants?
You’d say that other kid is a pathetic, nasty bully.
In a business that lives and dies by its relationship with its customers (listeners), does it really make sense to be the bad guy, the bully?
It’s not just poor judgment by some radio people that led to a woman’s death this month. They simply did a bad job of conducting a type of contest that has enjoyed industry-wide approval for years.
Let us imagine that no one died. Still, the show hosts *laughed* at the fact that the woman reported feeling sick. The physical discomfort of the contestants provoked *glee* from the air talents.
The woman complained of feeling sick!
Why didn’t they call a doctor?
Why didn’t they drive her to a hospital?
Why didn’t they care??
Has radio lost its conscience? Its soul? Its humanity?
If so, why would any decent person remain in this business?
What other profession *tries* to make its constituents physically ill?
In a world beset with pain and fear and suspicion, what other profession *endorses* the debasing of its fellow human beings for the aggrandizement of the company?
“Well, Dan, what about TV shows like ‘Fear Factor’? They exploit the discomfort of their subjects.” Yes, they do. But those TV shows have no relationship with the audience. And they don’t have an F.C.C. license to serve their community.
Not only are such promotions cruel; they’re also stupid.
This particular morning show was given a Wii to award as a prize. Some genius at the station thought, “Hey, ‘Wii’ and ‘wee’ sound alike. Let’s make the contestants hold back their ‘wee’ for as long as possible!”
And, presumably, others at the station laughed and applauded such creativity.
But despite the auditory similarity between the prize name and the euphemism for urine, exactly what does urine have to do with a video game?
Nothing. But apparently that never occurred to anyone at that radio station.
And if it hadn’t ended tragically, you can bet this “clever contest” would have been trumpeted from the pages of various radio trade publications and emulated by other, equally callous programmers.
If you read the news stories, you probably saw mention of a college student who died from a similar “prank” a couple of years ago. What was the context of that teenager’s death?
A fraternity hazing. A “trial by fire” which deliberately sought to create great discomfort for the victim.
Is that what we’ve become? Immature, irresponsible, sadistic fraternity brothers who equate our fun with the suffering of others?
Two children lost their mother. A man lost his wife. Two parents lost their daughter.
And given our industry’s steady slide into the muck of “wouldn’t it be funny to torture someone who needs the money or who desperately wants the prize,” such a fatal misadventure was inevitable.
Have we become so beaten down by consolidation, monetization, and the stress of keeping our jobs in a downsized environment that we have lost our humanity?
From The Dan O’Day Radio Programming Letter (http://www.danoday.com/free).
Copyright 2007 by Dan O’Day. Reprinted by permission of author. All rights reserved.
(Update: You’ll find Stephanie’s passionate and thoughtful response to this post in full, on Vox Daily, here.)