Sunday, March 18, 2012

We'll be right back after this

If you'd like people to actually pay attention to your blog,
and possibly even read it, I suggest the gratuitous use of this type of photo. 
I was in the radio business for a long time. I usually say I was in commercial radio, to distinguish that form from public broadcasting. "Commercial" was the key word. Back then, public stations didn't air advertising like they do now - they just mentioned grants and foundations now and then in thankful, well-modulated tones. Over in commercial radio, we were all about the advertising. Ads paid our tiny salaries, and if you had good ratings and people liked you, maybe you could make a few bucks on the side endorsing someone's pizza place or auto shop.

Commercials were important. We debated the proper length of commercial breaks for different programming formats, how the breaks should begin and end, whether we could make more selling two 30-second ads or one 60-second ad. We set rules for the maximum number of commercial minutes per hour you could get away with and still have an audience - and then immediately broke those rules when the commercial log was full but another car dealer wanted to get on the air to push their big weekend sale (which often came with yet another exciting (?) live radio broadcast from the car lot, during which we would entice customers with the irresistible offer of "free hot dogs and balloons for the kids." It was a fundamental belief that the American consumer will do just about anything for a free hot dog, even subject themselves to the charms of a used car salesman.) I remember a peak period when we were cramming in 22 minutes of commercials each hour on the morning drive show. That was great, because it told us we had a show that was so popular that businesses just HAD to have their ads on the air - but it made me wonder how it could be popular, or even tolerable, with more than a third of every hour made up of sales pitches.

This concern seems rather quaint by today's standards.

Somewhere along the line, we were introduced to the concept of the "program length commercial." This was, in the beginning, a special thing that was ordered by an ad agency to run in some low-profile place in your program schedule, like after midnight or really early on a Saturday morning or a Sunday afternoon. A reel-to-reel tape would arrive, and if it was scheduled during your shift on the control board, you'd string it up and take a nice 30-minute break to raid the break room fridge, or talk to your girlfriend on the phone, or slip into another studio to record yet another commercial. These program-length commercials were sometimes like lectures, sometimes a type of fake interview, and usually tried to masquerade as an actual radio program that just happened to mention some specific product over and over because it truly was "amazing" or "miraculous" or "a hidden secret." They were generally unlistenable, and it was embarrassing to have them airing on a station you were programming, because it meant you were so desperate for money you were willing to whore out your airtime to just about anyone for any purpose.

This concern seems rather quaint by today's standards.

Today, due to the rapid advances in the sophistication of our culture (ahem), the program-length commercial - renamed the infomercial - is as common as dirt. They air at all hours of the day and night, on just about every channel of radio and TV. What was once whorish is now acceptable and standard practice, even desirable, sort of like women's fashion. As a result of my habit of sleeping with the television on and waking up at odd hours to ruminate on the meaning of strange dreams and prowl for just the wrong thing to eat at three in the morning, I have discovered there are endless hours of infomercials now populating scads of bandwidth - even entire television channels devoted to them entirely.

Just last night (or was it early this morning?) I found so many viewing choices!

Insanity Workout. Brazil Butt Lift. Best Vacuum Ever! Cindy Crawford's Secret. Sexy Faces 2012. Best Pillow Ever! (I am attracted to programs that have exclamation points in their title!) Malibu Pilates. Healthy Powers of Juicing. Amazing Cookware! Instant Tummy Tuck. And lots of shows about the abdominal muscles, like Rock Hard Abs Fast, Hip Hop Abs, and, my personal favorite, Carve Abs in Bed. I've been waiting for a surefire workout plan that doesn't require me to get out of bed. Finally!

A man by the name of Newton Minnow was once the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. He made a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters which contained a phrase that became famous:
"When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland."
That was in 1961.

He was concerned that this phenomenally powerful new media was not being put to it's best and highest use. This concern seems rather quaint by today's standards.


carren said...

imho, the debating and the quaint concerns made that work worth doing

burgerdogboy said...

"tiny salaries?" you were the highest paid guy in a 3 block radius of the statioh!