Being The Listener’s Surrogate – by Brooke Gladstone
from Brooke Gladstone
Here’s what I like about most public radio news magazines. The reporting is solid, the subjects are important and relevant, and the level of discourse is high. The audience is respected. These are the keys to public radio’s success. While more and more news outlets slice up consistently smaller pieces of the audience pie, public radio consistently gains listeners, so it’s doing something right.
Here, in my humble opinion, is what’s wrong: As they become the primary news source for more and more Americans, public radio newsmagazines are restricting their own ability to move listeners. Like physicians in medieval times they seeks to balance the four humors (so as not to be too choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic or melancholy) by bloodletting. Public radio newsmagazines are looking a little pallid these days, because the passion has been drained off.
There are strong personalities and neutral ones. Hot ones, like Scott Simon or Susan Stamberg, Jacki Lyden or Robert Siegel, are risky. People will love them, but they will also loathe them. The neutral personalities that hold most of the on-air positions on public radio today are safer. They bring us the news, they keep the discourse high. They are polite to the guests and the listeners. We don’t hate them. We don’t love them. We don’t know who they are.
When you read a newspaper (increasingly, public radio’s model) the reporter generally is absent. When you watch TV, the reporter is showing and telling, with pictures and charts. When you watch TV, in the back of your mind is the certain knowledge that tens of thousands of other people are watching with you. With radio, you can almost feel the breath of the reporter on your cheek. Radio is personal.
Only on radio do hosts and reporters serve as the listener’s surrogates. Only radio can maintain the illusion of a one-to-one relationship. Listeners need that person to guide them through the story, paint the picture, explain the situation. Listeners respond, actively, to the audio equivalent of a raised eyebrow, the vocal transmission of amusement or fear. It’s like dynamite. It can blow up in your face. But skillfully applied, it provides context far more intensely than an avalanche of words.