The value of on-air stars to radio networks is diminishing. The companies that pay the bills are much more important.
"It's less 'show business' and more 'business'," Ryan Khay, program director of Mix, an Austereo station in Queensland's Sunshine Coast, told Crikey
. "A program director needs to be sales friendly and understand all the elements of the game."
Gone are the days of fat announcer pay cheques. In fact, more often than announcers care to admit, wages are the same today as 15 years ago. Many announcers are forced to take on multiple roles (such as working in copywriting, promotions or programming) in order to earn a decent wage and enjoy job security.
Sean Craig Murphy, drive announcer and tutor at the Australian Radio School, put it simply: "Radio was fat. It had to get lean."
Broadcasting stalwart Brian Carlton recently said goodbye to the media industry after 29 years of service, saying "the media is in a massive period of contraction. There has to be more to life than year-by-year contracts." Radio legend (and voice of City Rail) Grant Goldman stated resolutely "most guys I know earn between $40,000 and $45,000 per year". A dismal prospect indeed for the thousands of media graduates hoping for a broadcasting career.
Program directors and general managers know there's no shortage of fresh, cheap talent. Khay says he receives at least 100 airchecks each year from announcers looking for a job; Murphy reports "phenomenal" demand at the Australian Radio School.
It's not the same game for announcers any more. As social media and new platforms emerge there is more need for content to be directed and "purchased" by corporations and advertisers, via collaborations, promotions and integration. On-air content is much more structured than it was in the past: chances are, if you've heard something on air it's been designed to generate greater revenue.
"Our clients need to be everywhere our audience is having a conversation," said Kate Beddoe, national digital director at the Australian Radio Network. "That means every device and every platform -- from on-air to Facebook."
And the creative content is often integrated too. "We will find more ways to integrate the listening experience with new technology and social media as it continues to evolve,
" said Khay.
Mark Collier, head of radio at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, says spinning tunes is no longer the primary skill. "Over the last five years there has been a requirement for training in cross platforms, including social media," he said.
"The industry has become more adept at using its commercial and non-commercial space to create more effective commercial 'cut-through' and content."
Recent events like the 2Day FM nurse prank scandal have shown how important it is for networks to "think" before they open the mic. With advertisers ready to pull out (and stations now voluntarily pulling them) in times of crisis, there is less room for announcers to "speak their minds" for fear of upsetting the corporate dollar.
It hasn't always been that way. "When I started [in the 1970s] there were no formal qualifications as such," said Trevor Sinclair, from 2CH Drive on the Macquarie Media Network, home of controversial Sydney station 2GB. Professionalism, new ideas and strategic maximisation of potential profits is now so important that AFTRS has added a 12-week "strategic radio sales" course to its curriculum. The jobs are in sales, marketing and integration.
Looking for better ways to make money out of radio is nothing new, but with profits continuing to slide -- and networking and less localisation becoming the norm -- some stalwart announcers fear the medium could become "a sanitised and beige industry" where announcers are muzzled by the brands advertised on the networks.
So is it dollars over "free" creative content? "The industry has become more adept at using its commercial and non-commercial space to create more effective commercial 'cut-through' and content," said David Hefter, national sales director at ARN. "Integration has been the buzzword."
In 2013 networks can't simply put a program, an announcer, a competition or a song on air and cross their fingers: everything is planned. "The other shift has been towards greater integration of well-thought-out and planned promotions or campaigns so as to make the message more interactive for the listener and to get them to engage with the product or service," said Hefter.
Collier is concerned with making sure his graduates understand that working in broadcasting is not all about being a "star".
So will the traditional radio "jock" become obsolete? Some believe that they just have to prepare to adapt. "The market is looking for more cross-platform integration using on-air talent in the digital age we now live in. Our clients are looking for true partnerships and multiplatform communications solutions, not just a radio schedule," said Michelle Thomas, ARN campaigns and activations director.
For now creative content is safe, but announcers still need to be aware of the changing landscape of on-air content, and how it is structured, planned -- and paid for.