Update on Radio’s First AI DJ

When I first posted about Denise, an AI assistant that’s been adapted to perform as a DJ at a community station in Texas, the traffic almost broke this part of the Internet. 

My contention is that this is the kind of thing that’s killing radio, not helping or enhancing it.  Although programs like Denise still need someone to tell her what to do, the one-time $200 cost will no doubt have station owners and managers thinking seriously about replacing flesh-and-blood radio announcers with a cheap and compliant avatar.

Radio consultant Mark Ramsey wrote about Denise in today’s newsletter.

After acknowledging that this Texas station has since reaped a ton of free publicity, he points to some larger questions, such as “What is the value of the DJ in the radio mix?”  

I quote:

“In my view, the more the radio experience is enhanced by the presence of the DJ, the more important that DJ is.  And, conversely, the more the DJ is viewed as ‘chatter,’ the less important the DJ is.

“Which side of that coin any given jock is on is a function of the format, the management, the ratings, the programming direction, and (last but not least) the talents of the particular jock in question.

“No jock who adds significant value to the radio experience need fear ‘Denise.’  She will always be a wooden Pinnochio in a world of real boys. 

“However, any jock whose contribution to the station is indifferent from ‘chatter’ – any jock who is more of an obstacle to giving listeners what they want than an asset in providing the kind of relevance and spontaneous joy great jocks have always been famous for – those DJ’s are no better and certainly more expensive than ‘Denise.’

“In other words, if a jock can be replaced by ‘Denise’ with no fallout to the station in terms of ratings, revenue, or audience and advertiser satisfaction, then that jock can and should be replaced.”

Ramsey goes on to conclude that “what’s between the songs that gives radio its competitive advantage, now and in the future” and that station owners will continue to “stock their air with communicators who connect, not with software algorithms that need to be connected.”  

I completely agree, of course.  But my fear is now that the door has been opened to the possibility of eliminating large swaths of expensive airstaff–regardless of their level of talent–that we’re going to see more of programs like Denise.  Ramsey’s “don’t worry about being replaced by a computer program if you’re good” attitude doesn’t cut it with me.

The cost cutting slope in radio is already slippery and it’s getting slicker and steeper by the month.  

 

  • We’re already seeing cost savings at smaller stations–the former farm system of big-league radio–use out-of-town large market talent for voicetracking.  The rationale is “See?  We’re bringing big-league talent to small-town radio!  What a great service we’re providing to the community!”  Work is doubled for the out-of-town announcer (who often as ZERO connection or familiarity with the community he/she is “serving”) and a farm team position is eliminated.  Where is the new radio talent going to come from?  As someone who spent years evaluating and hiring talent for large market stations, I can tell you that the quality of medium- and small- market has taken a precipitous dip in the last ten years. 

 

  • Big market stations are also to blame.  Many program directors are being stymied by talent cost considerations.  Instead of identifying, nurturing and carefully assimilating new talent, a PD may be forced to offer that receptionist with no experience at an air shift just because he/she will do it for $11 an hour.  Put that kind of “talent” on the air and it brings down the entire product.  It leads to Ramsey’s concern about “chatter.”  That leads to tune-out and increases radio’s irrelevance.

 

  • With the current economic climate, general managers, station owners and division presidents are being forced to keep costs to a minimum, budgeting for zero expense growth.  Since one of the greatest expenses is people, they’re often the first to go.  One small market station where I used to work had seven announcers in my day.  Now they have just three to cover 168 hours of weekly programing.

 

  • How many stations currently run jock-less for significant portions of the week?  Far more than most people realize.  This turns radio into nothing more than an iPod with commercials.  Adding Denise to the mix might be seen as a way to mitigate that.  And for $200, who wouldn’t?

 

Being an engaging, effective radio personality is hard work. Becoming a proper communicator and trusted companion is an art. If it was easy, then everyone would be brilliant at it.  Obviously, that’s not the case.

I maintain that no radio personality really knows who they are on the air unless they’ve done it for five years full-time with proper coaching and feedback.  (For more, check out this video from talent coach Valerie Geller.  I’ve known her for years and if you’re in radio, LISTEN TO WHAT SHE SAYS.)

