Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992
Radio - Sound
Edited by Niall Lucy

Radio management: sectors, structures, styles

Niall Lucy

Increasingly, analyses of management have become inflected with an understanding of management styles. This has not led to a form of celebrity studies, but rather to a greater interest in the relation of these styles to the structures that enable them. These structures, insofar as they divide the different sectors of the Australian broadcasting industry, facilitate different styles of management within each sector that call for investigation on their own. At the same time, to the extent that the broadcast medium has its own specificity (both as a technology and a policy object), radio management styles share a set of features in common – with each other, as well as with general management practices, responsibilities, interests, and so on.

One common feature of radio management is that it is a site both from which control is exercised or sought to be exercised (over staff, programs, market shares, public tastes, community agendas, etc.) as well as itself being controlled (by owners, licence agreements, policy regulations, shifting market allegiances, economic fluctuations, etc.). The degree to which this internal division within the structure of management itself has to be managed, though, differs according to sector. In turn, this might explain why commercial managers are routinely sceptical, if not contemptuous, of the public sector – especially that of public broadcasting. The following comment from an interview with the then program manager of Perth's 96FM, which at that time (1983) held the only commercial FM licence in the city, makes the point:

The only way to win in radio is to be consistent. Surely to God there's a way they [public broadcasting stations, though the reference is to Perth's former 6UVS-FM] can programme that radio station so that there's a consistency running through. 1

The assertion here is that a commercial radio manager knows better than his public station colleagues how to manage their affairs. Leaving aside the question of its arrogance, this is still to have committed a category error: namely, that the different sectors of the industry are constrained by the same formula of success.

But not only do the formulae differ; so do the conditions of being successful. It is still not surprising, though, that commercial managers might see themselves as having a greater knowledge of management than their public sector colleagues, simply because they would experience that knowledge being tested, contested, defended, and improved on a routine basis in a highly competitive market. Moreover, their knowledge is to some extent measureable – the smartest manager being the one whose station wins the latest ratings survey. By the same token, the commercial managers with the most wisdom are those who can adapt their knowledge to the needs of changing policy-, demographic-, and other environments over time. When management performance is measured by the size of one's digit, as it were, and when that digit is continually under threat of shrinking, it's easy to believe that commercial managers might want to trade off their felt anxiety for a sense of higher (because 'harder-won') knowledge by comparison with managers in the public sector.

This certainly seems to be the case with the ex-manager of 96FM, as quoted above. Elsewhere in that interview he refers to the hard-won status of his own and his staff's professionalism, while insisting at the same time on its precarious (and therefore stressful) nature:

We've got some very strong people working here. It's not a bunch of kids running around trying to run a radio station [viz. 6UVS-FM?]. We've got some seasoned professionals here.... We don't have lavish facilities, it's a very basic radio station. We're still paying back our original loans, for Chrissake.
All the staff are shareholders in the company. Everyone watches the pennies – the paper clips and all that shit – because we want to keep it neat and tight. 2

Being truly professional, then, is not only a matter of knowing what to do and doing it well; it also involves a sense of commitment to the station as "the company," whose financial interests especially become one's own. Staff allegiances are thus mapped onto station- and practical self-interests, ensuring that staff stay loyal to the highest bidder or, if either management or ownership directs a change in program policy, that their allegiance to a particular style of music (e.g. classic hits) changes to another (e.g. easy listening).

By such means, staff become self-regulating. One style of commercial radio management, then, is to ensure that staff learn to manage themselves, although this is to some extent a structural in-principle of the commercial sector given that staff as well as station interests are profit-driven. Nevertheless, it could be argued that technologies of self-management for profit are not distinctly different from technologies of self-regulation in the interests of social responsibility, civic duty, and moral decorum. Why, then, should a sector that is structurally impelled to manage itself or else go out of business, be subjected to outside control?

