Saturday, 4 April 2015

Rebuffering: Bounce the Bouncer

RCA ’808’ Power Vacuum Tube Back in the quaint old pre-modem days, the entertainment industry relied on the absence of choice; consumers were forced to get news and information from central sources, who could then charge money for them. The Information Superhighway famously ended all that; now content is swapped freely, "legality" be damned, while old-economy moguls howl. Somehow, these fiscal geniuses can't figure out how to make money in a force-free market.

The greatest irony in all of this is the failure of some radio stations to "get" the new paradigm. Ironic, because radio is the original Internet. From its birth in the 1920s, users have picked up signals scot-free, on technology that can't be metred, that tunes in the competition just as readily. Survival therefore depends on broadcasting attractive programming with minimal annoyance; failure means losing listeners down the dial. And as an old radio man once told me: "Without listeners, you're just a crazy person talking to himself in a padded room."

Which brings us to the inexplicable phenomenon of the bouncer.

Fact is, as far as radio is concerned, the new wireless works just like the old, only more so. IRLs have dozens of stations in their scan lists, like presets on a car radio. When one of us scans into your stream, you better be pumping product. Because the same button that brings us in, will whisk us away, with the tap of a finger.

And that's why bouncers – messages that play automatically every time a listener connects – are called that. No matter what its actual content, a bouncer always says just one thing: "Push the button." And we do. Several stops in my scan list have bouncers. They're in there because I like those stations, but in fact I hardly ever listen to them. At the first hint of their bouncers I'm off to somebody else who's delivering content.

A bouncer can even drive listeners off programming they came expressly to hear. For decades I had a weekly Prairie Home Companion date with my favourite NPR affiliate. Then I went digital. Their long, tedious bouncer (thanking and promoting the business that paid for the stream) first got them banned from my scan list. Then, clicking on the station at PHC time, I gritted my teeth as I lost content to that advert. Then there'd be a song I didn't care for, and as I always did on broadcast radio, I'd spin to another station for a few minutes. But when I tried to return… bouncer. More lost time.

And then again, when I paused for a phone call, or the wifi kinked. (Usually on my end, but a station with low stream reliability can force listeners to sit through its bouncer over and over. By the third time, no-one's left). All of it was so annoying I eventually just stopped listening.

So why do professional radio people, who are not dumb, do this dumb, un-radio thing? Well, public stations do it to pay for the service. So do some commercial stations, or to hawk their websites. Some net-only stations use the bouncer to prompt listeners to buy a subscription to their stream, after which they're excused from the bouncer. And some stations, God knows why, force listeners through a station ID. (This just in: our software tells us who you are.) But the effect is always the same: it sabotages the online service. And there's not much point to paying for a stream that no-one listens to.

The cure for this disease is the ancient wisdom of our unchanged medium. Station managers must listen to their training and experience, and not be fazed by the presto-change-o-ness of new technology. Adverts and station IDs should be distributed in the programming, like they always have been. Because you still can't force people to listen, any more than you could a hundred years ago.

Today as in the age of the vacuum tube, if you broadcast empty jabber, you'll end up talking to yourself in a room.


(Photo of RCA 808 power vacuum tube courtesy of 池田正樹 and Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. beautifully said, currently there is a battle between Radionomy station producers and the host company about this very thing, Radionomy refuses to listen to the Producers , who have been noticing large drops in listeners because of the Bouncer/Pre Rolls

  2. Thank you! Feel free to send them the link!


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