I love radio so much that I’ve stuck with it for nearly 30 years.  I’d hate to see it self-destruct this way.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

12 thoughts on “Update on Radio’s First AI DJ

  • August 23, 2011 at 1:37 pm
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    Alan, another solid post on a very important topic. You are on the right track here, but Ramsey also points out the motivation for why broadcasters might find Denise a viable option and what personalities should be doing. The onus is on talent to make management believe this is no better an idea that a digital plunger. It has to be a realization that personalities need to rethink their roles and their contributions and step it up. I have long maintained that the components and effort that go into building personal DJ brands also contribute greatly to the station brand. The more a personality functions as a station ambassador and less like Denise, the better the connection and the engagement. Those are 2011 words, but they matter. Thanks for a good conversation. I will be blogging about this later this week, too.

    Reply
  • August 23, 2011 at 2:55 pm
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    Great Post, Alan. I'm glad to see someone who knows the industry actually cares about the little guy. I told some of my friends about this story and some of them just shrugged their shoulders and said "makes sense". Financially, it does, but it really bugged me–who wants to listen to a computer program on the radio? You can't connect with someone who isn't real! You might as well get MS Sam to voice everything. Hearing news like this frustrates me since I take the airwaves at my campus station and I think about broadcasting as a career choice. If Denise explodes into something huge then I would be better off reconsidering my career choice.

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  • August 23, 2011 at 3:00 pm
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    Great Post, Alan. I'm glad to see someone who knows the industry actually cares about the little guy. I told some of my friends about this story and some of them just shrugged their shoulders and said "makes sense". Financially, it does, but it really bugged me–who wants to listen to a computer program on the radio? You can't connect with someone who isn't real! You might as well get MS Sam to voice everything. Hearing news like this frustrates me since I take the airwaves at my campus station and I think about broadcasting as a career choice. If Denise explodes into something huge then I would be better off reconsidering my career choice.

    Reply
  • August 23, 2011 at 3:54 pm
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    Listener-supported music radio stations all over the U.S. are surviving and thriving.

    Why don't you provide a list of the ones you listen to and ask for suggestions of others?

    Or is this really about you, Alan?

    Reply
  • August 23, 2011 at 3:55 pm
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    Fred, my only argument with putting the onus on talent is that sometimes they are given no choice but to comply. During my last round on-air, I was specifically told by my PD, "No breaks longer than 15-30 seconds, no content other than artist information or station promos." When management is enforcing certain rules about talent content because they have "seen research this is all the audience wants to hear," what choice do jocks have but to do what their PDs and GMs tell them or get fired? There also needs to be a fundamental shift back in programming to allow talent to creatively express themselves in a way that is beneficial to the station and content while not containing them to specific timeframes or subjects. Morning shows can do bits that last several minutes — not that I'm saying a midday jock should be given the same leeway to do a 7-10-minute bit, but if the content is compelling, the audience will follow. When KWOD/Sacramento was on the air, I used to listen to the traffic reports because the jocks did them so creatively that even though I've never been to Sacramento, I still wanted to listen.

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  • August 23, 2011 at 6:34 pm
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    Keith, I'm not suggesting it's easy but 15-30 is enough time for a great personality to shine through. The old Top 40 jocks from the '60s just had the beginings of records and they could make you laugh, energize you, and get you amped up about a new song.

    For those who feel hemmed in by the rules, there's talk, mornings, and public radio – all more wide open possibilities (usually).

    It's chicken: egg. Did restrictive rules create a class of DJs with nothing to say? Maybe. PPM hasn't helped either.

    Reply
  • August 23, 2011 at 6:57 pm
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    Totally agree Alan, but I also feel like the "real" DJ's need to find a new avenue. Look at Joe Rogan or Kevin Smith and their Podcasts.

    They've become massive successes, while having total creative freedom and no censorship. This is what people are increasingly wanting to hear, not to mention it makes for FAR more interesting content.

    The problem with the DJ of course is the…well…music part. The legalities may be an issue right now, but the idea is there. I think the future of the "cool" DJ that we all know and love isn't on "radio", it's going to find a different route of communication.

    Just as the music has moved from hard copies to streaming, the DJ must also evolve and find a new avenue of distribution for their "content filter".

    This is a good thing. This is what will bring us our new Lester Bangs, and terrestrial radio will continue with the Ryan Seacrests.

    It's time for alternative to become alternative again.