This is, of course, a constant refrain of commercial station managers and owners whenever further forms of official regulation are being mooted in parliament or a commercial station or member of staff is held in breach of policy by the regulatory authorities. The answer, though not straightforward, is that the rhetoric used by the former manager of 96FM to justify the purpose of radio only in terms of how "to win," by being "consistent" and keeping things "neat and tight," is not at all a necessary purpose – either in the sense that it precedes the invention of radio technology or its formation as a policy object. Several rhetorics might thus be seen to be in play here: on the part of commercial radio, a rhetoric of consensus underpinned by one of competition; on the part of public radio, a rhetoric of interested community service underpinned by one of disinterested civic duty. The different logics these entail might be understood in the following ways: 1) that competition is good; that winning is its object; and that the proof of winning is in the size of the audience; and 2) that meeting a civic need to provide a service to marginal interests ignored by the logic of competition is good; that satisfying those interests is its object; and that the proof of satisfaction is in the loyalty of the audience. These logics are responsible for the different management structures in place within commercial and public sectors of the the Australian radio system.

Thus, in his reply to the interview with the former manager of 96FM, the then station manager of 6UVS-FM argued that people on his station "are musical experts first and announcers second. On commercial radio they're purely machines."3 A telling measure of the difference, perhaps, between management styles adopted by commercial and public radio is that the manager of 6UVS-FM chose to share the space of his reply with two members of staff, one of them a volunteer. None of which is to suggest that commercial radio is either more 'professional' or less 'interesting' than the public broadcasting sector. Instead, what it is meant to suggest is that these sectors of the Australian radio system require different styles of management precisely because in each case there are different structural features, both internally and with respect to outside forces of control and forms of regulation, to be managed. Structurally, they are different; therefore they have to be managed differently.

In the case of public broadcasting, this entails a reliance on a volunteer force whose members comprise not only a large body in terms of numbers but a disparate one in terms of interests. Often, too, those interests are directly opposed to what the commercial sector regards or desires as industry standards (styles of presentation and program content), which themselves can be seen to reflect or reproduce a broader conservative hegemony in the social order at large. Frequently, then, a task of the public broadcasting manager is to curtail the forms of resistance of oppositional interest blocs to the extent that they do not contravene government regulations and put the stations's licence at risk. More generally, though, management at the public broadcasting level is a matter of negotiation and coordination – between and among the different interest blocs (which might be political or, in the case of specialist music interests, simply passionate), as well as the licence holder/s (universities, local councils, community groups, etc.), sponsors, and concerned citizens. At the heart of managerial problems in the public sector, of course, is each station's dependence on a pool of volunteer enthusiasts, many of whom are specialists and each of whom is subject to burn-out; so the pool is always in flux, and so is program continuity.

While the constant flow of personnel with different knowledges and agendas is a problem at the level of management in public radio, it is desired at the level of public policy. This is not the case in the commercial sector, where the managerial emphasis is on homogeneity with regard to self-representation in the marketplace; at the same time, the policy environment within which individual commercial stations operate is geared towards "[m]aximising diversity of choice."4 No doubt this is a highly civic-minded objective, though it may also simply be a rhetorical one. To this extent, as well, it is open to many interpretations, and these will vary not only from sector to sector but also from region to region. City markets can at least appear to be provided with maximum diversity, if only because their populations can support the economic viability of many stations; but this does not have to mean that there is necessarily a great deal of actual choice on offer to a majority of city listeners across the commercial bands. Rural communities, often with only one commercial station per region, may in fact receive a full range of program styles compressed into a single station that is forced to cater, not to a targeted demographic, but to the demographic diversities of its channel range.

Country commercial stations, like public broadcasting stations in the city, therefore simply can't afford to keep things "neat and tight." Heterogeneity, but for different reasons, is actually structured into their day to day managerial decisions and overall programming regimes, given that either for commercial or policy reasons their justification, if not their self-representation, is largely dependent on their ability to act as community service industries. They also act as training environments for commercial stations in the city, whose personnel include many on-air, technical, and managerial staff recruited from country and public radio.

