The decline in radio voice quality

The economic method of thinking is highly fruitful in many other areas outside of the usual things that come to mind when people think about economics: money, interest rates, taxes, etc. There are certain topics that are part of the territory, but beyond that it’s a broad investigative approach to the world of human behavior. Let me try this one on you.

I’m a fan of several old-time radio shows, and I’ve listened to a lot of old radio performances as well, such as the Hank Williams “Mother’s Best” series. One thing anybody would notice from listening to any of them is how great the radio voices were back then. Whether voice actors, announcers, or news anchors, every voice you heard sounded great unless it was a character who was meant to be comical or harsh. That was simply one of the necessary conditions for having a radio job. Listening the radio nowadays you still find plenty of mellifluous voices. But you also find voices that are just plain awful, that aren’t a pleasurable experience in and of themselves. (I think specifically of the host of This American Life, whose voice and delivery are godawful. Nothing personal, guy.) Of course, the other side of the coin is that there are probably thousands of places to hear radio that weren’t available back in the golden age.

For any specialized job, a person with natural talents rarely steps right in. Very few people have the natural talent to become NFL quarterbacks, for instance, and those few who do become NFL quarterbacks have inevitably spent years in preparation. Likewise for master carpenters, professors of microbiology, five-star chefs, or anything else. Even though I consider Jackson Pollock’s work to be a talent-free blight on civilization, he still spent years developing it.

On top of that, there’s motivation. Nobody will ever know how far my grandfather could have gotten in baseball, since he declined to try out for the New York Giants when they invited him. Many great writers never existed because the people who could have been great writers never wrote. There’s probably a skill that you have that you never developed, and that by now it’s probably too late to get any monetary gain from. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth working on, but it’ll be a hobby beside your career.

Moving this point further, in a highly developed economy the number of specialized positions gets very large. One of the many reasons public infrastructure projects are not the economic shot in the arm they’re made out to be by politicians is that skilled construction workers cannot simply move from one construction project to the next. Building a skyscraper takes a different set of skills than building a highway does, and both of these are different from building a bridge. Even though it seems to outsiders that these should be close enough, they are not.

One often reads in financial news about companies in search of CEO’s. This is a costly procedure, and it’s very important to the shareholders that it be done right. Even then, there are plenty of disappointing CEO’s who get booted. Likewise with NFL coaches. There’s a position waiting to be filled, and with large amounts of money on the line, somebody will be found to fill it. Hopefully someone who will excel, but sometimes it’s a roll of the dice. These are high-profile examples, but really this is happening on less visible levels every day.

Back to broadcasting. To succeed in broadcasting, the aspiring broadcaster must put in a lot of time and energy into the job. Start in high school or college at the latest. Intern. Get that first low-paying job. Work the night shift. Laugh at the superiors’ dumb jokes. Jump at the chance, whatever it is, as soon as it comes up. It’s not as though someone can just jump right in, no matter how good his/her presentation is. Even the golden age broadcasters had to work hard for it.

Tying this all together, when there’s a broadcast position open these days, and with so many radio outlets (including satellite and internet) there must be positions opening up quite frequently, that perfect candidate with the velvet voice is not always going to be the one who’s most qualified. The best candidate might be a marginal candidate, the kind whose career as a broadcaster is only due to our having more radio now than was possible in the golden age, the kind who simply would not have made it when voice quality was so important. One might think of the golden age of radio with a Venn diagram, with the overlap of the “quality voice” circle and the “put the effort in” circle being the ones we can find in radio archives today. Nowadays, there are simply more positions than that sliver can account for, and professionalism is the more important of the two.


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