    Reply
  • August 23, 2011 at 6:57 pm
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    Fred, I'm not saying that cutting things short is not the only issue, constraining the content is also an issue. Yes, 15-30 seconds is a fair amount of time (which was the time constraint I was placed under when going from music into a stopset; in between songs, I was limited to 3-5 seconds), but when you're also required to backsell and frontsell a number of songs plus tout a current contest and/or promo and/or concert, it cuts into the amount of time you have to be relevant to an audience. Many of the want ads I see these days for personalities say that ideal candidates need to be plugged into pop-culture and know what's going on in the entertainment world plus relate to the community, but how much time do you have to talk about a popular movie or TV show or something going on in the market when you're required to give 15-20 seconds of station-related stuff too?

    On top of that, one of the defenses radio has used against other music services is that we have personalities — but if the personalities are just saying the same routines over and over, listeners will begin to expect they'll hear the same types of promos and content every time someone cracks a mic because the jocks are constrained to only certain topics and need to pump stationality. As a result, content becomes monotonous and then we no longer have the advantage of being live and local, and we might as well install AI jocks.

    Not that I'm saying it can't be done… JJ Kincaid at Z100/New York is my hero for consistently coming up with quick-witted breaks and being relevant in a matter of seconds, but not everyone is JJ, nor is every format suited to Top 40 delivery.

    But yes, chicken & egg. I guess my solution is maybe loosen the constraints on jocks a bit, while keeping a watchful eye to make sure they're not abusing the privilege and doing long breaks that aren't engaging. Either we need to find more people like JJ who are capable of consistently producing that kind of content (and they're getting harder to find), or we as an industry need to stop hemming jocks in to the point where they have absolutely no room to maneuver.

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  • August 23, 2011 at 9:39 pm
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    As a victim of the satellite radio boom in the 90s, I don't feel very optimistic that now that the door to peopleless jocks on-air is open, that it will ever close…

    I worked 3.5 years at my local radio station in Pembroke ON after I graduated from the Radio Broadcasting program at Canadore College in North Bay. My station got bought by Pelmorex, and instantly went from broadcasting live 24 hours a day to only 3 hours… 6am to 9am!
    The rest of the programing was down by a guy in Toronto and sent to all Pelmorex stations in northern Ontario. Not only our A/C station, but he was also doing the same thing for Country stations at the same time!

    Needless to say, that was the end of my Radio career. After that it seemed more than ever that it's not what you know but who you know. There were no jobs for people with my level of experience.

    I love radio, and still listen to it more than cds or my mp3 player, but I can't see this as being a good sign of thing to come for the medium…

    Reply
  • August 24, 2011 at 3:47 am
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    Fred said "The onus is on talent to make management believe this is no better an idea that a digital plunger."

    The talent is responsible for somehow getting management to realize one of their ideas is crap?

    Wow. Let me know when that works out and I'll freshen up my demo. 😉

    Great discussion, everybody. It's a tough situation, so it's nice to hear from those who are still plugging away and those who like me found other avenues. I'd love to hear more from PDs and GMs…oh wait. Aren't they called "brand managers" now? 🙂

    Reply
  • August 24, 2011 at 3:54 pm
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    Exactly.

    The idea of the "filter" that Bob Lefsetz always describes, the idea that the DJ is the friend that is always going to be way cooler than you (or, perhaps, is an outcast just like you…or both!) and turns you on to cool new music, before the general public, the DJ that every music fan really believes in…is dead.

    Or if not dead, rendered useless with Clear Channel and the limitations of the playlists they need to choose from. Slowly but surely, college radio and others disappear as well.

    It's not something to be feared, just like popular music, the indie vs major label paradigm has largely transformed because for too long, people got sick of the shit music and shit politics. It's got a long way to go, but boy, there's been a LOT of progress in last 5 years,

    This will be the case with the DJ, I believe. It NEEDS to hit rock bottom, we NEED a robot DJ, because without it, people won't be motivated enough to get CREATIVE and break outside this traditional method of having to deal with creative directors and programming based on charts and statistics.

    That's easy for me to say, I'm not in broadcasting. I definately feel for everyone in the field, and I can certainly sympathize with the worries of job security.

    But speaking merely as a fan of music, I'm moderately excited, as this seems like one large shove before people start shoving back.

    So to all you DJ's wanting to keep the spirit alive…get creative! Start a blog like this. Music fans like me just want your opinions, analysis and recommendations. I don't care if I read it, hear it, or inhale it. If you build, people like me will find you and soon you maaaaay be able to figure out how to make a living from a new avenue,

    Reply
  • Pingback: An AI-powered DJ for streaming services and radio? Yes. - Alan Cross

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