As the comments of the former manager of 96FM serve to show, however, the city commercials tend not to see themselves as part of an integrated and interdependent system. But not only is that system confined to a consideration of what might be called the processes of 'professionalisation,' with the non-urban and non-commercial sectors serving as recruiting grounds for commercial channels in the capital cities; it is also important to consider, especially with regard to public broadcasting, the effect of this sector in the creation of audiences for the city commercials. This is especially the case with music programming, which, as Simon Frith writes, "has been a recurring aspect of the development of music as mass culture – a style developed for a particular audience is sold to a general audience."5 A perfect example is the now well-recognised, but only recently established, city commercial format of classic hits; predominantly, these derive from the '60s – a decade whose music was revived by public broadcasting stations at least ten years before the city commercials rediscovered it by finding its contemporary audience demographic. A similiar history attends some commercials' present, albeit limited, interest in black American and British pop (mainly hip hop): enthusiasts at public broadcasting stations were playing 'hip hop' long before it had a name outside the specialist music press, let alone within commercial mainstream radio circles, just as public air-time is always in abundance for 'black' music in general. Indeed, a distinct difference between commercial and public radio forms of categorising music is that the public sector often discriminates, not only on stylistic grounds, but with regard to politics: progams of women's rock, for instance, are not easily understood in terms only of style or period, as is the case with commercial progam formats.

By and large, and probably in contrast to popular wisdom, commercial formats (the exception here is talks) do not rely on the individual skills, knowledges, or personalities of announcers for success. The available paradigm of format choices on commercial radio is strictly limited: on 'progressive' FM stations the playlists are determined by contemporary 'adult'-oriented album sales, usually of established artists (Springsteen, U2, Dire Straits, etc.), while other formats depend either on a particular 'sound' (easy listening) or an archive of proven hits from another era. In all cases, commercial format structures are standardised – and this extends to announcers' styles of presentation. No one touring the Australian capitals, in other words, even for the first time, should have any difficulty identifying the exact format structure, playlist policy, and announcing style of their choice in cities that in other ways might seem alien. Only the call signs change, but the playlists and broadcast styles stay more or less the same.

This priority, within the commercial sector, of program-identification over the identities of individual presenters is a legacy of the huge success of Top 40 radio dating from the mid-1950s in the United States. That success was governed by an utterly simple rationale, whose force clearly still made sense to at least the former manager of 96FM: namely, to develop "a tight and distinct radio sound for stations."6 The beauty of its success lay in the ease by which it could be copied, and its secret was the standardised format:

Top 40 programming meant strictly limiting the station playlist to mainstream market pop singles, repeated station identifications, jingles, weird sound effects, extensive use of echo chambers, integration of hourly news broadcasts into the music format, and the use of promotional gimmicks and contests for the audience. Many of these "innovations," especially jingles and special effects, had been around in radio since well before the mid-fifties, but the Top 40 concept put them all together. 7

Needless to say, this format threatened the DJ with expendability – by de-emphasising the importance of on-air 'personalities.' What became important instead was a DJ's powers of impersonation, his (seldom her) ability to personify or mimic an appropriate 'individuality' within limits set by strict format requirements. No less than off-air staff, modern jocks are valued for their reliability as measured according to an ideal of error-free service. Or, as Chapple and Garafalo put it: "Their jobs are now automated and as routine as that of the station accountant, and allow as much initiative." 8

Again, this is not quite so with public broadcasting. Announcers in this sector, whose styles of presentation and program contents are not predominantly format-driven, are freer to initiate their own forms of self-representation and modalities of contact with an audience (though of course this freedom isn't total). Hence the greater variety of voice-types and accents among public announcers (including, it must be noted, imitations of 'the' voice of 'the' commercial DJ as one available type), as well as a better representation of non-white Australian males behind the microphone. Almost but not quite, then, public broadcasting inverts the city commercial sector's relation of program to presenter: public broadcasting announcers, that is to say, tend to 'own' their programs – at least to the extent that their own interests, tastes, and knowledges are key factors in the formation of programming ideas and the selection of content materials. Even a generic specialist program (a blues or rockabilly show, for example) is open to content changes and different styles of presention, depending on the different interpretations of that genre by different presenters and given the degree of format freedom in the first place. For more generically indeterminate shows (black music, women's rock, new releases, etc.), the room for interpretation is proportionately even greater and the different formats even more dependent, perhaps, on the different announcers. Thus, in this restricted sense, public broadcasting announcers are individually indispensable: their specific knowledges, interests, and personal style or styles of presentation can't be fully adequated by someone else, so that neither can their program formats be as easily reproduced in their absence as applies in the commercial sector.

