Is It Live… Or Memorex???

Nevin Grant

Is It Live .. Or Memorex ???  An Opinion

There was an era when what emerged from your radio was nearly always “live”, or was it??? As radio developed and different networks dominated the landscape, syndicated programming became a fact of life. Prime time on your radio would be dominated by network shows, be it dramas, comedy programs, variety shows or contests. There was considerable fame and fortune to be made for Arthur Godfrey, Fred Allen, William Boyd, the Happy Gang, Art Linkletter, Wayne and Schuster, Jack Benny, Paul Harvey. With the rapid growth of television in the late Forties and the Fifties, radio survived by turning heavily to music/news formats. Many of the old network shows were gone. Television took over the dramas, contests and situation comedies. Radio would deliver the news & sports across the broadcasting day while Television would deliver news at three or four scheduled times per day. Radio also provided music formats that you could enjoy while doing other activities, sometimes even while at work. From the later Fifties throughout the Sixties and into the Seventies many syndicated music features became available for radio. Stations could run “American Top 40” or music specials like ‘The History of Rock n’ Roll” , various Dick Clark features. Most syndicated shows were delivered on vinyl or later, compact discs. Satellite made it easy to distribute feature programming and music programming could be picked up “live”… a show originating in Vancouver being heard across Canada immediately. Stations began to substitute satellite programming for live hosting, at first on the overnight shows and then the evening programs. By and large, the local, live programming covered 6AM to 6PM.

With the arrival of the Eighties, new technology made it possible for stations to prerecord their own programming and cover off hours of programming without having to put a personality in the studio. The computer had made “voicetracking” possible. Initially the heavy use of tracking was restricted to the smaller markets, but soon it was becoming a fact of life in even the nation’s largest radio markets. Today the procedures are so sophisticated that someone can be doing an airshift “live” while voicetracking another shift for playback later. Skilled voicetrackers can make it difficult to determine whether a show is live or tracked. Technology allows time checks to be dropped in for traffic updates to be inserted into a voicetrack, – even newscasts.   

There can be no doubt that the ability to voicetrack programming has saved broadcasters a ton of money in announcing salaries. The practice has become so widespread that even in some major markets a number of stations boast only a live morning show while the balance of the day/night are voicetracked. But – voicetracking has brought its share of evils too. A major proving ground for new talent has been sacrificed. Young broadcasters used to cut their teeth by hosting overnight shows or even evening and weekend programming. With valuable critiquing, these newer talents would often move up to regular daytime airshifts. Unfortunately much of the voicetracking isn’t in the hands of skilled trackers and you can get hours of liner cards and music sweeps with little “magic” for the listener. This begs the question – where will tomorrow’s scintillating personalities come from if there exists no farm system or hours where new talent can be groomed? Alongside the skilled, well-prepped personalities, radio once produced a cast of “characters”.

Even one CHR station in a market the size of Hamilton captivated listeners with professional hosts like Dave Charles, John Novak, Roger Ashby and Ronald J. Morey alongside a cast of entertaining characters like Scott “Hollywood” Harris , Big, Bad Bob Steele,  Rock n’ Ray Michaels and Captain Pete Daley. Where do the future hosts and characters cut their teeth today?

Terrestrial radio faces a major programming crisis in the years ahead. Music alone can no longer be the saviour of radio. Now an i-Pod can provide personal music mixes for youth and adults alike. Satellite radio is growing. New systems of music retrieval have increased the listener sweepstakes tenfold. Once again, hosts who fascinate and attract listeners will be required. Characters who demand attention will be a precious entity. Personalities will have to be well-prepped and able to deliver the key surveillance information that satellite and television miss. Program Directors will find it necessary to work one-on-one with their radio personalities again. Radio will once again become “exciting” to listen to. Radio once again will find a better way to survive. I’m counting on it!

Nevin Grant, freelance broadcaster, Journalist and musician, was program/music director for 38 years at OLDIES 1150 CKOC, Hamilton where he still freelances today.  Nevin is also a playwright and has co-authored several music revues for the Stage West chain including:  British Invasion, British Invasion Two: America Strikes Back, California Dreaming,  California Dreaming Two: The Beat Goes On and Canadian Explosion, as well as other musical productions for theatres and music tribute artists.   In 2002 Nevin was inducted into Hamilton’s “Gallery Of Distinction” and in 2009 was honoured with  a “Lifetime Music Achievement Award”   at the annual Hamilton Music Awards. Nevin has adjudicated at Elvis Festivals for nine years, including Collingwood, Windsor, Kitchener, Brantford and Rockton.