(Pictured: Michael Jackson and Casey Kasem, 1993.)
Even though radio personalities are sometimes called “announcers,” that’s exactly the wrong way to think of the task. You’re not speaking to a crowd in a theater; you’re talking to one person in a car over here, three people in an office over there, and so on. You should talk on the radio like you were in that car or in that office, conversing directly with those people. The greatest radio communicators, with very few exceptions, do exactly that.
I still struggle with this from time to time. The ham in me wants to perform, to show how cool and funny I can be. A talent coach once told me I should not try to be funny at all, despite the fact that it’s how I relate to people off the air, too. A more useful approach might have been to tell me that every radio show is a performance, and that one of my goals should be to hide the fact that I’m performing—to do what I do and be who I am without being obvious about it.
(Someday perhaps I will do an entire post about that particular coaching session, a 45-minute rubber-hose beating that was one of the low points in my broadcasting career.)
A jock who’s coached frequently, or is savvy enough to listen to his own airchecks and critique himself, can usually figure out how to just talk. But those who aren’t coached can get completely lost in their performance. There are thousands of jocks whose schtick is larded with weird inflections, verbal tics and crutches, and stuff that real human beings would never say to one another. (“Twenty-six minutes now past the hour of eight o’clock on this Wednesday morning.”)
So the ideal is just to talk.
I listened to a couple of American Top 40 shows over the weekend, both from the last week in August, one from 1972 and one from 1984. In 1972, AT40 had been on the air for only a couple of years. Casey still sometimes dipped into what I call his FM radio voice, softer and lower than we’re used to hearing from him, an inflection that he stopped using long about 1973. But even with that, the show was a master class in how to talk to people on the radio. His stories about the artists were delivered casually but with humor or seriousness as appropriate; he integrated the various elements of the show skillfully without drawing attention to what he was doing. It was a performance, but you didn’t catch him performing.
Flash forward to 1984. AT40 is by this time an international institution, and Casey possesses one of the most famous voices on Earth. And every time he opened his mouth, on this particular late-August show at least, a listener could not help but be conscious that this man was performing.
Part of the problem came from the padded nature of the four-hour shows. Casey’s bits were written to take up more time, so the first Long Distance Dedication on the show seemed as long as a Russian novel; his chart trivia bits were repetitious, belaboring the main point two or three times. But the problem can’t be laid entirely at the feet of the writers. For this show, Casey slowed his pace noticeably, speaking far more slowly than he usually did, to the point at which he was no longer merely talking on the radio; he was Addressing the World.
Toward the end of the show, he did a bit (a press release, actually) from a group of optometrists who had chosen the best celebrity eyes. It was meaningless twaddle not worth the airtime, but Casey read it at a remarkably slow pace, portentously lingering over every syllable, on and on through a half-dozen different types of eyes, trying to build drama for what had to be a full minute before finally reaching “best doe-eyed celebrity,” Michael Jackson, and using the bit to introduce the Jacksons’ then-current “State of Shock.”
I wanted to pull the radio out of the dash and chuck it out the window.
That particular 1984 show was an outlier. I’ve listened to dozens of AT40s in recent years, and I’ve never heard anything quite like it. It was a master class in how not to talk to people on the radio.