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Radio AM to FM: March 1, 2002

If its such a good idea, why is it hidden from listeners?

Throughout its top-40 history, KHJ (930 AM) promised "you say it, we play it," in reference to the fact that listeners could actually call in, talk with the DJs, and get their requests on the air. When the old KRLA (now KSPN, 1110 AM) studios were in Pasadena, people could literally walk up to the glass booth and watch their favorite disc jockeys spin the tunes.

Nowadays, at least in many cases, you're lucky if there is anyone even in the building.

Two recent articles in The Wall Street Journal and the Raleigh, North Carolina Spectator have highlighted the well-known fact that group owner Clear Channel Communications -- by far the largest radio group in the world -- uses voice tracking at most of their radio stations in some way, including those in Los Angeles. Voice tracking, in this case using a computer program called Prophet, allows for a personality in one city to "lay down tracks" for a station in another city, to be played as if the jock was actually there.

Clear Channel president Randy Michaels compares Prophet to McDonalds, hinting that voice tracking allows you to have similar quality no matter the size of the radio market. An interesting comparison if not misleading: I have never been served a burger in San Pedro by an employee who was in San Diego at the time.

What the articles bring out is somewhat interesting ... if the plan is so good, why does Clear Channel try to hide the fact that they do it? Two examples:

*In an "in studio" interview with pop music stars Evan and Jaron on KSAS-FM/Boise, the duo spoke with personality Mr. Alan about how great Boise is to visit, and mentioned that they had just come from skiing at nearby Sun Valley. Mr. Alan agreed, stating that "we've got some good people here" and asked his Boise listeners to phone in or email questions for the stars.

Problem is, the interview was recorded in San Diego, not Boise. Three weeks previously. Even those who travel faster than the speed of light couldn't have called in time.

*In North Carolina, three voice tracked personalities state things like, "tons of people are calling me tonight," or giving invitations for listeners to get their requests in before the show ends, both impossibilities given the fact that none of the jocks are able to take phone calls when they aren't even there.

While this may be modern radio, Todd Morman of the Spectator says that the actions may be illegal. The rule is very clear, he wrote of Section 73.1208 of the Communications Act of 1934 ... which survived a rewrite in 1996 and reads,

"Any taped, filmed or recorded program material in which time is of special significance, or by which an affirmative attempt is made to create the impression that it is occurring simultaneously with the broadcast, shall be announced at the beginning as taped, filmed or recorded."

Not that anyone expects the FCC to actually enforce it: the agency hasn't enforced broadcast rules that matter in years. But it would make for an interesting change.

In my mind, the more "Prophetized" a station or group becomes (don't fool yourself -- Clear Channel is hardly the only company doing it although they use it the most) the more of a chance that real radio will return. Listeners aren't stupid, and radio is a local -- and very personal -- medium. You can't fake it.

Short term gains made by those who rely on voice tracking will most assuredly lead to failure of those companies as competitors provide good, local content. The world isn't Hollywood, and people don't want it to be, in the end.

Someday the fools who follow Prophet will find that their fortune is truly fool's gold.


Copyright © 2002 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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