Management tasks in each sector are therefore different. The imperative of accessing a large homogenous audience is managed by the commercial sector through format standardisation, while the public sector relies on diversity and accidence (the latter, in terms of attracting unpredictable offers of volunteer service, producing the former) as a means of managing its relations with audience communities representing a range of constituent interests. Accordingly, styles of management are adapted to achieving different optimal requirements: degree zero accidence in the commercial sector (hence the emphasis on demographic research, professional experience, format perfection, programming continuity, and uniform presentation) and, in the public sector, a desire for change that roughly corresponds to audience demand and tolerance (hence the range of programming content, program and format variety, styles of presentation, personnel changes, and structural diversity). These optima (accidence and non-accidence) work effects at all structural levels of the different sectors – from playlist selections to station identities, to staff appointments and forms of on-air announcement and presentation. It is, for example, to some extent accidental whether a public broadcaster chooses to introduce a Chicago blues track (an 'accident' in itself) by offering a brief musicology of that style; whereas it is considerably less an accident that commercial DJs tend to restrict their announcements to time calls, station IDs, artist names and song titles (let alone that the music they play is strictly programmed in advance, usually with little or no input on their behalf).

The structural necessity of accidence in the public sector thus produces a form of radio, and a style of management, that may be termed analogic; the structural necessity of non-accidence, or standardisation, in the commercial sector produces a form and style that is digital. In turn (and here is a matter that must be left to future speculation), the form of this distinction produces a paradox: analogic media of representation (typically, photography) are, by comparison with digital media (painting, say), considered to be 'artless.' Depending on interests and circumstances, 'artlessness' has discursive values ranging from the most authentic to the least transcendental form of 'truth.' Transferred to radio management styles, these values would enable a celebration of the public sector's high level of responsiveness to unforseeable contingencies or its condemnation for being self-indulgent. In short, and paradoxically, the necessarily analogic style of public sector management leads to a form of 'lack' (a contingency-governed, art-less style of management), which in turn may be approved or disapproved. Conversely, the commercial sector's digital style of management either lacks the means of comprehensively reflecting audience interests, or else is perfectly styled to the specific entertainment needs of its demographic target. A distinction, then, between 'pure' style and no 'style' at all.

These would seem to be the limits set by the debate between the former managers of 96FM and 6UVS-FM: on the one hand, public radio is accused by the commercial sector of a certain lack of style in terms of program continuity; while the public sector, on the other hand, clearly prioritises knowledge and enthusiasm over style of presentation. Although we must consider this difference as an effect of different forms of self-representation, this does not mean that the difference itself is simply rhetorical. It may also be a difference that needs to be understood in terms of the different structures of the public and commercial sectors of the Australian radio system, and the different logics that drive them. Nor would this understanding preclude consideration of these structures and logics as recombinant forms of a wider debate on the social uses, justifications, and responsibilities of communications media in general.

Works Cited

1. Niall Lucy, 'Der Fuhrer Der Stereo,' Spare Times, 5 (1983): 5-6. This quotation, p. 5.

2. Ibid., p. 5.

3. Niall Lucy, 'Radio Reich, Part 2,' Spare Times, 6 (1983): 7.

4. Department of Communications, Future Directions for Commercial Radio, Vol 1: Report (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, September 1986), p. 7.

5. Simon Frith, Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock'n'Roll (New York: Pantheon, 1983), p. 153.

6. Steve Chapple and Reebee Garofalo, Rock'n'Roll is Here to Pay: The History and Politics of the Music Industry (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1978), p. 59. Emphasis in original.

7. Ibid., p. 59.

8. Ibid. p. 104.


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